If now-retired National Film Board animator John Weldon could do it all over again, he probably wouldn’t make the log driver in the iconic The Log Driver’s Waltz film wear plaid. The animation cels were hand-painted, he explains to Jon Roe over the phone from his Montreal home. Good thing he can’t—it’d really take the shine off of the Log Driver’s Waltz Gala and Plaid Party, which closes the GIRAF animation fest Sunday, Nov. 4.
How did the Log Driver’s Waltz come about?
I think the government was a little worried about not having a strong national feeling at that point in 1979. A lot (of Canada Vignettes) were made (by NFB animators) and they were supposed to be either one, two or three minutes. We were told specifically that one minute would be the most likely to be seen because they would be slotted into free time at any time on whatever network that wanted to use them. I kind of did something a little weird by making mine three minutes instead of one or two. It was considered the worst possible length. And it took off.
It took off quite quickly. They made it into a theatrical short. The original Canada Vignettes don’t have any title or credit on them. They’re made to be like a public service announcement and there’d be a little logo that’d say Canada Vignettes at the end. I don’t know what version there is now, but mostly people show the one that says Log Driver’s Waltz at the front and has some credits on the end. Now it’s even more than three minutes.
That’s about it. Anything that had a Canadian feeling about it was what we were supposed to do. I happened to hear the McGarrigle sisters, who I’ve known for many years, sing this Wade Hemsworth song at a concert. I said, ‘Gee, that would fit the program.’ So I flew it by the executive producer and he said, ‘Yeah’ and we made it.
Everything about it was a little odd. It turned out the pace that sounded right came out to a little over two minutes, so we added that long piano introduction with live action pieces at the beginning to make it fit to exactly three minutes. It just kind of took off from there.
Wade Hemsworth himself, who wrote the song, lived up in the north woods of Ontario as a surveyor. He was very familiar with the world of the lumberjack and wrote several songs about northern Ontario, including one other that my friend Chris Hinton, which was called Blackfly, if you’ve ever seen that. It was nominated for an Oscar that year.
What can I say? It just kept on going. They kept on playing it. Various other networks picked it up. Twenty years after it had been made, sometime around 1999, I looked the statistics, and that year it was the most watched National Film Board Film and that was 20 years after it had been made. I think I got kind of lucky somehow. I don’t know what more I can say.
One of the craziest decisions I ever made in my life was to put a plaid shirt on the log driver because that was an enormous amount of work. That’s old fashioned animation where you had to draw every square on the plaid. I had some assistants, but I ended up bringing home so many of those cels and sitting in front of the TV set painting little red squares and drawing green stripes on those shirts for days and days. It turned out to be worth it because I’ve seen how people are going to all wear plaid.
That’s one of the iconic parts now, eh?
I guess so. I would never make that decision today. Or it would be a lot easier to do. You have computer tricks that can help you. In those days it was like wet paint. It was quite a difficult medium to work with.
Back then, the National Film Board had a roster of animators, is that correct?
Yes, it did.
Were you working at the National Film Board full time?
I had been there as a freelancer for about 10 years. It was right around the time, in the middle of that film—actually I’m not sure the exact time, but it was probably right in the middle of making that film that they suddenly decided to take some of the people who had been working there quite regularly as freelancers onto the staff of the film board. That was around then that I became a regular old staff animator. And stayed there for a grand total of 33 years.
That’s quite a long time.
Yeah, well, you know, it was a very good atmosphere in those days. I think the best part of it, the most creative part, was when the animators went down to take their coffee break. Those were incredible story sessions. They weren’t intended to be. We just sat around and told each other jokes and started laughing our heads off then suddenly realized that some of these jokes could turn into films. Once you got half a dozen or more creative people sitting around, shooting ideas at each other, it’s very healthy. It’s kind of a shame that it’s hard to get that many people together at once, the way it was in the old days.
Obviously a lot has changed since you started at the National Film Board.
It shrank steadily while I was there and it continued to shrink after I left. They recently closed down the downtown office in Montreal which was a great place where people could go in and just ask to be shown films on monitors. There was screenings, it was a very useful resource. It’s still alive and there’s still some films being made, but it’s much, much, much smaller than it was when I started there. It was probably at its peak size. I started in 1970.
One of the things that made it big was Expo ’67. There was a big world’s fair in Montreal and they needed lots of films. There was the National Film Board right in the same city, so they did all kinds of interesting experimental stuff. I came in three years after that so it was still kind of sailing on that to some extent.
When did you start animating?
I started at the film board, really. I had done a comic book called Pipkin Papers, which I tried to sell on street corners. I made one very short, not very good, animated film for fun which was shown at a student film festival. I kind of walked into Bob Verrall’s office, he was the head of animation in those days. It was just one of those lucky moments. I showed him this comic book that I’d done and he got very excited by it. He ran out and started showing it to different people and then he said, ‘We’ll call you if we need you.’ I thought, ‘Oh well, that’s it,’ and left. I didn’t hear anything for three months. I still had no idea how I was going to make a living. Suddenly I got a phone call that said, ‘Do you want to work here for two weeks?’ I said, ‘Okay, yeah.’ They had an emergency, a deadline coming and they needed some extra hands to do some painting on a film. Then at the end of that two weeks, they said, ‘Hey, we need you for another three months.’ They gave me a three-month contract. After that, every three months they found something for me to do and gave me another three-month contract. It kept on going for 10 years. Then they realized I was probably going to stay there for a while more, so they just put me on staff. I was basically thrown in the deep end.
One of the first films I made was a completely forgettable film for the tax department. The tax department suddenly came and said, ‘Here’s some money, we want a film about how to fill in your tax forms that’s going to help people fill in their tax forms. And can you make it funny.’ They looked around at me and said, ‘Can you make a funny film about filling in your tax form?’ I said sure because you always say yes. I went ahead and made that film. It was kind of a tricky challenge to make filling in your tax form into something funny. The head of English production so I was able to keep on going.
You were primarily into drawing before you got into animating?
To some extent, but I think my strong point was always my storytelling and that’s what gave me my edge. It was something they needed at the time. When I walked in the door they were always getting other government departments which suddenly would decided they needed a film on a certain topic with very short deadline, right away. Much of the first 10 years I spent on very, very specific assignments like why you shouldn’t take drugs and how not to burn down your house, various what they call public service announcements. After a while I was allowed a lot more freedom in what I was able to do. I thought my most successful film was going to be Special Delivery because that won the Oscar in 1979. As it is, I think Log Driver’s has gone ahead of it in terms of recognition anyway.
I think that’s kind of the one that people think of when they think of a National Film Board animation.
That’s true in Canada. Sometimes in other countries, it’s other films. Most northern countries seem to like it. It gets shown anywhere where there’s snow and they can understand the concept of a log driver.
What do you think it is about The Log Driver’s Waltz that it still resonates with Canadians?
I don’t know, but it keeps surprising me. A friend of mine was trying to get onto the subway and there was a crowd of young people jamming the doors. This was just a year ago. She couldn’t get through them and she was trying to edge her way. She was kind of afraid because she is a very elderly person and these kids were standing there. They were all singing and she suddenly realized they were singing ‘Log Driver’s Waltz.’ That made her feel a lot safer. I don’t know. There keeps being events like that. Hang on a sec my other phone is ringing.
(There’s a break in the conversation as he goes to answer his other phone.)
Where was I? You’re trying to make me guess why it’s so successful. Okay, well, I will make this claim: it was supposed to give you a sense of Canadian identity and I think it did. (laughs). What could be more than that? People like feeling a part of their country and that makes them feel that way. That’s my guess. That was my intention anyway and I think it succeeded.
I’ve seen that you’ve retired.
About eight years ago, yeah.
What have you been up to since?
Strangely enough, I do something very similar as I did when I was working. I thought I would do something different and I found that I drifted back into making quite a few films and a comic strip. Have you found my website yet?
It’s called Weldon Alley. A lot of the stuff on there is stuff that I’ve done since I’ve retired. If you go to the videos, there’s a section called NFB films, which is anything that the NFB has put online that I can embed of my films in that section. On the left of that it says Ashcan Alley Productions, which is all the films I make since I retired. They’re obviously made without the resources of the film board and stuff like that. I think they’re a lot of fun myself and they’re certainly fun to make.
If you go to the place called Comics, you’ll right at the top it says something about my comic strip. Last year in December I started posting a comic strip on Facebook every day for more than 200 strips in a row, just for the heck of it. Every time I tried to stop it people would send me messages saying, ‘No, you can’t stop, it’s what I read with my morning coffee.’ So I continued to do that. It’s not that dissimilar. I’ve made 10 printed comic books and if you go to the Ashcan Alley films there’s a lot of films under there. I don’t know how many. I put them on YouTube and Vimeo and so on, just for fun.
It’s a lot easier to distribute yourself nowadays.
Animation has been luckier than other fields. It was the most expensive form. To do anything, it required a $350,000 animation stand, which is three stories high within an enormous room. Now you can take an off-the-shelf computer and a bit of software and do anything you could do that way. And so it’s become more like a cottage industry. That may be one of the reasons animation survived fairly well in the declining budget of the National Film Board. When I did Log Driver’s Waltz, that was long before the computer era, but when that came along, I switched very quickly. It got a lot easier to make a film, frankly. That’s why I continued to do it.
Oh, by the way: I did a parody of Log Driver’s Waltz several years ago. It’s called Road Burling. It’s probably somewhere down—I’m not sitting in front of my own computer right now. If you go to Ashcan Alley films and scroll down, you’ll find a low resolution version of it down there.
There’s a film festival in Montreal called the Montreal Sixty Second Film Festival and it’s the most wonderful thing. It really keeps me alive and it’s so much fun. You want me to tell you how it works?
Every year, near the end of the July or beginning of August, we go to this bar. Everyone who wants to signs up to make a one minute film. When you get to the bar, it’s written on the wall what the topic of the film has to be. You have one month to make a one minute film on a specific topic. They usually get about 100 people signing up. Then they rent a theatre and screen every one of the films. They never reject anything, there’s no prizes. Everybody comes and sees all the films that were made. It’s been a smashing success. They sold out three shows last year. It’s enormously fun for me, it’s a great challenge.
The type of topic: one year it was deception, another year it was adventure. This past year it was faux pas. That’s about it. You’ve got all the range from people who have never made a film before to people who have a little bit of experience in the field who make the films. There’s a challenge to get a minute film done in a month. Nowadays the software is there and a lot of people use something like iMovie or whatever to edit it together and make their films. In fact, the Road Burling film was the very first film I made for the very first M60. I’ve got a funny story about that, if you’re interested.
Several years ago a guy e-mailed me and he said, ‘I’m the world’s champion log burler and I want to remake your film in live action with me doing all the stunts.’ I said, ‘Well that sounds like fun. Go ahead and do it.’ We don’t have exclusive rights to that song, if somebody else wants to use it, they just have to pay for the film rights. We never hogged it in any possible way. I said, ‘But are you really going to jump over a moose?’ And he said, ‘I might have to fake that.’ Then I said, ‘If you’re going to fake stuff, I can do that.’ Then when the M60 it suddenly occurred to me, oh, I’m going to ride a log. I’ll beat him to the punch. That’s why I made it.
I don’t think he ever made the film. He certainly put some promotional videos about how he was going to make the film. Whether he actually made it, I never saw it.
What was the topic for M60 that year?
That year they started very simple: they just called it a Montreal minute. So if you look at Road Burling, I’m riding a log through the streets of Montreal rather than down a river. And I jump over a Moose beer truck in it instead of a moose.
GIRAF: Until Sunday, Nov. 4. The fest closes out with the Log Driver’s Waltz Gala and Plaid Party Sunday, Nov. 4, indoors and outdoors at Jubilee Auditorium. giraffest.ca.