This explorer bio may be a cartoon, but not a simple-minded one

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Frank Christopher finds himself with an unusual assignment. The experienced documentary-maker produced Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, which aired on Independent Lens early in the decade, and the four-part Remaking American Medicine for public TV in 2006.

Now he’s writing, directing and producing a bio of French explorer Samuel de Champlain — Dead Reckoning: Champlain in America — to be animated in 3D.

Christopher, working at Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh, N.Y., along with colleagues at Artifex Animation Studio in Montreal, are aiming to complete the project by October. Funding for the project comes from this year’s quadricentennial celebration of Champlain’s discovery of the big lake that now adjoins Plattsburgh.

The budget benefits from Canadian policies that make it financially attractive to work with studios north of the border, but the choice of subject isn’t getting the producers any extra Canadian support even though Champlain is the guy who discovered Quebec in 1608. The Canadians celebrated that quadricentennial last year.

Christopher expects that the animation will attract young viewers. Moreover, it enabled him to visualize a Native American parable that figured in Champlain’s life. And it solved many problems with live-action reenactments, including battle scenes. Artifex, headed by Marc Hall, who is directing the program, came up with a computer-animation style that’s more painterly than super-realistic, Christopher says. The animators will even animate the interviews with historian talking heads, deriving rotoscopic images from video.

Champlain was fighting the Iroquois nation, but he was not entirely a standard-issue European conqueror. The French warred with the Iroquois, because they were enemies of the Algonquin tribes, their trading partners. He was repelled by how the Spanish treated natives in the Caribbean, according to Christopher.

Giving up the search for the passage to Asia that many explorers sought, Champlain devoted himself to settling Quebec, advocating harmony and intermarriage with natives.

Eight-minute preview of the program on YouTube.

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