How Dan Babineau brings his passion for filmmaking to his courses at Concordia and Champlain College
When Dan Babineau wants to teach his students about filmmaking, he tells them to learn it by themselves.
“I realized that where they really learn is the assignments and when they’re off on their own,” he said. “Standing there with a PowerPoint about all the stuff you know is not going to make them learn it.”
Babineau has been teaching at Champlain College on Montreal’s south shore since 1992, and has been the chairman of the creative arts department since 2008. He is also a part-time faculty member in the communications department at Concordia University. Yet, Babineau never studied to be a teacher. In fact, it wasn’t even his first-choice profession.
Babineau was studying literature and language at Champlain College when he decided to take a film class. He enjoyed the class so much that he realized he wanted a career in the film industry.
Once he graduated from Champlain in 1975, Babineau began studying communications at Concordia, and graduated in 1981. After university, Babineau said many of his peers had trouble finding jobs in the film industry, and some became stock brokers or winemakers instead.
“I did the same year or two of [looking] around, trying to get work and, by accident, ended up in the corporate world basically helping companies lie to their employees with media,” Babineau said.
Nonetheless, in the corporate world, he fulfilled his dream of making movies for a living by creating advertisements and other promotional videos. For 15 years, Babineau freelanced for multiple production companies. He wrote, produced, directed, added voice-overs and supervised entire projects. At times, he worked as a consultant for companies in need of a story idea. According to Babineau, his background in communications and his passion for filmmaking helped him a lot with these various projects.
“A lot of people working in that business were like shoe salesmen; they didn’t know anything,” he said. “They knew this company wanted a video that said, ‘Molson beer is the best.’ They didn’t know anything about video or how to write a proper script or use the right picture. There I was with the communications background and all these ideas, and I did very well in that business.”
Babineau had to travel a lot for his job, and said that, for six years, he commuted between Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. Right before his daughter was born, Babineau’s film teacher from Champlain, John McKay, who was the chairman of the creative arts department at that point, contacted him about teaching a course. Babineau agreed immediately. His daughter was born on Jan. 8, 1992, and he started teaching on Jan. 20.
“I loved it, and I thought: ‘Wow I’m in class on my feet shooting around ideas like I used to, but it’s not for stupid clients and not for stupid products,’” Babineau said.
He balanced work and teaching for a few years, but quickly realized teaching was his calling. “I suspect I was always destined to teach, without knowing it,” Babineau said. “In the corporate world, I was coaching executives on how to give their speech; I was pitching in front of committees and standing up a lot.”
Babineau said that, by his second year of teaching, he had learned the tools of the trade. He also gave himself rules to live by as a professor.
“I promised myself I would never be pretentious, which is something that drove me crazy at university with PhD teachers,” he said. “I’ll try not to be dull. If it isn’t fun and exciting, then it’s probably not worth teaching. And to be myself […] I’m me. I’m not a trained teacher, but I have creativity.”
Champlain College allowed Babineau to continue teaching more courses until he became a full-time professor a few years later. In 2002, Champlain College gave him a permanent position. More than 25 years after he first stepped foot in a classroom to teach, Babineau is still learning. He said a few years ago, he heard his son playing Led Zeppelin on the guitar, which he’d learned to do by watching videos on YouTube. It was then that Babineau realized that, when students are passionate about something, they will learn it themselves.
“As a teacher, what’s the best thing you could do? Make them interested enough so they can learn it, then just get out of the way,” Babineau said. He applies this when teaching a special effects course at Champlain. He said his class is too big to teach everyone individually, so one assignment involves students sharing with the class what they learned about special effects on their own time.
In 1999, the year his son was born, Babineau returned to his alma mater to teach a filmmaking class for Concordia’s communications department. Little did he know, his former teacher-turned-colleague, McKay, was teaching the other sections of that course. Together, they taught the course until it was cut from the curriculum in 2008. Babineau didn’t teach at Concordia for two years after that, until the university offered him film studies classes, which he has been teaching ever since.
Babineau has noticed a big difference in the way he approaches a course at Concordia compared to Champlain. He said students in CEGEP, unlike university students, don’t know what they want to do as a career.
“The thing at CEGEP that you’re looking for is to help [the students] figure out what they’re going to do next, and what they’re good at,” Babineau said. “At university, they’ve already figured it out, and they’re intellectually way more challenging. […] People are going to ask you challenging questions because they’re way more smart, they know what field they’re going into and who they are. University, for me, is an intellectual reward.”
However, Babineau said he feels rewarded when he notices his CEGEP students finding their passion. Champlain’s creative arts department makes their students produce a short film in their fourth semester. Babineau said the production is similar to making a real movie, with everyone being assigned a different role, including sound, camera and makeup.
“They feel like they’re working on a real film, and they go, ‘Oh my God, this is what I want to do as my real job.’ Three weeks before they graduate, they figure it out,” Babineau said with a laugh. He added that the best moments as a teacher happen outside of the classroom.
“I bend over backwards to make the class exciting and good,” Babineau said. “But I know having drinks at Brutopia the night after they finished screening their film will be what they remember from that class.”
Babineau and other faculty members often help students out with their film projects. One year, the students wanted to produce a zombie film, and Babineau happily got involved to help them in any way he could. That involvement included lying on the floor and pretending to be a zombie at 8 a.m. on a Sunday.
“We’re lying on the floor, and I look at [another teacher] and say, ‘What a great job we have, eh?’ Can you picture other people whose job is to lie on the floor and wear zombie makeup?” Babineau said.
In 2015, Babineau had the opportunity to bring his students from Champlain and Concordia together to produce a movie.
During a Christmas lunch at Champlain one year, staff members from different departments screened homemade Christmas movies. “My department is notoriously not involved in school stuff, so we didn’t do anything,” Babineau said.
That’s when a colleague from the nursing department suggested Babineau write a Christmas film for the following year. So he went home, thinking he would write a silly video involving the nursing department and Christmas. But after listening to “Little Girl Blue” by Nina Simone, a sad Christmas song, Babineau’s focus changed.
“Nurse. Christmas. Sad,” Babineau said. “So I ended up writing a story about a nurse who has a bad day and ends up quitting her job, but on the way home, has to deliver a baby for a homeless woman […] I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s baby Jesus.’”
The idea for the film quickly escalated from a video for a Christmas lunch into a bigger production. He started to get former students from Champlain and Concordia to volunteer their time to produce the film. Without much of an initial budget, Babineau got a whole cast and crew together to shoot for five days. He said seeing his former students work together made him proud.
“Can you imagine, you taught a student 10 years ago and he becomes a professional cameraman, and then comes back to work with you on this project? I have all this talent around me, and I taught them when they were 17,” Babineau said.
After receiving a professional development grant from Concordia’s Part-Time Faculty Association, and with post-production help from the National Film Board of Canada, Little Girl Blue, a 20-minute film, was shown on CBC during the 2016 holidays. Babineau said he had fun making the film, and didn’t expect it to get so big.
“I had my Oscar speech prepared, but I didn’t expect it to go that far,” Babineau said with a laugh. “All the students came on board and raised the [quality of the project].”
After nearly three decades in the profession, Babineau knows his time as a teacher is coming to an end. He made a promise to himself that, as long he enjoys teaching, he will continue doing it.
“If you can’t bring the real fire and passion, why would you inflict it on these kids? They don’t need to see someone whose fire has burned out and [doesn’t] think anything is interesting,” he said.
Babineau already knows what he will do once he retires: “When I leave teaching, it won’t be to go to another job.”
Main photo by Thilelli Chouikrat.
A previous version of this article said Babineau started teaching at Champlain College in 1991, and that his daughter was born the same year. A photo caption also said his band was called The Alpha. The errors were fixed and The Concordian regrets them.