A Dutch animator based in London, Michael Dudok de Wit made his feature directorial debut with Sony Pictures Classics’ The Red Turtle, a film produced in part by Japan’s Studio Ghibli. An 80-minute silent film, The Red Turtle follows the life of a man cast off on a deserted island, who makes every effort to escape, only to be confronted at every turn by a giant red sea turtle. Surreal in nature, the film is composed in alluring, colorful 2D animation, going against the grain of prevailing industry trends. Below, de Wit discusses the visual through lines in his films, the meaning behind the film, and his deep passion for 2D animation.
What was the genesis of this project?
The genesis of the project came from outside. It was a letter from Studio Ghibli, and I wasn’t planning to make a feature. I dreamt a bit about it, but I wasn’t planning. When this letter arrived, I thought this sounds too good to be true—I do other films, but also they are very much into director’s movies. They give me a lot of freedom, and that’s how I work, so it was really effective. Straightaway, I thought, okay, I need a story now, because it’s one thing to say yes, but it’s another thing to come up with a really good idea.
Since childhood, I had this passion for the theme of castaways on a desert island. I went straightaway back to that; I couldn’t use it before because I don’t think it’s appropriate for a short film. I went straight back to that very simple idea: when you arrive alone on a deserted tropical island, what do you do? That was enough for me to start. Then, of course, I thought, it’s not going to be Robinson Crusoe story. It started developing from there.
Would you say there’s a visual or thematic through line linking The Red Turtle to your short films?
I do in fact, and at the same time, with every project, I feel like I want to explore something in a new direction. Obviously, I don’t have one particular style; I try different approaches. What they have in common? I’ve noticed that I really, really enjoy going for simplicity. We will know how complex it is and how many details, etcetera, how many layers, but the final look has to look simple and direct—and not just simple, but the elegance of simplicity, especially in the Far East. Of course, also the West, but in the far East, like in Japan, they know this very well in their culture, the simplicity of their gardens, the way the food is prepared, the architecture, their art, of course. That’s a fun way, I found, like an obvious thing, to explore even further in this film.
Paradoxically, because lots of images are quite detailed and quite full, but that’s not the line simplicity. That’s also a word I use a lot when briefing the background artists. I said, “Yes, please, draw all the little leaves of the bamboo, but keep in mind the basic simplicity of the image.”
Secondly, I always come back to the use of lights and shadows, both for the ambiance and the graphic power of the shadow. Shadows are just a bit dark on screen, which graphically can be striking and interesting. It’s very atmospheric to play with light. Late afternoon light is totally different than midday light, for instance.
Thirdly, it’s hard to say. I’ve just got this deep love for beauty of nature and for deep underlying goodness of the human race, which is part of nature. It’s the same thing, in a way. I know the human race it’s not always very beautiful, and we’ve all witnessed quite ugly [things]. That beauty symbolizes how unpleasant things can be, and yet I’ve got an underlying faith, and Studio Ghibli has that too, and lots of people have that. There’s nothing unique about it. I have to do that. I love watching, for instance, a very violent criminal movie, a mafia movie or something like that. I like watching it, but making a film is something else. I really have to, not as message, but to bring forward an underlying respect for nature and respect for human nature.
Without overanalyzing, what would you say the film is about, with its surreal scenarios?
It’s not a film about survival, like Robinson Crusoe—the story describes very quickly how he finds food and water, and he’s fine in a warm climate. What interests me much more was his relationship with nature, and our personalities are so much influenced by the people around us, whether we like it or not. We measure our own idea of ourselves by being with other people. We adjust all the time. Ideally, we improve, but we certainly adjust all the time, and when we move into a completely different community, we adjust or we struggle with the adjustments. That’s the nature of our personalities, and our self image, and our behavior in general. That disappears completely, not for a day or a week or a year, but much longer. The main character I mean, he doesn’t necessarily have to be in conflict with nature.
How much research was involved here? It really demonstrates a master’s understanding of animal behavior and movement.
I have to say straight away, I didn’t do any animation on this film. It was a very, very strong crew. In the beginning, I thought, “I’ll find animators who are more or less as good as I am.” Obviously, they were much better than I was. I was delighted.
The first teams coming in were a bit weak because people had to find their style. After that, I started seeing things going in animated, a line test by animators, “Oh my God, this is great.” It’s not about animals, which are really human beings, but with animal bodies. It’s about real animals. They should behave like real animals. Crabs, you could argue, they behave a bit like pets, because they are very conscious of the main character. They look at the main character and they follow him, which real crabs would never do, but apart from that, they really look like that in nature. They move with birds, and seals, and turtles, and so forth and so on.
Basically, my brief to the animators was to stay close to real life and add lots of footage sampled from all kinds of different sources. The crabs, I filmed them myself. They’re easy to find. The turtles are easy to find on YouTube, and with human beings, I had the same brief. They are not cartoony. They, of course, have amplified movements. They have got strong emotions, the main guy, but they are not stretch-and-squash, cartoony characters. They are human beings, and they are very grand. They don’t float. They are really solid; even their hands have to look solid.
Animators tend to animate very delicate hands because we’ve got delicate hands ourselves. We’re not carpenters or builders—we’re animators. We tend to have refined gestures, and lots of animators’ characters reflect out, and my briefing was to them: This is a guy with strong hands. He knows how to lift objects and build objects.
On top of that, for the human characters, we filmed actors, just for the delicate scenes where it’s tricky to get the movement right. It can be a very simple scene, like the one walking across the screen, but filmed from above, which is actually a nightmare to animate. It’s a tough thing to get right. You immediately see it when it’s wrong. That’s just from someone lying on the ground and waking up and turning around to look in the distance.
What were the challenges and opportunities in creating a silent film?
Actually, it was not the intention of making a silent film. In my script, I’d written some dialogue because we had thought, “No, no.” In my short films, I don’t have dialogue. I’ve done plenty of commercials with speaking characters, but in short films you often don’t need dialogue. It’s often common to have a dialogue-free commercial. With the feature film, I thought, he’ll be silent most of the time, but there will be moments where they exchange just a few words, just naturally, easily, if you can get close to them, have empathy with them. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel totally convincing. Mentally, if worked, but somehow it didn’t feel right. As you know, the main character, we don’t know which culture he’s from, which country, which century he’s from, which social level he’s from. It’s bizarre when, way into the film, he suddenly started talking.
He meets a women, and suddenly he started talking to her and you go, “Oh my God, he is French,” because we used French words, and then English words. “Okay, he’s English.” It takes you out of the film, and I thought it was a question of getting good actors, but it wasn’t. In the end, we dropped the dialogue. I had no problem convincing the producers because dropping the dialogue altogether was something that Studio Ghibli immediately liked. Actually, they asked me this—they said, “Michael, have you considered taking the job? Because we think it will be even stronger if you just take those last few sentences out,” and I said, “We actually do need those sentences; otherwise, we don’t understand what’s happening at that particular moment.” And he said, “No, we think it will be clear enough anyway.” I said, “In that case, I’d really like the challenge. I really want to try.”
The Japanese were really the artistic producers in the sense that they gave me advice on the artistic side of the film a lot. When Studio Ghibli was really behind the idea of taking last bit of dialogue out, the French producers and the Belgium producers just said, “Okay, well, if that’s what you want…That’s fine.”
Was there a steep learning curve on your first feature?
It was very steep hill, and surprisingly, because at the beginning I said to myself, “This is going to be a challenge. I’ll learn a lot. Features are not the same as short films.” I expected a steep learning curve, but it was steeper than that, especially the editing. I did all the editing in the past always, and editing is very intuitive, and when you feel comfortable with it, then it’s fine. My editing skills didn’t reach the level needed for feature film.
I had to learn a lot—I had to learn to work with a large team. Instead of just sitting at a desk and getting on with the thing and doing something beautiful, I had a different, new profession. I just had to validate and approve, and ask a lot of questions all the time. I just had to develop a new part of my brain basically.
What did you like about the 2D style of animation, in comparison to 3D, which seems more prevalent these days, particularly in the American market?
I hugely respect 3D animation—I have seen exquisite work in 3D. Personally, I draw. I like drawing, and 3D just isn’t drawing, and I’ve seen many colleagues who like to draw convert to 3D and they’re happy. That’s fine. I really hope to continue drawing for the rest of my life—there’s something really beautiful about 2D drawings. The effect of the imperfect.
3D is very, very clean. It’s very strong, but in 2D, whether you’re the best animator or not, there’s always a slight imperfection creeping into your drawings, a personal quirkiness, which I miss in 3D. In that case, the drawings are a lot of character. The dark side of 3D is it’s just hard. It’s hard to stay on character, for each individual, and also among individuals to stick to the character. That’s tough. Lot’s of animator have weaknesses, which it takes a while to improve them; the hands and the faces are often very vulnerable.
To come back to your question, graphically, I think 2D is beautiful. I just love to see illustrations. I love to see comics. I love to see the line around the character.