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The Red Turtle Director Michaël Dudok de Wit on Silent Metaphors, Charming Flaws, and Takahata’s Influence

The Red Turtle

Spoken language is direct and concise, but the most necessary messages are never successfully conceived or delivered through words. Silent gestures, decisive actions, and tangible kindness construct the most vivid memories of an individual’s existence. Michaël Dudok de Wit’s heart-rending masterpiece The Red Turtle engages in conversation with the core of the human condition without ever uttering a single sentence. A man with no name, past, religion or even nationality becomes a castaway after a brutal storm. Alone on an island, the man battles solitude, desperation, fear, and anger with only nature as witness. The existential grandeur of Terrence Malick’s works is filtered through hand-drawn animation, whose lines, colors, and gorgeous imperfections craft something purely cinematic and unequivocally human. Cannes jurors awarded the film the Un Certain Regard — Special Jury Prize.

Already an Oscar-winner for his animated short Father and Daughter, director Michaël Dudok de Wit has always been an artist that prefers symbolism, visual storytelling, and the uplifting power of musical scores over hefty speeches to spell out his characters’ motivations. In this, his feature debut, he continues to walk that wordless road even if practicality wasn’t the reigning factor for such decision this time around. In LA for the film’s premiere at AFI Fest and its Academy Award-qualifying theatrical run, Dudok de Wit enthusiastically shared his predilections for animation that comes from intimate places and the artist’s hand, Isao Takahata’s mentorship, turning into a director that doesn’t animate, and his respect for the eponymous sea creature at the center of the film.

Filmmaker: In several interviews, Miyazaki has said that his advice to aspiring animators is to not only animate and watch animated film, but to experience life and bring those real life influences into their work. Is that a philosophy you adhere by?

de Wit: I only heard him say that recently — in August, I think — but very much so. Some people have the standards of automatic animation, and they just do it. You just animate: you know the clichés, you know all the moves, and you just do it, and it’s nice, it works, but there’s nothing more. If you’ve lived a bit, and you have experimented with different styles, and you have failed and struggled and all that, then you get a richer feeling in the animation. It refers to storytellers as well, and that’s obvious. You can tell a superficial story beautifully — and I’m not judging them, because I watch films that are superficial, and I really laugh a lot or I enjoy the suspense — but you can’t really tell a story that you can’t identify with deeply. And I’m not saying that I’ve had an incredibly eventful life, but I’ve just had the basic experiences that most people have gradually had after a while.

Filmmaker: How would you say your style has evolved from short films like Father & Daughter or The Monk & The Fish to your feature debut? All of your works are dialogue-free, but they’re stylistically specific. Father & Daughter, for example, is done entirely in silhouettes. The Red Turtle seems to have the most detailed characters you’ve ever created.

de Wit: I don’t have one style. I try to, just for fun, explore different styles with different projects. Lots of my colleagues are the same way. They change styles as they progress in their careers. When I conceived the idea of The Red Turtle, I very quickly thought that I wanted a semi-realistic style, not only the design but also the movements. That’s a strange choice for an animator, because that kind of animation is the hardest to do. Hand drawn animation is the hardest to do, and for some people the least fun, because animators like the really extreme cartoony movements much more. But at the same time I thought, “I really want that. I really think that will make the most beautiful film.“ It’s inspired by many things, including Windsor McCay and Tintin, but also the type of illustrations that I saw when I was a young child, which were old illustrations that were popular even at the time my dad was growing up, between the wars. These were really realistic, beautifully drawn illustrations, probably very close to Windsor McCay, done by top craftsman and artists.

I thought that would be a beautiful style for the film. Partly also because a film like Father & Daughter, you wouldn’t want to watch it for more than an hour. It’s perfect for a short format, but it’s so sparse, so pure, so stylized. I think it’s demanding a lot from the audience to look at that for more than an hour, so I needed to use a different style. Also, with a feature film, you really want to explore the universe. In Father & Daughter, it’s very simple: a few trees, lines of horizon, a few details here and there, but very few. If you want to spend an hour in the same landscape, which is the case here, you really want to know a bit more about the details, about the vegetation, and a bit more about the animals and so on. There, it’s appropriate to have a more detailed style, but my brief to the background artist was all the time, “Keep it simple.” You have the forest where you have all the little leaves on the ground, and details on the bamboo tree trunks, etc, but the overall, impression is very simple. To give you an example, instead of choosing a rich jungle with lots of flowers and different kinds of vegetation, it’s just a bamboo forest. It’s very vertical, with the ground covered with vegetation, and the vertical lines.

Filmmaker: Would you say that dialogue is a burden for the stories you want to tell, either in terms of practicality or design? Perhaps a film with no dialogue is purely cinematic because you can play it anywhere in the world without subtitles and it can be understood. It’s pure emotion.

de Wit: The absence of dialogue was never chosen for practical reasons, because initially I imagined it needed some dialogue, and to translate some dialogue is easy. It doesn’t require a big budget. It’s easily done. I really believed the film needed some, but it didn’t feel right, because the story starts in a very pure way. You don’t know where the protagonist comes from, which century, which profession, which position in society.

Imagine you’ve watched the protagonist going through different phases in his life for a long time, and at that moment when he meets a woman he suddenly talks. I thought at that moment he would say something to the woman, so we had temporary versions in the animatic, and we were like, “Oh my god, he talks!” Also, at that moment, you would know his nationality, which you didn’t know before — “Oh right, he’s French,” or “He’s English” — because we had two versions. It just didn’t feel strong. It felt logically right, but that wasn’t enough.

I worked with a co-writer, and she advised me on some changes in the text, and that didn’t work either. At some point we thought, “Ok, we’ll keep those sentences, and when we get really strong actors they will sound really good.” But it still didn’t feel right, and then my producer in Japan literally phoned one day, before we actually started animating, and he said, “You know, the dialogue, we’ve looked at your list of words that he says throughout the whole film, and let’s just drop the whole thing and do it dialogue-free.” I argued with him because I thought you really needed the dialogue to explain just a few key moments, but they said, “No, we think it’ll be clear enough.” And I said, “You really think it’ll be clear enough?” And they said, “Yes, maybe with a few adustments in the animation and the acting. “

At that moment, I thought “Yes, let’s do it,” because I love the simplicity of it. Often I think the dialogue is weak in animated films, partly because it’s too much. It’s like, “Whoa, It doesn’t stop!” It’s partly because there are so many tiny messages when we talk — not the words themselves, but the quality of our voices, and the little poses, and the little hesitations, and all that. We talk much more than we say with words, and when you take the words and hang them on a character, I often find I can hear a human being talking and I can see a character moving, and I don’t feel the two belong together. I mean relatively, of course, because sometimes it’s beautifully done.

When all the dialogue was dropped, I thought, “Now, we don’t have that risk, we won’t have that problem with the coherence.” But in the sound recording, we did something that surprised us, because the sound recording specialist suggested it. We had actors do human noises like the coughing and laughing and so on. She said, “Let’s record their breathing for the whole film, all the scenes with the man and the woman, and just introduce it in the sound edit, hardly audible, just as an experiment.” We did, and immediately it worked. You feel more empathy with the characters on a subtle level.

Filmmaker: Can you walk me through a day in the life of an animated feature director? What’s your role or roles when you walk in, day to day? There are no actors to deal with on set, but lots of other people with questions I’m sure.

de Wit: I’ve worked with teams, I’ve worked on commercials, I’ve worked on big productions including those at Disney, I’ve worked on my short films. I’ve always worked with a few collaborators, and basically my task, if I’m the director, is to basically spend 90 percent of the day animating or doing the backgrounds, and occasionally giving instructions or validating or changing things. With a feature film, you are just bombarded with questions and things to check and problems to solve and practical discussions with your producer, all the time, non-stop. That’s normal, that’s what a director should do, but this is my first feature film, and I’ve spent half a century just working very hard on one thing at a time, and now I had to dissipate all over. On a typical day I may, if I’m lucky, spend an hour to just check all the layouts. Then I have another hour to concentrate on checking the backgrounds and things like that, but most of the time, people stand in a queue for me to check things. With this project, I wrote the story, I’m the main designer, and I’m directing, so all of the questions come back all the time to me. With big teams, you have a head of animation, a head of backgrounds, a head of special effects, and, especially in the beginning, we didn’t have that because everything had to come from me. I was still exploring. If I had to make another feature, I would not only learn to be dissipated, but I would also know how to distribute my workloads better. 

Filmmaker: Legendary Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata is listed as Artistic Director of The Red Turtle. What did that role entail and how important was his expertise for you as a debutant in the feature world?

de Wit: He was very discreet and modest about that, because he feels that his contribution was overestimated. I don’t agree, for two reasons. First of all, when I started working with him, my first question was, “Can I have your feedback please? And not like one element here, and one over there, and then you’ve stopped, but all the time. I really want your feedback.” He’s super experienced. He’s not an animator at all, he can’t draw even, but he is very experienced, and he has an animator’s sensitivity. Also, he’s a thinker. He thinks about symbols, and the narrative flow, and the emotions, and the strength of the characters. He thinks about that a lot, and I do too.

We also talked a little bit about the technical side, but very little, because there are other people who could help me with that. And finally, I didn’t see this straight away, but it’s very obvious now in hindsight: when you’re a filmmaker, you come from a creative point, and even if you’re quite confident, it’s always vulnerable, and always very pure, and always very quiet. You’re not explosive, especially with a symbolic film like this, a poetic film. You’re listening to subtle messages and subtle metaphors. I like that, and I’m good at that, but it’s vulnerable, and if you’re surrounded by people who are stepping with their big feet on that — because lots of people don’t know how to handle that, it’s not nice. It’s inevitable, not to have an artistic colleague but to have usually someone from the administration or the financial section, and it may be really disturbing to talk with them. I was quite alone at that time, and I needed that very precious space, and Studio Ghibli understood that, obviously, because they’ve made great film after great film after great film. They understand that the director needs emotional protection.

Filmmaker: The score by Laurent Perez Del Mar is absolutely stirring and speaks volumes about the nature of the film. Would you say that the music acts like dialogue in the film? All of your short films to date are music-driven and dialogue free as well.

Michaël Dudok de Wit: Yes, that and the sound effects, because the nature sound effects are very present. With the other films music was there right at the conception of the film. It’s like the music is the muse. When I knew which music I wanted, like with Father & Daughter, I thought, “Of course, we need that beautiful waltz, that’s what we need for this story,” and then the waltz became the guarding energy for the film, the emotion of the waltz, and the rhythms of the waltz, even if it’s not synchronized, or just a little bit.

With this film, I didn’t have music at the beginning. It came very late, and I didn’t even have a melody to suggest to the composer. I just asked him to compose a piece, and quickly please! Because the film was nearly finished, he could get a feel of the film, and see what it’s about, and the power of this moment, and the quiet of this other moment. It was very difficult with this film. The other thing that compensates for the lack of dialogue is the acting, obviously, because that’s language by itself. Also, the film language, such as the editing: are you seeing the character from far away, or close? Do we let him come into screen or is he already in screen? That can be quite eloquent.

Filmmaker: With the advent of CG animation and the renaissance of techniques like stop-motion, what’s still particular about 2D animation that fascinates you or continues to entice you?

de Wit: I’m not knowledgeable about puppet animation, or clay animation, or stop motion. The difference between computer animation and hand-drawn animation is that hand-drawn animation has flaws. It inevitably shows the strength and weaknesses of every animator, and it’s very recognizable. Every animator has very much his or her own personality, just like actors. The flaws, if they’re not nice, they are not nice, and look amateurish or cheap. If they look nice — and you very quickly learn at the beginning of your profession if they’re nice — they add charm, and you wouldn’t call them flaws anymore. You’d just say this has charm, this has personality, or this has character.

That’s all I can handle in animation. I just love the lines, I love something that has lines around it, and in 3D animation you can imitate that now very beautifully. In this film, we have some 3D animation, like the turtle itself. That’s computer animation, and the turtle is given the same lines as the rest, so it looks integrated. With 3D animation, you can come close to 2D animation, but it’s too perfect, it’s too beautiful. Also, maybe I would convert to 3D animation if circumstances were different, but circumstances are fine, I don’t have to convert. I’m intuitive with drawing, many of my colleagues are, and we don’t feel pushed to go 3D. It’s one way of making films, but it’s not the main way; there are other ways too.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the size of your team for The Red Turtle and how it compares to other work environments you’ve experienced. With all the responsibilities that come with directing, do you still get to animate?

de Wit: It was relatively small, and definitely small compared to California teams or Japanese teams. There were about a dozen character animators, and the same for special effects. For every character I made sure there was at least one assistant animator. There were about half a dozen background artists. All of this is small, but people came and went, so sometimes we have 20 animators, and sometimes 12, because it was chosen right from the beginning to go for a small team and a long production time, rather than the opposite, because I needed to explore.

If everything had been done much quicker, or if it would have been distributed between different units completely, we would have to stick to something middle of the road, because there would be no time to explore in different directors. For me it was bizarre because I’m always the animator, but on this I didn’t animate at all. I prepared the storyboard, I made thousands of drawings for that, so I guided the animators with the storyboard, and I guided the background artists with the storyboard and with color images, and they were all freelancers, so I had to meet them all for the first time.

In other words, I didn’t go to an existing team, literally every artist came for the job from different parts of Western Europe. I prepared lots of drawings, and gave them to them, and said, “Good luck with the animation, go ahead!” Of course, I was in the same building with them all the time, so we worked very closely together. For me, it was OK not to animate, because they used a new tool, Cintiq, which is slow for me because I’m used to paper and pencil, so I may as well let them do it. Secondly, gosh they were really good animators. If I had animated everything myself, the film would have been weaker, definitely.

Filmmaker: What’s so alluring about the image of a red turtle for you as an artist? What does this creature represent for you thematically?

de Wit: It’s an assumed mystery, just like in real life even gravity is mysterious. We know exactly what gravity is, we count on it, but when you ask what is gravity —it’s the attraction of two bodies, but what is that attraction of two bodies? That’s where you stop talking. It’s mysterious, love is mysterious, life is mysterious, and this is another one. It’s an assumed mystery, and the story purposely doesn’t say why the turtle does what it does exactly.

I say this with care, because spectators like to have some things explained, maybe not everything but some things, and I really wish and I hope that it works and that they recognize that this is a mysterious animal, and it’s fine to keep it mysterious. You don’t have to know exactly why this turtle is different and why it does what it does. But at the same time I recognize that is nature, with a capital N. It’s all nature, the whole film, but I like the metaphor of the turtle, because turtles are an animal that are not too far from human beings. It has arms and legs and a head, it breaths air and it goes on land, and yet it’s a reptile. It’s slightly frightening, you don’t want to caress it, you keep a respectable distance, and it doesn’t have a cute expression on its face, with big rabbit eyes. It has a fierce expression, and it’s big.

But it’s a solitary animal that just appears alone in the ocean, alone into infinity, because you don’t know where she goes. She doesn’t stay near the coast. She disappears for a year. She’s gentle, and gives the impression of being immortal; in other words, there’s wisdom about it. She does the impossible thing, she leaves her element, her beautiful infinity where she totally belongs, with great effort to go to the beach and dig a hole to lay eggs and fill the hole. I saw one doing that, just filling the hole, and there were some people standing by, and I said, “I think we need to help her, look, she’s dying, look she’s not even moving,” she looked really exhausted, like she had collapsed. They said “Wait, wait, wait, not too quickly,” and I stood there for a while and said, “Oh my god, look, she’s not moving.” But in the end, she finished her job and went back into the ocean, so she does what she has to do and then she goes home into infinity. I think that’s a strong metaphor. I think it’s beautiful by itself, because it’s touching. I’m really touched by that creature, and it’s a beautiful metaphor.

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