This interview with The Red Turtle director Michael Dudok de Wit was originally published on July, 2016 in the NRC. If you can read Dutch, please head over to NRC.nl to read the interview in its original language. In addition I also highly recommend watching the documentary “Het verlangen van Michael Dudok de Wit“.
‘Loneliness Will Drive You Crazy’
Michael Dudok de Wit’s film ‘The Red Turtle’ for the Japanese animation studio Ghibli was to Cannes’ liking.
July 6, 2016: Why did that enormous red turtle repeatedly destroy the raft that the castaway wanted to use to escape from his tropical island? An island with fresh water, bamboo, fruits and clams, but without any company?
“The man who inspired Robinson Crusoe had suffered greatly. Loneliness will literally drive people crazy,” the 52 year old Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit said on the roof terrace of Club Silencio in Cannes. Just now, his first long animation film The Red Turtle was praised, even welcomed with applause by the film press, and won a special jury award.
Surely he kept a turtle as a little boy? Indeed, he smiled. “A beautiful type of loneliness lurks inside a turtle. She shuffles onto the beach on her own, lays eggs and once again disappears in the sea. God knows where she goes. It’s not a social animal, but the swim movements appear very human-like. I don’t want to be too philosophical about it, it’s more of a feeling. The turtle doesn’t let the man return to civilization, but I believe the nature is also our home. I hope that you as the viewer also experiences the same.”
Anyone who sees The Red Turtle understands why the famous Japanese animation studio Ghibli approached Michael Dudok de Wit to direct their first non-Japanese feature film. A gentle, sensitive man. “He hovers a little above the ground,” a colleague said in a documentary that the VPRO broadcast yesterday evening. Ghibli admired his Oscar-winning short film Father and Daughter, and he admired Ghibli. Particularly the work of the 75 year old maestro Hayao Miyazaki.
Although Dudok de Wit touches upon very different themes, one can see their influences in The Red Turtle: nature mysticism, metamorphoses of the human, animal and god, small creatures – little crabs – like some kind of Greek choir, a flying vision and a catastrophic flood. That is not deliberate, Dudok de Wit says. “But I admire Japanese manga and anime exactly due to that nature mysticism. If you grew up with Kuifje, Robbedoes and Asterix, a comic where it rains on every page is an enormous eyeopener. Wow!”
Dudok de Wit’s discussion partner at Ghibli was Isao Takahata (80), recently an Oscar candidate with The Tale of Princess Kaguya. “Takahata himself cannot draw, Miyazaki doesn’t do anything else in his life. As a director he also draws along with everyone, and if the others go home, he’s still in his studio to make everything a little stronger. I also have that tendency, but I restrained myself. In the weekend I did do some work on the backgrounds on my own.”
The Red Turtle demands a different approach than his short films. They have a minimalistic, sometime almost a monochrome charcoal- and watercolor style; in 2006 he even drew The Aroma of Tea with tea. ‘Californian’, multicolored 3D-animation, with perfect, smooth lines and proportions: it’s not really Dudok de Wit’s cup of tea. “Yet I don’t think that 2D is better in itself. Is a piano better than a guitar? 2D has the charm of imperfection. Only if you use it well at least. Otherwise it’s amateurish.”
A beautiful type of loneliness lurks inside a turtle. She shuffles onto the beach, lays eggs and leaves
Dudok de Wit did have to make compromises. Animating with a pencil, pen and paper turned out to be expensive and impractical: hence the choice for digital pens on Cintiq-tablets. With clear lines: otherwise it becomes too unstable. His film also contains 3D: for the turtle a model was made. “All those curves of that shell, and an pattern in addition to that: everything becomes distorted if the turtle moves around in the water. It is a nightmare to draw with the hand.”
Regarding color use they agreed to let one or two colors dominate in each scene. “Everything is green in the forest, elsewhere you have a blue sky and water with a pale yellow beach.” And night is also real black. Dudok de Wit enthusiastically says: “Blue became the color code for the night in the film. As a child I liked to be outside at night, and what caught my eye is that in the beginning is everything is blue, but later on it becomes a real black and white film. I wanted that too.”
More radical was the choice to make The Red Turtle without text, on Ghibli’s advice. “Dialogue turned out to be an enormous struggle. I thought: with the right text, voice actors and music everything will blend together by itself. But I remained in doubt. At first we wrote an extreme huge amount of dialogue, then it became lesser, until only a few sentences remained. Then Ghibli said: leave out all of the text, it’s obvious like that.”
Dudok de Wit often asked Ghibli, who gave him as the ‘auteur’ all the space, for advice. “They have a lot more experience with feature films and a sensibility which pleases me greatly. No one can oversee a feature film as a whole, I didn’t always know what I did. In short films I knew it exactly, but when it came to The Red Turtle I often ran into a blind alley. For example, I wanted the castaway to build more rafts. He would try to escape at night, or from a different side of the island. But they said: that’s too many rafts.”
Leading a team of twenty to forty animators was also a new experience: Dudok de Wit normally works in his garden house in London and sometimes with two, three colleagues in a studio. “I did not draw along on purpose, I would have slowed down the process. I am not very strong at drawing proportions of muscles, hands and legs in movement. And as a director I have to solve new details every five minutes.”
Another feature film after The Red Turtle? With pleasure, Dudok de Wit says. But offering millions of euros out of the blue for a small auteur film like Ghibli and the French Wild Bunch did: that is somewhat unique. Ghibli works in mysterious ways: the Japanese studio could close soon if patriarchs Miyazaki and Takahata stop. “Perhaps The Red Turtle is a one-off experiment, or perhaps the beginning of more. I really don’t know. In August we continue our talks.”