There are many animals among this year’s contenders for the Best Animated Film Academy Award, including Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets and Zootopia, but none as mysterious as the title character in the hauntingly beautiful The Red Turtle. Directed by acclaimed Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, this wordless fable shows how a man shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, far from any other land mass, copes with loneliness and his sometimes hostile environment. The arrival of a giant red sea turtle changes his life in ways he never could have foreseen.
The Red Turtle marks the feature writing-directing debut of de Wit, who has an international following for his short works, including Tom Sweep (1992), The Monk and the Fish (1994, for which he won a Cesar), Father and Daughter (2000), for which he won an Oscar) as well as The Aroma of Tea (2006). One of his most ardent fans is Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata (My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), who was captivated by Father and Daughter and in 2006 tried to get it favorable distribution in Japan. In the same email containing Takahata’s proposal to de Wit came an offer from Studio Ghibli’s renowned producer Toshio Suzuki, expressing interest in having de Wit direct a feature for the company. Thus was a creative alliance formed; ten years later The Red Turtle won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. It also received five Annie Awards nominations. The film opens in Los Angeles on January 20, and then will roll out to other markets.
I caught up with de Wit over the phone when he was in Los Angeles for the AFI Festival last November. Affable, cultivated, expansive yet modest, he repeatedly gave credit to his collaborators, reminding this reporter that he didn’t do any animating himself on The Red Turtle. He did, however, draw all the charcoal and paper sketches for the film’s animatic in pre-production, provided some background renderings during production, and did some touch-up work. A perfectionist, he is all about the details.
Your opening scene in The Red Turtle of the man tossed by the sea evokes some of the “ukiyo-e” (“pictures of the floating world”) by Japanese painters and print makers of the shogun era, who in their turn were influenced by Chinese scroll painters. Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries were very taken by “ukiyo-e,” and the line between their work and that Japanese art is clear. Now here you are today, a European making the first non-Japanese film produced by Studio Ghibli. Do you see some sort of cycle here?
A full cycle, in many ways: I admire Hokusai, Hiroshige, and other Japanese artists, but there are also references in the film to drawings by the Impressionists. I first saw Hokusai’s “Manga” [a forerunner of anime] in my twenties, and remember exploding, “My God, look at this!” I even asked Studio Ghibli if they expected my film to have the Japanese style of their films, but they said no, it was up to me as the director. Later, after they saw the completed film, they said they were pleased that it’s that rare animated movie that isn’t influenced by anime at all.
You did all your own drawing in your previous animated short works. But directing a big studio feature is quite different. What was the scariest thing about directing The Red Turtle, and what was the most satisfying? Looking back, do you see your adjustment as happening in measured steps, or did you feel at times as though you were tossed into the ocean yourself, to sink or swim?
The day I when I started writing I imagined it was going to be very difficult. I was wrong, although much of what else I had learned earlier I had to rethink in making this film: I had to learn the finer points of editing, and adjust to how different it is to work alongside other animators, when I was not doing any of the animating myself. My biggest fear was that the film would lose its character because of some “middle of the road” effect, where so many people would be working that they could lose themselves [their distinctiveness] in the overall project. So I kept the crew small, about a dozen carefully chosen animators, working in Angouleme, France [at Prima Linea Productions].
The next biggest challenge was the exhaustive work schedule: 60 to 80 hours per week, year after year after year. You can become deadened, with the danger of losing your judgment and creativity. I was ambitious; this style was very difficult to animate and it was quite contained. We didn’t have a massive budget. As a first-time director I had to explain a lot. Gradually, as the first of the test sequences came in, I felt that the film was going to be fantastic.
What was one of the most satisfying things? Well, just to go to Japan to Studio Ghibli and sit at a table with producers [Isao] Takahata and [Toshio] Suzuki and ask them questions and talk about their philosophy. I stayed for a month in Tokyo and they put me to work on part of the storyboard. Then there were the meetings we had at my apartment where we sat on the floor on cushions and tatami mats and ate rice bowls while we exchanged ideas.
Listening to you I’m struck by the awe you genuinely seem to feel about being in the company of these masters. It’s like you have no ego.
Many animators don’t have inflated egos because they work so hard. The first animation festival I attended was Annecy in 1975. I thought, “These people don’t have an ego; they work, work, work. It’s all about the art.” Of course, I’m talking about animators who made expressive short films, who had not yet experienced working on a large film. But right then and there I made up my mind that being an animator was what I wanted to do.
The narrative and tone and some of the visual motifs of your Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter have echoes in The Red Turtle. Is it possible that because you’re from the Netherlands, you have a very particular response to how land meets the sea? I mean, parts of Holland are below sea level, and then there’s that quality of the light and sky. I love how the sky looks in your films.
In all of my films, water has a big place, and no one has ever commented on that before. I’ve often wondered myself why is there so much water. I loved swimming when I was young. And when you are in Holland where the land is flat you can’t help but notice the sky. The skies in Japan are also amazing; the clouds are so different. But the light in my films definitely owes much to the Netherlands.
I have a question about technology and how it affects creativity. I’ve noticed that the instruments I use to write affect my process of writing. Using a pen produces something different than a typewriter, and using word processing on a computer most certainly has changed how I write, and what I write. Your brain responds differently, organizes differently. Do you think there are any physiological or neurological differences in animating with pencil and brush and animating with the kind of digital Cintiq pencils used in The Red Turtle?
Yes, definitely. If you use a piece of charcoal—or pencil, or in–it affects the subject you create a lot. I have absolutely no scientific proof I can quote, offhand, but I do know that we use different parts of our brain whenever we switch tools. The traditional tools of an animator—lightbox, pencil, eraser—are simple, but produce very rich effects on thick sheets of paper. Just to be orderly, you have to put a little number in the corner of each drawing. You become logical; you become efficient. Now, switch from that after dozens of years to a screen and a small plastic pencil, and that tactile screen is packed with many little software tools. You use your rational side of the brain much more to be productive. Your posture is different, your gestures are different, and over time your synapses fire differently. It’s strange, kind of like switching musical instruments.
So, after working this hard on The Red Turtle, what‘s next? What do you typically do during your downtime to recharge?
In theory, I should have had downtime in April, but promotion for the film already had begun. I had a few days off to be a tourist in Japan, which I enjoyed. As for my next project, I really have to step back before moving forward. The downtime has yet to come.
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