Mysterious Island: Michael Dudok de Wit animates dialogue-free tale of a castaway and ‘The Red Turtle’

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Not only did Michael Dudok de Wit win an Academy Award for Father and Daughter, he also received an e-mail from Studio Ghibli enquiring about distributing the animated short film in Japan, and asking him to develop and direct the first international co-production for the famous Japanese animation studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. While attending the 41st Toronto International Film Festival for the North American premiere of The Red Turtle in September, the soft-spoken and personable Dutch animator took the time to talk about the unique career opportunity that resulted in his feature-length debut, which revolves around a castaway stranded on a tropical island and a mysterious sea creature determine to thwart his attempts to leave. The Sony Pictures Classics release opens in theatres on Jan. 20.

“Isao Takahata has been teaching for years and tends to show Father and Daughter to his students,” Dudok de Wit says. “I was giving a talk at a festival in Seoul, Korea, about two years before they contacted me. Takahata was present, so he checked me out first! But they said from the beginning, ‘It may not work. It’s new for us. It’s new for you.’ It was not just the short film. Europe has inspired their films. Takahata speaks some French.”

Creative freedom was not an issue with Studio Ghibli, which allowed Dudok de Wit to spend several months writing the script that explores the archetypical idea of a man on a desert island. “The Red Turtle was never going to be a film made in Japan. It was going to be made in Europe. That was clear in the beginning. I would fly to Japan sometimes and they would come to Europe, but I didn’t see them that often. We sat at a table together and wrote letters or e-mails always through an interpreter, which is not very intuitive. At the same time, their role was not to be looking over my shoulder every day but to be there when I needed them, which was more than they expected as I wanted their feedback.”

Storyboards were turned into animatics—fixed images without any animation. “It’s primitive but creatively tells precisely the flow of the story and the general feeling of the movements,” Dudok de Wit explains. “It’s an essential stage. If you skip that on a feature and find out that there are things not working, they become extremely costly to redo. In the animatics you can discover all of the flaws.”

After watching the animatics, Studio Ghibli was convinced that the 80-minute long movie required no dialogue. “There was some opposition to that coming from me! There’s a moment where one character says something important to another and I thought we couldn’t leave that out. It would add to our empathy with the characters. However, they said, ‘We think the scene will work if you take the dialogue out.’ Then I quickly thought, ‘If he doesn’t talk, then the scene will express what I want to say by their behavior, body language, looks and music.’ Then I thought, ‘Damn it! This is interesting.’ Suddenly the film is clearly dialogue-free. You will never know if they’re French or English or Canadian or from any other country. The simplicity of that idea I saw as a strength rather than a weakness.”

Studio Ghibli trademarks are interwoven into the storytelling, such as spiritual and environmental themes as well as the presence of mischievous little creatures which are embodied by sea crabs. “The sea crabs are a Hayao Miyazaki thing,” Dudok de Wit chuckles. “I like the traditional cultural relationship with nature that the Japanese have. We also have cultural roots with nature in the West. I recognize that in their films and they recognized it in my work. We didn’t talk about it specifically, because that’s an elusive discussion. We spoke more about details. Takahata talked a lot about symbolism, so Studio Ghibli was also sensitive on a subtle level.”

The environments are given a textured treatment. “I used the same technique in Father and Daughter that was cruder, whereas this one is finer. There is a flatness in many films which I respect and appreciate but which I did not create for this film. I used to do photography and 35mm has its own texture. There’s something magical about texture. You want something to be as realistic as possible; however, texture adds not just a handcrafted element but also gives a richness that works if you use it well. It was a choice I had made from the beginning that we needed the texture of charcoal.”

Characters and settings are drawn with simplistic lines. “That went through an evolution, because I like a line which is beautiful and alive,” Dudok de Wit explains. “However, in animation if they’re too alive, lines vibrate and create a certain effect that can be charming in a short film but in a feature film is too much. I chose a pencil which is organic and rich, but the line needed to be stylized, purified and made to look quite regular. That was a compromise which I accepted.”

The color palette shifts depending on the tone of a scene. “My starting point was not to go for the Californian look, which is rich colors of great variety. It is beautiful and works. But I liked the idea that there are days which are very grey and that has its own beauty. My brief to the background artists was to use one or two dominant colors and that’s it. They did exactly that and did it well.”

The ocean has a major role to play in the visuals. “Literally all of the surf on the beach is hand-drawn. There was a big team just doing that because it is very present in the story. The surf also has a rhythm and ambience. I didn’t want to use clichéd animation.” A tsunami rips through the island paradise. “It comes suddenly, passes and then the story goes on. The tsunami has a place in the story for the characters, but I also wanted to make sure that we didn’t idealize nature in the film.”

Some digital assistance was required for the namesake of the film. “The turtle was hard to animate because of all of its curves, so the choice to use 3D was obvious straightaway,” the director explains. “Also, the big carapace needed lines and texture—otherwise, it looked too much like plastic. To animate those lines by hand would have been insane. As a 3D element, the turtle had to blend into the 2D look of the film, and experts would automatically recognize the difference, but I think it’s convincing.”

A single and constant light source was utilized to integrate the CG creature into the 2D environment. “It also helped that the castaway and turtle meet in the water, and the animators were very good.” Dudok de Wit did some visual research. “I met a turtle in the sea and saw one on a beach. We had lots of footage. My brief to the 3D animator was an organic, respectful animal, not a cartoon one. No funny stylized movements. It’s a big, heavy creature.”

“Sound design is just as important as the visuals although it’s not perceived as such,” notes Dudok de Wit. “I trusted a company called Piste Rouge, because they had done animated films before and I’ve seen their work. It was smooth. My brief was no cartoony sounds, as I wanted quite natural ones. They did some Foley recordings and others came from a sound bank.”

The score was composed by Laurent Perez Del Mar. “I am inspired by the music right from the start and it sets the timing for my short films. In this case, I knew that there would not be music from beginning to the end. It would be for certain moments. I didn’t have an idea for the music. I thought, ‘Don’t worry, it will come.’ Three years went by and we were well advanced in the animation phase. I was really worried because we still didn’t have an interesting composer. We tried one and it didn’t work out. Then the producers contacted a lot of composers. I chose the best one. Laurent Perez Del Mar hit the right notes straightaway. He sent me a proposal which I felt was beautiful and moving. Crucially, Laurent had worked with the sound people before. The first thing he said was, ‘I want to work with them.’ Laurent worked on little things, like adjusting the frequency, so that the sound and music were in tune with one another.”

Dudok de Wit continues, “On a physical level, [the biggest challenge was that] I did not draw much because I had to supervise. On a creative level, the hardest part was getting the story right. It had to be simple, deeply felt, and keep the spectator connected.” The best sequence is saved for the conclusion. “I love the ending of the film. It’s moving, beautiful, and simple.”