Interview: Michaël Dudok de Wit talks The Red Turtle

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In his feature film debut, Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit has crafted a wonderful piece of visual storytelling in The Red Turtle.  Teaming up with the famous Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and the French production studio Wild Bunch, Dudok de Wit’s story relies entirely on the animation to convey the mood and themes of his story, as the film is without dialogue.  I was fortunate enough to interview Mr. Dudok de Wit about The Red Turtle, where we discussed many of his ideas about animation, archetypal stories, and the director’s own awe of nature.


Derek Jacobs:  I am fascinated by animation and its ability to tell its own unique sort of stories that other media can’t.  So do you think that The Red Turtle needed to be told through animation, and if so, why?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  The answer is, “Yes”. I think it needs to be told that way, but I look at it from the other way around because I start with the fact that I am an animator.  I don’t even consider any other visual art form:  live action film, documentaries, theatre, whatever.  I just think in terms of animation, so when I wrote this story I already came with the conditioning of an animation filmmaker.

So you seek out stories that need to be told through animation, you don’t find a story first and then see how animation fits?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: Exactly, because I wrote the story.  It would have been different if someone had come to me with a book saying,  “What do you think of this book, would you like to make a film of it?”, then I would think, “Okay, how appropriate is it for animation?”  But in this case, since I wrote the story, I started off in an animation state of mind.

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And what do you think are some of the aspects of The Red Turtle that take advantage of animation?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  Animation is more stylized than live action, so right from the first second the spectator immediately understands that he or she can accept things that you can’t accept in live action, can accept things that stretch the imagination.  So: poetry, magic, mythology, strange metaphors, etc.  The spectator immediately understands that this world can be told easier because the language is stylized.

There’s also something about the economy of animation.  It is not just that animation is told slightly quicker than live action (the scenes tend to be shorter, the movements tend to be a bit faster), but there’s a tendency for the animator to also tell the essential more quickly.

Is that because animators have to create everything?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  Yes, but it’s not purely an economical reason, though.  Somehow it happens naturally.  I don’t know why. I’ve noticed that with short films too.  And it can still be complex and rich and full of details and organic or whatever, but there is a different speed in animation.  But for me, by far the most attractive point is that animation is visually stylized.

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That moves well into the topic of my next question. The animation is gorgeous in The Red Turtle and there is a good mixture of styles.  Can you explain the different styles of animation that are used in the film?  I think I noticed traditional 2D cel, some watercolor, and even 3D CG animation.  Can you talk about mixing styles together and why you and the animation team decided to do this?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  Since the start of my career, there has always been a tendency to experiment with tools.  That’s part of the profession, and I really enjoy that.  I mean, for most people.  If you’re an animator on The Simpsons or another series you tend to be loyal to a particular tool and a particular style.  But I did lots of commercials so there was lots of exploration of techniques, approaches, and tools.  In this film, I knew from the beginning that it was going to be hand-drawn animation because that’s my territory.  That’s where I am at ease, but that’s not the only reason, because you get hand-drawn animators that direct 3D CGI films even though they don’t master the CGI tools.  But in my case it was obvious that I wanted to go to hand-drawn simply because I find it very beautiful.  I like when there is a line around the character.  I like the imperfection about the drawing.  There is something very slick about CGI (which I respect by the way, and I’ve enjoyed many CGI films).  But there is something imperfect about drawing, something human.  It’s a bit like using a live instrument.  On stage, you’re never 100% perfect, like you can be on a recording.  And I like that about animation.

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Even so, there are some details which are just a nightmare to animate, and even if you spend extra time on it, the end result is slightly hard to believe.  It applies usually to big mechanical objects like planes, cars, trains, etc.  It’s much better to animate them in CG animation .  In the case of The Red Turtle, the turtle itself is much better in CG.  The problem with the turtle is if it turns really slowly underwater, everything is curved on this creature, but it is not flexible.  So everything is solid but curved.  And if you don’t draw it perfectly, the creature feels soft or appears slightly awkward.  On top of that, it has a pattern on the legs and the carapace, and that, frankly, is a total nightmare to animate simply by hand.  So, CG was the obvious choice.  My brief to the CG animator was to integrate it totally into the style of the film, make it look very much like the hand-drawn style of the other characters, and to the compositor I had the same brief.  Unless you’re an expert, you should not be able to see that it is CG animation.  The same thing for the millipede, for the same reason.  And, the same thing for the bamboo rafts because they are rigid and they are literally built out of hollow bamboo poles, and to animate that by hand is just silly, you can’t do that.   Unless you use a fixed image which you just move across the screen, which I would have done if CG did not exist.

Then, I chose to use, it has a watercolory look, but it is actually charcoal on paper.  Literally charcoal rubbed with the hand and the fingers on paper, and then scanned and colored in Photoshop.  It’s a technique I have used before in a couple of commercials and in the short film.  And, I chose that technique because it has a texture which is rich and interesting and less sterile than the very clean paint look.

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So, transitioning a little bit, I’d like to ask about the role of color in the film.  Especially on a second viewing, I recognized that certain sequences were monochromatic:  there’s heavy greens, blues, reds, browns, and even grayscale.  I have to imagine that these are deliberate choices, and you don’t have to explain all of them, but what sort of effect were you looking for in this monochromatic, in-your-face color style?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  That’s a personal taste, I’ve always found totally monochromatic films, literally the black-and-white films or the sepia films, I’ve always found them naturally beautiful to look at.  I’ve often wondered myself why it is more beautiful in full color, because we naturally watch full color, but actually there’s a purity about monochromatic films.  And also, in real life, the colors are not always that rich.  I’ve grown up in Holland and I live in England.  Right now, I look out the window and there’s actually very little color outside, and that has its own kind of beauty.

But that’s not the only reason.  There is a tradition in animation, just like in comics and children’s books, to go for saturated colors.  Because originally lots of animation was for children, children like bright colors, and there’s nothing holding you back from using bright colors in animation because you can do what you want.  So go for it, really bring it on, and it works beautifully.  It works well in most films, it works well in Snow White and Bambi, just to mention some of the very first.  But you don’t have to use that formula.  And, I sometimes feel that a film is over-saturated with color just like it can be over-saturated with dialogue.  It’s like nonstop talking when there is great beauty in poses.  So, I have a personal taste for really choosing one color and exploiting it fully and showing the beauty of the green when you’re in a forest.  And naturally, when you’re in a forest, it affects all the other colors so everything becomes a variation on the same color, and that has its own beauty.

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To give you one detail about the night scenes, because they are totally monochromatic, they are totally without colors, they’re only different uses of gray.  That has a slightly different reason, because already as a child I realized that if it’s deep in the night, not the beginning of the night, but you’re deep in the night and there’s no artificial light at all, only starlight, and the moon is not too strong, we are not capable of seeing colors.  Full stop.  We just can’t see them; you can take the American flag or Dutch flag and they are different hues of gray.  They don’t have red or any other color in them.  And as I child I thought, “that’s really beautiful”, so I wanted to recreate that in this film.  But, at the beginning of the night it is often bluish so that’s probably why the blue color has become the cliché color of night scenes in films.  So, in The Red Turtle, lots of night scenes start with a faint bluish hue, and the blue gradually, imperceptibly decreases to leave a totally black-and-white image.  To be frank, I’m really pleased with that.  I find the black-and-white night scenes really attractive.  It would have worked perfectly if there was some kind of blue tint or purple tint, I acknowledge that, but I was very happy with the feeling of the absence of color.

So, I am going to switch gears here away from the animation and focus on the story and thematic elements.  I would say that the theme of The Red Turtle involves a deep reverence for nature. Specifically how humans fit in to the picture and how our own nature interacts with it.  So, why did you chose this very archetypal, metaphorical story to address those kinds of themes?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  When I started writing the story, I was attracted to exploring one landscape for a whole feature film, in this case the island and the ocean.  I was attracted by the suspense of what happens when you’re alone in nature, and the exploration of the details and the characters.  But that was not enough, I wanted something that would fulfill me on a deeper nature, and so I asked myself what’s the basic emotion or the basic feeling, and that appeared straight away. And that’s as you just said, that’s my deep respect for nature.  I like the word “awe”, my awe for nature.  Because it’s huge, and I’m not talking like a biologist or someone who loves walking in a forest and talking about the creatures he encounters, it’s more my emotional and intuitive relationship with nature.  And I totally believe that we all have it, even those who live in cities and who tend not even to walk in a park.  It’s about the temperature we feel on our skin, the breeze in our hair.  It’s about the sunlight and the shadows it casts, It’s about the changing of lights outside.  It’s about nature in all shapes, in all senses. I thought it would be really fulfilling, not as a message because there’s no message basically, it’s just the deep, deep beauty of nature that I want to express.  And certainly people shouldn’t see it as a trip to the countryside.  But ideally, in a quite subtle way, it should help the spectator recognize his or her own passion for the beauty of nature.  I could almost say, “the beauty of life”, but life is so vast and in a way so abstract that it sounds empty to just say “life”.  That’s what I feel, but I prefer to say “nature” – everything we experience about nature with our senses and our intuition.

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Okay, so why address those kinds of ideas with this more mythical form of story?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  I’ll be frank with you; I don’t know why.  It just appealed to me.  I grew up with a passion for fairy tales as a child, and later I went to Greek and Roman mythology – and other continents.  And I think as a child I was affected by that in a subtle way. That some stories are so deeply appealing and yet they are exotic.  Yes they are from a different time and yes they are surreal and they can’t happen in real life.  At the same time, you totally identify with those stories.  So, I must have been influenced by that.

Building off of that, the mood of this whole film has that feel to it, right?  That magical realism type of feel where this stuff can’t happen in real life, but the weird, magical parts can still show us about our own world.  Was this kind of mood always a part of this film?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  Totally.  This may sound weird, and please – I’m not into drugs or anything – but for me reality, what we call “reality”, is the real, down-to-Earth reality that we all know and share when we meet and walk outside.  The reality on one hand and the imagination and imaginary world on the other hand, to me, are very close.  To give you an example:  you and I and a third person could walk somewhere, a city or a seashore or something, and you have a very different sensitivity to the environment where you walk than I have or the third person has because we all have our own individual way we perceive it and digest it.  In other words, what all three of us would call, “reality”, is actually very subjective.  And in film we play with that, of course – big time.

And since you mentioned “magical realism”, two of the books that I’ve adored more than anything in my life were two books of magic realism.  One is the famous One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez and the other one is called The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer.  When I read these books I thought, “This is totally surreal, and yet – it is more real than real”.  When I read those, I realized how powerful it is to play with that.

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Yes, it is a powerful genre to explore truths about reality in very bizarre ways, but very intimate ways.  That entirely shines through with The Red Turtle.

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  Thank you, that’s a huge compliment.

If you could have a spectator come away with one thing from watching The Red Turtle, what would you like it to be?

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  Oh, nice question, lovely question.  I hate the word, “preachy”, so I don’t want people to see the film as being preachy.  In other words, I don’t want people to say, “Yes, but what was the message?”  But, if they just feel a deeper respect for Nature, and human nature, as a result of the film, or it relaxes them or softens them towards the hard realities of life and surviving and having political discussions, etc.  No, sorry, I’m being a bit flippant here.  No, if they’re just feeling a gentle, deeper respect for nature and for life and for human nature, that would be my biggest wish.

I think you’re going to have success with that.  The film doesn’t feel preachy at all.  This is much more matter-of-fact, life/death cycle, here’s how things are and how we relate to them.  It’s wonderful.

Michaël Dudok de Wit:  Yes, thank you. I really enjoyed this.


The Red Turtle opened in theaters in the US this past weekend and opens in Canada this Friday.  For fans of beautiful animation, patient storytelling, and engrossing mythology, it should be considered a must-see film.