Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit was working in England in November 2006 when he received an email from a Japanese animation powerhouse, asking him if he would be keen to collaborate with them on a feature film in France. Despite being an independent director/illustrator, de Wit agreed without hesitation because it's not every day that #StudioGhibli come a-calling.
Fast forward a decade later and the result is the wordless wonder The Red Turtle, a Best Animated Feature nominee at the 2016 Academy Awards. Among the five nominees (which included Kubo And The Two Strings and eventual winner Zootopia), it is the only 2D hand-drawn #animated feature and the only one without any dialogue.
(WARNING: The following post contains spoilers for The Red Turtle)
The visually mesmerizing fantasy film tells of a man shipwrecked on a lush tropical island inhabited by crabs, birds and turtles. When he tries to escape by building rafts, his journey is wrecked every time by a giant red turtle. After a turn of events, the sea creature magically transforms into a woman who becomes the man's companion and soul mate on the island. The couple eventually have a son and together they learn to live on natural resources and dealing with Mother Nature when she turns nasty.
Compared to the 3D animated features of today, #TheRedTurtle is relatively slow yet still highly captivating. For a Studio Ghibli production, it is the least Ghibli-like animation there is, being more European influenced than Japanese. Still, that doesn't degrade the fact that director de Wit is able to translate his short film expertise — making clips with little to no dialogue — to a full-length feature.
East Meets West Collaboration
The London-based filmmaker considered it a "big honor" to work with Studio Ghibli. The partnership with the legendary Japanese animation studio came about because director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) and the master himself, #HayaoMiyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), are big fans of de Wit's work. So much so, that they were willing to work with a foreign director for the first time in their studio's history.
Recalling his first meeting with the Japanese animators, de Wit did wonder if they wanted him to make a film in Studio Ghibli's signature style, and was rather relieved that he didn't have to. He says:
"Ghibli films are very Japanese and I'm (after all) western. Producer Toshio Suzuki and Takahata (who served as artistic director) told me that my film doesn't have to look like their films. They basically left me alone to do the film in my own style, only checking on its progress and offering advice along the way."
Insights From The Director
The 63-year-old Dutchman was answering questions from a live audience — of which this writer was delighted to be a part of — during a Skype Q&A session held after a screening of The Red Turtle in Singapore on May 4.
On why he chose a castaway premise for the story, de Wit says that he has been fascinated with stories of castaways since his childhood.
"It intrigues me to think about what happens if you are alone for years without hope of going back to civilization? I think it will show what are you as a person. Your reactions to nature, for instance, will get deeper and deeper."
As it was his first feature film, De Wit took his time producing the film in Paris-based animation studio Prima Linea. In fact, it took him a good decade to bring the film to fruition. He says:
"It took me and my co-writer Pascale Ferran five years to write the story, three years to get pre-production done and another two years to put the whole film together."
Realistic Seascapes And Landscapes
One of the most remarkable things about The Red Turtle is how realistic the seascapes and landscapes look, whether in monochrome or vibrant colors.
Though inspired by the mystical style of Studio Ghibli films, de Wit states his influences for The Red Turtle are generally that of Belgian cartoonist Herge, the illustrator of The Adventures of TinTin comic books, and Akira Kurasowa's 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai ("the first film [he] ever saw").
Growing up in Holland and later living in England, de Wit confesses he was more used to grey skies, "which are not ideal for a tropical island." Even so, he didn't want to have a typical tropical island "with coconut and palm trees." In the end, he opted for a bamboo forest for the island, which provided "a strong ambience with beautiful vertical lines." He elaborates:
"Basically we did lots of research. We looked at photos in magazines and images from the Internet. I even went to an island in Seychelles for 10 days just to observe nature. I observed how rain is perceived, how the sun sets, what the sounds of birds and insects make, and so forth. I took thousands of photos and brought them back to show the crew."
Words Not Required
Then came the question that everyone was dying to ask: Why the decision to have no dialogue? Laughing, de Wit discloses:
"We actually have a voice cast. But after the first edits, the dialogue sounds fake. There were too many foreign accents — 'Oh, he's English! Ah, she's French!' So we took out all the dialogue and settled on the simplicity of animation, speaking only with the eyes and movements."
And unlike his short films where the music plays a big part, the soundtrack in The Red Turtle, though pleasant, is hardly noticeable. When asked, De Wit admits that the music was almost an afterthought:
"We only gave it to the composer six months before completing the film. We said, 'Please help!' As the film is partly financed by a French company, the music is very much French influenced. There's no electric guitars, no choirs, no singers as I find it distracting. I only allow one bit where there's a woman's voice singing without lyrics because somehow it works."
The Drama Of Life
What de Wit really wants to show through the animation are various emotions and different aspects of human life. For instance, how a human being relates to nature, not just the cute creatures or lush landscapes, but also the grey skies and relentless rain, unavoidable disasters and death.
There are two key dramatic moments in the film. The first is the opening scene where we see the main protagonist, who's been shipwrecked, fighting for his life amidst strong waves in a dark, stormy sea. The other is when the family of three is quietly going about their lives when a tsunami catches them by surprise, causing massive damage.
De Wit reveals that he based the sequence on the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which killed more than 230,000 people across 14 countries. He explains:
"The story structure needed a dramatic moment at that point. We have a happy family who was harmonious and stable and we needed something (to shake things up).
"I find a tsunami beautiful because of the largeness of it. I meant no disrespect. I know it was a sensitive subject as thousands of people died from it, especially in Japan. I asked Suzuki and Takahata if it was okay and they agreed that this key moment should stay in the story."
The dramatic sequence also allowed for developments between the father and son characters. The father, who has tried so hard to leave the island, finds that not even a tsunami can wash him away as he is rescued by his son, now a matured young man. As for the son, who has reached puberty, he realizes that there is a world beyond the island, thanks to the stories that his father tells him, and he wants to leave to explore. With the help of a bale of turtles, he does just that.
Lastly, death is also touched upon at the end of the movie because as the director explains:
"The pure essence of death is beautiful, it is part of life."
Finally, Is The Titular Character A Metaphor?
This brings us to the mystical sea creature that gives the movie its title despite not actually being seen very much in the film. Is the red turtle a metaphor? The director doesn't seem too willing to commit when asked.
"As a writer, symbols are more accessible and some should not be explained and should be left to individual interpretation."
Explaining why a turtle was chosen, he reveals:
"It is a marine creature often seen as ancient and immortal. It belongs to the infinite ocean and can live on the beach. Our red turtle is is not really aggressive but it's not too cute either, not like a furry rabbit! The crabs, however, are meant to be cute!"
Decade-long Labor Of Love
De Wit has every reason to be proud of his 10-year labor of love. Most importantly, his Japanese partners are very pleased with it. He shares:
"Miyizaki gave me very nice compliments. He said the film has integrity, that it has Japanese elements in it but also my own style. It was a wonderful moment. Both Suzuki and Takahata liked it too because it's unlike the typical Studio Ghibli film."
When asked whether there will be future collaborations with Studio Ghibli, de Wit doubts it as "Takahata is retiring, but Suzuki can't because Miyaki is making a new short (rumored to be Boro The Caterpillar)."
Even with all the accolades that his maiden feature film has garnered, De Wit prefers to return to short films as they are "more personal."
He concludes the Q&A session with advice on how to make a good short film:
"A spectator should not be bored, distracted or made to look at his phone. The goal is to entrap the audience's attention from start to finish."
The Red Turtle is available on DVD and Blu-ray, but should still be playing at selected cinemas. Preferably, catch it on a big screen — you won't regret it!
Watch the trailer for The Red Turtle here:
Which is your favorite Studio Ghibli film? Let me know in the comments below!