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Michaël Dudok de Wit Talks ‘The Red Turtle’ and Partnership with Studio Ghibli

The Oscar-winning director of ‘Father and Daughter’ (2000) teams with famed Japanese animation studio’s Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata to produce his remarkable feature film debut exploring the life and our relationship with nature.

An animator from Holland living in England is approached by a Japanese animation studio about making a feature film in France. Saying Oscar-winning animator Michaël Dudok de Wit was surprised to receive a note from Studio Ghibli offering to make a feature film together is an obvious understatement – he said yes without the slightest hesitation. The director’s gentle, careful and deliberate filmmaking style seems perfectly in sync with Ghibli’s creative sensibilities, even if he considered such a collaboration “a one in a million chance.”

But the birth of this unique creative partnership was no mere coincidence. A fan of Dudok de Wit’s 1994 short The Monk and the Fish, Ghibli director Isao Takahata fell in love with the film’s story, animation and sense of humor, and was astonished by its powerful sense of reality despite its simplicity. He was also deeply impressed with Father and Daughter, - which won an Academy Award in 2001 - especially the film’s ending, a moving scene that portrays life and death in a very Japanese way.

The two met in 2004 when Dudok du Wit was on the Hiroshima Film Festival jury and again soon thereafter at the Seoul Festival. Ghibli’s highly unexpected email followed in November 2006. Now, 10 years after that initial inquiry, their highly anticipated and award-winning film, The Red Turtle is one of five animated feature films vying for Oscar Gold. And like Dudok du Wit’s previous short films, it doesn’t have a single word of dialogue.

I recently had a chance to speak at length with Dudok de Wit right after he received word of his nomination. He talked excitedly about jumping at the chance to make his first animated feature with Suzuki and Takahata, his difficult and time-consuming pre-production process that included creation of a hand-drawn animatic, as well as the trust he placed in his Japanese and French collaborators when the decision was made to make the film without dialogue.

Dan Sarto: Michael, congratulations on the nomination.

Michaël Dudok de Wit: Thank you very much, thank you. You know Dan, it's so amazing because Academy members obviously have a taste for the big studio CG films with wit and fast action…and they've chosen two non-American indies. Isn't that incredible?

DS: It doesn't surprise me. The Academy has been embracing indie animated films more and more. The distributors are doing a better job at getting these films in front of people who take notice. Plus, there are a growing number of strong independently financed animated features. The films are good, they’re different, they stand out stylistically and people in the industry are taking notice.

MDDW: I agree. It’s a crowded field, so many well-made films, lots of talent. I'm so honored, Dan, I'm so honored with this nomination. It’s fantastic.

DS: You were nominated once before, for Father and Daughter, and the result was a win and the shortest acceptance speech in Oscar history.

MDDW: [Laughs] Yes. There's one chance in a million, but if it [The Red Turtle] wins, I'll beat the shortest Oscar speech.

DS: You’ve never made a feature film before. How did this project start, and of all studios, how did you come to work with Studio Ghibli as a co-producer?

MDDW: Isn't that a miracle? It was their initiative -- they wrote to me. I wouldn't even think of writing to them saying, "Can we work together?" They wrote to me out of the blue, literally saying, "Have you thought of making a feature film? Because we like your short film Father and Daughter a lot. If you're thinking of making a feature film, we would like to co-produce it with Wild Bunch in Paris." Wild Bunch has been their distributor for decades.

Obviously…immediately…before I arriving at the end of the letter, I knew my answer. That was literally the initial spark. Did I have the ambition to make a feature? Not really. I'd been playing with the idea in an innocent way. I wrote some notes, and they were left in my drawer. I seriously didn't see it happening, or at least not in the very near future. So when they wrote to me, I immediately thought, "This is too good to be true. This is my chance. Oh, yes. Definitely."

DS: Did they initially propose a film idea?  

MDDW: No. My first question to them was, “Do you want me to come to Tokyo so we can talk about this?" And they said, "No, hang on. A partner from Wild Bunch, Vincent Maraval, will be in London soon. He can talk with you in detail."

My next question was, "Do you have a story you want me to translate into a film? Do you want me to make it in Japan? Do you want the film to look Japanese?" Every time they said, "No, no. You propose the story, you propose the visual style. The idea is not to make this at Studio Ghibli. We've got buildings full of our own projects. You stay in Europe and make it there."

And you know, I'm a freelance animator; I've always been. I don't have or need a big studio. To be a part of a large studio, permanently, has never been my ambition. It's very heavy. I have friends who manage that well; I have friends who feel that burden quite heavily. But it's not my style.

When we started seriously thinking of making the film, after the story was written and developed, the storyboards, everything, the obvious question was, "Where shall we make it?" By that time, it was decided to make the film in France. So, we can create a studio in Paris, or we can go to an existing studio -- we looked around and chose Prima Linea, where the film was made.

DS: What was it like working with a Japanese production company? Describe the dynamic of your relationship with Studio Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata.

MDDW: On his film, I had two new adventures in front of me. On one hand, I was developing a feature, and on the other hand, I was learning how to work with a major studio at the other side of the world. When I went there to meet them and to tell them about the story I had in mind, I sat around the table with Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Takahata. Miyazaki, by the way, was not involved at all. He was busy with his feature.

The initial idea came from Suzuki. But he felt it would be a good idea if Takahata would be the spokesperson for Studio Ghibli. My conversations were mostly with Takahata because he is a director and knows the animator's mind from the inside. But Takahata knew exactly what Suzuki liked and disliked. Suzuki, by the way, has a huge role at Studio Ghibli. He is intuitive; he understands what the right time is for what kind of project. Suzuki was very sharp as well with his comments. But I spoke mostly with Takahata.

And everything, yes indeed, everything went through an interpreter. Takahata speaks some French, although he never spoke French directly to me, apart from a greeting. They both understand some English, but they preferred all their conversations be through an interpreter. It's not intuitive to work through someone like that, but under these circumstances, we had the best interpreter we could wish for because she works at Studio Ghibli, she's been there for a long time and she knows Takahata and Suzuki very well.

Working with them, they were strikingly modest, friendly and polite. I'm pretty much like that as well. I like talking simply, honestly and calmly about things, whether they are difficult or not. But you can always talk about them in a calm way, in a respectful way. And they were like that, I was like that, so we got on really well from the beginning.

DS: I imagine you had to get accustomed to a number of cultural differences.

MDDW: Yes. I had to learn about many cultural sensitivities in Japan. The classic one is that you don't say "No" easily in the Japanese language -- you talk around it, but you don't say "No" in people's faces. Which, in a way, is also a bit the case in Britain, so I quickly understood that. On the other hand, in Holland, you say "No" a lot. It's very important in Holland to say "No" all the time. It's just a cultural difference.

They were very respectful. They gave me lots of feedback. I actually asked them for more feedback than they expected, because I wanted to learn from their know-how, obviously. It was my first feature and there were a lot of things I very quickly had to learn. I wanted to learn also what the Japanese perspective was, because even though they have similar sensitivities to us in the West, they can look at those sensitivities in a different way and they can express them differently. And I was really interested in that. Not to make a Japanese film, but to see how the Japanese would react to certain symbols and details and emotions and metaphors in the film. Thirdly, I was also very curious about Takahata himself, because he is very curious and open -- he likes to explore subjects, to think about them long before talking about them. As a person, I found him very interesting.

So on several levels, I asked for their feedback, which they gave. Politely, they said, "You know, this is what we feel." Sometimes they even disagreed with each other, but they told me simply what they felt. At the end of each feedback, they would say, "So this is our opinion, but you're the director, so you decide." They didn't put pressure on me.

Sometimes they felt strongly about something. For example, they once asked me, "Are you sure you want to do that? We really liked what you did in the previous version of the storyboard." Because they trusted me so much, in return, I trusted them a lot. I listened a lot. I asked them questions. I needed to hear from them because sometimes the sheer exhaustion, the sheer relentlessness of doing a storyboard, year after year, you don't see the bigger picture.

I had very strong French producers as well. Vincent Maraval, from Wild Bunch, was with Studio Ghibli since day one. He liked the project a lot. He made comments, but they were always well-observed. Always. There was absolutely no need for him to prove or justify himself, because he's not an animation director. He had very mature suggestions about the story, and I listened to him as well.

DS: Where did the idea for this story come from?

MDDW: The story…it just came. As a child, I read a lot of fairy tales; not just the famous European ones, but also from other continents. I was fascinated by them. Later I read about Greek and Roman mythology, as well as tales from other civilizations. For me, there has always been a natural love of fables, myths and fairy tales. When I wrote the story, it became quite natural for me to go in that direction.

There was also one book that really impressed me. It is “Kwaidan,” by Lafcadio Hearn. Studio Ghibli gave me a copy. They said, "Have a look at this book. You may find it inspiring." It's basically a collection of Japanese fairy tales, which they also call ghost stories, because they're quite dark. They're very emotional and intense, very close to nature, and that inspired me. I didn't use any of the stories in that book, but I was fascinated by the feelings I felt when I read them.

Also, I could not have written The Red Turtle if I didn’t have [the luxury of] time. If I had to write it quickly, and assemble a team quickly to start making a film, I would have failed. I took a long time writing the script; there were many changes throughout the process. I listened to people’s feedback, and I brought in a co-writer at the late stage. I needed to polish certain things -- the basic story was strong, but key areas didn't flow. My co-writer, Pascale Ferran, was very strong at making everything more powerful.

DS: A feature production, especially integrating such an internationally dispersed team, is a big jump for you, much different than the world of shorts and commercials. How was the experience different?

MDDW: Yes, it was a big jump. Obviously, I knew from the moment I said "Yes, let's make a feature," that I would face many challenges very soon. During the development phase, we were quite a small team -- sometimes I was the only creative person besides the producers. But when the team arrived, when we started getting all the freelancers in from France, Belgium, Spain, Italy…a whole team from Hungary…that was a whole new ball game for me.

I'd worked on larger teams in the past as an animator, but not as a director. What I had to learn was to stop drawing, stand back, discuss all the details and guide my fellow artists. In a way, you can't talk about taste, but you can kind of talk around it, and very gradually feel that all the artists are all going towards the same goal. If you don't do that, they all go in their own preferred direction. As a director, you have to show them what the real focus is of the graphic style and the kind of acting you expect in the characters.

That was a big challenge, but also a very exciting challenge. But it was relentless. All day long, every day, every week, every month, every year. When you're not used to that, when you're mostly an animator sitting alone, sometimes in silence, for long periods, just animating by yourself or doing backgrounds, or the storyboard…to jump from that to talking non-stop with the team, that was a big jump for me.

In the beginning, I had to face fatigue in an extreme way…but gradually you get used to it. You start to get to know your team really well. Really well. We were mostly working all together in the same building, in a small town in the south of France. Then after work, we’d meet at the bistro, at the café -- sometimes on weekends too. And we all lived near the studio, within walking difference, so basically, we became a really solid team, a solid group of friends.

DS: You can’t produce this type of film successfully without that type of solidarity.

MDDW: I totally agree. It was also my aim. I feel very strongly…some features get made with a lot of tension in the team, or tension between producers and the team. The features get made in spite of that, maybe even partly because of that. That's not my way. If you have a good group of friends, you feel a certain safety in that because to be an artist means to be vulnerable.

Not only is that ideal for your own personal happiness, obviously, but it shows in the film. If you have to work together for years, you can't have friction on the team. That's a nightmare.

Of course, the artists were well-chosen. We had plenty of time to choose the freelancers -- they were experienced, they were mature. Having a really strong nucleus of people, who feel confident in their own creativity, creates a positive ambience.

DS: You worked on this film for years. When did you get that first letter from Studio Ghibli? How long did it actually take to make the film?

MDDW: The initial letter was in November 2006. I started writing, first the synopsis, then the script, in January 2007, exactly 10 years ago. The script was approved sometime after the summer that same year. Straight away I started storyboarding. Of course, by that time, I was also doing color images. Actually, we jumped through the storyboard phase and went straight to the animatic. That was completed at the very end of 2011. Then there was a year break when the producers started collecting finances, and then in 2013, we started production, ending in 2016.

All of the producers agreed -- the Japanese, the French, the studio producers, Studio Prima Linea -- that it was appropriate not to have a huge team and a shorter production period, but instead to have a smaller team and a longer production period.

DS: And how big was your team?

MDDW: I don’t have specific numbers…some assistant animators became animators, some people had to leave halfway through because they only wanted limited time on the project. I can say roughly, most of the time, we had around 12 character animators and about the same number of special effect animators who worked mostly on the surf on the beach, the shadows and the leaves moving in the rain, things like that. We had quite a small background team, about five people, on average, sometimes more, sometimes less. We had more assistant animators than animators, maybe 30 or 40.

When the film was finished, I looked at the credits and counted how many creative people worked on the film, from animators to the editor to the sound people. The total was 150 people.

DS: What type of production pipeline were you using? What tools did you use on the production?

MDDW: The animatic was done with pencil on paper, scanned into the computer, with a bit of software for secondary uses, and edited with Final Cut. We realized while making the animatic that we had two options for making the film: animation on pencil and paper, as I've always done, or use a Cintiq tablet and TVPaint animation software. We chose the second. I was a bit hesitant, because it's less intuitive, or at least initially it was for me, but many of the animators were already used to it, and many of the assistants too. It seemed more efficient too, giving us greater freedom and opportunities to make changes, especially for me as a director. And ultimately, we could not have made a film of this quality by sticking to pencil and paper.

So, on the production, we did all our drawing on Cintiq tablets. The backgrounds were drawn in charcoal on paper, literally rubbing charcoal with the flat parts of your hand, with your fingers on paper, shaping the landscape. Those were scanned. Then the lines of the backgrounds were done with pencil and paper – they were all combined and colored in Photoshop. Everything was compositing in Digital Fusion.

DS: From a story standpoint, like in your short films, there’s no dialogue and the action moves with a gentle, consistent pace. It's one thing to carry that across a 10-minute short. It’s another to carry it across an 80-minute feature. Did you ever consider having dialog, or did you always plan to tell the story without words?

MDDW: This is an important subject. I felt very strongly about the quality of silence, the quality of simplicity, the pace. I thought that would be most beautiful for this film. At the same time, I felt very strongly that this is tricky with present-day audiences who are used to faster speeds and witty dialog. My inspiration was mostly from live-action -- compared to live-action, The Red Turtle was fast, but compared to present-day animated features, The Red Turtle was slow.

The solution was for me to direct the film as much as possible in the direction that I felt best, and get lots of feedback from my colleagues sitting around me, from the producers, from my co-writer and especially from my editor. I didn't want the film to be boring and too slow. There's limited audience for that. I like action and adventure…I like suspense a lot too. I didn’t want to make a meditative film, but it had to have the best of both worlds: the extraordinary beauty of stillness and extraordinary beauty of real suspense.

In the beginning, there was dialogue in the script. Not much, just a few lines here and there, very light dialogue between the human characters, because I thought that would fit in naturally and would accentuate our empathy towards them. Also, in two instances, it would explain things a bit, when people really wanted to communicate something. Incidentally, it was clear that the animals in the film would always be real animals, and not humans in animal bodies. Obviously then, the animals would not speak, not even behave like human beings -- one very subtle exception was the little crabs on the beach that behave like crabs, but at some point, appear slightly tamed, a little bit like pets.

I felt strongly about the dialog. But in the animatic, the dialog seemed to fit intellectually, but the feeling was not right. It just felt unnatural. We experimented with different solutions. But it became less and less at some point, and then we just dropped it. It was very much Suzuki’s idea. He was the first one to say, "Why don't we just drop the dialog?" I protested; I said, "I'm not sure it will be clear enough at certain moments for the film." And he said, "We looked at it, and we think it will be clear enough. We think it can be done."

I listened and thought, "Oh damn, this is exciting." I actually really liked the idea of dropping the dialog. Not as a big statement, like "Hey guys, a film without dialogue,” but that a story can be told in a simple way. We know people can talk, but we don't have to see them talk. We see them at moments where they are quiet because they know each other so well, they can communicate just with their behavior and with the expressions on their faces.

DS: What do you hope your audience comes away with when they watch this film?

MDDW: Oh, that's a lovely question. It's not a moralistic film -- I dislike moralistic films, and certainly dislike making moralistic films, so I don't see a message in that sense. It's not an ecological message either, although in a way, it is, but it was not the intention -- I want to convey a profound respect for nature, explore that and make the film beautiful. In a way, that becomes like an ecological message, because ecology is about deep respect for nature.

While I was making the film, I asked myself the same question – I couldn't tell the exact answer, or at least not the real, deepest answer to that question. But once the film was finished, and I looked at it, I thought, "If this film makes the spectator realize how much he or she is deeply connected to nature…” not just plants and lovely animals, but deeply connected to nature, or even more so, that each of us, we are nature…if people realize their own deep connection to nature by watching this film, that would be absolutely fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. So, hopefully, the film wakes up something, on a subtle level, in the audience.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.