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Going under the shell of Cannes’ animated sensation ‘The Red Turtle’

A still from the Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit's film "The Red Turtle."
(Touchwood PR)

The opportunity to make a feature film is, for most directors, the ultimate grail, a pearl without price, but for Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, it’s always been an offer he felt he had to refuse. Until he couldn’t.

The 62-year old Dudok de Wit, a Dutch filmmaker based in London, is not just any short-film animator. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award in that category and took home the Oscar in 2001 for his emotional “Father and Daughter.”

“When I direct a short, I do all the elements myself: the design, the backgrounds, everything, I don’t have to justify or explain, I just do it,” the filmmaker says. “With features there are always discussions, and that really puts me off. And I was not ready for the struggle of raising money.”

A thoughtful man with a quiet, reserved air, Dudok de Wit arrived at Cannes with two things he didn’t expect: an infection that led to a bandage over his right eye, and a dazzling animated feature, “The Red Turtle,” which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section, earning exceptional early notices and a U.S. distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics.

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A gorgeous fable about a man shipwrecked on an uninhabited island whose life is changed by his encounters with the enormous titular character, “Red Turtle” is not only visually stunning, its meditative concerns with the rhythms of the natural world and the mysteries and wonders of ordinary life are hard to put into words. A difficulty the director is all too familiar with.

 

Michael Dudok de Wit, director of the animated feature "The Red Turtle" showing at the Cannes Film Festival.
Michael Dudok de Wit, director of the animated feature “The Red Turtle” showing at the Cannes Film Festival.
(Patricia Williams / for The Times )

“I know better what you mean than you realize,” Dudok de Wit says. “The story itself is simple and linear, and if you describe it you run the risk of giving it all away. But the real reason the film is hard to talk about is that it has a finer quality — the word timelessness seems appropriate — but as soon as you describe that it sounds banal.”

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Another key challenge “The Red Turtle” presents is that though there are numerous sounds, it is a film without dialogue. “It starts with one protagonist who doesn’t talk to himself, so no dialogue,” the director explains. “But there was the distinct danger that people would feel uncomfortable, that it would be too much mystery.”

Given all these potential difficulties and his overall lack of interest in features, why did Dudok de Wit end up making this one? He received a truly unrefusable offer in the form of a letter from the great Japanese director Isao Takahata offering him the chance to be the first non-Japanese animator to make a film for the legendary Studio Ghibli. “His participation,” Dudok de Wit says, “meant I must make a feature.”

Once the director said yes, he realized he had a potential idea “in the back of my mind. I’d been thinking about a man alone on a tropical island since childhood, an empty physical world to explore.

“I did some research and, honestly, when you are alone on a tropical island it’s not a paradise at all. The sky is not always blue, you are falling ill, going crazy with loneliness, you just want to go home. But it’s also a way of thinking about yourself when you are not distracted by social layers.”

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Though that idea remained the core, getting from it to the finished film took nine years. Once the director planned it out, “I discovered the story had weaknesses, it was losing strength at several spaces, so I spent a lot of time sorting that out. Pascale Ferran [a top French screenwriter] came in, and she was a great help.”

Another reason “Red Turtle” took so long is that Dudok de Wit opted for working with “a small team over a long period rather than a large team over a short period.

“I’m not a director who says ‘now we do this and that,’ I’m an exploring kind of director, and if you go in the wrong direction with a large group the losses are huge. We needed to be in one place, under the same roof, so we could explore and learn together.”

One of the examinations that took time was “The Red Turtle’s” knockout use of color, a palette influenced by Hasui Kawase, an early 20th century Japanese artist who worked in the tradition of Hokusai.

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Another area in which investigations were necessary was how the film would be physically created. Dudok de Wit knew it would be hand-drawn, but instead of using paper and pencil he ended up using a Cintiq, a digital pen that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor. The only thing animated with a computer was that enormous turtle, to keep it from wobbling on screen.

“The Red Turtle’s” chief animator, Jean-Christophe Lie, called Dudok de Wit “one of the greatest perfectionists I’ve met,” and the director admits to the charge.

“It’s a virtue that can immediately turn into a huge problem,” he says. “It’s ‘can it be even better’ versus ‘can we afford it?’ It’s painful, it creates a restlessness, you never feel satisfied. I ended up working longer hours and on weekends, that’s how it is.”

Now that the film is finished and a success, how does Michael Dudok de Wit feel? “The perfectionist is still not happy,” he says, smiling. “But on the whole, I am more than happy.”

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