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‘The Red Turtle’: How Michael Dudok de Wit Made a Studio Ghibli-Inspired Animated Contender

"The Red Turtle" director has made a sublime cycle of life 2D movie that combines the best of European and Japanese sensibilities.

"The Red Turtle"

“The Red Turtle”


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The Red Turtle” represents the year’s best example of global animation. Director Michael Dudok de Wit is Dutch, it was co-produced by Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli and it was made by French animation studio Prima Linea. The result a sublime cycle of life Oscar contender, which “uses time to relate the absence of time, like music can enhance silence,” according to de Wit, Oscar winner for the “Father and Daughter” short.

READ MORE: How ‘The Red Turtle’ Became an Animated, Cycle of Life Oscar Contender

“It was a priority to find a beautiful balance between being sensitive, pure and simple and making an entertaining film,” de Wit told IndieWire. “I didn’t want it to be too artsy or mysterious. And I used Studio Ghibli films as a big inspiration. They have lots of characters and come from a very deep place and yet they are accessible to millions of spectators, especially in Japan and in France.”

A man shipwrecked on a lush tropical island inhabited by crabs, turtles and birds tries to escape by building and rebuilding a raft, continually wrecked by a mysterious red turtle, which transforms into a beautiful red-headed woman who becomes his companion and soul mate. Eventually, they have a son together.

De Wit said the idea of the turtle came quickly as a peaceful, solitary and majestic sea creature, which conveys a quasi-immortality. The deep red color was intense and its mysterious presence was well-handled, thanks to further inspiration from Ghibli.

"The Red Turtle"

“The Red Turtle”

From the start, though, Ghibli gave the director the freedom to make an original feature in his own style in France. “When I first met them I had written most of the story and I sat around a table with them in Tokyo to tell the story and to see what the next step would be,” de Wit said. “And that was with [producer Toshio] Sazuki, and [director Isao] Takahata. They had their opinions and they felt quite strongly about them, but they were always insistent that it’s my decision, it’s my responsibility.”

However, Takahata recommended that the woman have a more dominant presence. While de Wit agreed that she was too mysterious, he didn’t want to make her too strong-willed yet found more assertive qualities with the help of co-writer Pascale Ferran.

Still, it was difficult dealing with a story devoid of conflict. “That’s challenging to express having a harmonious time,” de Witt said. “So, to solve that, I drew different kinds of sequences, all kinds of activities. And we played around with the order. And we said music would help, it would create the feeling that time passes. But it had to be visually strong enough.”

He added, “We ended up by keeping it quite short. It could have been longer, we could’ve shown much more how playful they are, how the little boy explores things and I had the whole sequence where he develops a phobia of water and doesn’t want to touch the water lapping on the beach.”

"The Red Turtle"

“The Red Turtle”

To aid the animators with natural performance, de Wit had local actors dress up as the castaways and filmed them for reference. This provided accurate proportion and perspective, form-fitting clothing and quirky gestures they never could’ve invented on their own.

But the director had trouble finding the right model to convey for his male castaway. Toshiro Mifune from “The Seven Samurai” was adequate but not ideal. Then de Wit happened on a performance by French actor/acrobat James Thiérrée and he was blown away. He even convinced him to perform for the animators for one day.

READ MORE: ‘The Red Turtle’ Trailer: Amphibians Are Louder Than Words in Studio Ghibli’s Latest Animated Offering

When it came to animating a tidal wave, however, there was scant video reference available of tsunamis. But de Wit was able to convey just the right stylization to the animator with emphasis on shadow to help create a sense of mass: “It’s not a big vertical wave, it’s frothy, it creeps on you and the power is its volume. In this film it was all-hand animated but with recycled parts,” de Wit added.

“The Red Turtle’s” both linear and circular, and unafraid to embrace mortality. But one of de Wit’s favorite moments occurs when the man and woman first meet.

“It’s quiet and not overly romantic on a tropical island with a starry sky,” de Wit said. “You follow the woman, not behind her, but you stay next to her. That’s acting with very fine music. I love it every time I see it.”

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