Michael Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle” manages to avoid a lot of conflict in telling its animated 2D cycle of life story. However, the face-to face encounter with the eponymous creature represents an early dramatic high point.
Each time the castaway tries to leave the island in his raft, the turtle attacks it, until the third time they finally meet. “It’s not casually being annoying in attacking the raft — it’s clearly motivated, which is really interesting,” de Wit told IndieWire. “It has eye contact with the man. And then the turtle manages to destroy the raft, the man falls in the water, and he’s very uncomfortable being in the water with the turtle. But the turtle just looks intently at him and just swims away.”
He added, “In fact, I talked about that moment with [Isao] Takahata of Studio Ghibli [the co-producer] and also with my co-writer, Pascale [Ferran]. She said the turtle should look threatening but it’s not going for full aggression. It just doesn’t want him to leave the island.”
In an earlier version, Takahata recommended more magical music from composer Laurent Perez Del Mar, but instead the director chose a slightly darker theme. “It was important to create a moment of strong hesitation,” de Wit continued. “The man is in awe of its beauty and its size and its presence. The turtle, by the way, is one of the few elements that is animated using CGI. It’s a better tool for that kind of creature.
“First of all, it’s incredibly hard to animate slowly and you have to spend a lot of time on it not to appear wobbly,” he said. “And, secondly, the creature has a complex pattern on its carapace and legs. Without it, the creature would look completely flat, and, with it, it would be an impossible task to animate by hand. And the Belgian animator who did the turtle, in his spare time, dives in caves, and understands water and the natural movements of the creature.”
When the castaway eventually takes its aggression out on the turtle, de Wit was concerned about the tone of the violence. He consulted with both his writer and Studio Ghibli and they were fine with it. “I’m not like that — I’m actually a vegetarian,” de Wit said. “And Pascale was shocked by it but said it was balanced by its remorse afterwards.”
Handling the water, which was also CG, was another difficult challenge for the animators at Prima Linea in Paris and Angouleme. “Water has always been a challenge because it’s so lively, it’s so special,” de Wit said. “And to really express water you have to animate like mad. So we have to stylize it, but the moment you over stylize, you lose the magic of the water.”
“To me, water has two things: it’s opaque and it’s mysterious,” the filmmaker continued. “It has a closed surface where you can’t see underneath. The film used that a lot. Sometimes it has reflective qualities. And when you see the man moving and you have a mirror image moving in synchronization, it’s very pleasant, a bit like seeing two dancers in one. But unlike my shorts, this film didn’t explore that too much. There’s also crystal clear, transparency underwater, which is very attractive. So the film explores the magic of floating in what feels like empty space.”
One of “The Red Turtle’s” many charms is its fairy tale aspect. It contains a magical transformation that turns the narrative into a sublime study of rebirth and harmonious relationships.
“For me, the turtle symbolizes being at ease in infinity,” de Wit explained. “It doesn’t stay near the coast, it goes away thousands of miles, alone, peacefully, and may not come back for a year or two. That’s where she belongs, so when she leaves the ocean that’s only because she absolutely has to.
He added, “But, at the same time, there’s the unconscious and how our mind plays tricks on us beyond belief and how rich our dreams are. Once you leave your comfort zone, you’re woken up to reality that things are much more fluid than we think. So I came from that place when I wrote the story.”