Michael Dudok de Wit probably would have been happy to continue making short films forever. But in 2006, something happened that changed everything — or at least the next 10 years — for the Dutch-born, London-based animator, who had won an Oscar for his 2000 short “Father and Daughter.” Impressed by that film, Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation powerhouse known for such acclaimed features as Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” invited de Wit to get his feet wet in feature filmmaking.
The result of that decade-long collaboration, the first time a non-Japanese filmmaker has produced a feature for Ghibli, is “The Red Turtle,” a surreal, wordless parable about a castaway on a desert island that was just nominated for an animated-feature Oscar. On the day before the nominations came out, the 63-year-old filmmaker spoke by phone about his creative process, along with the perks — and prospects — of winning prizes.
Q: Studio Ghibli first contacted you — out of the blue, by email — because they liked “Father and Daughter.” Is there a Japanese aesthetic to “The Red Turtle,” or is it a hybrid?
A: I’ve looked at that question a lot, but I pick up influences by osmosis. Whenever we animators see something that inspires us, it becomes part of us. I’ve been looking at oriental art since my student days [at West Surrey College of Art], when I suddenly discovered that I loved the Eastern sense of emptiness. Of course, we have negative space in the West, too, but in the Far East they are particularly sensitive to that. I asked Studio Ghibli, “Do you want me to give you a film in the style of your films?” They said, “No, no, we want you to propose a style.” They would have discouraged me if I tried to be like Japan. They admire other artists: Russian animator Yuri Norstein, Aardman Animations.
Q: Despite some moments of humor from the crabs the castaway encounters, “The Red Turtle” is not a whimsical film, or even a film for children. It’s beautiful, yes, but there’s also a darkness to it. Instead of me telling you what it’s about, why don’t you tell me?
A: Please, you tell me. There are lots of little jokes — well, not jokes. There’s no dialogue. That was not my aim. It would have been hard to watch if there were not tiny moments of light humor, especially from the crabs. My aim was to keep the animals very animal-like, not humans beings in animal bodies. Crabs are naturally funny, when you see them in real life. There are moments of stillness, of serenity in the film. It was a very hard quality to convey. At the same time, you’re going to make a boring film — unless it’s experimental — without contrasting that serenity with emotional moments and very intense action.
Q: The story takes a sharp left turn at one point. I hesitate to say too much, but where did you come up with the idea for the moment of violence that leads to the story’s central transformation?
A: It’s a really nice surprise in the story. There have been journalists who have described that moment in great detail, so goodbye to the surprise. I was inspired by fairy tales, including Japanese fairy tales, of course, and Greek mythology. I didn’t search far. What is unusual is that, at the moment of the transformation, there is no sign warning us that we are going to a surreal area, or a magical or mythological one. We had to write it very carefully, because it’s a shock. I say “we” because I wrote it originally, but my co-writer, Pascale Ferran, when she saw that she said, “That’s a bit too shocking.”
At some point, the producers in Japan sent me a book called “Kwaidan” by Lafcadio Hearn. It’s well known for different film versions, and it’s basically a collection of fairy tales from Japan. The book calls them “ghost stories” because they are dark and they are very much about the relationship between humans and nature. I didn’t use any of the stories literally, but the energy — and the darkness of them — was very interesting.
Q: Studio Ghibli gave you a lot of freedom, but also guidance and, I assume, help with the animation. In what other ways did they contribute?
A: They gave me advice — which I asked for — very hesitantly, because they were conscious of not influencing me. They knew that someone in my position, especially with a first feature, was vulnerable. I wasn’t saying, “Okay, guys, trust me. I know exactly what I want.” It was more like I was exploring, searching, searching and hoping it will work. But to correct you, they didn’t provide me with any animators. Actually, I asked them “Can I have some Japanese animators?” because they have some megastars. They said, in the beginning, the film won’t be made in Japan. It was a co-production with England, because I live there; France’s Wild Bunch, an obvious choice because France has a high concentration of top animators for this kind of project; and Belgium’s Belvision.
Q: Aside from the 30 or 40 animators who worked on this film, how much actual drawing did you do over the decade it took to make it?
A: I spent a year and half writing the script, and adding some color drawings to set the style. Once that was approved and everybody was happy, I started the pencil-sketch storyboard and spent years working on that. That was quite heavy to draw because I did most of it myself, where usually you get the team doing it. After this phase, that’s when I handed it over to [the animation team]. We worked in the same building, often in the same room. I kept an eye on the style and design. While they were doing the animation and backgrounds, I did some minor retouches, just because I could. I didn’t touch the animation. The application of my drawing skills was quite limited.
Q: The look is less cartoony and more realistic than your earlier work. I know you visited the Seychelles islands to gather visual reference material. How long were you there, and what did that visit contribute?
A: I was there 10 days, just walking around and taking lots of photos, but years after I had worked on the storyboard. That’s why I could do my research more precisely. I knew what I had, and I knew what I needed to find. Funnily enough, the romantic image of me sitting down with a sketchpad didn’t apply. I wanted to get ideas about the feeling of being there. How does it feel when the rain falls? How does it feel to walk in the forest, the surf, the lagoon and all that? I chose the Seychelles for one particular reason — although any tropical island would have been inspiring — but the Seychelles have ancient granite rocks that are particularly beautiful, very round. You want to look at them all day. I made the artistic choice to go more realistic than cartoony very early on. It was ambitious because it’s one of the most difficult styles. Most animators enjoy really cartoony styles and can take great artistic liberties, because it’s all stretched or squashed.
Q: Did you also choose the Seychelles because it’s known for its giant marine turtles?
A: I did not. I thought, “Surely I won’t be that lucky to meet any marine turtles.” And I was that lucky. I found one on the beach just finishing laying eggs and one swimming in the ocean. I asked a local fisherman, “Find me a beach with turtles,” and he did. He said, “No problem. I know where they are.” But I also had enough information from the Internet: umpteen, umpteen videos made by professionals and amateurs. And yet, when I saw the real one in the sea and I swam with it, I picked up some details that are included in the film.
Q: Did winning the Oscar for “Father and Daughter” change your life?
A: It did, but not that much. I can imagine with actors, it changes the salaries they can command, but I continued being an anonymous artist, applying for money to make shorts. It’s really difficult, and my next film will only be selected on its strength. I would stand in the same queue as everyone else to get money for the next short film. It changed, on one level, in that I was invited to make commercials in the United States for AT&T and United Airlines. They asked me because they liked “Father and Daughter.”
Q: And if you should win an Oscar again for “Turtle,” as some are predicting, how do you imagine that your life will change?
A: I don’t know. In the next few years, I hope there may still be some room for a really nice surprise in the story to come.
The Red Turtle (PG, 80 minutes). At area theaters.