The Red Turtle and the Miracle Behind Its Oscar Nomination

Director Michael Dudok de Wit talks with us about his long road with Studio Ghibli to the Oscars in his animated feature The Red Turtle.

A man stranded alone on a desert island might not seem like the most enticing or evocative subject matter for an animated film, but Michael Dudok de Wit’s animated feature film, The Red Turtle, has caught the eye of many in the world of animation, starting with Japan’s Studio Ghibli and producer Toshio Suzuki, who chose de Wit as their first non-Japanese animator with whom to work.

Already having won an Oscar for his earlier 2001 short film, “Father and Daughter,” de Wit garnered his third nomination for The Red Turtle last month as one of this year’s true underdogs.

Den of Geek sat down with de Wit recently to talk extensively about the journey of getting his first animated feature made with a far smaller than normal crew and budget than most of the larger studio films that The Red Turtle will be going up against on Feb. 26.

The entirely dialogue-free film begins simply with an unnamed man arriving on the island in a storm, thought his many attempts to escape our thwarted by a large red sea tortoise that destroys his hand-built rafts. The man soon learns there’s more to the tortoise, as the film introduces a fantasy aspect that follows the remainder of the man’s life with the tortoise as a companion.

De Wit’s partnership with Studio Ghibli came about in a sudden and completely unexpected way for the Dutch born filmmaker. “They’d seen my shorts and we met briefly, socially, when I was in Japan. I met with [Hayao] Mayazaki with Suzuki and [Isao] Takahata [Ghibli co-founder], and they sent me a letter out of the blue just saying, ‘If you think of making a feature, we’d be interested in producing it together with Wild Bunch, a distributor in Paris.’

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“Of course, I had some questions about whether they wanted me to come to Japan and make the film there and do they have a story? But no, they said I should propose a story and style. That’s how it happened, totally out of the blue. It was really, really shocking.”

De Wit was even more surprised when he learned he wasn’t one of a hundred Western animators approached to work with the studio either, as Suzuki saw something special in de Wit’s work that made them want to get involved with something longer form.

“I had the seed of an idea and it was the castaway on a desert island, something that’s been used a lot in the last 20 years, of course, but still strong enough to give it a whole new angle. That was enough to start, just having that idea,” he says.

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Having a completely dialogue-free film was not part of the original plan, however.  “During the development, I had dialogue in the script, just a few short sentences and only when people talked to each other—he’s not talking to himself. I felt dialogue was needed for empathy with the characters and some points for clarification of motivation. Intellectually it worked, but it didn’t feel right, and I thought it was my writing, so I had a co-writer helping me. In the end, we just dropped the dialogue, and then it became interesting.”

Explaining that audiences would be able to understand that he’d been alone for so long that dialogue was unnecessary, de Wit adds, “So there’s already some kind of non-dialogue introduction, and the audience finds it easier to accept that it’s not needed when there are more people. For me, the film conveys the fact that the people could talk if they want to, it’s just that you don’t see them talking, but you can sense they can talk off-screen to each other. It’s not an experiment about non-dialogue—it should feel natural—but the absence of dialogue makes the story slightly more like a fable or a myth. It gives the story a slightly more timeless quality, and that’s intentional.”

Putting together a creative team was one of the film’s bigger challenges, as de Wit had to find freelancers in the European animation pool able to work in his distinctive style. This apparently was something that worried Studio Ghibli, as there were concerns that the more independent European style would differ too greatly from the commercial style that dominates animation markets. Hence, de Wit’s explanation for getting his animation team up to speed.

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“Firstly, I did most of the storyboarding and thousands of drawings to establish the style immediately, because lots of my drawings are very finished, not just rough sketches. Then I did lots of development drawings in color, and crucially—and it was a condition that the producers immediately agreed with—I was in the same building as the animators. It’s a tradition to split the film into bits and pieces and send it to different animation studios all over the world, but we only did that with one studio, so we had a satellite studio in Hungary.

“Basically, the main animators and background artists, the core team, we were all in the same building, so there was lots of feedback from each other. A lot of this film was still about exploration—we had to explore the style, we had to explore the poetry of the story, etc. To do it together with the collaborators was the obvious choice.”

De Wit himself previously had some experience with Western animation, having done some work on Disney’s original Beauty and the Beast before production was moved to Disney’s Hollywood studio.

But with the entire film taking place on a single island location in Red Turtle, the director and his team created a full map of the island so they would always be consistent with the light source of where the sun is in relation to the time of day. “I wanted to be very consistent with the angle of light but also just for myself to get a feeling for the distances and how the island feels. It was never shown publically because it was only a tool.”

While The Red Turtle is mostly produced using hand-drawn animation, de Wit and his team used a variety of techniques to create the film’s distinctive almost photorealistic look. Part of it was using Cin-tiq tables, which allow the artists to literally draw on a computer screen and instantly see what their drawings will look like, while also making it feel more like drawing with a pencil. They also filmed real actors that were used as reference for the artwork to make the humans feel more realistic.

They only had a stuffed turtle they could use to help with the film’s title character, but knowing how tough it would be to animate a turtle, they decided to make an exception and break from the hand-drawn tradition. “A turtle is really difficult to animate, because it has curves and it’s a very solid creature,” he told us. “In animation, everything tends to get a bit soft and you lose the authenticity, so that was one of the few bits of animation that were done on a computer. There was just one artist who created and animated the turtle on the computer. Obviously, my brief was that it has to feel like completely part of the whole and it shouldn’t stand out as CGI animation. An expert can see that it’s computer-animated, because the movements are exquisite, but hopefully the audience doesn’t make a distinction.”

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“It is very different,” he says about the experience of bringing his first feature to various festivals, going back to last year’s Cannes. “Short films go to lots of festivals, and I’ve attended many, but short films don’t make profits. It’s a whole world where people make it for the love of filmmaking, and they often put their own money into it, so there’s lots of goodwill and an ambience of people showing their skills, rather than showing a product. A feature film is a product. It has to be released and [earn] a minimum of profit, because otherwise it would never get made. There’s a different ambience that I totally respect, and it’s healthy.

“With a feature film, I represent the film and a couple hundred people who worked on the film—some of them for years and years—and I really feel responsibility, in a pleasant way,” he elaborated. “I want the film to do well, because for me, it’s satisfying, but there are 200 people behind me who put their hearts and souls in it. In a subtle way, I feel that all the time.”

A big challenge The Red Turtle has faced so far has been taking on an oversaturated market with so many new movies being released every place the film has opened, whether it’s France, Japan or the United States. “Even if the film is good, it can disappear in a totally unnoticed way, and that’s a big worry, obviously,” he opines.  That was one of the big reasons why they deliberately finished the movie in time to bring it to last year’s Cannes in hopes of being selected might put the movie over the threshold and get it more attention.

All of that hard work has paid off though with the film receiving one of five nominations in this year’s Oscars, facing three bigger releases, two from Disney and one from Portland, Oregon’s LAIKA stop-motion studios.

“It’s a miracle, because there was so much competition this year, and it’s an indie from Europe—it’s not an obvious choice,” he admits. “The Academy members really enjoy their Californian features, so I was really hoping the film would be nominated, but it was still a big challenge that it might not get in.”

The Red Turtle is now playing in select cities, and you can see how it fares on Oscar night, which is Sunday, Feb. 26.

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This article previously ran on Feb. 15, 2017.