Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit is a firmly established maestro of animation, having won an Oscar for best animated short Father and Daughter in 2000. Yet when Studio Ghibli approached him to direct their next feature film, he was still starstruck.
“This is a dream, when you admire a studio so much and they contact you asking to work together,” says Michael. “I love anime, Studio Ghibli films and others, and Japanese culture. When they asked me, I wanted to know why they chose me, and it was on the basis of my short films, which – this is unbelievable – resonated with them. They described my work as being, in a way, very Japanese. I found out that Isao Takahata even uses my short films to teach at the University of Tokyo.”
Two of Studio Ghibli’s co-founders, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata, asked Michaël to propose a story and style, that would be co-produced by Ghibli with Wild Bunch. The result is The Red Turtle, a moving, beautiful tale with no dialogue, about a shipwrecked man who meets a giant red turtle. Intentionally it has a subtle Ghibli air, but is distinct from the studio’s previous films.
“It’s highly unusual, because I’m the first non-Japanese director on a Studio Ghibli film. They said “it’s not a Japanese film, it’s not supposed to look like a Japanese film”. That seemed natural, because they knew it would be an imitation and I wouldn’t necessarily be very good at it! The Japanese literally have a different way of animating, a lower amount of drawings on average but the drawings are of very high quality. Lip syncing has a different rhythm. They have a relationship with simplicity that is different from ours in the west.
“They also have a different relationship with nature,” Michael continues. “It’s a deeply felt, cultural thing, and it’s not totally alien. I’d say, in the west, we’ve lost our animalistic relationship with nature, we see nature as matter, and as lovely animals you can put in zoos. They see nature as more alive. Of course this is extreme generalisation, there are many exceptions.”
With free rein on the style of animation, Michael couldn’t help but be influenced by the studio’s aesthetics but also avoided directly following their techniques. “I was influenced by Japanese sensibility by osmosis, so if there’s something in The Red Turtle that reminds us of the far east that’s because I love the beauty of it. But the purpose of this exercise is to have a fresh angle, something different.”
Michaël explains he purposely didn’t examine the process of making Studio Ghibli films, but instead drew inspiration from films with a similar story such as The Blue Lagoon and Swiss Family Robinson to analyse how they dealt with the subject, their colours and use of timing. The Red Turtle is almost entirely hand-drawn animation with some CG for the turtles, simply because it would take too long and appear “clunky” due to the detail on the turtles’ bodies, and how they move in water.
The backgrounds were drawn in charcoal and pencil on paper, “hence the texture”, then scanned and manipulated in Photoshop.
“To anyone making a film influenced by Japan, but not mechanically copying Japan, I’d give this one obvious piece of advice: see what you love and love what you see in Japanese culture and animation, and just be inspired. We never looked at a scene and scrutinised the technique – there are subtle differences.”
On working with the renowned studio founders, Michaël says there were, of course, cultural differences. “There were moments where I wasn’t sure I understood what they really meant, I had to learn how they reason, their etiquette, but the interpreter helped a lot. We had a strong basis, with the maturity and wisdom of their work, so we didn’t need to justify or prove ourselves. There was mutual respect.”
The Red Turtle was previously released in Japan, the US and France, and earned an Oscar nomination for best animated feature film. It is released in the UK today (26 May).