Friday, January 27, 2017

Michael Dudok de Wit and The Red Turtle

Michael Dudok de Wit's film The Red Turtle is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as of January 27.  Some Sheridan animation students and I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Michael Dudok de Wit when he was in Toronto to publicize the film last September as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

After the success of his Oscar winning short Father and Daughter, Dudok de Wit was approached by Studio Ghibli and asked if he had a feature idea that they could produce for him.  He told us that when he was a student, just getting laughs was enough but as he's gotten older, he wants his films to be built on more substantial emotions.

Creating the story reel was a case of  two steps forward and one step backwards.  His feeling is that without a good storyboard, it's impossible to make a good film.  He sought out feedback from the Ghibli producers and praised Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata for their input.  Their goal was to be as ego-free as possible and just look for the best idea.

In creating the story reel, he felt he benefited from working with an editor.  He said that rhythms and flow are far more important in a feature than in a short and the editor, who regularly cuts live action, was able to help.

For the production, done entirely in Europe with TV Paint software, live action reference was shot.  There was no rotoscoping, but as Dudok de Wit was interested in realistic motion, various gestures from the live action were used.

Dudok de Wit's preference for long shots has to do with his interest in the environment the characters live in.  He also prefers to communicate using a character's whole body.  He talked about how subtle human expressions are and how difficult it is to duplicate that subtlety in animation, especially when you're trying to communicate to a crew.  Therefore, long shots work best.

He worked 80-100 hour weeks because he wanted the film to be as good as possible.  He's too close to the film to know if he wants to make another feature or if he will return to shorts.

(There are spoilers below.)

I have mixed feelings about the film.  In some ways, it reminds me of Pete Docter's work at Pixar in that Dudok de Wit is excellent at evoking emotions, particularly those that come from familial relationships, but like Docter he seems to have problems with story logic.

Fantasies are delicate things.  The audience must understand what is possible and what's isn't in a story in order to believe the film's events.  The opening of The Red Turtle is brutally realistic.  A man is lost at sea, being battered by stormy waves with nothing to hold onto.  Once he reaches an island, the film maintains the realism.  The flora and fauna are real and the man's struggle to leave the island is completely believable.  He tries several times and each time his raft is destroyed by a red turtle.  There is no hint at the turtle's motivation for this.  As the film shows baby turtles hatching on the beach, it makes more sense that the turtle would be glad to get the man off the island as his presence might threaten the turtle's spawn.  When the turtle comes to the beach to lay eggs, the man is justifiably angry at the creature who has foiled his escape. He flips the turtle onto its back and it appears to die.

Earlier in the film, the man dreamed or hallucinated the presence of a string quartet on the island.  It's clear to the audience that this is not real.  The man himself realizes it.  So when the dead turtle turns into a woman, the audience has not been prepared for the possibility that the transformation could be real.  The earlier dreams led me to believe that the man was once again hallucinating.  But within the film, it most certainly is real.

The lack of preparation for this moment took me out of the film.  I kept waiting for some sort of explanation after the fact, but there was none.  The turtle's destruction of the rafts and the man's murder of the turtle in no way suggest the eventual transformation or relationship.  For me, the film never recovered from this.

Visually, the film is lovely.  There are bravura sequences of the storm at sea and a later tsunami.  The environment of the island is portrayed in great detail.  There are moments of powerful suspense and there is comedy provided by a population of crabs.  The musical score is lovely and emotionally evocative.  The bulk of the film is about the loving relationship between the man and the woman, the birth of their child, and their life as a family on the island as they deal with the unpredictable natural world.  But the flaws in the first act are never addressed.

Another issue is the lack of dialogue.  I have no problem with a film that doesn't have talking, but the characters do yell.  The director has given them voices, yet they say nothing intelligible to each other.  At the TIFF screening, Dudok de Wit said that they tried writing dialogue for key moments but couldn't find words that seemed to fit the style of the film.  As the film relies heavily on sound effects, he could not have natural sound and keep his characters completely mute.  But by allowing them to make sounds yet not talk, he's created an artificial constraint that doesn't work in my view.

There are other inconsistencies that are minor, but still forced me out of the story.  The man builds a small shelter to protect the woman from the sun before she wakes for the first time.  Yet when they have a child later, the family builds no shelter.  There are sudden, heavy downpours on the island, yet the family seems to have no problem being constantly exposed to the elements.

After the tsunami, the family burns all the uprooted trees.  This is the only time fire is present in the film.  The family never builds a fire for light, warmth or to cook with.  As shelter and fire are not present except for these two occasions, it is every bit as odd as the characters yelling but not talking.  They have the knowledge, but don't use it.

Feature scripts are difficult.  There's no shortage of films whose scripts don't work.  For a director who is moving from shorts to features, there are many new challenges in terms of story, characterization and pacing.  Dudok de Wit spoke a great deal about using intuition to find what worked for him.  And while his intuition has created a film with excellent parts, it failed him in constructing the whole.

While Dudok de Wit was undecided about future films, I hope that he makes more features as he has much to contribute.  The film has great sequences and strong emotional moments.  It broadens animated features' range and nudges the medium a bit more towards adult content.  I'm glad the film received an Oscar nomination and hope that it makes the film profitable and motivates Dudok de Wit to continue.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that the film was produced by Ghibli but the production was actually done in Europe. What's the story behind that? Does Ghibli no longer have access to the animation talent, or was de Wit's sensibilities more European and so working with a European crew made more sense?

Mark Mayerson said...

I don't know for certain, but I'd guess that the reasons were economic. There were seven production companies involved. I'm sure that most, if not all, of them brought money to the production.

Matthew said...

Mark, where do you think folks like Pete Docter & Dudok de Wit, filmmakers with obvious talent and unique voice, are going wrong with their films in attempting to make use of the animation medium & the strengths of its storytelling techniques? Could this be substance for another essay/lecture like your one on "Don't Pitch to a Buyer, Pitch to the Audience”?

THE POWER OF ANIMATION; is that you can show the audience things they cannot see in standard film. Animation can make metaphor REAL in the context of a creative visual filter for a story. As an animations staging & visuals become less literal, its content is freed to become more emotionally specific. Metaphors & thoughts expressed using the beauty of visual art & illustration is not something that can simply be copied from reality. It’s cultivated from the context of the director & viewers mind(s) understanding visual association to convey thoughts/meaning. Animation enhances this by creating specific pictorial representation to do so. Representation of the real world above recreating of the real world. Every expression, whether it concerns music, literature or visual art, it’s all about sending a message to the outside world. Making another person aware of an inner emotion, shared experience or striking idea. To make a personal thought visible to others in a cognitively sensual way, tickling their minds-eye/interest, and trying to communicate something in a way so that they are not uncertain about it from an emotional point of view. The issue that makes invention a creative challenge is that there are multiple basic concepts about your fiction an audience needs to grasp before the rest of it beings to unfold. Without this you get uncertainty to a story. We often forget the seemingly simple and stupidly direct “realities” that you need to establish, in order for your grand fantasy concepts & creative viewpoints to actually make sense and be communicated successfully. This balanced against the Tyranny of trying to be concise, and simply being unable to give every context necessary in a single statement or moment in a limited amount of screen time. In trying to create, do or even say anything you have a limited scope of time & resources. Trying to say, point out or cover everything in a fiction so that it somehow matches with the scrutiny of a real world context is irrational & restrictive for a filmmaker. To paraphrase you & others: “What I hope to get from a film is an emotional experience. Despite logic flaws, if the film is emotionally satisfying throughout it can maintain audience cognition/reasoning. But the undoing of this is if too much happens by authorial fiat, where it doesn't correspond to any internal logic of the film.” The problem in creative fiction is an internal logic often becomes the extrapolation of any fictional concept or device taken into the real world and beyond the context of the silver screen that it was intended for. How do you avoid a level of this creeping into a story that isn't set in a pure & directly relatable reality like our own, aka the fantasy setting? Can we nail down what aspects make this successful vs not? Below are some great videos for context on the strengths of the animated medium & inspiration for this line of enquiry asking what you might suggest the strengths of the animation medium are, and how to navigate them.

Andy Saladino on Isao Takahata & the filter of Animation & Roger Ebert on Grave of The Fireflies & Animation & Deus-Ex-Machina & Emotions by Brian McDonald, Author of invisible ink

chris said...

Doctor's films get away with all kinds of logic problems, but who cares? Would a person prefer that UP didn't include talking dogs or a knock down-drag out fight between a hero and villain with a combined age of over 160 years? Of course not. Animation can be so appealing, so magical, that an audience will overlook logic flaws.

But that doesn’t let an animated film maker off the hook.

A truly successful movie should satisfy the needs of both the heart AND the head. Mr. Doctor's films may be chock full of fun, but they don't FEEL completely right. To enjoy them, you often have to give the film makers a pass.

But why should you? When you plunk down your 15 bucks for a ticket, don’t you deserve to see something that works on an artistic AND intellectual level? Dudok de Wit says they "...couldn't find words that seemed to fit the style of the film." This is because his movie only appeals to the audience's emotions. As soon as you introduce any instance of brain power into the story, the film falls apart.

If the movie did include dialogue, the first thing the adult man would say to the turtle-woman would be "What the hell? Are you a turtle or aren't you? And our kid, what exactly is he? If you can talk to turtles, please tell them to go away and find someone who can GET US THE HELL OFF THIS ISLAND!"

This movie has been described by the press as “a gentle fable” and “a profoundly simple meditation.” But it’s really just attractive, well animated gobbledygook. It had no point, and worse yet, put the audience in the position to try and interpret what the filmmakers were trying to say! After seeing a movie made by professionals, certainly an audience deserves to leave a theater with a few answers… not just a bunch of questions.