The Waterworld of Michael Dudok de Wit

In this interview Director Michael Dudok de Wit talks about the use of the waterworld, water and aquatic creatures in his film The Red Turtle and his other works. De Correspondent originally conducted this interview and published it on their website on July 21, 2016. If you can read Dutch, please click here to read the interview in its original language.

Michael Dudok de Wit labored ten years on his new, widely praised animation film about a man who washes up on an inhabited island. Water and aquatic animals are recurring themes in his works. Where does his fascination come from?

The Waterworld of Michael Dudok de Wit

Interview: The Endlessly Fascinating Waterworld of the Man Behind the Red Turtle

His short animation The Monk and the Fish was nominated for an Oscar. His short animation Father and Daughter won an Oscar. But Father and Daughter also won – actually a much greater honor – the admiration of the legendary Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. ‘Can’t you make a long film for us,’ they mailed in 2006[ref]Studio Ghibli did not work previously with a non-Japanese animator, but still pulled out – together with French film distributor Wild Bunch – millions of euros to let Dudok de Wit – together with dozens of animators – work in complete freedom on his dreamed of first long animation.[/ref]. The Red Turtle was born.

A man washes up on a tropical island. He wants to go home, but he does not succeed. There is something that stops him. A red turtle. The silent film is an audience favorite. Reviewers applauded the stylized form and philosophical-melancholic content. However, despite all the interviews I read with the spiritual father, only one question remained unanswered. Therefore I spoke with Dutch animation hero Michael Dudok de Wit[ref]Watch some commercial work by Dudok de Wit.[/ref], days after his 63rd birthday on Skype.

You let a monk chase after a fish, you let a daughter search the water for her father, you let a man wash ashore on an island with a sea turtle as his opponent – what do you have to do with that waterworld?

‘I’m not sure either why there is so much water in my works. I feel that water is very important and attractive. At the start, I listen to this feeling, then I ponder over it, and in the third stage I create the first sketches. I never had hesitations about water.‘

‘There is transparent water and mirror effect-water. In The Monk and the Fish, water is only a mirror. Graphically it’s interesting – when something moves, the reflection moves along precisely in synchronization. Consider two people who simultaneously dance on a stage[ref]Dudok de Wit can also play piano well. And he also enjoys walking along the beach[/ref]. You tell the same story, but it has become more powerful, because you see double.‘

The Waterworld of Michael Dudok de Wit

Did it start with animating the water in The Monk and the Fish?

‘No, earlier already. I’m just a waterperson, I think. When i was a teenager[ref]More about Dudok de Wit’s youth, artistic mother and turtle-animator team.[/ref], I wanted to study freshwater biology. The entire life surrounding freshwater fascinated me. I lived in the small village of Laren in het Gooi. To find aquatic animals, I went to a polder near Eemnes[ref]Not everyone has positive memories of this area. Listen to Hans Dorrestijn – De Polder Van Eemnes.[/ref]. Snails, frogs, salamanders, sticklebacks, flatworms, water fleas, single-celled organisms: I took all of them home. To aquaria and terraria in my room, and some small ponds in the garden.

And turtles?

‘Yes, I kept freshwater turtles and a land turtle. But a sea turtle – like in The Red Turtle – is something very different. Incomparable. You can regularly see freshwater turtles in ponds and canals, but a sea turtle is mysterious. If we see her, she is often alone and always disappears into the infinite. We only know that she regularly returns to the beach. Where she will lay her eggs at night with great difficulty, cover them with sand and once again disappear into the ocean. Very beautiful.‘

Why is it beautiful?

‘It sounds strange, but I can identify myself with it. Coming from the infinite, arriving at the beach, not because you like it, but because of a deep urge that you will obey. You know that you have to go to the beach, you just have to. It’s not your natural habitat, but you do it. Then you’re done with it, and disappear into the infinite once again.‘

The Waterworld of Michael Dudok de Wit

Is that how animating is for you?

‘No, that’s how I see life.‘

A beautiful theme for a film.

‘People love dolphins and whales, the big animals of the ocean, we sometimes think we can communicate with them. But a turtle has a head, arms and legs, and is able to breathe on the beach. It gives the turtle something very humane, although it’s just a reptile with a very solid shield[ref]Why do turtles actually have a shield? Read about it in The Atlantic.[/ref].‘

Is that why you used crabs? They also walk on the land.

‘There are crabs that live in the water, but the white crabs from The Red Turtle are ghost crabs, and they live on the beach. I let them fumble around under water for one scene in the film, but they drown if they’re too long in the water. What a crab does have in common with the turtle, is its shield.‘

All beasts you presented have a solid shield.

‘Haha, yes. There were tropical snails in the film, but I took them out.‘

The crabs stayed?

‘What’s important about crabs is that they’re comical by nature. They don’t have to sing songs or do a dance like you see in many cheerful animation films. And at the same time they’re a bit creepy, they walk like spiders. Small, nimble crabs that suddenly dash off sideways. We aren’t willing to touching them. But they have those cute, expressive rod-like eyes. The polarity of a bit creepy, but still lovable works out very well in the film.‘

So you fell for the real ghost crab?

‘Yes, I constantly saw them on the island La Digue[ref]Take a look at La Digue on the Lonely Planet.[/ref] in the Seychelles, and studied them for the first time. I even teased them. In my opinion they only have two objectives in life: find food and search for safety – take shelter in their hole. If a multitude of things happen to the man, woman and child in The Red Turtle, they do look at it, but their life goes on. They don’t really have a spot in the life of the man. They have an interaction, a small bond, but it’s very light and not imperative.‘

‘At first I wanted to use red crabs. On Christmas Island[ref]Watch millions of red crabs saunter over Christmas Island.[/ref] in the Indian ocean, millions of red crabs wander over the island once a year. A sea of red crabs is visually very interesting and a very extraordinary event. You won’t see it anywhere. But it simply didn’t fit together into the story, it pulled too much attention. So I returned to the plain ghost crabs.‘

The Red Turtle

And the turtle in The Red Turtle comes from the deep sea?

‘No, why?‘

Red light doesn’t reach the deep sea, so many deep sea animals are red[ref]Deep red seems like black in the sea – a good camouflage color for prey and predator.[/ref]. That way other animals are barely able to see them.

‘No, that’s not it at all. This is the first time I hear this, very interesting. Red turtles don’t exist, but red-brown ones do. This turtle had to be very different from the other turtles in the story. Graphically, she had to be conspicuous just like she stands out in the story itself as well. Until the moment of her introduction we virtually had no red in the film. And then you suddenly see the deep red color in the blue sea – a dramatic moment.‘

‘My red sea turtle is a fictional turtle, a fusion of sorts of a green sea turtle[ref]Watch a real green sea turtle.[/ref] and a hawksbill sea turtle[ref]A friendly hawksbill sea turtle.[/ref], and the spirit of a leatherback sea turtle[ref]People save a leatherback sea turtle.[/ref]. Reptiles are coldblooded, but the leatherback sea turtle is an exception. It has warm blood. Unfortunately I didn’t find its form acceptable for this film.‘

You once wanted to become a marine biologist, why didn’t you become one?

‘I didn’t have the head for it. Too dry? Perhaps I would have found my own place, starting out with freshwater and evolving to something else after that. But when I discovered the art academy I thought: now I have found what I really want. Earlier I also considered to study architecture, because I drew maps of swimming pools among other things. I had the idea of a seawater-swimming pool in which you can swim between the nature with rocks and fishes.‘

Like a tidal swimming pool[ref]BBC: ‘Bid to restore Guernsey Bathing Pools at La Vallette.’[/ref]?

‘Yes, something like that. When I grew up, there was a local public swimming pool in Laren. Full of groundwater, relatively cold and murky water. And one part of the swimming pool was an enormous pool with ducks and water lilies, separated by a fence from the other part where the people swam. I thought it was very natural, to swim in the same water as the animals.‘

‘If you make an animation film, you create a world which is closed, that lasts this amount of minutes, and that fits exactly like that on the screen. In that sense there is an clear line in my preferences. The animals in ponds and aquaria were very interesting, but the fact that they lived in isolated worlds – that aroused my interest above all.‘

The Red Turtle

Animations are your new aquaria.

‘In a sense it is, but with a film you can of course go much further. You also isolate atmospheres and feelings. Wading through the water, meeting someone under water, swimming in the big waves of the ocean – I find these incredibly strong themes, so attractive. It had to be in the film.‘

‘But animating the surface of the sea is almost impossible – it cannot be too realistic, or too detailed. The same applies to the infinity of the ocean. In The Red Turtle the man looks with longing at the infinite. If it had been a lake, with mountains on the other side, then the magic of the endless space would be lost.‘

‘It’s about the horizon, Graphically you have to watch out, because everything has a line in the film. Rocks have lines, humans have lines, bamboo. But when I drew a line on the horizon, because it is a division between the sky and the water, I lost the sense of distance. It suddenly became a graphic detail and no longer the infinite. Therefore the sea remained boundless. It simply has a specific blue color and the sky has a different blue color. The same goes for the clouds. If you draw lines around them, it will make the clouds heavier.‘

The Red Turtle

How did you do your research on all those water shapes?

I watched many short documentaries on YouTube as well as great sea films, such as Master and Commander by Peter Weir and The Big Blue by Luc Besson. I also sailed along with a local fisher[ref]Dudok on the beauty of turtles and the illusory vision of the blissful islands and tsunamis.[/ref] around the island La Digue. After half a day of taking water pictures I said to him: ‘I would love to meet a turtle, but it seems impossible to me‘.‘

‘The fisher anchored the boat. He said: ‘No, it is possible. Wait by the boat, there should be a turtle somewhere around here.‘ I thought it was very strange that he knew that out of the blue. Because the closest land was hundreds of meters away. But he swam away, further and further, until he was a dot in the distance. I thought: see, he cannot find her.‘

‘Eventually he returned. Too bad, nice try. Only when he was close to me, I saw him holding a turtle in his hands that he swum behind with his flippers. He released the turtle in front of me, just below the surface. I drifted motionlessly under water to see her well. She wasn’t that big really, fifty or sixty centimeters I think, but I found her big enough.‘

‘I looked and she looked back. I wanted to study her from all sides, but when I tried to swim around her, she constantly turned towards me. She didn’t want to lose sight of me. That was a very beautiful moment.‘

So, in The Red Turtle, when the red turtle incisively looks at the man on his raft for the first time from the water – that was actually your own experience. That’s what they apparently do.

‘Apparently that’s what they do, precisely, and that’s all that you need.‘


De Correspondent



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