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.