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No dialogue, no message

John Lui | New Delhi |

Michael Dudok de Wit, director of animated feature The Red Turtle, had a simple instruction for the artists working on his picture. “Keep it simple, but bring out the details of nature,” says the Londonbased Dutch filmmaker.

The result is a film that breaks the rules of today’s animation, rules created by the likes of Disney and Pixar, such as the one that states that main characters must stand large in the foreground and be drawn with the most detail.

In The Red Turtle, directed and co-written by de Wit, the character of the castaway on a tropical island is drawn with the same or even less detail than the rocks, trees and sea that surround him. “We could have easily drawn a tropical jungle with amazing plants and birds. But my choice was to go for a bamboo forest. Bamboo has a simplicity and beauty,” says 63-year-old de Wit on the telephone with The Straits Times from London.

The result is a film nominated in this year’s Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards, along with Zootopia, Moana (both from Disney), the American independent production, Kubo And The Two Strings, and Swiss-French stop-motion work My Life As A Zucchini. Zootopia won.

Another difference between Turtle and works such as Zootopia is that there are no talking animals or punch-lines, he notes. There is no takeaway message either. The director says he is “sensitive” to the idea of inserting messages into his films.

“I’m not sure why, maybe it’s a European thing. Zootopia is moralising. Personally, I’m not comfortable with moral messages,” he says, referring to Zootopia’s idea that one’s animal species should never determine one’s future.

After a career spent making short films and commercials, de Wit plunged into a feature film with an idea for a movie about “nature itself — the night skies, how things are born, blossom and die”.

The human cycle of life would be illustrated by a castaway and a woman, but with “no flirting or cuteness, just the simple beauty of them being shy because they don’t know how to be with each other”.

The story draws on a wealth of Western and Asian fables about marriage between a human and someone from another world, with the art done in France and Belgium. In a break with current industry tradition, except for a few elements created in 3D modelling, everything is drawn by hand.

Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata from Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, 1997; Spirited Away, 2001) consulted on the story. It was Takahata, who, in 2006, kick-started the project by approaching de Wit with the proposal that Ghibli would invest in a feature should de Wit intend to make one. Takahata admired de Wit’s Father And Daughter (2000), a wordless drama about a woman’s longing for her father and winner of the 2001 Oscar for Animated Short Film.

Takahata, who directed Ghibli works, Grave Of The Fireflies (1988) and The Tale Of Princess Kaguya (2013), considered it “very Japanese”, says de Wit. The Red Turtle was made on a relatively small budget of 10 million (S$15.2 million), with funds from Ghibli and European sources.

At first, there were scenes that contained a sprinkling of dialogue, but even that was removed during story development. “Because there is so little dialogue, when conversation appears, it comes as a shock and might pull the audience out of the film,” explains de Wit.

But he was worried that without dialogue, the audience would be in the dark about what the character was thinking and react badly. The Ghibli producers assured him that some mystery was not a problem.

“In Japan, they use mystery differently than we do in the West and they told me it was fine. It was a huge relief.”

The Straits Times/ANN