Interview: Michael Dudok de Wit on directing Studio Ghibli's new film The Red Turtle

Dutch-British illustrator and animator Michael Dudok de Wit was asked by Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli (known for anime feature films Spirited Away, Ponyo and The Wind Rises) to direct his own animated feature film, The Red Turtle.

After nine years of work, The Red Turtle was released earlier this year in the US and is currently screening in the UK. It has gone on to receive an Oscar nomination and shining reviews across the globe. 

We talk to Michael to find out more about how him and his team brought The Red Turtle to the big screen using everything from 3d’s Max and Fusion to Wacom tablets (and even building a physical raft boat model out of bamboo sticks), and reveal his tips for any animators wanting to direct a feature film. Watch the trailer below.

"It was completely out of the blue," Michael Dudok de Wit begins. 

He’s now the director of this year’s critically acclaimed Oscar nominated feature, The Red Turtle - a beautiful, dialogue-less animation about a castaway on a deserted tropical island. Not too long ago, however, Dudok de Wit was just another animator working in Soho’s advertising industry. 

"I began feeling restless, and started making my own films in my free time," he continues. "Then, in 2000, I actually won an Academy Award and a BAFTA for a short called Father and Daughter." Soon after, he received the phone call that changed his life. 

"It was from Studio Ghibli in Tokyo. They were huge fans of my work and wanted to support me in directing my own feature film, what would ultimately become The Red Turtle. It was the beginning of a passion project that would take nine years to complete." 

Luckily, despite the inherent difficulties involved in directing a fully animated feature for the very first time, Dudok de Wit had his decades of experience in the animation industry to use to his advantage as a director. Together with help from the team at Studio Ghibli and a small, tight knit crew of artists, Dudok de Wit needed to learn to go from shorts to features, and incorporate 3D into his work for the first time along the way.

Michael Dudok de Wit 

Working with Studio Ghibli must have been a dream come true. Did you have a lot of creative freedom to do what you wanted on the project?

Michael Dudok: "That was actually one of my first questions when Studio Ghibli called me - how much creative freedom I would have as a director on the project, and how much time I could take. 

"Before they called, I would never have even imagined working with them, it was a huge honour. That said, I also knew there was a cultural and language barrier there. When I asked the person at Ghibli I dealt with the most, Isao Takahata, whether collaborating meant animating in their in house style, though, he immediately said no. Studio Ghibli’s animators were busy on their own projects, and it was quite obvious that for a director to come to Japan and not speak any of their language and direct a film with Japanese artists would be unrealistic.

"Isao and the Ghibli team instead gave me completely free reign to set my own style and work with local artists in Europe – they would then simply give frequent feedback and advice."

Were you always expecting it all to take nine years?  

MD: "I didn’t initially like saying how long it took, because I felt a little embarrassed as I’m normally faster! But getting the story to be exactly right was crucial. Doing the story, the storyboard and the animatics was all a very elaborate process. We wrote many sequences several times and sometimes even after we were convinced it worked in a timeline, we’d watch the flow of the animatic and it wouldn’t feel right. I won’t consider making a film unless the story is worth telling. I also want it to be commercial enough not to just disappear into obscurity after two months at a few festivals. Luckily, Studio Ghibli felt the same way. 

"Ultimately, The Red Turtle’s story developed into a tale about a castaway on a deserted tropical island – following all his life stages without the use of any dialogue in the script. 

"I’d go back and forth from Japan to get the team’s feedback, then as the storyline started to get more and more refined, we turned our attention towards how the final film would look."

Did you have any main aims as to how The Red Turtle would look?

MD: "My first aim was to emphasise light and shadow, both because I think it’s graphically appealing and because it reinforces the relationships between foregrounds and backgrounds. Sometimes I feel like watching an animation you love the characters and love the backgrounds but end up feeling like they are really two separate things. 

"Another important aspect to the film’s aesthetic for me was in maintaining a sense of simplicity throughout. The team purposefully ensured they never filled up the entire frame with detail, and would select only one or two main dominant colours per sequence (as seen in the images below). 

"Then came the animation. My choice there was to go for relatively realistic design and movement. That was very ambitious because it’s one of the most difficult approaches to an animated film. Cartoony animation means you can stylise things and get away with a lot. With realistic gestures, you don’t have that luxury."

You mentioned using your decades of experience as an animator to your advantage when directing. Can you tell us more about this? 

MD: "Well, first, I decided to work with a small crew made up of a dozen character animators, a dozen effects and shadow artists, and between 20 to 30 assistants from established studio Prima Linea, and made sure we were all working in the same building throughout the years of production. 

"That was one of the things that was really important to me from the start and the producers immediately agreed. It really encouraged more of a chemistry between us all. We could organically evolve the project on a daily basis, exploring without a fixed method. It was nice not to have to send emails to some obscure satellite studio. We all lived in the same small town, so would walk to work and stroll to the nearest café together afterwards, and nobody would be put under any pressure to stay longer than they had to under union rules. I wanted all the animators to be fresh and enthusiastic about what they were doing." 

Were there any challenges involved in going from being an animator to directing animators? 

MD: "I was definitely not used to doing absolutely none of the animation myself, or being divided over so many different tasks. At the same time, I remembered when I was an animator working for studios in London, how frustrated and unhappy I was when there was a hierarchy and no room to explore as an individual. Every animator is different with a unique approach and you have to accept that as a director. I wanted to be able to give each person their artistic freedom, then worry about things like the overall quality being high enough or whether the audience would empathise with the characters."

It’s great to hear that you gave your animators time and space to be creative. Was there anything at all that they weren’t allowed to do? 

MD: "I only had one strict rule in my brief to the team: not to rotoscope. We filmed a few actors for the difficult scenes, but only to study their movements and things like the folds in their clothing." 

The Red Turtle represents not just your first feature, but the first time you’ve incorporated 3D into your 2D work. Can you tell us more about that? 

MD: "I’m an illustrator at heart, and I love the personal imperfections that every animator will bring to their work. With CG, I was worried we wouldn’t have that magic, but I was very wrong.

"We started production by spending several months drawing test shots animating on paper and scanning it all in. We then waited about a year to ensure the story was polished before switching to doing most things digitally. For the final result, we used charcoal on paper for background texture and pencil and paper for lines, with broad strokes smudged by hand and scanned in to retain The Red Turtle’s artisanal quality."

"We then moved on to refining the film in TVPaint and Photoshop with Wacom Cintiq tablets, and did 3D work using 3ds Max before compositing it all together in Fusion."

"The 3D animation was done in 3ds Max by drawing every two frames, instead of every frame to better match the 2D from TVPaint. In Fusion we then adjusted the colour and the opacity of the shadows according to the reference provided by the art department. We also added a slight texture to the line work to avoid it looking too digital. It’s basically a rough Fastnoise node that displaces a few pixels of the line, and also adds or deletes a few pixels randomly. This helped the 2D and 3D lines look similar."

Take a look at the development of the bamboo raft, including a physical model.

Now that the film has been completed, what would you say was your favourite scene?

MD: "It’s one of the final sequences of the film, which involved a tsunami hitting the island the characters live on. You see these big waves coming in, and there are a lot of different elements in the sequence to consider such as almost 100 different bamboo branches, which were each on a different layer so that they could be animated individually in Fusion as the water hits the island. The FX team, lead by Mouloud Oussid, animated the wave using TVPaint then used a Fusion particle system for the leaves and mist following the tsunami. It turned out to be a spectacular result."

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