Dreams, Made Real
The chance to work with Studio Ghibli lured acclaimed short-film maker Michael Dudok de Wit into the feature world, resulting in the dialog-free majesty of The Red Turtle. By Charles Solomon.
ventures of a lone man shipwrecked on a small island somewhere in the South Seas. The challenges of making a feature were further complicated by the decision to make the film without dialog, an idea that evolved as he refined the story with his co-writer, French filmmaker Pascale Ferran.
“When I decided to present a castaway, alone in nature on a deserted tropical island, I immediately decided not to have him talk to himself, as Tom Hanks does so beautifully in Castaway,” he said. “But I thought the story needed some dialog, especially when the man and the woman meet. I imagined the woman would be silent because she is from nature, but the man would say something.
“We have no idea where the protagonist is from; which century, which culture, which background, which place in society,” he says. “We know nothing about him, but if he opens his mouth and says something, it makes us jump, ‘Oh, he speaks English?’ ‘Oh, he’s French?’ It didn’t feel natural.”
As they continued to develop the story, Dudok de Wit and Ferran reduced the dialog to a few sentences. “I got an unexpected phone call from Studio Ghibli — I later found out it was mostly Suzuki’s idea,” he says. “They said, ‘We’ve looked at the sentences and the animatic, and we think the film would be even stronger without dialog.’ We talked about it for a little while, and I felt really excited: If they think we can do without any dialog at all, I’m interested in the challenge.”
The lack of words put more emphasis on the animation than the project would have otherwise demanded. “To compensate for the absence of dialog, the acting had to be beautiful and clear at the crucial moments,” Dudok de Wit says. “When the man and woman meet — when anyone else would speak — the body language had to be eloquent enough to compensate for the absence of dialog.”
Credit to the Crew A slight note of chagrin crept into Dudok de Wit‘s voice when he admitted he didn’t do any of the animation, unlike his earlier films. “I retouched some animation here and there. I also retouched a lot of backgrounds, because the perfectionist in me wanted to add a little bit of color here and take away a bit color there,” he says. “But I didn’t animate a single scene or paint a single background. I didn’t have time. I was the director and designer of the film, and all of the questions came to me. All the images on the screen were done by the crew, not me.”
Although he takes pride in having made The Red Turtle to length and on budget, he sounds more excited by the experience of working with the Studio Ghibli artists than by the rave reviews and awards buzz the film is earning: “There were numerous mo- ments where I would sit there and I say to myself, ‘Do you realize you’re sitting in Japan at a table with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki talking about the film you’re going to direct?’”
The response from Takahata, who served as artistic producer on The Red Turtle, indicated that the respect is mutual: “After Father and Daughter, Michael has succeeded again in depicting the truth of life, simply yet profoundly, and with real heart. It is an astonishing accomplishment.” [
young men and women who served at Gallipoli. After we chose the six individuals we were going to use, my editor and co-writer, Tim Woodhouse, and I turned their written accounts into interviews. The interviews stuck closely to the words as they were written in the diaries. I then cast six actors to play the real people, and I interviewed them as I would in a traditional documentary. The actors wore the VICON Cara motion-capture rig, and we used the data recorded to animate the interviews, bringing those who served in Gallipoli back to life, as it were.
We then cut these interviews into what was a little like a 90-minute radio doc. Around the interviews, as per a traditional documentary, there were scenes that illustrated the stories being told. We storyboarded every one of these scenes, creating an animatic of the movie. The animators themselves worked with me on the storyboards so it was a collaboration throughout.
Once we completed the animatic, animation began. Every background (aside from on the hospital ship) was drawn by hand and a number of techniques (2D and 3D) were used to animate the action interspersed between the motion-capture interviews.
Animag: How did you decide on the visual style of the animation?
Pooley: I wanted the film to have a grown-up feel, I didn’t want it to look in any way like a children’s cartoon. I decided very early on that it should have a graphic novel feel, and that was the remit through out. I wanted to embrace the fact that the film was animated. My main note was that we should see the brush strokes, as it were. With that in mind, there are scenes that are realistic and stick closely to the archive footage that exists. Alongside these, and because we were animating, I was able to use fantastical imagery to explore visual metaphor. As a filmmaker, this was incredibly exciting. I didn’t want to over do it and thus undermine the impact of the more surreal imagery, but, where I thought the story warranted it, I told the animators to embrace their inner Salvador Dali. These moments punctuate the film and, I believe, allow the audience to find a deeper meaning in what was a hellish scenario.
Animag: Who animated the movie? How long did it take to complete?
Pooley: From writing the treatment to its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival was under two years. The film was animated entirely by Flux Animation Studio in Auckland.
Animag: What, for you, was the most unexpected aspect of working in animation on this movie?
Pooley: What I hadn’t expected was that the animators would approach each scene just like an actor would. If I said I needed a soldier to walk along the beach, my animation director would want to know where that soldier was going. Was he in a hurry? Was it hot? Basically, what his his motivation was. Coming from a documentary background I found this hard work at first but I soon learned that if the “characters” in my film were going to behave in a truthful manner, these questions really needed to be answered.
Animag: Do you expect to work in animation again? Why?
Pooley: I would love to work in animation again. I really enjoyed the process. The discipline (we couldn’t afford to animate a whole pile of scenes we weren’t going to use), the slow unfolding of the work itself, and the creative smorgasbord that enabled me to explore themes and ideas I would otherwise struggle to illustrate. It was a wonderful experience. [
Animation Magazine #261 Studio: Pixar Distributor: Buena Vista Release Date: June 17 Box Office: $1 billion worldwide ($485 million U.S. domestic) Director: Andrew Stanton Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill Rotten Tomatoes: 94 percent fresh Critics’ View: “In the end, the real value of Finding Dory lies in its goofy effervescence. Although DeGeneres’ Dory, with her breathless stream-of-consciousness patter, is unavoidably likable, the cast of supporting characters here may be even better. Ed O’Neill supplies the voice of Hank, a selfish, irascible octopus who uses his gift for camouflage in some outlandish ways — when we first see him, he’s masquerading as the dangling kitten in the classic Hang in There! poster, a juxtaposition of weird visual ideas that shouldn’t go together at all but qualifies as a small flash of genius.” — Stephanie Zacharek, Time. Behind the Scenes: Stanton says he always knew Dory’s backstory, even though he had never revealed it even to people who worked on Nemo. “I knew she had traveled the ocean many, many, many years, didn’t remember a thing and, because of her short-term memory loss, had probably lost anyone she had ever connected with, or they ditched her because she drove them crazy,” he says. “And she probably had this massive sense of abandonment without any ability to place it. It’s sort of why she always apologizes.” But building a story that worked with Dory at its core was extremely difficult given that she was created to be the ultimate sidekick in Nemo. Stanton says it took a year and half for the Dory team to figure out that the biggest problem with the character was that without the ability to self-reflect there was no way to track her growth through the story. Having identified the problem, the solution turned out to be many small adjustments to the story, which finally began to come together in the last eight months of its four-year journey — much like Nemo did, Stanton says. Awards Chances: Pixar is always a threat when it comes to awards — though as a sequel Finding Dory is less of a lock than the studio’s original features. Despite Toy Story 3, which handily won Best Animated Feature in 2011, or Finding Nemo, which won in 2003, there’s Monsters University to show that Pixar can be passed over. The technical achievement of creating Hank the septopus is sure to impress animation insiders, as is Pixar’s ability to use story to evoke tears from even the most jaded moviegoer. Earning an Oscars nomination is likely more than half the battle for Dory. If it can make it past the large field of competitors to the final five, its popularity — plus that of Ellen DeGeneres, again delivering a knock-out voice-over performance — gives it a strong shot with the wider, actor-heavy voting body of the Academy.
Animation Magazine #258 Studio: Kaibou Productions, LPPTV, M6 Films, On Animation Studios, Onyx Films, Orange Studio, TouTenKartoon Distributor: Netflix Release Date: Aug. 5 (U.S.) Box Office: $98 million worldwide ($1.4 million U.S. domestic) Director: Mark Osborne Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams Rotten Tomatoes: 93 percent fresh Behind the Scenes: How to make a film that effectively moves from CG to stop-motion and back again was the first big challenge for the show. “It was a compelling idea conceptually but very complicated to work out, and to be honest it was a notion that only became real once (stop-motion creative director) Jamie Caliri joined the project,” says director Mark Osborne. The most distinctive element of the stop-motion is that all the elements look like they are made of paper. “I wanted to link the two worlds by having the paper that the little girl is reading the story on inspiring her, and that imaginary world that she created,” Osborne says. Puppets were built with a ball-and-socket armature and covered in all kinds of paper. “Everything that you see on screen in the stop-motion world, almost everything, is made out of paper,” says Osborne. Awards Chances: A very strong contender that succeeded all over the world before U.S. distribution plans were set, then canceled, and then were re-set via Netflix. That delay may make the film look less current to some, but to overlook it would be a shame because it’s a truly touching and heartfelt movie. It’s also a great example of a true global independent, made completely outside the traditional American studio system, and an ideal example of how animation has become a harbinger of the future of film production. Despite all that, The Little Prince is still charming enough and delightful enough to overcome its obstacles and make a solid run for an Oscar nom. Animation Magazine #264 Studio: Sacrebleu Productions, Maybe Movies, 2 Minutes, France 3 Cinema and Nørlum Distributor: Shout! Factory Release Date: Sept. 30 Director: Rémi Chayé Cast: Chloe Dunn, Viviene Vermes, Peter Hudson Rotten Tomatoes: 100 percent fresh Behind the Scenes: Production on the movie was very collaborative, with Chayé open to input and contributions from everyone. Producer Henri Magalon says the producers and crew were all involved in working on the script, the animation and on finishing the financing. “We worked together jointly on all the decisions of the line production: Where to locate the studios, what team to hire, how to accompany Rémi the best,” he says. The look of the movie came slowly to Chayé, whose experience is mostly with narrative elements like storyboards and layout instead of design. “I had no personal style to work with and I had to define it,” he says. “I looked at the influence of the people I was working for, like Tomm Moore on Brendan and the Secret of Kells and Jean-François Laguionie on Le Tableau. … Finally, at one point, I discovered that if I remove the line of my drawings, the result was somehow interesting, so I decided to go along with that idea.” With the story problems solved and the animatic working, animation was a relatively smooth 18-month process for the feature. “Liane-Cho Han was the supervisor of the whole thing, animation wise,” says Chayé. “The main thing for me was to make sure they caught the emotion and Han made a very beautiful job on that part.” Awards Chances: Cartoon Saloon proved European indies can earn Oscar nominations, as it did for The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. That gives Long Way North a road map to follow for awards season, a path that will surely be made clearer by the engrossing tale of a young girl’s search for her explorer grandfather and the delightfully colorful and expressive 2D animation Chayé and his team deliver. Animation Magazine #264 Studio: Production I.G. Distributor: GKIDS Release Date: Oct. 14 Director: Keiichi Hara Cast: Anne Watanabe, Yutaka Matsushige, Shion Shimizu Rotten Tomatoes: 95 percent fresh Behind the Scenes: Hara, who is already at work on his next film, sees only a tenuous link between the Hokusais’ graphic visions and contemporary animation. But he finds that for the artists who make those films, little has changed in the two centuries since Hokusai created “The Great Wave” and other seminal woodblock prints. “Printmaking of the Edo period is strikingly similar to the production process of hand-drawn animation,” he says. “They are both the result of tight teamwork among very specialized craftsmen aimed at mass audiences; no original art survives, only reproductions. Publishers in the Edo era would decide on the project, select the staff, do the marketing — exactly like today’s animation producers. And like animators, Edo period printmakers, including Hokusai, were considered ‘artisans’ rather than ‘artists.’ I certainly don’t command Hokusai’s creative powers, but I like to consider myself an artisan, striving to make my way through an endless wilderness of white paper, holding nothing but my pencil.” Awards Chances: Oscar has a soft spot for art-house style Japanese animation, as shown by the nominations it has bestowed upon the likes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, The Wind Rises and When Marnie Was There. Miss Hokusai, unlike those features, is not a Studio Ghibli production, even though it has a similar style. But given the high acclaim the feature has received, that may matter little to the nominating committee, given the depth of emotion, the historical context and the excellent craft on display in this movie.
Animation Magazine #266 Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios Distributor: Buena Vista Release Date: Nov. 23 Director: John Musker and Ron Clements Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clements Rotten Tomatoes: 98 percent want to see Awards Chances: There’s little doubt Moana is beautifully animated. What remains to be seen at this writing, with its release still a month off, is how well the story holds up. Musker and Clements are beloved by animation and Disney fans as the directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules. But the duo’s films since the mid-1990s have struggled to find the same level of success and Disney has not made another 2D animated theatrical feature since the duo’s disappointing 2009 movie Princess and the Frog. For Moana, Musker and Clements enter into CGI for the first time — and whether the result inspires audiences to the level of a nomination remains to be seen. Remember, anything is possible: the last Disney movie that came out at the holidays with little advance word was a little thing called Frozen …. Animation Magazine #265 Studio: Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, Studio Ghibli, CN4 Productions, Arte France Cinéma, Belvision, Prima Linea Productions Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Release Date: Jan. 20 Director: Michael Dudok de Wit Rotten Tomatoes: 90 percent fresh Behind the Scenes: “When I decided to present a castaway, alone in nature on a deserted tropical island, I immediately decided not to have him talk to himself, as Tom Hanks does so beautifully in Castaway,” says Dudok de Wit. “But I thought the story needed some dialogue, especially when the man and the woman meet. I imagined the woman would be silent because she is from nature, but the man would say something. “We have no idea where the protagonist is from; which century, which culture, which background, which place in society,” he says. “We know nothing about him, but if he opens his mouth and says something, it makes us jump, ‘Oh, he speaks English?’ ‘Oh, he’s French?’ It didn’t feel natural.” Awards Chances: Oscar likes art house, but The Red Turtle will put that tolerance to the test in a way no animated feature ever has before. Undoubtedly a beautiful and touching film, The Red Turtle’s lack of dialogue and a story that unravels more like a poem than a narrative will test some viewers’ patience. That said, there is no doubt this is an alwaysbeautiful and frequently moving movie sure to earn more than a few awards-voting champions. Animation Magazine #266 Studio: Illumination Entertainment Distributor: Universal Release Date: Dec. 21 Director: Garth Jennings Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent fresh Reaction: “For the first half of the movie, the stories come fast and furious, and so do the snippets of dozens of pop songs. It’s not frantic in the overly adrenalized manner of many animated films, but it’s something of a jumble nonetheless. “But when the characters hit rock bottom, the movie quietly gets more emotional and more sure-handed. It’s not easy to make us feel for animated characters who we’ve been laughing at, but we do. … Sure, a couple of those songs are pretty overused — but as a post-screening performance by Jennifer Hudson and Tori Kelly showed, the darn things also work. “And so does Sing. In an extremely strong year for animation, Illumination has taken a big step up.” — Steve Pond, TheWrap.com. Awards Chances: This late-year entry will be closely watched as Illumination chief Chris Meledandri is now also overseeing DreamWorks Animation since it’s been acquired by Comcast-NBCUniversal. The big question for this movie — and for Illumination — is whether they can go beyond the financial success of the Minions to also achieve the critical success that Pixar exemplifies in this industry. Early word is strong, but in a year full of strong competitors that alone may not be enough to stand out from the crowd when it comes time for voters to cast their ballots.
Animation Magazine #265 Studio: DreamWorks Animation Distributor: Fox Release Date: Nov. 4 Director: Mike Mitchell, Walt Dorhn Cast: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Jeffrey Tambor Rotten Tomatoes: 50 percent Behind the Scenes: “CGI technology is so sophisticated now and so realistic, you can make anything look super real,” says Mitchell. “So for this, we wanted to take that technology and go a different way. We made these creatures like Gummi Bears that have been flocked in velvet. Instead of making a realistic tree … we wanted to cover that tree in felt, and every leaf in felt and maybe the ground is carpet and even the rocks are felted and even the dust and all the effects kind of follow this kind of handmade natural fiber material look that is basically just surfacing, but it’s surfacing I haven’t really seen explored.” Awards Chances: Cute, fun and beautiful to look at, Trolls is DreamWorks’ top push this year. The movie looks gorgeous and is filled with entertaining songs — both original and classic — that are sure to charm young and old audiences. What remains to be seen is how much depth the movie has and its ability to draw in adults without children — and it’s unlikely to expect gold without that. Animation Magazine #266 Distributor: GKIDS Release Date: TBD Director: Claude Barras Cast: Michel Vuillermoz, Paulin Jaccoud, Natacha Koutchoumov Rotten Tomatoes: 100 percent fresh Awards Chances: This film took the top feature honor at Annecy, and is based on a popular book and delves unflinchingly into some serious childhood issues. Its late release and low profile at this point look difficult — though not impossible — to overcome. Animation Magazine #261 Studio: Rovio Entertainment Distributor: Sony Release Date: May 20 Box Office: $347 million worldwide ($108 million U.S. domestic) Director: Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride Rotten Tomatoes: 42 percent Studio: Je Suis Bien Content and StudioCanal Distributor: GKIDS Release Date: March 25 Box Office: $295,000 U.S. domestic Director: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci Cast: Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tony Robinow Rotten Tomatoes: 98 percent fresh Animation Magazine #261 Studio: Illumination Entertainment Distributor: Universal Release Date: July 8 Box Office: $849 million worldwide ($365 million U.S. domestic) Director: Chris Renaud Cast: Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet Rotten Tomatoes: 75 percent fresh Awards Chances: A global hit and an appealingly fresh look would in many years be more than enough to earn this amiable movie a serious shot at a nom. But in 2016, with no shortage of box office titans and critical darlings — and combinations of the two — there’s likely little room for Pets to squeak through. Animation Magazine #262 Studio: Blue Sky Studios Distributor: Fox Release Date: July 22 Box Office: $404 million worldwide ($64 million U.S. domestic) Director: Mike Thurmeier Cast: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo Rotten Tomatoes: 13 percent Animation Magazine #258 Studio: DreamWorks Animation Distributor: Fox Release Date: Jan. 29 Box Office: $520 million worldwide ($144 million U.S. domestic) Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni Cast: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman Rotten Tomatoes: 87 percent Animation Magazine #264 Studio: Warner Animation Group Distributor: Warner Bros. Release Date: Sept. 23 Box Office: $107 million worldwide ($50 million U.S. domestic) Director: Nick Stoller, Doug Sweetland Cast: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer Rotten Tomatoes: 61 percent Awards Chances: A sweet movie, with some terrific animation, fun characters (Pigeon Toady, brah!) and a solid story, it nonetheless seemed a little lost in the crowd when it was released. Also, if Warner couldn’t get a nom for The LEGO Movie, Storks is going to need a lot of luck in so competitive a year. Animation Magazine #263 Studio: Titmouse Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Release Date: December Director: Chris Prynoski Cast: Paul Rudd, Patton Oswalt, Kate Micucci Rotten Tomatoes: 17 percent Animation Magazine #260 Studio: Rainmaker Entertainment Distributor: Focus Features Release Date: April 29 Box Office: $8.8 million worldwide Director: Kevin Munroe Cast: James Arnold Taylor, David Kaye, Bella Thorne Rotten Tomatoes: 16 percent Animation Magazine #258 Studio: Carpe Diem Distributor: Shout! Factory Release Date: Feb. 19 Director: Jean-Francois Pouliot, Francois Brisson Cast: Angela Gallupo, Lucinda Davis, Sandra Oh Rotten Tomatoes: 70 percent [