The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge, France-Belgium-Japan 2016)

Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Wild Bunch/Why Not/CN4/Belvision

The Red Turtle is every bit as good as the rave reviews make it out to be. It seems pointless to add another general review so I’m just going to focus on a few points. Subscribers to Sight and Sound are lucky to have an excellent review by Kate Stables and an interview with the film’s director Michaël Dudok de Wit (by his son Alex) in the June 2017 issue. This short (81 mins) animated feature has a narrative that riffs on the original Robinson Crusoe story by Daniel Defoe. The new idea from de Wit and his writing collaborator Pascale Ferran introduces a magical/mystery element in the form of a large turtle. If you have knowledge of the legend of the ‘selkie’ from Celtic and Nordic culture you’ll know what to expect. There isn’t a great deal of plot – instead there is the pleasure of interaction between a very limited number of characters and a real sense of humanity recognising its place in the ecology of the South Pacific. It’s no wonder Studio Ghibli is a partner.

Michaël Dudok de Wit at work

The most interesting institutional issue is that this is the first co-production outside Japan for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, in the UK, we are used to experiencing Studio Ghibli’s output in cinemas being filtered through the distribution muscle of Disney and having to choose a subtitled screening (if we can find one) or a ‘re-voiced’ American version with big name actors. But that ‘re-voicing’ is the only ‘creative’ input by Disney. The Red Turtle has no dialogue (beyond cries of alarm, warning, greeting etc.). Studio Ghibli actually approached the animation director Michaël Dudok de Wit after his Oscar success with the short Father and Daughter (2000). Dudok de Wit is Dutch, but trained in the UK (at West Surrey College of Art & Design). He has worked in London and in Paris and Barcelona. He decided to take up Studio Ghibli’s offer when it became possible to work with French and Belgian film funds. Having not made a feature before he decided to use a large group of animators but hoped that they would respect his unique style which combines European and Japanese-Chinese styles. I found an interview with de Wit which appears to have been conducted for Positif magazine. Here are de Wit’s thoughts on the techniques he developed:

[Interviewer] Let’s talk about technique: apparently, you discovered digital at Prima Linea Productions.

That’s right. Prima Linea is the studio — in Paris and Angoulême — where we made the film. While we were doing our first animation tests, another crew was finalising the film WOLFY, THE INCREDIBLE SECRET, using Cintiq, a digital pen that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor. With this tool, you can instantly visualise the results of your animation, without having to scan drawings separately. It’s more economical, gives you more creative freedom and increased control for retouching. We animated two versions of the same shot, one with pencil on paper and the other with this digital pencil. The line of the digital pencil was more beautiful and that convinced us.

One of the charcoal drawings included in the Press Notes

For the backgrounds, we chose a different process. The drawings were made with charcoal on paper, very freely, with broad strokes smudged with the palm of the hand. This artisanal quality was very important and gave the image a lovely, grainy texture. Only the raft and turtles were digitally animated. It would have been hell to animate them in 2D. As everything is finalised in the same graphic style, you can’t tell it’s digital. During the production I didn’t do any animation or scenery, only small touch ups.

I can vouch for the effectiveness of these decisions. I sat in my usual seat in the centre of the second row close to the screen and I could appreciate the ‘graininess’ and the subtlety of the backgrounds. Kate Stables suggests that some of the backgrounds depend on a style similar to ‘grisaille’ – creating depth through careful shading in grey or another single colour. One reason for preferring anime to contemporary American animations with computer generated backgrounds is the use of drawn backgrounds and The Red Turtle is a standout example of what can be achieved. It’s also interesting to think about the use of long shot compositions, especially in the earlier part of the film where ‘the sole survivor’ is coming to terms with his position in a setting that can move from idyllic to dangerous very quickly.

The crabs in The Perishers

One of the genuine pleasures of the film are the tiny crabs that often accompany the actions of the man on the beach and act like a comedy chorus. For a while I couldn’t work out why the affected me so much, then I realised that they reminded me of a classic Daily Mirror cartoon strip, ‘The Perishers’ (1959-2006). Every year the children and their dog would go on a seaside holiday where they would meet the crabs in a rock pool – crabs who believed the large eyes of the dog were mystical ‘eyes in the sky’ as the crabs saw them from beneath the water-line.

There are so many pleasures in The Red Turtle, ranging from the cartoon-like fun with the crabs to the ecological questions, the folk tales and mystery and the emotions created firstly in relation to the turtle and then to the human family. Like all the best animations, The Red Turtle has something for everybody. It’s especially thrilling that the film achieves its effects without dialogue. There is music, however, as Michaël Dudok de Wit acknowledges :

The music is key as there is no dialogue. I didn’t have a clear idea of a specific musical style. Laurent Perez del Mar made a few suggestions including a very beautiful melody that was perfect for the main theme. I was delighted. He was quick to suggest music where I would not have thought to have any, and he was right. He often surprised me. [Same interview as above.]

Some reviewers have suggested that there is too much music but it seemed fine to me and served the narrative well. You can hear the main theme in the UK trailer and glimpse the style outlined above:

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