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.
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.
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.
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:
This new anime by director Shinkai Makoto has prompted comparisons with the great successes of Studio Ghibli and specifically with the work of Miyazaki Hayao. It isn’t difficult to understand the comparisons. The narrative deals with adolescents, both of whom have the potential for heroism. Mitsuha lives in a small town in the mountains but Taki lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a typical Ghibli young female, living with her grandmother and younger sister and estranged from her father, the town mayor. Her late mother had inherited her own mother’s spiritual powers and Mitsuha is expected to follow the family tradition, tending a shrine and helping her grandmother who weaves braids for ceremonies. But Mitsuha wants to try something different: she wants to experience Tokyo and the kind of lives that boys have.
In Tokyo, Taki is a high school boy with excellent drawing skills and a part-time job in an Italian restaurant where he has a crush on an older co-worker. Writer-director Shinkai Makoto has fashioned a narrative that enables these two adolescents to interact and learn from each other — using a mixture of romance, fantasy and adventure in new ways, even if the device of switching identities is familiar from universal romance/fantasy genres. But what starts and perhaps ends as one kind of film takes a very different turn part way through and moves into the kind of discourse familiar from manga and anime. As well as Ghibli, I was reminded of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time which is a case study film in The Global Film Book. That film used science fiction to create a narrative around one adolescent’s discoveries about herself. In Your Name, although it is first fantasy that brings the couple together, there is also a real interest in science — and in the natural disasters which befall Japan.
The animation is detailed and sometimes very detailed. I enjoyed the music too, though I know there are critics of the pop group Radwimps. It is no surprise that this has become one of the biggest box office hits of all Japanese cinema and the only anime to challenge Miyazaki. (I should be clear though — this is not a Ghibli film.) If this film could charm me on a long haul flight, I’m sure it would be an emotional storm on a big screen. If you haven’t seen it yet, look out for the Japanese language version.
This was the Children’s Programme toured from the London International Animation Festival screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. A rather nice idea, a set of films suitable for all the family. That is what we got at the Picture House, and [with a few minor wanderings] the kids and their parents seemed to really enjoy the selection. I gathered from the projectionist that the programme was provided on a disc and then the staff copied this to a DCP: one would have hoped that an International Festival could mange to use a theatrical format for this. Still it was an entertaining selection of varied animation films from a number of different countries.
Simon’s Cat: Pizzacat (2015), 1’50
A hungry cat gets the last slice. This was the first of two ‘cat cartoons’. From the credits it seems that this character appears both on film and in books: I suspect the latter was the earlier appearance. The films are drawn in black and white lines. The cat is typical of its kind:. clever and self-contained, usually battling with his owner: in this case over a pizza. The second example – Box Clever. In this case a regular character, the neighbouring boxer/bulldog, assists the cat caught in a cone guard.
You can check out episodes and creator Simon Tofield’s techniques at https://simonscat.com/about/
Perfect Houseguest (2015), 1’35
A house is visited by a clean, organised and well-mannered guest. The film from the USA uses models, the houseguest being a domesticated mouse who makes the house ordered and shipshape.
Rita and Crocodile – Fishing (2014) , 5’00
Rita and Crocodile are going fishing and Rita lectures Crocodile on how to fish.
We also had a second film in which Rita & her Crocodile visit the Forest in search of conkers. The Crocodile is extremely affable, far removed from the threatening beasts common on screen. The films, produced by Ladybird, are from Denmark, but this was an English-language version.
Submarine Sandwich (2014), 2’00
The first step to a delicious sandwich is slicing the meat. Only in this case what the film animates is a set of food substitutes: balls, gloves, medallions and so on. This is a new stop-motion film from the director of Fresh Guacamole (PES, USA 2012), the latter had the status of shortest film ever nominated for an Oscar.
With Different Eyes (2015), 4’10
A trip around the world on a wooden train set. This film is almost abstract, playing with sets of mecano-type-like parts. There is also a song, translated via subtitles.
Boom Boom The Fisherman’s Daughter (2013), 8’25
A lonely fisherman with a long nose befriends an orphaned baby elephant who believes that the man is its mother. This was beautifully drawn though the plot was rather opaque. The relationships between characters are very nicely done.
A Single Life (2014), 2’20
A life can be lived, measured and manipulated in so many different ways but beware the cracks and the sudden endings. The ingenious story here offers a series of transformations, which also take us through the cycle of life and death. This Dutch film makes ingenious use of an usual prop, an old 45 rpm vinyl record.
Airmail (2014), 6’10
A fish, a cat, a wrestler and the woman who would save them all. Unusual ingredients for an unlikely long distance love affair. The title and the style of this film suggest homage to Len Lye. There continuity is tied together by the continuing efforts of a cat to catch a goldfish.
Taipei Recyclers (2014), 7’00
A riot of sound and colour using trash collected from the streets of Taipei. The film uses all the possible detritus from its setting, a rather abstract presentations.
Very Lonely Cock (2015), 6’00
It’s a hard day for the very lonely cock. Perhaps tomorrow it’ll be better. Who knows? Anyway, it can’t get any worse. Or can it? Bizarre but entertaining Russian film with no dialogue. The film is almost surrealist in its antics and humour.
Sweet Dreams (2015), 11’45
A coincidental meeting of a house hamster and a pair of squirrels. It took me time to identify one animal as a hamster. Their relationships are built on accords, though winter and into spring.
Some of the films are featured on YouTube.
Rita and Crocodile – Submarine Sandwich by PES – A Single Life
These are the notes for the film screening:
Japan has a long and distinguished history of popular visual cultural forms. Modern manga (graphic novels) and anime (animated stories) draw upon the great woodblock traditions of 18th and 19th century Japan (which in turn drew from much earlier Japanese art traditions). The manga that have become known internationally largely developed in Japan after 1945 and represent an entertainment and art form drawing on globalising popular culture adapting traditional Japanese visual traditions and stories. Anime, which really took off in the 1960s, similarly draws on aspects of Western animation but in distinctively Japanese ways. Many anime are adapted, sometimes quite radically, from successful manga.
The important point is that manga are read by all kinds of people in Japan with estimates of up to 40% of all Japanese publishing being devoted to manga. There are manga for all kinds of readers and some manga are unique and radical in their appeal to readers. The same is true of anime. Although many anime are made relatively cheaply as TV series, some, especially those from Miyazaki Hayao’s Studio Ghibli have been the biggest box office films in Japan over the last twenty years. Like the Miyazaki films, Giovanni’s Island is essentially a story told from a child’s perspective, but one that explores serious philosophical ideas.
Inevitably, anime are compared to Hollywood animations (Disney is the distributor for Studio Ghibli in the West). In technical terms anime are low budget with a lower frame rate producing jerkier motion and a drawn animation style that is less ‘realist’ and more closely linked to traditional drawing styles. For many fans, anime are more beautiful than similar Hollywood creations as well as more dramatic and challenging.
Japanese history in Japanese films
The period of Allied Occupation from 1945 to 1952 had a traumatic effect on Japanese culture and society. Many films deal with the problems of returning soldiers, the women who had stayed in Japan, ‘repatriated’ colonial families, poverty and starvation, the black market, the impact of American GIs and American culture etc. The Allied fire-bombing of cities and the atomic bomb attacks are represented symbolically and several films focus on stories about children in the devastation after 1945.
Giovanni’s Island draws on many of these ideas. The story takes place on Shikotan Island in the South Kurils. The Kuril islands form the long archipelago between Hokkaido island in Japan and the Kamchatka peninsula of Russia. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, Japan controlled the southern half of the large island of Sakhalin close to the Russian coast (referred to as Karafuto in the film) and all of the Kuril Islands. The film is accurate in terms of the events depicted. Soviet forces took control of the whole archipelago in 1945 and eventually all the Japanese inhabitants were expelled. Japan still claims the four main Kuril Islands, including Shikotan.
The film’s title refers to a children’s fantasy novel, Night on the Galactic Railroad by Miyazawa Kenji written after a railway trip to Sakhalin while the author was mourning his sister’s death. The novel has a religious/philosophical theme about self-sacrifice. It has been adapted several times as the basis for manga and anime.
The Galactic Railroad links the two boys to their father and also to Tanya. Another juvenile novel was adapted as one of the most famous and successful Japanese films of the 1950s, The Burmese Harp (1956), in which Japanese soldiers in Burma in 1945 discover that they and their British captors enjoy singing the same song (‘There’s No Place Like Home’). This film, like Giovanni’s Island demonstrates a certain kind of humanism in which the victors and the defeated share aspects of popular culture. Japan had become more open to ‘Western’ culture in the 1920s and 1930s and in Giovanni’s Island popular songs (the Russian one later became a UK pop hit as ‘Those Were the Days’ in 1968) and the model railway provide the means to share.
Napier, Susan (2006) Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, Basingstoke: Palgrave
More details of the film on Anime Network.
Paddington has been a huge hit and it is largely deserved. It needs to be a hit since StudioCanal are reported to have invested $50 million in its production after Warner Bros. pulled out of the project set up with their Harry Potter partner David Heyman in 2007. Heyman then teamed up with TF1 Films in France – with StudioCanal taking UK and French distribution. Harvey Weinstein has the North American rights. Heyman via Heyday Films also produced Gravity.
I’m too old and too distant from children’s literature to know anything about Paddington as a character but I can do the research and it’s clear that this film adaptation should appeal to a large international fanbase. The books by Michael Bond first appeared in 1958 and have now sold 30 million copies globally in 40 languages. The central character is an orphan bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ who travels to London where he hopes to find the home promised to his family by a British explorer/adventurer who ‘discovered’ the bears in the 1930s. This bear speaks beautiful English learned from recordings and is ‘named’ when he is found by the Brown family sitting with his suitcase on Paddington Station in London. They take him home and the adventure begins. (Bond is said to have had taken the idea for the books from the stories of evacuation of children from the UK’s major cities during the Second World War.)
As far as I can work out, the film’s script by Paul King and Hamish McColl draws on several published stories and will have some ‘authenticity’ for fans. King also directed the film. His background is in directing theatre, film and TV shows featuring comic talents such as Richard Ayoade and Matt Lucas (who has a cameo in Paddington). McColl has written two of Rowan Atkinson’s blockbuster comedy films. What King and McColl have come up with in Paddington is a comedy with appeal to children and adults which grapples interestingly with fantasy, parodies of well-known films and an odd but intriguing take on historical time periods. This latter is a result of the long production history of the books and the major social (and aesthetic) changes that have taken place over fifty years and more. The James Bond films face the same problem but they attempt to place Bond – a 1950s character – firmly in the contemporary world. Paddington is, for me, more interesting and more successful.
There have been TV series based on the books, two North American, one British, but all animations. Paddington is a live action feature in which the bear is created by a combination of animatronics and CGI. Framestore the UK company that helped produce Gravity had a major role in Paddington. The bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw in a very accomplished performance and everything about the presentation of Paddington works flawlessly as far as I can see.
The weakest part of the film is probably the action narrative featuring Nicole Kidman as a kind of Cruella de Vil character who is out to stuff Paddington to complete her collection of exotic animals. This involves borrowing the heist scene from Mission Impossible, a chase through the Natural History Museum and what can only be described as various fetish outfits for Ms Kidman (there is definitely a shoe fetishist involved somewhere!). The earlier comic sequences worked much better for me.
The main interest in the film outside of its obvious broad appeal is what it contributes to the current discourse about immigration. The whole narrative concerns the arrival in the UK of a migrant bear who is expecting a warm welcome but who finds that his first ‘host’, Mr Brown considers only offering him temporary asylum unless he can find a relative of the explorer who promised him a welcome – otherwise he will be packed off to an ‘institution’. This all sounds very familiar. Two other aspects of the scenario are also worth mentioning. The original ‘invitation’ to the UK dates from the period of Empire and Mr Brown’s attitude is not matched by that of his wife and children who quickly become Paddington’s supporters. Young people in the UK are generally seen as less likely to be anti-immigrant than older people.
The migration narrative is of course caught up in the conundrum about the time period setting. The most problematic representation in the film is a product of this. The Browns live in the area of Bayswater/Westbourne Grove/Notting Hill. In 1958 this was one of the London districts in which ‘West Indian’ (as they were known then) migrants first settled and Notting Hill was the site of an infamous ‘race riot’ in that year. In the present film a group of colourfully-dressed ‘calypsonians’ pop up at various points in the narrative performing songs on street corners and in alleyways. One song is a version of Lord Kitchener’s calypso ‘London is the place for me’ which he sang when the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury in 1948 with the first post-war migrant workers from the Caribbean. The story behind the soundtrack is told in this BBC Report. I enjoyed these musical performances but they do highlight the odd mixture of the modern and the historical and I do wonder if this is not an offensive representation? I don’t remember seeing many other examples in the film of London’s population diversity. London in 2014 is one of the most cosmopolitan and multiracial cities in the world but Paddington generally focuses on the middle-class white London of classic children’s books. The film is a fantasy not a social realist drama – but what do London children from Asian and African-Caribbean backgrounds in London make of it? Just a thought.
The ‘live cast’ including Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the Brown parents embrace their roles with gusto and overall Paddington works very well. I’m sure it will do good business in the global market and I’m intrigued to see how they develop the story and the characters in the inevitable sequel. It might be worth comparing Paddington to Aardman’s animations such as Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films which represent the same timeless and nostalgic view of British culture.
This was a sort of trailer for the Bradford Animation Festival which commenced on November 17th. Organised by Jen Skinner as part of ‘Film Extra’ at the National Media Museum, this was educational afternoon that included both short films and talks and discussion on a somewhat neglected area. But as both speakers pointed out, the animation sector is rather like the commercial film industry generally – women, like an iceberg, mainly hidden beneath the surface except when they are objects of audience gaze.
In the first session Terry Wragg talked about the work of Leeds Animation Workshop – a Feminist independent autonomous collective. Based in a Harehills Terrace house the Workshop has turned out about forty films since it opened in the 1970s. It started out around the issue of ‘free 24 hour child care’. The collective were involved with and committed to the radical agenda of the feminist moment at this time.
The Workshop was properly constituted in 1978. Their first animated film was Pretend You’re Survive’, a campaigning film about the Nuclear Threat. The film combined careful research with an ironic stance but also moments with ominous portents. The film was screened at the London Film Festival in 1981. Terry remembered that they were the only women directors in a slate of animated films from all round the world.
They were then able to obtain some funding from the British Film Institute, though only after Verity Lambert put in a word to the funding section. This produced Give Us a Smile! (1983, 13 minutes), an agit-prop film combating violence against women. The first part of the film satirised the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence by the police and legal establishment. The quotations were all carefully researched. It was quite a task to remember just how reactionary were the views in circulation at this time. The second part of the film was dedicated to ‘Fight Back’. This had some very effective inversions of the stereotypes seen earlier in the film.
Terry recalled that the film was made at the time that the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising the area. Women had to suffer not just that threat, but misguided attempts at ‘protection’, like ‘women only curfews’.
Terry also recalled that over the decade following the setting up of the collective the general culture and discourse changed, including legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act. They produced further films but failed to get fresh BFI funding for projects. However, they did get BBC Continuing Education funding for a film on equal opportunities. The BBC involvement led to focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is a point in any hierarchy above which women rarely rise.
Because then film was aimed at employers, still predominately male, the film had a male voice over. It also used the plots of fairy tales to produce a narrative exemplifying the discrimination and ways to break it. I found this the least radical of the three films we watched. The fairy take formula seemed rather tame compared with the more confrontational style of the other two films. However, I think it also stems from the subject. Terry suggested that the ‘ceiling’ affects all women, even those at the bottom. This is only marginally true, if at all. Significantly there seemed to be only one working class woman in the film, whilst the ‘heroine’ was a princess.
It was rewarding session. Terry has a very accessible style and the films do stand up and out. It struck me that the Workshop has a lower profile these days than in earlier years. I can remember screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival, but I think all of them were some while ago.
The second session had Nicola Dobson from Glasgow talking about the women collaborators of the famous animator, Norman McLaren. [It is his centenary this year]. Nicola has been researching the correspondence of McLaren at Stirling University and has also looked at material on the three women. The first was Helen Biggar, who was a student at the Glasgow Art School at the same time as McLaren. Both were involved in radical politics and close to the Communist Part of Great Britain. They collaborated on a short, black and white anti-war animation – Hell Unltd (1936). Helen showed us copies of their letters, which included diagrams for the film.
After Glasgow McLaren worked for the GPO Film Unit and filmed in Spain during the Republican Defence against Spanish fascism. This was an experience that led to him moving to New York Here he worked on a commission for Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer in US animation. This resulted in a seven minute animated and abstract film, Spook Sport. McLaren was not completely happy with the final result but it was an important stage in his development.
In 1942 McLaren joined the National Film Board of Canada. Here he worked with Evelyn Lambert, first his assistant and then his co-director. Over 20 years they worked on a variety of animated films and created important development in animation techniques and form. They won a number of awards including one at the Hollywood Academy.
Helen titled her presentation with the words ‘Behind every great man …’, and behind the title displayed a photograph of Evelyn standing behind Norman at an Award Ceremony – I think the Oscars. She argued convincingly, especially from the correspondence with all three women, that they acted mentors to McLaren. McLaren was gay and I was struck when Helen also told us that he wrote home to his mother from Canada every week. Though the important aspect is the quality and influence of his work with these collaborators. The talk was fairly compressed, covering the three women animators in one session. And unfortunately some of the material was displayed in 16: 9 rather than 1.37: – I think that was because they were screening from a laptop.
To cap the session we had a screening of Hell Unltd on a 16mm print from the bfi, [it looked like the same print that the Museum screened over ten years ago]. It was in pretty good shape, in black and white, at 1.33:1 and silent. It runs at 18 fps and the borrowed machine had a break-down shortly into the film, which fortunately was quickly fixed.
The film starts with illustrated statistics about the state and the armament industry: there are graphic illustrations of warfare: and the film ends with a challenge the audience to action. The film is clearly influence by the Communist Party line of the 1930s, [much superior to later versions]. It also shows the influence of the anti-war discourse including the Peace Pledge campaign. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to see in its original format.
I missed the following displays in the Museum Insight collection and final discussion: [back to LIFF in Leeds]. But I found it a really interesting and stimulating afternoon. The audience was a little sparse for such an opportunity. Partly I think because the details were quite hard to find on the Museum WebPages – not a new problem at this institution. This is rather sad as the Museum appears to be closing down Film Extra and most of the Film Department. This follows the ‘outsourcing’ of the cinemas to the Picturehouse chain. How much that will change the film programming remains to be seen. But the film festivals and the Film Education work seemed to have passed on. I think the whole exercise is misguided. As a long-time user of the Museum’s film provision I don’t think the problems were down to the Film Department. I think they are much more to do with management and how the other part of the Museum related to film. The National Science Museum, who are overall in charge, do not display a great commitment to cinema and they don’t appear to integrate their different Museums very effectively. Whilst some people talk about the ‘death of cinema’, such obituaries remain somewhat premature. And film remains the most potent expression of popular culture from the 20th century.
I hope the redundant Museum staff get the same opportunity as the now departed programme manager Tom Vincent: he has moved to Australia to the Perth Film Festival. When I met his future professional colleagues at festivals I was always impressed with them.