Michael Dudok De Wit at his animation desk

A Video Essay On The Animator Michael Dudok De Wit

Transcript: Michael Dudok de Wit is an independent animator from Netherlands. He is known for his Oscar winning short “Father and Daughter“, and nominated works like Monk and the Fish, and The Red Turtle. But the most fascinating thing about him is probably the fact that he is the first and only non Japanese director to work with the animation giants, Studio Ghibli.

As the story goes, the studio themselves contacted him out of the blue, asking if he wanted to direct a film with them. so what is it about his work that made him so unique, leading to such a collaboration?

Broadly speaking, a Dudok de Wit film has three main features:

1. It explores BEAUTY.

Every artist wants to make beautiful images. for Dudok de Wit, its his main motivation. He doesn’t make films just for fun – ofcourse he finds animation fun – but one of his main motivations is to make something beautiful, or express his idea of beauty or to explore the meaning itself. And you see this in every aspect of his work – whether its backgrounds or smooth, flowing animation.

He also often talks about his love for the ‘line’. And it is one of the first things you notice in his work. In monk and the fish he uses hand drawn brushstrokes – thick in some places, thin in others, and it has a very human quality, and its all very deliberate. similarly in father and daughter and the red turtle, he uses bold outlines.

This love for the line was inspired by brushstrokes from Japanese buddhist monks and Chinese political comics. He was attracted to them because they were extremely simple, mature, spontaneous and fresh. Later, he was also inspired by the style of Sylvain Chomet.

He also makes use of implied lines, which influences the staging a lot. For example, in Red Turtle, there is a bamboo forest. Something he chose because it has simple vertical lines. No flowers, no birds.

And in his films, there’s also movement in compositions.

For example in father and daughter, you have one composition that has an angled line, the next one has a diagonal line and then a horizontal line.

2. Timelessness or a TIMELESS appeal

In many of Dudok de Wit’s interviews, he talks about “timelessness” in his work [15]. By this he refers to two things – one is with regards to the experience of time itself. sometimes its linear – it starts at one point and ends at another point. Like in the monk and the fish, it starts with the attempt to catch a fish, and ends with floating into the sky.

Other times its circular. Like in Father and Daughter, it begins and ends with the father and daughter meeting each other.

And then sometimes time is infinite or forever. There are moments where you feel that time has no beginning or an end, making it paradoxically non existent, or still. And by stillness it doesn’t mean freezing of a frame, but what he calls a ‘visual silence’.

You see this quality of time expressed abundantly through nature. For example, birds flying in the sky, or clouds simply hanging above the horizon.

The other meaning of timelessness is a certain subtlety in his work. He compares it to poetry – where meanings are conveyed through very little information, and with aesthetic and rhythmic qualities.

In almost all of his work, there are no dialogues. So all the acting choices are in the form of body language. And Dudok de Wit says that he loves showing emotions through body language and behaviour. When you watch his films, you understand how you can express anger in a few movements. How do you express grief, guilt, empathy and forgiveness, all in a few seconds without saying a single word.

He also says that he prefers this over facial expressions because the face is extremely complicated – it gives too much information and requires a lot of skill to execute. So in his films, you find very few closeups, and many long shots. While talking about red turtle he says that he watched a lot of modern dance for inspiration – where he could sit far away, and still be moved to tears.

Sometimes, limiting information this way gives a sense of mystery. So you see a lot of dream sequences in his work, which often blends into reality. It requires a certain amount of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ when you watch his films. In other words, he tells the audience, ‘here’s my story, let me carry you into it’.


Dudok de Wit places huge amount of importance on the story. He says that he needs to be completely obsessed, and very passionate about the story he wants to tell. Proof of this fact is in the number of films he’s made so far – in over twenty years, he has made three short films and one feature film (not including his commercial work).

In his other interviews, he talks of the role of intuition in his process of ideation. When he gets an idea, it should feel right, otherwise he moves on to the next one [14]. And later he comes back and looks at it rationally, or in other words he begins to question it.

While writing the story for The Red Turtle, the producers of Studio Ghibli sent Dudok de Wit a copy of the book called Kwaidan – which is a collection of fairy tales that talk about the relationship between humans and nature. You can see this theme feature predominantly in the film. The story for The Monk and The Fish was inspired by “Ten Ox herding Pictures”, which is a series of images and short poems that represent a practitioners progression towards enlightenment.

But sometimes music is the inspiration for his story. In fact, he even says that, in all his short films, ‘music came to him at the same time story’. He calls it ‘the driving force’, and some times it even dictates the timing of the animation.

Like his stories, there’s so much thought that goes into the sound – for example, in The Red Turtle, there are no dialogues, but you still hear the characters, through maybe a cough, or a laugh, or even heavy breathing. There’s so much thought that goes into this that, he even had separate actors record sounds of breathing for each character.

But what does Dudok de Wit really want to say through his work?

In my opinion, he doesn’t really want to say anything – at least not things that can be put into words.

What he wants instead, is the audience to feel – not what he feels, but what they already feel.

He reduces his films to something very basic – like the feeling of longing or a love for nature – things that everyone feels at some point in their lives, in some form or the other. So when people watch his films, they inevitably attach it to their own experiences, making them think about their own selves, their own lives. Even if they aren’t really able to follow the story. I think this could be said for most of the other Studio Ghibli films as well.

Other References:

[1] The Red Turtle clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40yJzq1vRHw

[2] The Red Turtle clip 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bobHHSVCAg

[3] The Red Turtle clip 3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1Wpq1gSeYg

[4] The Red Turtle analysis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmk8htyL8q0

[5] TV interview https://vimeo.com/130489356

[6] TV interview 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9abaZwPNLA

[7] TV commercial AT&T https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_tlvOKrKXA

[8] TV commercial United Airlines https://vimeo.com/24876262

[9] TV commercial United Airlines 2 https://vimeo.com/89366376

[10] Interview 3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atA1mECSJ-o

[11] Interview on hand drawn animation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFNFOiJleVY

[12] Interview on making of Red Turtle (Dutch) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxr_2LYbIrQ

[13] Interviews on dialogue https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sT8qkVvlpUQ, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwYkYAM_3Tw

[14] Interview on intuition https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir45I0pCu6M

[15] Interview on timelessness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpyGs_D3zeI

[16] “Take Me With You” Polish National Ballet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT7ilqcoTWI

[17] The Illusionist clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d7OeDwkfTg

For similar essays, check this page

Posted in: Art