'The Red Turtle': How the Indie Became an Animated Feature Contender

The Red Turtle 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The Red Turtle got a boost in the awards race on Monday when the nominations for the Annie Awards for animation were announced.

The mostly hand-drawn indie animated film, which contains no dialog, earned five nominations in the feature categories. To put that in context, only Disney's Zootopia, Laika's Kubo and the Two Strings and Disney's Moana earned more. The Red Turtle was nominated in the categories for best animated independent feature, as well as best direction, writing, animated effects and music.

In the directing category, The Red Turtle's writer-director Micahel Dudok de Wit is nominated alongside the directors of Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings, along with indies My Life as a Zucchini and Your Name. In writing, The Red Turtle joins a field that also includes Zootopia, Kubo and Zucchini.

De Wit has already directed several animated shorts, including 2000's Father and Daughter, for which he won an Academy Award, and 1995's The Monk and the Fish, for which he received an Oscar nomination.

Then in November 2006, producers Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata from Japan's Studio Ghibli and Paris-based Wild Bunch's Vincent Maraval approached him "totally out of the blue" with an idea. "They asked me if I would be interested to write and direct a feature," De Wit relates. "I did not hesitate a second; it was extraordinary." France's Why Not Productions took charge of the production, and the work was done at animation studio Prima Linea Productions in Angouleme and Paris and co-produced by Belvision in Belgium.

"I chose a theme that I have loved for many years, since childhood actually: the castaway on a deserted, tropical island," the director says. "The theme has been popular the last 25 years, and I chose to give it a new, more timeless angle. The main feeling I hoped to convey was a deep awe for nature. I mean, not just the lovely aspects of nature, but much more, all nature and the simple intuitive knowledge that we are nature. This idea and this feeling together were the starting point of the story. Quite simple, but it took several years to get the story right and to fine tune the emotions."

For inspiration, he spent some time on one of the small Seychelles islands. "But I made a simpler choice, living with locals for 10 days," the director says. "I would go for walks alone, observing everything and taking thousands of photos. The idea was to avoid the ‘holiday brochure' aesthetic. My castaway couldn't love the location — he wants to return home at all costs, as the island is not so welcoming. There are dangers, extreme solitude, rain and insects."

As to the look of the mostly hand-drawn film (the turtle is CG), de Wit says, "both the design and the movements are semi-realistic. This choice to go for semi-realism as opposed to the cartoony look was obvious to me as soon as I started drawing the first designs. It just felt right. Surprisingly, because this style is tough to animate. But we had enough time to recruit the artists carefully. They were all freelance animators from Europe, mostly from France and Hungary."

The Red Turtle debuted earlier this year in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, where it won a special jury prize and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. The director says he hopes in viewing the film, "people will quietly recognize their own unique love of life. That would be wonderful."