How a trip to the Seychelles inspired award-winning animation The Red Turtle
Michael Dudok de Wit decided he couldn't make a film about a castaway without experiencing the Tropics for himself
The beautiful and unusual animation The Red Turtle has finally landed in UK cinemas.
The film is about a lone castaway on a desert island who encounters a mysterious red turtle. It's the handiwork of Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit who spent nine years making it in his North London shed. His painstaking attention to detail was rewarded with a prize in Cannes last year and an Oscar nomination in February (read our five-star review).
He tells us why he chose to model his desert island on the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean.
It’s a strange story. Where did the idea come from?
The conceit of being cast away on a desert island is well known. I was not interested in doing another Robinson Crusoe story about survival, but the basic idea of someone all alone in nature I found fascinating.
And I also thought: wouldn’t it be great to describe how man meets woman in a very simple, natural way? They’re hesitant, it’s not an obvious relationship but they do meet.
Did you do much research before you started drawing?
The whole thing took about nine years to develop and make, and about two years into it: I thought I’ve got lots of footage, thousands and thousands of photos, but I need to be there. I need to feel the rain in the Tropics and hear the sounds of particular insects and birds.
Research is the most exciting part of the whole project and the ultimate research is experiential – to actually live the situation yourself. I didn’t go it alone on a desert island, though. That would be too extreme.
Why the Seychelles?
They have granite rocks that are outstanding – very sensual, with beautiful round shapes. You want to caress them with your eyes.
The other reason I chose the Seychelles was very practical. I only had 10 days and it would have taken me ages to travel to Polynesia and I’d be jetlagged. The Seychelles is a direct flight from London to the main island and the time zone is closer to ours.
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Which island did you stay on?
A small one called La Digue. It has just one road and a couple of cars. The Seychelles are known for being a luxury holiday destination because they wisely chose to be a bit more expensive and then to reinvest in their ecology. But you can also just stay with locals in a B&B. I simply went on the internet and found a B&B that appealed to me – a restaurant with some rooms. It was cheaper and it was also much more real to live there and talk with locals.
How did you spend your days?
I didn’t take time to sketch because I wanted to take lots of photos and videos. So I just walked around with a camera taking pictures and listening. I walked at night in total darkness because they don’t have streetlights. I stood in the rain. I smelt the smells and felt the heat. I was just incredibly happy to be there.
Did you see any turtles?
I didn’t think I would because it wasn’t the right time of year or location. But by chance I saw a really large turtle laying eggs during the daytime and that was amazing. I thought she was dying because she seemed so exhausted. But there were some local people watching as well and they said: “No, no, you don’t have to help her. She’ll be fine. “ And indeed, she eventually summoned the energy to crawl back to the water.
On another day I asked a local fisherman to teach me a bit about marine life. I casually said to him “it would be great to see a turtle” and he said “hang on, you stay here”, swam far away and came back holding a turtle in his hands for me to look at.
Are there bamboo forests in the Seychelles?
There are but they weren’t right so I went to see one in the south of France – a private park specialising in bamboo – and another one in Japan where there are lots of natural forests.
Do you always set your films in tropical paradise so you can do research there?
Actually I think the Tropics are not paradise at all. There are insects you want to avoid at all costs. The sky is definitely not always blue. Beaches are not always pristine. And that is exactly what I wanted to convey in the film. When the castaway arrives on the island, he’s not looking round saying: “What a beautiful island, I’m staying here.” He wants to leave. It’s a grey sky, it’s raining; it’s not his home. I come from Holland and live in London, and I like grey skies and rain. I hope the film also shows the beauty of cloudy days too.
So would you recommend the Seychelles, even if it’s not always sunny in the Tropics?
Wholeheartedly. It is beautiful and the people are friendly and gentle. They are very keen on protecting the beauty of their nature.
Red Turtle is in UK cinemas now
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