11 May, 2009Issue 9.3Film & TVThe Arts

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A Beautiful Language

SARAH MOLINOFF

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The animator, illustrator, and director Michael Dudok de Wit was born in 1953 in the Netherlands and now lives in London. He studied film and animation at the West Surrey College of Art and Design, and his work combines hand-drawn animation and watercolor, a sense of space and brushwork from China and Japan, and a unique use of film language. Dudok de Wit’s shorts are known for their ability to convey the maximum amount of emotion, meaning, and humor in just a few animated brushstrokes. Even though his work loses much of its impact by being posted on sites such as YouTube, the Internet has ensured that his films can reach a wider audience than just those who go to animation or short film festivals.

Dudok de Wit’s animated short films appear around the world in festivals and have won numerous prizes. His best-known short is the moving eight-minute Father and Daughter (2000), which won a BAFTA, the 2001 Academy Award for Best Animated Short, and many other awards at festivals. The animation shows a girl whose father has left her, for unknown reasons, and at the end of her life they are reunited. The film tends to inspire intensely personal comments on websites where it is posted, both because of the poignant ending and the ambiguity surrounding the departure of the father, which allows the viewer to relate the film to his or her own story.

The Monk and the Fish (1994), nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA, is a light-hearted story of a monk obsessed with catching a fish at his monastery. More economical in its delivery than Father and Daughter, the film expresses joy and humor not just in the plot but also in the image itself, aided by a tune from the Baroque composer Corelli. The film ends with the monk and the fish coming together.

Dudok de Wit often experiments with unusual media and abstract settings, such as in The Aroma of Tea (2006), which was drawn with tea and depicts a small brown dot moving among lines, spirals, organic shapes, and other animated dots accompanied by affective music, again from Corelli. Despite the abstraction, the film seems to have a definite plot that hinges on the ability of the dot to find his way.

Dudok de Wit’s films attest to the profoundly emotive power of animation, as well as the continued value of the short as an artistic endeavor in itself, rather than a somehow lesser substitute for feature-length film.

Can you begin by telling us about how you got into animation?

It’s quite easy, actually: I drew a lot as a kid, like most of my colleagues. So going to art college was an obvious choice, and then once I was at art college I realized how much I liked narrative art like film and comic strips, and combining art with sound and music. Then I specialized: I came to England to study animation.

What really attracts me to animation is the use of film language. Not just timing and zooming in and panning, but also the more subtle use of film language, a language which is usually understood on a subconscious level by the audience. You can combine so many elements in such a rich way, not unlike cooking: it’s not only the individual elements that count, but also the chemistry between them. I like how the end result can be very individualistic. With animation, because you work on every frame, literally every frame, you do it all consciously. You can really play with the subtleties of camera movement, timing, and so on. It’s slow and laborious, but I think it’s a beautiful language.

Let’s talk a bit about some of your films. What I find most interesting about The Monk and the Fish is how its comedic value is somehow inherent in the image. The disruption to the monk’s life contrasts so comically with the soothing watercolors and beautiful music. How did you come up with the story?

The genesis of the film was the ending. It was that sequence I wanted to create, where there is a serene union between the monk and the fish. The ending by itself would be flat, too abstract, to pull the audience in, so I clearly needed to have a build-up, to establish and feel empathy with the character. In contrast to the ending, in the beginning the monk is obsessed, obsessed, obsessed, but in the ending he arrives at a resolution. In a quiet way, not with a big act. I think it worked well like that. In addition, the chase of the monk and the fish was fun to animate. Part of the joy was creating the agitated movements and different variations.

That sounds similar to what the Italian neorealist Rossellini said about his Germany Year Zero, that he created the whole film because he just wanted to shoot the scene at the end with the boy wandering abstractly through the rubble of Berlin.

Ah, yes. Do you know Antonioni’s The Passenger? It’s one of my favorite films, and I think sometimes that he did the same.

The music for The Monk and the Fish is perfect for the story. You adapted it from the Corelli, is that correct?

Yes, it’s a well-known musical theme, La Folia, adapted by Corelli, Vivaldi, Bach and other composers. I’d heard it on the radio many years before and I knew then that it would be perfect for an animated film because it has a whole range of emotions. It’s basically one tune repeated over and over again, so you can mold it perfectly to what you want. So when I wrote The Monk and the Fish, I knew already that I wanted that music. I gave the composer a selection of recordings that I liked, mostly Corelli’s and Vivaldi’s variations. I said, “These are the variations I like, this is the structure of the story, please make your version of it.”

Would you say there’s a kind of moral at the end, about coming to terms with our environment and our obsessions?

Yes, though I’m not certain about the word “moral”. I’m not sure why you can’t use that word. It’s something finer than moral. Have you heard of the Ten Oxherding Pictures? It’s a comic strip from China, very ancient, many centuries old, so not technically a comic strip. The pictures are well known, and there are many variations. It’s basically Zen Buddhist or Taoist teaching condensed in a sequence of images. The story is about a man trying to catch a lost ox. He finds the ox, catches it, and you would think that this is the end of the story, but you’re only halfway. The images that follow represent the essence of the Zen philosophy. It’s very, very beautiful. That was the inspiration for the film, though the film doesn’t go as far as these pictures because they are so profound that I can’t reproduce the same sequence with my own authority. The Monk and the Fish is not a story about the solution of a conflict, it’s more about the rise above the conflict, the rise above duality. So there isn’t really a moral, it’s more like another point of view.

Much of your work uses a Chinese or Japanese style of brushwork. Did you grow up with such influences, or did you just come upon the style?

I discovered the traditional Japanese brush art and calligraphy in my early twenties. The styles are so strong and so exquisite, it’s easy to feel attracted to it. The Japanese in particular, and also the Chinese and the Koreans, have a way of using negative space, of not filling the picture, which is very typical of the Far East and very untypical of the West. We can be inspired by it, but it’s profoundly in their culture—in their genes maybe, and not so much in ours. It’s not just about the brush line, it’s also the space around the line that is inspiring.

Some parts of The Monk and the Fish reminded me of Tove Jansson, who illustrated the Moomin books. Like hers, your drawings manage to be very expressive while using very few lines.

That’s a huge compliment—I think the Moomin books are brilliant, just brilliant.

You used tea to draw The Aroma of Tea. Did that start out as an experiment?

Well, it’s brush and ink, and originally it was going to be black ink. But the idea came out of the blue. I thought it would be nice to have a rich brown, and something with tea, which goes with the subject. There’s something nice about using a technique which has not been used in animation yet.

Again, though I also don’t like the word moral, The Aroma of Tea does seem to be metaphorical for life in a way. We end up rooting for this little dot even though he looks like all the others.

Yes, that would be correct.

With Father and Daughter, I found that the spare quality of the imagery, perhaps this idea of “negative space”, allowed room for the viewer to enter the story and assert his own history on the film by crawling into its spaces. You can find many highly personal interpretations online. What do you think of people projecting their narratives on the film?

That’s on purpose, and it’s very tricky, because I want to be very clear and transparent and explicit. On the other hand, I want the individual who sees the film to relate it to his or her own experience and understanding. So for instance, a particular event in the story may be recognized by one individual as physical death, whereas another individual may not relate it to death at all. Both are right. It all depends on each person’s own perception of death. You give people the opportunity to make their own interpretation, but it’s dangerous, because it can also become a lazy way of storytelling. Almost like, “I do what I like, and you figure it out yourself. I don’t care.”

The wheels reminded me of clocks. It’s a film about biking, in a way, and the wheels turn as the girl’s clock runs out of time.

That’s interesting. I’ve used the bicycle wheel to reflect the circular quality of time, as in the changing of seasons, the changing of generations, and the music too has a circular quality—it’s a waltz. But I hadn’t thought of actual clocks. It’s true that traditional clocks indicate time in a circular way.

Do you know anyone else who uses similar methods or is interested in similar things to you, such as experimenting with different media?

Yes, many. The tragedy is that there are lots, and you wouldn’t know unless you look for them. So you see them at animation festivals. And these days there are hundreds of animation festivals—when I started there were just a handful. Or you can see them on the very rare programs dedicated to putting shorts together. Channel 4 was good at that.

What do you think is the future of shorts?

A good question, because I would never have guessed that something like YouTube would become so popular. In that sense, it’s a massive opening for shorts. The other day, I looked there for a film from a colleague. It’s a good film. In the old days, it would have been screened at festivals and have been seen by thousands of people. He puts it on YouTube, it got a lot of positive reactions, and now it’s been seen by six million. This is a totally new direction. So to give you a short answer, yes, I think there is a future for shorts. But there are still a lot of people who see them as little exercises that you do before doing serious work like making feature films. And I don’t see it like that at all. Shorts are more like poems, whereas features are more like novels.

There’s recently been a lot of talk about the revitalization of the short story. Many new collections are coming out.

Yes, I think that’s a good analogy. I’m not saying they inspire each other (I have seen a few animated shorts based on short stories, but not many), but there is a similarity there. Again, with short stories, people often consider them as exercises for the real stuff, which is a pity.

The good thing about short films is that they are very individualistic, or can be, whereas feature films are diluted, purely because of the size of the team. A short animated film can be made almost alone, and even if there are ten people helping you, it can be very personal. You don’t have to explain everything, you just do it because you feel right about it. And the British are generally good at appreciating individualism.

Where would one go to see more animation?

London has an animation festival in the summer. There’s not one major festival in Britain, but three or four. Festivals are really the only way. I hesitate to say YouTube because some things suffer from the YouTube quality; they really do. Especially when the synchronization is a few frames out, and it completely destroys the sharp effect. So I hesitate to suggest it. Some films are fine on YouTube. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but animation like The Simpsons is fine on a small screen. I almost cry when I see Father and Daughter on YouTube! (Laughs). But then you have people in remote villages who see your films, people who may not have another opportunity to see independent short films. I would rather many people see them in poor quality than a few in high quality.

Have you seen any Pixar features lately? Sometimes they show shorts before the feature.

Yes, I saw Wall-E of course, though I can’t remember the last short I saw. They are good. It’s partly to do with the attitude. Pixar is a studio that feels that making shorts, giving directors the time to make a short, stimulates the creativity and the general ambiance.

How many projects do you work on at any given time, and how long do your projects take to complete?

It varies a lot. When I do a commercial, I often have to start immediately. I’ll get a call asking me, “Are you interested in this, we need to know now.” And then often you start straight away, though sometimes you have to wait. Commercials can take two-four months, roughly. With short films, it’s very different. Something might be in your head long before you actually put anything on paper. Once you start, once you’ve written a synopsis, figured out how to approach it, and then secured funding for it… Altogether, my eight-minute film, Father and Daughter, took two years to make. Actually it was much longer, but I interrupted the work to teach. My six-minute film, The Monk and the Fish, took seven months to make. So you see there’s no standard time frame.

You mentioned the task of getting funding. What is the funding situation like for short films? Is there a lot available?

It’s very, very hard, because there is a supply, but there are many colleagues who apply for the same sources. Many short films you see in festivals, for instance, are student films. Students get the time and facilities they need to make their films.

So students have an advantage?

Yes.

What do you think about technological developments in the media, such as the growth of CGI and digital media? How have such changes affected animation?

Computer animation is clearly dominating the market, in shorts and in features. There was a time when people thought it would completely take over and that would be it. I never thought that would happen. I think hand-drawn animation will live side-by-side with CGI, and there are also lots of exciting hybrid versions. Basically, the digital developments have hugely increased the variety of tools and techniques and they have made the art form more accessible to non-professionals.

Sarah Molinoff is reading for an MSt in Film Aesthetics at Keble College, Oxford. She is the Film Editor for the Oxonian Review.

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