Contemporary Animist

25 May 2023

Magdalena Walo talks to Michaël Dudok de Wit, Oscar-winning animator and winner of this year’s Dragon of Dragons.

Magdalena Walo: I remember your first visit to Poland, because we got a chance to meet. You were invited to the Etiuda & Anima Festival. What can you remember – did you get a chance to look around Kraków?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: I must admit I wasn’t a great tourist, but I think it’s because I was so tired. I went on walks, of course, but I wasn’t really in the mood for sightseeing. One afternoon, my wife and I decided to visit Auschwitz. I don’t have Jewish ancestry, but I’m sure the place speaks to everyone. The visit made the greatest impression on me. I also remember the joyful festival evenings, accompanied by good music and a great atmosphere. But I am a little embarrassed that that’s the only time I’ve been to Kraków.

Why’s that?

When I was a teenager, I subscribed to two free cultural magazines – one from China and the other from Poland. Both countries were completely mysterious. Well, all countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain were mysterious. In any case, Poland stood out as a country of artists with a unique style. I was about 20 when I decided to study animation and I applied to several animation schools, including one in Poland. I literally wrote that I want to study animation, and asked to be admitted. If I remember right, I never got a reply, and I got into a school in England.

You debuted with the film The Interview in 1978. Tell us about your early days as an animator.

I’m certainly not embarrassed by my debut, but it was a student animation, so it was never fully distributed. The main protagonist wants to find answers to questions, but he is repeatedly being ignored. The questions aren’t important; it is the asking of them that matters. That’s a bit how I was when I was a student. I was very self-aware and inquisitive, and I searched for answers to all sorts of questions. The film explores something I felt myself. I made it very quickly, all by myself and my own way.

I understood then something which many students only discover when they leave the safe environment of art school. Reality is difficult because we have to earn a living, and when we are creating art, we don’t want to worry about money – we just want to create. That’s how it was for me. Many of my peers abandoned animation soon after graduation; I wanted to continue my journey, because I didn’t know what else to do.

After you made your first film and completed your studies, you took a long break from filmmaking.

I spent a year in Barcelona, but I soon received a letter from the UK. Someone spotted my student film, and I was offered a job at an advertising studio in London. It was founded and ran by Richard Purdum, who soon became my mentor. Then, as I made ads for a few years, I slowly learned the trade. I met plenty of other freelancers, and that was when I really learned how to be a professional filmmaker.

You returned to filmmaking with Tom Sweep (1992), and soon after you made an animation which marked a milestone in your career. Your The Monk and the Fish (1994) received a César Award and your first Oscar nomination. How did these accolades affect you?

They gave me some confidence. I understood that I have an audience, and that there are people who understand my work. Not everyone is so lucky, so I was all the more delighted by such a positive response. The film is a simple story with a classic structure: the monk tries to catch a fish, but he fails, so he tries again and again. The ending is the culmination of this animation, and I took a long time to think about it. I wanted it to be transcendental and a sense of reaching for something extraordinary. I couldn’t simply show it; I had to build an entire story to see whether the audience felt sympathy for the protagonist and wanted to find out what happens. The result wouldn’t have been so powerful without the soundtrack: it’s an early Spanish or Portuguese composition which was an inspiration for great musicians such as Bach, Corelli and Vivaldi.

The music plays an incredibly important role in your films, in particular the experimental animation The Aroma of Tea. It’s a highly unusual film, especially surprising for those who expected your Oscar-winning production to be followed by something other than an animation made out of tea leaves. Do you enjoy experimental cinema?

Oh, I love it! Interestingly, one of the first films of this kind which made an impression on me was one made by the Polish animator Jerzy Kucia.

I also remember that when I first came up with the idea for Father and Daughter, I told my wife immediately and shared my concerns. I didn’t think it would appeal to audiences as much as the amusing The Monk and the Fish. I wasn’t counting on it being successful: and I was prepared for the film to be a flop, but I was wrong again. The film was more serious and moving, and it was well received by the audiences.

It was very well received indeed! This time you travelled to Hollywood to collect the golden statuette…

When The Monk and the Fish was nominated, someone suggested I go to the ceremony. I agreed and went to California to experience for myself what the Oscars mean in America.

When I was shortlisted again for Father and Daughter a few years later, I knew I absolutely had to go. I had about a 33.3% chance of winning – and I was successful! I stood on stage, delivered a short speech, and received the statuette from a young actor I didn’t know. He was called Ben Stiller. I thought he was a charming young man, and I resolved to watch one of his films. Of course the photographers were far more interested in him than in me – understandably. It all finally dawned on me once I got back to my seat. I asked myself, “Do you understand what just happened? You’ve won an Oscar!” It was a terrific moment. I gave my acceptance speech and only then did I realise what the award means. It may not be the most important, but certainly the best known in the world. It’s the best ad for any film. Suddenly lots of people knew about my animation. But what’s even more important than the statuette was individual comments from people who were moved by the film, perhaps because they lost their father at an early age. When this happens, you think, “Oh my god, isn’t this incredible? I made a film which moves people.”

A common theme in your animations is ecology and the relationship between humankind and nature. We see it in The Monk and the Fish, and even more powerfully in The Red Turtle.

The reason is simple: I love nature. Like everyone else I love elephants, flowers, sunsets. I also like things others dislike, such as rain, spiders and so on. I grew up surrounded by nature and animals. I looked after chickens, dogs, ponies, insects, fish… It’s a very important part of me. I think of myself as a contemporary animist – someone who can see that all natural world is alive. Yes, even rocks, mountains and wind. I don’t think of nature as animate and inanimate; for me everything is alive. I have absolutely no doubt about that.

The Red Turtle was made at the legendary Studio Ghibli in Japan. You were the first European to make a film there. How does it feel?

I knew I was incredibly privileged from the start – just so happy. It was a fantastic adventure, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. This doesn’t change the fact that I was terrified that the whole thing will go wrong.

The risk paid off and the film was very well received and awarded may prizes. We started from your first visit to Kraków when you were showing this film. You’re now returning to collect the Dragon of Dragons statuette during the Kraków Film Festival. What did you think about being awarded the prize?

I’m still really moved, especially having seen the full list of names. Receiving this accolade for lifetime achievement is just beautiful!

Finally, I’ve got a question which is almost always asked during such interviews. Apart from visiting Kraków, what other plans have you got – are you working on something specific right now?

I’m an animator, but I’m also an illustrator, lecturer and teacher – and I relish all these roles. After The Red Turtle, I thought that I’m ready for another feature-length animation, but I haven’t found the right story yet. I’m lucky that I can be so choosy. I’ve been travelling a lot recently, and I’m focusing on lecturing and some smaller projects. I can only say that I’m working on another short film. I promise you’ll be surprised!


Michael Dudok de Wit
Dutch animator, filmmaker and illustrator. He lives and works in London. Winner of a César Award for The Monk and the Fish and an Oscar for the short film Father and Daughter. The audience of the 63rd Kraków Film Festival will be able to see a retrospective of his works, including the acclaimed Red Turtle and his debut The Interview.

Magdalena Walo
Film scholar, editor and PhD student at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts at the Jagiellonian University. She works with the Kraków Film Foundation and the Kraków Film Festival.


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