Speaking Without Words: Michael Dudok de Wit

Michael Dudok de Wit is an Academy Award winning Dutch animator responsible for creating beautiful, thought provoking short film. He used gentle watercolor and charcoal backgrounds to highlight smooth ink silhouettes in order to tell engaging stories without the use of dialogue. His use of soft background and dark characters enables the viewer to understand the story while still creating their own interpretation; this makes his work uniquely impactful to each individual. Due to using highly contrasting mediums, his work also allows for deep shadows that help give a sense of depth and time. Also, Dudok de Wit also implements squash and stretch in his films to bring his silhouetted characters to life. Overall, Michael Dudok de Wit is able to breathe life into his work and make his audience feel wonder and longing and many other emotions with simple tools and quiet means.

Dudok de Wit’s process varies from project to project. Le moine et la poisson (The Monk and the Fish, 1995) was created entirely by hand using watercolor backgrounds and India ink on cels, while Father and Daughter (2000) was created using a combination of traditional and digital mediums. Generally his work focuses on painting, such is the case with The Aroma of Tea (2006), which was created by painting with tea, or his earlier works, which he made with watercolor. Dudok de Wit comments on this work with Father and Daughter, “I did hundreds of watercolor [backgrounds] and only selected sixty. This is something you cannot touch up… I chose watercolor because the ink line of the characters is liquid and the watercolor is liquid and I wanted the two to be harmonious.” He spent hours on mastering the techniques he would later use to create his visual masterpiece.

When creating Le moine et la poisson, Dudok de Wit would paint on wet or partly wet paper then tilt the paper to create an interesting, natural pattern. To contrast the soft watercolor, he created his main character out of strong German ink. Due to the thoughtful nature of the background’s creation, Dudok de Wit does not pull the focus to the characters with close ups or expressions, instead he chose to pay attention to how the monk interacted physically with his world and figuratively with his background. He wanted to “emphasize the character” in the large space with grand gestures made utilizing the squash and stretch technique. Each one of his characters, from Father and Daughter to Tom Sweep (1992) all the way to his commercials for AT&T (1985-2002) all have very expressive characters despite the limitation of not having visible facial expression. The ability to create such indicative animation

Though his medium and themes change over time, Dudok de Wit tends to keep his characters similar in design across his work. He drew from a number of vastly different places for inspiration, the most influential being Japanese and Chinese brush art, such as paintings made by Zen and Tibetan Monks. However, he also drew inspiration from people like Rembrandt, Akira Kurosawa and Yuri Norstein as well as from comics like Hergé’s “TinTin” and Carl Barks’ Donald Duck. Everything he studied provided intriguing insight he used on his works to make his little characters brightly animated. He hoped that his art could be close encourage people to feel, allowing each to take away from his work what they desired.

In an interview Dudok de Wit explained, “What I found really important in Father and Daughter was to be very sensitive to the viewer’s individual interpretations, and whether she dies or not is really up to the viewer.” He readily allowed for vast interpretations of his work so as the audience could take away only what they needed and not feel bogged down by required thought. A film without words set in an earth tone world can be read differently by different people. Some may argue the woman passed on near the end of the film, while others wouldn’t, and it would depend entirely on the person’s feelings toward death and endings. Dudok de Wit managed to create an intriguingly open world with the help of charcoal backgrounds. “[Charcoal]’s an honest and fast tool, and pleasingly messy.” He boasted, and because of that, he greatly enjoys the medium. For Father and Daughter, Dudok de Wit used his hands and erasers to create detailed backgrounds by smudging the charcoal over paper then transferred the images into PhotoShop in order to change the color to something more natural.

The characters in Dudok de Wit’s work are the strongest part. His first character, Tom Sweep, was a mute boy with a childish, yet responsible mind. The monk is equally as childish, becoming fixated on a little fish. Dudok de Wit is able to give his characters a sense of innocence through adorable, childlike movements. When a character jumps up, they jump straight up then almost float back down, much like an excited child looking for attention. When they walk, they bounce instead, giving them a youthful feeling. Everything about Dudok de Wit’s first works were fun, bright and bubbly. Around 3 minutes into Le moine et la poisson, the monk starts to bounce in short, jittery bursts, attempting to get attention from his fellow monks. When he does this, his movements become exaggerated even more and he behaves similarly to a bouncy ball. Despite how enjoyable Le moine et la poisson and Tom Sweep were, Dudok de Wit’s later work seems to lose the joy and instead focuses on relationship and deep feelings like loneliness and life-long longing.

Father and Daughter attempts to look at the pain of losing a loved one and traveling through life always missing them. He expresses the longing through the use of animals and nature. For example, he used birds to lift the action toward the sky where he could then construct a expansive view for the audience to get lost in. He explains, in his interview with Acme Filmworks, that he “wanted to recreate the beauty of the emptiness of the sky, of the clouds, of the trees.” He used the setting to give the viewer a sense of emptiness that they would then long to fill, much like how the daughter spends her life longing for her father’s return. The presence of nature allowed for people to interpret the meaning as they wanted while still gently pushing them toward the idea of quiet isolation. Even the peddling the woman does throughout the film feels lonely. She struggles to force herself up the hill through the wind and rain, only to never feel resolved. The short film is filled with emotions though no words were ever spoken.

Michael Dudok de Wit is more than a strong animator, he’s a person with a desire to share and entrust people with timeless emotions. His art speaks, without words, in a bolder voice then most longer, louder films. His use of background, nature and style all yield interesting, timeless stories.


Work Cited

Cavalier, Stephen. The World History of Animation. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2011. Page 324. Print.
Furniss, Maureen. Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics. Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey, 2007. Page 39. Print.
Furniss, Maureen. The Animation Bible: A Practical Guide to the Art of Animating, from Flipbooks to Flash. New York: Abrams, 2008. Pages 199-201, 210-212. Print.
“Michael Dudok De Wit Interview.” Interview. Vimeo. Acme Filmworks, 11 June 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <https://vimeo.com/130489356&gt;.

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