Michael Dudok De Wit: An Animation is Worth a Thousand Words

Michael Dudok De Wit is a Dutch animator who now lives and works in London. He animates primarily by using watercolor on cels. He has directed and animated several short films, including “Father and Daughter,” which won an Oscar (“Father and Daughter”). His style is somewhat minimalistic using basic shapes for his characters, and his movies have no dialogue. This lack of speech may be seen as a hindrance to De Wit’s storytelling, but the meaning of his films are apparent and beautifully conveyed.

In De Wit’s 1992 movie “Tom Sweep,” a sanitary worker, presumably the title character of the short, is flustered by how passersby continually miss throwing their trash in a garbage can, with one man rummaging through the refuse when Tom’s back is turned. His use of watercolor is evident, especially in the background. This background is kept very simple, the orange having no detail other than the value achieved through the use of watercolor. The characters are kept simple as well, as De Wit designed them with simple shapes without much detail. These characters move quickly in an almost jerky fashion, giving the animation a very high energy. The only sound in this animated short are the sound effects of the litter being thrown around and the squeaking of Tom’s cart, accompanied by the cheerful accordion music. Despite the lack of speaking and even any written word, Tom’s increasingly flustered actions portray his rising frustration with those who miss the garbage can. The people passing by are also characterized as being indifferent, as they rarely even acknowledge the garbage can other than its general position and ignore Tom. All this is evident without anyone of them saying a word. De Wit has managed to give solid characterization to characters that do not speak with words, but rather with their actions.

In the 1994 short animation “The Monk and the Fish,” De Wit tells the story of a monk who has a lengthy battle trying to catch a fish that swims in the monastery aqueduct. Again, the backgrounds of this movie are painted in watercolor, and the characters are made from simple shapes. De Wit had considered several different shapes before finally deciding to use a triangular blob for the monks (Spicer). He also animated the reflections in the water with great care, as the water seems to act as a mirror reflecting the characters and as well as the sky above them. Shadows are also done well; the scene inside the monastery and outside during the night have an excellent contrast between the light and dark. No character speaks for the entire six minutes of this animation; the only sounds are, once again, sound effects and music. De Wit worked closely with the composer of the piece used and lined up the movement of characters with the timing of the music (Spicer). The exaggerated movements of the characters (exemplified when the monk is leading the other monks to see the fish and again at the end when the monk and the fish are floating peacefully through space) conveys the emotion (Spicer). The monk, diligent in his pursuit of the fish, is seen bounding excitedly towards the water when he is eager to catch the fish, showing this through his motions alone. Then, when the monk is drifting through space with the fish, he seems at peace and allows himself to float. Again, De Wit manages to communicate the feelings and intent of his characters without having them utter a word.

“Father and Daughter,” De Wit’s Oscar-winning nine-minute piece tells the story of a girl who loses her father to the sea, but keeps returning to the spot she last saw him, never giving up hope he will one day return. The look of this work is different from the two previously mentioned, as the colors used are not as vibrant. This is done because De Wit decided to forego his preferred style of using watercolor on animation cels and experimented with many various mediums for a different look and to avoid the “flat, painterly” look of his previous cel animations.  He ultimately decided on charcoal, because he felt that it was a very physical technique that brought one closer to the work (Desowitz). This style added a new depth to the characters, but it is seen primarily in the backgrounds and landscapes of the short. The trees are given dimension and they along with the grass move believably in the wind. As for the characters, they move more smoothly in this piece than De Wit’s previously mentioned work. While they do maintain a certain simplicity to their design, these characters are more realistic compared to the passersby in “Tom Sweep” and the monk in “The Monk and the Fish.” Again, De Wit animates reflections in water as if it were a mirror, specifically seen when the birds are seen flying toward the horizon. The father and daughter’s embrace before he leaves conveys very deep emotion, showing that he cares for his daughter and hints that he may know he will not return to her right away. The daughter’s feeling of longing for her father and hope that she will see him again are made evident by her looking out over the water and the eventually dried up seabed, even if she does not stop by to check for him. The reunion of the father and daughter at the end of the film is full to the brim with emotion; when the two embrace, it is evident that they each missed the other dearly and are happy and relieved to be together again. Accordion music and sound effects are all that is heard in this short, every character being mute. This proves once again that De Wit can communicate deep emotion and meaning through only character motion.

Dialogue and spoken narration are often utilized in an animation to explain what is happening in a story or to express how a character feels. Michael Dudok De Wit rejects this practice, choosing instead to convey emotion and meaning through his character’s actions. Tom in “Tom Sweep” is obviously made flustered by those who keep missing a trash can; the monk in “The Monk and the Fish” becomes frustrated that he cannot catch the fish; when the father and daughter embrace in “Father and Daughter,” it is clear that the two had missed each other dearly. De Wit proves the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, only applying it to his animated work instead.

Works Cited

“Father and Daughter.” Animation World Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Desowitz, Bill. “Adding Depth to Oscar-Winning Father & Daughter.” Animation. 15.5(2001): 20. Omnifile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Spicer, Al. “Teachers TV & you: not just for teachers, and not only on TV, there’s more to Teachers TV than the name implies.” NATE Classroom 7 (2009): 36+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

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