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For This Oscar Winner, Brevity Is an Art Form

Movies: Michael Dudok de Wit, creator of the best animated short, has been drawing for more than 20 years. And his short speech earned him a TV.

March 30, 2001|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Michael Dudok de Wit, who won the Oscar for short animated film (and a TV from the academy for making the shortest acceptance speech--18 seconds) Sunday night for his touching "Father and Daughter," finds he's become an overnight success after working in animation for more than two decades.

Born in 1953 in Holland, Dudok de Wit studied art in England and settled in London, where he worked on television and theatrical commercials while pursuing his dream of making personal films. "I really learned to animate when I started doing commercials. They push your limits, they teach you to be efficient and to draw in styles you'd never chose yourself," he explained the day after winning the Oscar. "I went into commercials to learn and to survive as an animator. I didn't want to be part of a feature-film project or a TV series. But I became an animator to make personal films."

Although his first personal short, "Tom Sweep" (1992), was favorably received, Dudok de Wit first attracted widespread attention in 1994 with "The Monk and the Fish." In this droll tale, a friar becomes obsessed with a small fish he sees leaping in the monastery pond, but eventually establishes a Zen-like rapport with his elusive prey. The story is told entirely in mime.

"The Monk and the Fish" won prizes at the major animation festivals and earned Dudok de Wit his first Oscar nomination. Although it lost to "Bob's Birthday," the film showcased the vivid characters, minimal landscapes and elegantly calligraphic lines that distinguish his personal style. Like New Yorker cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe, Dudok de Wit depicts unique individuals in a few deceptively simple pen strokes. His finely honed sense of timing transforms simple actions into comic statements. Audiences roared as his pudgy monk bounced along in pursuit of the fish, recalling the silent-era maxim that a really good animator can get a laugh just by walking a character across the screen.

In "Father and Daughter," Dudok de Wit used these skills to tell a more emotionally charged story. A father bicycles with his small daughter to the edge of a body of water. After tenderly bidding her farewell, he rows away in a small boat and disappears. As the years pass, the girl returns to the spot where she last saw her father; she grows up and raises a family of her own, but continues her vigil.

As an old woman, she discovers the waterway has been reclaimed and is now dry land. She walks through the tall grass and finds the remains of her father's rowboat. Curling up in it, she falls asleep and is finally reunited with her beloved father.

"When I was beginning 'Father and Daughter,' I literally asked myself what in a film moves me the most--and the answer was when there's a separation followed by a reunion," said Dudok de Wit. "It's a scenario everyone's seen a million times, but it always moves me, even in a bad film. So the key word when I conceived the film was 'longing.' Longing is sad, but there's a beauty to that sadness."

*

A British-Dutch co-production, "Father and Daughter" was a favorite among professional animators on Oscar night. The nominations for animated short provoked a minor brouhaha earlier this winter: Many artists complained the selection committee had overlooked some of the year's better films.

DreamWorks animator Pres Romanillos, whose work includes the evil Shan Yu in Disney's "Mulan," said, "Dudok de Wit is very in touch with the medium and conveys what he wants to say through clear, simple images. When I see his films, I'm envious and inspired at the same time."

As he began the film, Dudok de Wit tested the idea on what would prove to be his severest critic--his daughter. "When I finished the storyboard, I showed it to my daughter, who was about 5 at the time," he recalled. "I told her, 'It's a story about a father and a daughter that's a bit sad, but it's not about you and me. It's an invented story.' When we had gone through the storyboard, she liked and understood it. But she asked, 'Where is the father going? Why is he going away?' I explained that where he's going and why isn't as important as the fact that they say goodbye--that's all we need to know.

"She didn't accept that answer and asked again. I told her again that what's important is that he's going away. She grew very irritated and said, 'But you wrote the story. You must know where he's going!' "

The story of "Father and Daughter" is not drawn from Dudok de Wit's personal experiences, but the setting, which acts almost as another character, is. The broad, level fields punctuated with stylized poplar trees recall Van Gogh's landscapes. The tall poplars bend in the spring winds, provide welcome shade in the summer, send their leaves flying over the countryside in autumn and offer shelter from the cold winter rains. "I grew up amid polders, which are reclaimed land and very beautiful. The beauty of Holland is its flat landscapes and big horizons," Dudok de Wit said.

A modest, soft-spoken man, Dudok de Wit seems a bit bewildered by the success of "Father and Daughter." He's currently reworking the storyboards for a new personal film and completing the illustrations for a children's book to be published later this year by Harper Collins. Looking bemusedly at his golden statuette, he concludes, "The book is a story about a little boy and a cloud called 'Hoo.' The title is 'Oscar and Hoo' but that's pure coincidence. I didn't name the boy."

And for the record: Dudok de Wit said he's donating the TV he won from the academy to charity.

* "Father and Daughter" will be shown as part of a program of this year's Oscar-nominated shorts screening at Laemmle's Monica 4Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica on Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m.

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