LOVING VINCENT: A Talk with the Makers of the First Painted Feature Film

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Today, one of the most original films in modern memory is coming to theaters in New York. Loving Vincent is an animated film made entirely of frames of painted canvas. That’s right — they painted a unique oil-on-canvas painting for every single frame of this feature length film. That’s 65,000 paintings done by 125 painters to bring to life the story of one of the world’s most beloved painters, Vincent van Gogh.

I had the chance to speak with the filmmakers Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela via email about the process of making this film and the story they told.

Angela Bourassa: First off, why van Gogh? What is it about this particular painter that made you want to tell his story?

Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela: It was an emotional decision in the first instance. Dorota had decided to paint a film. She trained as a painter, but worked for hire in her twenties in film and animation. Approaching 30, she felt a strong need to do her own project, and she wanted to combine her passion for painting and her passion for film. She was re-reading Vincent’s letters, one of her favorite books, not because she was thinking about doing a van Gogh film, but because it is a great source of solace and inspiration. But reading it, it hit her — it is an amazing story. And in Vincent’s last letter, found on him after his death, he said, “We cannot speak other than by our paintings.” She decided then that she wanted to bring his paintings to life to speak for him.

It turned out that her emotional decision was pretty practical, because Vincent is a rare painter in that he painted everything around him: his shoes, his bedroom, the people serving in his bar, his friends, his house, his street… so it was possible to build up his world from his paintings. Also it turns out he is probably the most popular painter in the world. We knew he was popular, but we thought he was one of many. But once we started researching him, it became clear he has a very large and very loyal following that stretches across the world, across all colors, classes, and religions.

Angela Bourassa: This film is an incredible endeavor that must have taken countless man-hours to create. Why did you choose to tell van Gogh’s story in this way? What was your ultimate goal for this project?

Hugh and Dorota: From the beginning the goal was to bring Vincent’s paintings to life to tell his story. The best way to bring his paintings to life is to animate them with oil paints on canvas, because Vincent painted in oil paints on canvas. If Vincent was a digital painter, we would have painted the film digitally, but he wasn’t — he was an oil painter, that’s why we oil-painting animated the film. If we did it in a technique different from Vincent, it wouldn’t look as much like Vincent’s paintings coming to life.

Angela Bourassa: Can you briefly explain how the animation process worked?

Hugh and Dorota: We created references for the painters using a mixture of live action, CG animation and modelling, digital matte paintings, 2D animation, and compositing. We then put this on a screen in front of the painter, and they re-imagined this reference material into Vincent’s style, animating it frame by frame.

For every shot we had just one canvas. The first frame was painted on this canvas, we took a photo and then they painted over that frame the next frame, or scratched off the paint and painted the next frame. Then we took another photo, and the same process happened again and again, twelve times for each second of the film, until the last frame. At the end we had a canvas of the last frame of the film.

Angela Bourassa: Why did you choose to set the film after van Gogh’s death? The saying in screenwriting is “show, don’t tell,” but this script seems to tell and show at once — the structure reminded me quite a bit of Citizen Kane. How did you land on this story structure?

Hugh and Dorota: Our concept was to bring Vincent’s paintings to life to tell his story. So from very early on, the idea was to interview the different portraits, who were people who knew him. We also knew we would concentrate on his final weeks. Once we started researching this period, we realized we had lots of unanswered questions about what happened to him, and quickly we fell into an obsessive investigation to find the truth. We spent months doing this, and we felt that if we were intrigued by these questions, then other people might be, too.

Also, we knew we didn’t want to deal with Vincent head on. There have been three major feature films revolving around the central performance of a famous actor as Vincent, and always they get bogged down in how to present his “craziness,” when even today after a hundred years of scholarship we don’t actually know. We wanted to present the Vincent of his letters and his paintings — sensitive, articulate, unfathomable, brilliant, and full of contradictions.

Angela Bourassa: On a normal animation film, consistency is a major concern — you want all of the animators to make the characters look the same way from frame to frame. But in Loving Vincent, the style changes from scene to scene to mimic the various works of Van Gogh. How did you approach the challenge of trying to replicate an artist with so many distinct styles? What was the process like working with the 125 painters who came together to make this animation work?

Hugh and Dorota: We limited ourselves to Vincent’s French works, as we thought incorporating his Dutch period paintings would be too much of a visual change for the audience. However, there were still a lot of variation in his French works. We tried not to change them for film continuity considerations, but sometimes we had to change a sky for a painting that was done in winter, or change the light to match the time of day of the previous shot. Our aim was to stay as close to the originals as possible without jarring our audience out of their suspension of disbelief.

In terms of working with so many artists, it was a challenge, mainly because we brought so many on board towards the end, because of financing reasons rather than artistic reasons. Every painter had to go through an intensive training in Vincent’s style and in painting animation before they could join the production, and we put painters into specializations to best match their particular strengths to certain shots, but still we needed a rigorous system of supervision and approvals to keep painters working in the film’s style.

The bottom line was that if they painted it too differently from Vincent and/or from other shots in the sequence, they had to go back and paint it again, and this was frustrating for us and for the painters, so we were all motivated for them to paint it correctly the first time around.

Angela Bourassa: Now that this project is done, would you do something like this again?

Hugh and Dorota: Definitely! Next we want to do a painted horror film, inspired by the works of Goya.

Loving Vincent premieres in select theaters today.

~

Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

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