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Loving Vincent: Animation in Oil

In an age when everything has already been done, it’s a rare feat to devise a way to make a film that no one has ever tried before. But that’s what the team behind Loving Vincent did when they decided to make their film about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh’s life by animating with actual oil paintings, each one executed by a professional artist on a full-sized canvas — in the style of Van Gogh himself, of course. As anyone who remembers the Van Gogh sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams knows, the effect of the master’s artwork on the big screen can be overwhelming but also mesmeric; add motion to 120 of Van Gogh’s best-known images — he was incredibly prolific in his short working life — and make the story about the greatest mystery surrounding the enigmatic Dutch artist (his sudden decline and apparent suicide) and you’ve got the recipe for a groundbreaking animated film that will potentially place its director Dorota Kobiela in the same class with other pathfinding animators like Len Lye and Norman McLaren.

Kobiela is joined in the project by producer Hugh Welchman of BreakThru Films in the UK. Welchman won the Best Animated Short Subject Oscar in 2006 for the film Peter & the Wolf — a far cry from the 1946 Disney version — and he’s no stranger to difficult production methods or challenging adult-oriented animated films. Additional artists are already on board, with the full roster of artist-animators currently joining the crew.

The team is running a Kickstarter to round out their production funds (with a concept trailer on that page). They recently talked with me about what Loving Vincent is all about how on earth they plan to actually do it.

Filmmaker: What are your respective backgrounds? How did you first come to work together?

Kobiela: I went to art high school when I was 15 and graduated from Warsaw Fine Art Academy when I was 27, so I had 12 years of specialist art education. During that time, I also became interested in animation, as close friends of mine were studying it, so I was working on animations at the same time. After graduating, I was working mainly on my friends’ animated films, but I also directed three shorts, one of which involved a helicopter and commandos smashing through windows of a Warsaw office block. I also did the illustrations for two books for Egmont. I basically became very caught up in animation — I was always being asked to work on different projects, after a couple of years I had a real yearning to go back to painting, and I also had a desire to do my own film, rather than work on my friends’ films. So I thought I would combine both those desires and do a painting-animation film.

Welchman: I studied producing at the National Film & Television School, then scriptwriting at Berlin film school (courtesy of receiving Sam Mendes’ Shakespeare Scholarship). After I graduated, I set up BreakThru Films and I’ve been the lead producer at BreakThru Films ever since. I produced Peter and the Wolf, for which I received an Oscar, and I had shot this film in Poland, mainly because there were no animators free in UK then because there were several stop-motion puppet animations being shot at the same time. I met interesting people that I wanted to work with in Poland, so I decided to set up a branch of BreakThru in Poland. One of those interesting people was Dorota. We wanted her to come and work for us on Magic Piano and the Chopin Shorts, but she said she was busy with her own film, a film about Vincent Van Gogh. We said if she would work with us on the Chopin Shorts we would work with her on her Vincent film. She directed Little Postman and Chopin’s Drawings for us, and after that we started working with her on Loving Vincent.

Filmmaker: So where did the idea for Loving Vincent come from?

Kobiela: I wanted to do a painting animation film, and I quickly decided that I wanted to do an atmospheric film about Vincent’s last days using the very expressive and emotional style of his paintings. I had done my master’s thesis on Vincent, and I had been very passionate about his work, and I knew that Vincent’s work is accessible to a wide audience, and his paintings and story touch many people throughout the world, not just art specialists like me, so that it would be a suitable subject for a film.

Welchman: I was embarrassingly unknowledgeable about art history when Dorota pitched the project to me, and I didn’t really know anything about Vincent. But when Dorota started showing me the paintings, I realized I had seen many of them — they pop up in popular culture so much that even if you don’t know anything about art you have probably seen at least 20 of his most famous images, and once you have seen them they stay burnt into your memory. When Dorota started telling me about Vincent’s life, I became fascinated by his story and I read books on him, read his letters and — as I was traveling a lot at the time — visited lots of museums that had his works. I quickly became very passionate about Dorota’s project. Now I know a lot about Vincent!

Filmmaker: Who else is on your crew at this point and what have you been able to accomplish so far?

Welchman: We have our head of painting, Piotr Dominak, and we have three further painters who have been involved in painting the concept trailer and the tests: Michal Janicki, January Misiak, and Marlena Joypk-Misiak. We also have our production manager, Tomek Wochniak, and my business partner, Sean Bobbitt. These have been the main people working with me and Dorota on the research and development. The main achievements are twofold: firstly, making the concept trailer, and secondly, streamlining the production process so that we have got down the time it takes to paint an average frame from 140 mintues to 40 minutes.

The film will be a coproduction between BreakThru Films in Poland and Trademark Films in the UK. Ivan McTaggart from Trademark will be producer alongside me, and his partner David Parfitt will executive produce alongside Sean Bobbitt.

Filmmaker: There’s understandably a lot of emphasis in how you’re executing the animation, but what’s the story actually about?

Kobiela: On 19th May 1890, Vincent checked out of the St Remy Asylum with “CURED” stamped on his file, and he travelled to Auvers, a small village outside of Paris. Here he was close to his brother, and to his painter friends, and he was under the supervision of a Dr. Gachet, who lived in the village and specialised in treating artists. Vincent had no instances of mental health relapses, he painted 98 paintings in 9 weeks, Dr. Gachet declared him fully cured, and yet on July 29 he died by bullet wound, apparently self inflicted. This always struck me as mysterious as well as tragic. I mean, Vincent had been struggling for 8 years (he only started painting when he was 29) for recognition, and 1890 was the first time when he really was being recognized, in fact he became something of a star in the Paris art scene. He was fitter and healthier and had a more balanced life than at any time over the previous 15 years and he was close to his beloved brother, who had just had a son, who he had named after Vincent. He was at the absolute height of his powers as a painter, and in his last letter he writes, “I still love life and art very much”… It just has always seemed curious to me, and I thought it would be curious for all those around him at the time.

So the film is an investigation into his death by his postman and close friend from Arles, Joseph Roulin, and his son, Armand Roulin, who was a policeman. They want answers: how it came to be that he was “cured” when he left them in the south, and ended up dead 10 weeks later.

Filmmaker: Talk a little bit about the animation process. I’m curious about matching not only Van Gogh’s visual style but styles between individual painters. Also how to achieve continuity from frame to frame when you’re working with something as large and opaque as a canvas?

Kobiela: We are interpreting Van Gogh’s style rather than matching it. We have to change the framing, and we move beyond the limits of his canvases. We will have actors’ performances underlying the paintings, and we have to be both true to the painting and true to the actor and their performance. The important thing is that people feel the color and emotion of Vincent coming through in the animation rather than us slavishly following his brushstrokes. In terms of painters, they cannot have their own style for this film, they have to have the style I have devised. It is the same with any animation film where you have many animators: the director’s job is to make sure that the characters look and act consistently across the shots. Obviously it is more challenging for us because of the expressiveness of Vincent’s style, it doesn’t come anywhere close to conforming to the character designs and turnarounds you get on animation films. And additionally the fact that we are working with professional painters who have been educated to develop their own style, as opposed to professional animators who are trained to perform within the style they are given, means we have to get good at marshaling people’s creative forces in a particular direction without losing the flair of the painters or of Vincent’s work.

Welchman: Canvas size is approximately 50cm by 80cm, we shoot 12 frame per second. Each of the 1,200 shots are categorized on a scale from 1 to 5, and we have a target painting frame-rate for each category. We will plan weeks in advance which painters will do which paintings and all of the painters’ work stations are rigged up to Dorota and Tomek and Piotr’s computers so they can see what each of the 40 painters are working on at any one time. It is very important that we catch any problems early, as some shots will take a painter months to complete, therefore we need to monitor their progress continuously. There is no opportunity to re-do shots, we have to get them right first time. This will put a lot of pressure onto Dorota and Piotr, especially in the first three months of production. Once painters find a rhythm and Piotr and Dorota are familiar with each painter’s individual strengths and weaknesses and rate of painting then it should run smoothly, but the beginning will be all important.

Filmmaker: Is that the most daunting thing about executing a film in this way, or is it something else? And on that note, what’s the biggest incentive? Is it just the sheer novelty and challenge?

Welchman: The most daunting thing is the first three months, because we have to train our artists as we go along. Normally you hire people who have done the work you are hiring them for on previous jobs. We can’t do that. We have done this with four painters previously, but working in a small team is very diferent to working in a big team. It will be a big challenge for all of us, but this is exciting as well as daunting.

Kobiela: I consider it a huge privilege to be able to make this film, and my main challenge is to make sure I deliver a wonderful film that will thrill and intrigue audiences, make them all want to know more about Vincent and come out feeling like they have seen something special. They have to be moved by the story, as well as being amazed by the visual beauty of the film, otherwise it won’t stand the test of time. And, of course, I really want to do justice to Vincent’s work and the work of all the painters who will pour their heart and talent into this over the course of a year. For myself, I want to make a film that I consider good enough that even if I never get another chance to make a film again I am satisfied that I made something that gave some value to the people who saw it.

Filmmaker: What’s your ideal plan, if all goes well, for completion and distribution?

Welchman: 2015 is the 125th Anniversary of Vincent’s death. We would like to premiere at one of the top festivals and be out in the cinema in major territories before the end of 2015. This is a film worth seeing on the big screen; I think people will make the effort to see it in the cinemas. I am not expecting it to be in 1000 cinemas in a territory, but I do want this to have a solid art-house release, and for it to be taken by distributors who understand its potential and who take the trouble to market it to the right people.

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