By/Por Ray Falcon, SPECIAL for LWR
It took seven years and 65000 hand-painted frames to turn a live action feature into a one-of-kind animated film about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh.
“Loving Vincent” is being billed as the first fully oil-painted feature film, but even that lofty description doesn’t do just justice to the painstaking and extremely technical process it took to make this one-of-kind hand-crafted film. IndieWire recently talked to co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman to find out how, over the course of seven years, they made this film that tells the story of the real-life Vincent van Gogh through his paintings.
Co-director Dorota Kobiela was a painter working in animation and frustrated by a career that revolved around working on other people’s projects. Determined to make something of her own, she set out to combine her passion for painting and film. As a university student, she studied the intersection of psychology and art, writing her thesis on the letters of van Gogh. Using this as starting point, she came up with an idea for a seven-minute short film about the last day of van Gogh’s life.
While running a successful Kickstarter for the short, she met producer Hugh Welchman, who became intrigued by the project.
“There’s a business side of this as well,” said Welchman. “I went to this exhibition where just [van Gogh’s]letters were on display, along with two paintings, and there was a queue for three and half hours to get in. I started to think, ‘If people will queue to see these letters, we should be making a feature film about this.’’
Kobiela shared van Gogh’s letters with Welchman, who quickly understood why she had become so fascinated by the painter’s story.
“As soon as he got into Vincent’s persona, he just got literally obsessed,” said Kobiela. “One of the things that I fell in love with Hugh for was that he was so passionate and goes completely deep into a project.”
The filmmaker partners also became a couple, and set out on a seven-year journey to make the film together.
The Concept and the Live-Action Movie
One line from van Gogh’s letter – “We cannot speak other than by our paintings” – became the guiding principal of “Loving Vincent.”
“I took it literally,” said Kobiela of the quote. “I thought, ‘This is so amazing if I could actually do exactly that and make his paintings speak and tell his story.’”
The co-directors would use 94 of the artist’s paintings as the film’s settings, while also bringing to life the painting’s real-life subjects – friends and acquaintances of the artist – to piece together the mystery of van Gogh’s last days before his tragic death.
Because van Gogh was driven by the need to capture the essence of his subjects, the co-directors knew they needed actors to bring these characters to life. For two weeks, Kobiela and Welchman shot their 95-minute feature with their cast – including notable actors like Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’Dowd – largely against green screens. They spent another two weeks in Poland shooting their backdrops and working with body doubles to gather the rest of the footage they’d need to create the live-action version of their film. Working with a regular crew – including top cinematographers Lukasz Zal (“Ida”) and Tristan Oliver (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) – the shoot was like any other, if not a little hurried due to the production’s limited resources.
The co-directors then composited their live-action footage with van Gogh’s paintings and used computer-generated animation to give the still-life backdrop a three-dimensional realism. Once they had a final cut, painting began.
“To paint 65,000 frames of oil paintings the size of two-and-a-half feet wide and one-and-a-half foot high is a crazy undertaking,” said Welchman. “So we had to do a lot of testing beforehand to make sure it was actually possible.”
A smaller portion of the film is comprised of black-and-white scenes that aren’t set against a van Gogh painting, and rely heavily on computer rotoscope animation. But for most of the film, the co-directors wanted actual hand-brushed strokes that captured van Gogh’s style. Computer animation would not be unacceptable.
“Vincent’s paintings have a certain rhythm to the painted brush strokes,” said Kobiela. “This is not something you just copy from rotoscoping. This had to be creative animation. They had to control every single frame and animate the brush strokes frame by frame.”
The first step was to take the actors – who were cast based on physical likeness and costumed with full hair and makeup for the shoot – and bring them into line with the subjects in van Gogh’s portraits. Specialized character design painters created 377 paintings on 26″ x 19′ canvases that merged actor and subject into one.
Then, using these design paintings as a reference, a larger team of painters reimagined the live-action footage and brought it to life using traditional stop-motion animation techniques — except that the frames were oil-painted rather than drawn.
The production team built 97 painting animation workstations for the larger team of painters, who came from all over Europe to work in one of three studios in two countries. The stations were designed so each artist could easily reference the projected footage without having to worry about technology or light as they matched brushstrokes and color in animating their original canvases.
In total, 65,000 paintings were created for the film, and shot using a Canon D20 digital still camera at 6K resolution. Some post-production work made small adjustments, but the final film — which Good Deed Entertainment will release in U.S. theaters September 22— is made entirely from these frames.