Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent is the first fully-painted animated feature in cinema history. Partially funded through the Polish Film Institute and a Kickstarter campaign, the idea with the drama was to tell the story of Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh’s final years in the artist’s own complicated visual style.
In order to pull this film off, the directors had to track down painters working at such a high level that they could convincingly recreate van Gogh’s own paintings. Working from over 5,000 applications—first from within Poland, and then the rest of the world—Kobiela and Welchman immersed over 350 extensively educated oil painters in over 100 hours of training in the style of van Gogh, ultimately selecting over 100 painters representing 20 different countries for the project.
Shooting the entire film in live-action on green screen stages with a cast of world-class actors before painting the film frame by frame based on these performances, Loving Vincent ultimately comprised over 650,000 frames painted over 1,000 canvases, with 77 of van Gogh’s iconic images represented within the film’s visual world.
Speaking with Deadline, Welchman discusses the extraordinary work that went into realizing Loving Vincent, oil painting’s amazing ability to capture the human face and the fate that awaits all the paintings crafted for the film.
Can you explain the genesis of Loving Vincent?
It started off because Dorota wanted to paint a film. She trained as a painter for 10 years, and after she graduated, she was having most of her work in the animation and VFX industry. After she’d been doing that for four or five years, she really missed painting. She had been working on other people’s films and thought she hadn’t been pushing herself creatively, and was feeling a bit lost. She decided that what she wanted to do was reconcile her two passions and do a painted film.
Quickly after she decided to do a painted film, she decided that she wanted to find an artist where she’d bring the paintings of that artist to life to tell the story of the artist. The obvious choice for that is Vincent van Gogh, because his paintings are intensely personal, and he painted the world around him so that you can really get a picture of the world as Vincent saw it. If you think to earlier painters, they were mainly doing commissions, or maybe religious paintings.
Whereas Vincent, he painted his shoes, his bedroom. He painted his food, his letters, the street outside his house, the field nearby. You can actually get a picture of his world in a way that’s not really possible with other painters. The other thing is that with Vincent, you know about his paintings from two sides because you can read his letters, where he talks through the whole journey of how he becomes a painter.
She decided that she wanted to do the film, and there are also personal reasons for that. She first read the letters when she was 15 years old, and visited the Van Gogh Museum when she was 16 for the first time. It had a huge impact on her. I think she was also 29 when she was looking around for a project to push herself forward as an artist, and Vincent started painting when he was 29.
She started developing it as a short film and she always wanted to concentrate on his final days, in terms of the paintings that he did in Auvers, and that was about the time that she met me. She’d already raised all the money to do a short film; she could have done a seven-minute short film and painted it all herself, but she met me, and I didn’t really know anything about Vincent before I met Dorota.
I knew what everyone knows—that he cut off his ear, he went mad, and he painted these swirly, colorful paintings that sell for enormous sums of money. But I just became completely fascinated by his story. It’s a very tragic but uplifting, powerful story, in terms of his last nine years as an artist.
In recruiting painters to work on this film, how did you find artists whose work could live up to the quality of van Gogh’s paintings?
The recruitment wasn’t a case of selecting people based on their showreels. We had to train a workforce and it had to be people who were already incredibly high-level oil painters—people who could paint anything you asked them to do.
I don’t think I ever would have thought this was possible to make if I’d been living in the U.K. at the time, but we were living in Poland, and we knew from Dorota’s background that they have an extensive further education training for painters. Very few of those people go on to make their living out of oil painting, so we thought: This is a talent base that we know exists, and is probably not doing what it was trained to do. So, they’ll probably want to come and join us.
We had about 1,000 applications from within Poland, and probably no more than 350 people came and did a three-day animation test. That was a painting audition, and from those, we had 70 or 80 people come and do our training course. The training course involved over 100 hours of training in van Gogh’s style because Vincent’s style is actually very difficult. It’s a particularly difficult style to do because he had a very precise style that he did at extreme speed. Very often, he mixed the paint on the canvas, so it’s pretty tough.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough money at the beginning because we had problems financing the film so we only picked 20 out of those people that we trained. By the time we got the film fully financed, we realized we were going to need 100 painters to be working on the film. We were then advertising in Greece and in Ukraine because they both have similar education systems, and that’s when someone took our advert for painters and put it on their Facebook page, and it went viral.
We had 200 million views over three months and 4,000 new applications from painters around the world. We ended up having painters come from 20 different countries—from America, Mexico, Canada, Japan.
Oil paint is a bit of a dynamic format where you can augment your piece as you go. What was this paint like to work with in the context of a film?
As much as possible, each shot was on one canvas. You do a painting and then you have to scrub out the bit that’s moving and repaint it. As much as possible, we like to work with wet paint—we never wanted the paint to dry, and oil paint is better than acrylic paint because it stays wet longer. We also added clove oil so it would keep it wet for longer. Still, one of our big problems was that it was constantly drying out, so every 12 frames, the painter had to refresh the whole canvas, which was quite laborious.
One of the great things about oil paints is that people can really get a very intricate picture, particularly of human faces. We wouldn’t have done this film if the combination between the performance of the actors and the performance of the painters didn’t go so well together. One of the things that other forms of animation struggle with is conveying the human emotions of quite realistic faces. Computer animation really cannot do this.
One of the things which was exciting for us was that through oil painting, you can actually retain, and even augment in some way, the human performance.
How many of the frames we see in the film are inspired by specific van Gogh paintings?
We bring 77 of his paintings to life. 70 are in the van Gogh color style, and seven of them are in black and white. With all of the characters, the idea was the first time you see them, they should look like they do in the portrait.
When I showed it to the experts at the van Gogh Museum, they could stop the film and nail all 77 places where we do that. The idea was that the framing had to be as close as possible to Vincent’s original painting when we feature that painting.
Remarkably, in the paintings created for this film, you can really recognize the actors you cast for the voice roles—among them, Chris O’Dowd and Saoirse Ronan.
If you look at photographs of the people that Vincent did portraits of, you can recognize them. He’s done it in his style, but you can recognize Doctor Gachet as Doctor Gachet. In the same way, we want you to recognize Jerome Flynn. We wanted you to recognize the painting, but also recognize the actor.
It was necessary for us to cast people who looked like the painting, and looked like the real person from history. Sometimes, as in Dr. Gachet’s example, we have lots of photographs of Dr. Gachet. We have the portrait of Dr. Gachet, and because he was a bit of a narcissist who got himself painted by many different artists, we have lots of other self-portraits that he commissioned.
We wanted to cast someone who we felt looked like the Dr. Gachet in the painting, and Jerome was a perfect fit for that. We wanted to have famous faces for these famous paintings and we thought it’d be fun for audiences not only to recognize the painting but also to recognize the actor.
What was involved for the actors on this project?
It was more like traditional live-action. A lot of the actors asked us, “Should we do something differently because it’s going to be painted?” We’re like, “No. Your job is to bring out the character as written,” and the only difference really was that when they had to get into the exact position of the painting, it was quite a technical process. Whatever they wanted to do in terms of their performance in that shot, they had to make sure that they went into or started from that exact position. We shot it all live-action at big green screen studios because we couldn’t afford to have them standing in front of the painters.
How many paintings did you end up with at the end of this production, and do you have any future plans for them?
Even though we had 65,000 frames, they were done on 1,000 canvases. In terms of those 1,000 paintings, 100 of them were sold to members of the public during the production as part of the financing of the film; 140 went to financiers and actors then, of the remaining paintings, we have 124 of them in an exhibition in Holland, which is going very well, indeed. We had 25,000 admissions in the first month, which is probably double what we expected.
I’d very much like that exhibition to go to America. It’s running in Holland until the end of January and then I really want to find somewhere. Easily the biggest country for the film right, now by a long ways, is America. In terms of box office so far, I think a third of our admissions have been in America.
We’ve still got some big countries to come, but there’s no doubt it’s going to be the biggest country for Loving Vincent. I’m hoping that I can find a museum or a gallery that will be interested in taking it after it’s finished in Holland. Then, the rest of them are going to be sold through our website.
I think we put up 100 new ones because we sold the first 100 and we put 100 new ones two weeks ago. I know that they’re selling. That’s good.