The road to "Loving Vincent" was long and arduous: The movie was 10 years in the making, according to filmmaker Dorota Kobiela, who dreamed up the idea of an animated biopic about Vincent van Gogh in 2007. Although originally imagined as what Kobiela calls a short "mock-documentary" — in which various subjects of van Gogh's portraits would come to life and be "interviewed" about the painter — her plan was never less than a time-suck. That's even before the movie — which is framed as a mystery centering on the circumstances of the artist's death — had morphed into a full-blown feature.
The 38-year-old animator and painter, who has degrees from Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts and the Warsaw Film School, had deliberately given herself a massive headache: Each of the film's frames, she insisted, would be an original oil painting, done in the style of van Gogh.
Do the math: At 12 frames a second, a 90-minute movie has 64,800 frames. Give or take a couple of hundred images, that's how many individual paintings were produced — by a stable of 125 classically trained painters — for the new film, which marks the feature directorial debut of Kobiela and her 42-year-old co-director (and husband), Hugh Welchman.
The Polish-born Kobiela and Welchman, a Brit, make their home in the Baltic port of Gdynia, Poland, where the film was made. They recently sat down to talk about "Vincent," starting off by saying that the collaboration began when they fell in love, not just with each other, in 2008, but with the inspirational story of an artist who took his failures — at life, love and career — and turned them into brilliant art.
Q: In making what is essentially a cartoon — albeit one about a great artist — was there a danger that the story itself would become cartoonish?
Welchman: We weren't worried about it becoming cartoonish, because it's based on his life, and his life was rather tragic. Inspirational, yes, but also tragic. We were concerned about doing justice to Vincent's person, to his letters, to his paintings. We wanted to use real actors behind the painted characters, because Vincent painted from life, too. Our interest in framing the story as a mystery came about organically. We found we were arguing a lot: Who was this man? Why did he commit suicide? Did he commit suicide? We found that — despite the fact that there is a whole museum dedicated to him [the Van Goh Museum in Amsterdam], and there have been scores of books written on him, beginning with Julius Maier-Graefe's biography almost a century ago — there were still a lot of unanswered questions.
Q: For those who don't understand the technique you use in the film, which involves Rotoscopy — or painting on top of live action — can you explain what that is?
Welchman: Rotoscopy, in the case of the film's black-and-white flashback scenes, involves taking underlying footage — normally live action — and drawing or painting over top of it. Typically, nowadays, that's done on computer. We used Painting Animation Work Stations (PAWS), where the artists can look from reference images on a screen to the paintings in front of them, in this case, on canvas board. The film's color paintings, on the other hand, those made in Vincent's style, are not true Rotoscopy, because the artists were reimagining live-action scenes in the style of van Gogh paintings.
Q: Dorota, you're a painter, and you have spoken about your own struggles with depression. How did those two things inform this film?
Kobiela: I had read van Gogh's letters many times, the first time at 16. They — how shall I say it? — struck a chord. The seed was the line from one of the last letters Vincent ever wrote — the one found on his body: "We cannot speak, other than by our paintings." I had been working in animation for several years, but I felt this need to go back to painting, to combine my two passions.
Q: When did the idea hit you to approach the film as a thriller?
Welchman: Before I met Dorota, I knew what everyone knows about van Gogh, and nothing else: He cut off his ear. He went mad. He made colorful paintings. They sell for lots of money. That's it. After we fell in love — and fell in love with the story of van Gogh — I read all the books. I became obsessed. In 2011, when "Van Gogh: The Life" came out [by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith], and they said he was murdered, I thought, "Wow, that's interesting." Many of the questions about his suicide — Where did he get the gun? What happened to the gun? What happened to his painting equipment? — can be addressed by the theory that the shooting was not suicide, but accidental.
Welchman: We've been working with the museum since 2013. They helped with disputes in the historical record, with valuable information about van Gogh's painting technique. You know, they have X-rays. They can tell you the order in which the paint was applied, the tools he used. When you're dealing with someone as famous as Vincent, you want to feel that you're being respectful to his legacy. The museum gets 1,000 requests a year for approval and support of van Gogh projects. They only accept a handful.
Q: You've sold some of the original paintings through the film's website. What are you doing with the other 60,000?
Welchman: We have four on our walls at home. All have sold pretty quickly that we put up on the site. As for the rest, we're doing an exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, Holland, where van Gogh comes from. They have six original van Goghs in their permanent collection. We chose 119 of our favorites from the film. They're showing 70 of those downstairs. The real ones are upstairs.
Q: Did it ever occur to you that there might be an easier way to make this film, like, say, designing an app that can imitate the style of van Gogh?
Kobiela: I had my heart set from the beginning: I wanted it to not just look like oil on canvas, but to be oil on canvas. I wanted there to be human error. I didn't want it to look calculated.
Welchman: There was this university computer-science department in Prague. Someone from the department saw the trailer for the film. They said, "We want to do that. We want to do, in the computer, what you've done by hand." I said, "Fine, let's do a test. We'll put your computer program up against one of our best painters." They said, "We're not ready yet. Maybe next year."
Q: Would you say that paint is never just paint? It takes a glint of light and turns it into something solid.
Kobiela: It's important to see the artifact.
Welchman: Painting is still, even in this day and age, a great technology. It's better than film. It's better than celluloid. It's better than a digital disk. It's really tough technology. We had a flood in our studio, and none of the paintings were damaged.
Kobiela: But our computers were!
Loving Vincent (PG-13, 94 minutes). At area theaters.