The project is being created by the Oscar-winning studio BreakThru Films — it won an Academy Award for the 2006 animated short “Peter and the Wolf” — and the current vision seems yet more ambitious: to create the first “feature-length painted animation.”
In the Kickstarter video, we see people drawn from van Gogh’s own life — and frames that directly reference his paintings. The effect is eye-catching, as the clip bristles with visual ingenuity.
“Loving Vincent” is the collective vision of director/writer Dorota Kobiela (2011’s “Little Postman”) and producer/writer Hugh Welchman, as well as co-writer Jacek von Dehnel; Ivan Mactaggart is a co-producer, and manager Marcin J. Sobczak is in charge of the Kickstarter campaign.
The Post’s Comic Riffs recently caught up with the Warsaw-based Welchman — whose graduation film won honors at Cannes, and who was a visual-effects supervisor on the Oscar-winning Edith Piaf bio “La Vie en Rose” (2007) — to talk about his passion for this new project, and the personal discoveries he has made about the ever-engaging van Gogh:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on hitting your initial Kickstarter goal. Are you at all surprised by the donor support and interest –- or does the response simply validate the belief you have in the audience for this film?
HUGH WELCHMAN: We knew that Vincent is very popular — this is one of the reasons we chose his story — so the response does validate the belief we have in the audience for the film. But the passionate nature of many of the responses by individual donors has surprised and delighted us. There are many people out there for whom Vincent’s art and also his letters have had a significant impact on their lives — therefore we have had some very personal and emotional responses. And also, we are interpreting Vincent’s paintings, rather than copying them, and so we were a bit apprehensive about whether people would accept this. The campaign has reassured us that people like our aesthetic approach, as we have had so many deeply felt positive responses to our concept trailer.
MC: What first fascinated me about your project was how dazzling the animated-canvas approach is. Can you speak to how you arrived at the decision to create the film this way?
HW: Dorota always had it in mind that it was going to be this way, but the first tests she showed me were created in the computer, and I said: “But what will it look like when it is painted?” So she moved her bed into her living room, converted her bedroom into a small studio, and painted a test free-hand. This showed a lot of promise, but if she did the whole film herself like that, then she would be animating this film for a decade.
Dorota then was busy making two short films for us, and one of them, “Little Postman,” she decided to do as the world’s first — and I believe still only — 3D painting animation film. This required us to build sets, and paint the characters and the animation actually onto the model sets. To make this film — which picked up … top 3D short prizes worldwide — in the [required] time frame meant we had to have 18 painters working simultaneously on different sets. This was a great opportunity to assess how feasible it was to have a multi-set/canvas approach to painting animation and maintain consistency and quality. As that film worked out very well, this gave us the belief we could pull off “Loving Vincent.”
MC: When I spoke to Wes Anderson about how he made “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” he said he did not want ANY digital “in-betweens” – despite their use as timesavers; he wanted all the stop-motion to be handcrafted. Is that sort of how you’re approaching “Loving Vincent” – with a desire to use ONLY canvases – or will you digitally create some in-betweens?
HW: I was told by the animators from that film that Wes used our film “Peter and the Wolf” as his main creative reference for “Fantastic Mr Fox”! That is exactly the approach we took to “Peter and the Wolf,” and that is exactly the same philosophy for “Loving Vincent.”
I believe strongly [that] in a world where so much of what you see is generated in a computer, or touched up beyond recognition in a computer, there is a deep-felt psychological, often unarticulated, desire for things hand-crafted. I have had many people say, “I could do that in the computer” over the past three years, to which I answer, “Show me!” No one has yet been able to show me something as good. They can give me approximations, but they can’t give me something as good for the simple fact that the people have to paint it in the computer, and those people painting it in the computer aren’t as good as my painters who are painting it on canvas.
But it is not just about the artist — it is also the materials. In our film, you see the paint; you see the fact it is being re-painted frame by frame; you see that concentrated artistic mind of the painter applied in paint to tell the story.
MC: Related to that, you call this “the world’s first fully painted feature film.” What does that mean in layman’s terms? And does that mean the classic Disney animated films like “Snow White” and “Bambi” are not [fully] painted feature films?
HW: In terms of the world of animation, “painting animation” refers to a process by which the image you are seeing is a painted image, which is painted over and photographed frame by frame to achieve the movement. So far, only short films have been done in this technique, so ours is the first feature-length painting animation.
Early Disney films were hand-colored and hand-painted, but not fully painted. Firstly, the line was drawn, rather than painted, whereas everything you see in our image is painted. Secondly, they used Disney’s incredible invention of the multi-plane camera — an in-camera version of what films now do in the computer, termed compositing, so the movement is often done by a cameraman rather than by the painter. In our film, all camera movements are painted.
MC: Van Gogh is my favorite 19th-century painter largely because of that seductively kinetic style – the lush brushstrokes and bold colors and undulating texture. You could have chosen any artist for this film – why van Gogh?
HW: It could only be Vincent! The combination of Vincent’s personal story, his incredible paintings and also the fact that he actually painted the people and places involved in his life, [as well as] his popularity, makes him unique. Many painters had lives that can be told as dramatic stories, but their paintings don’t act as a pictorial diary of their lives like Vincent. Others have great dramatic paintings, but not dramatic lives. And almost none have the popularity of Vincent.
From my research, I think it is reasonable to say he is the most famous painter in the world. I mean more people might be able to name da Vinci, because of “The Da Vinci Code” and [the] “Mona Lisa,” but they might struggle to recognize more than just the one painting, whereas Vincent, there are several paintings which have become recognizably part of popular culture.
And more people know a couple of facts about Vincent’s life than any other painter. It might just be, “He’s the one who went mad and cut off his ear, isn’t he?” but still it’s there, in hundreds of millions of people’s heads — whereas they would be [hard-pressed] to tell you facts about Monet or Michaelangelo. They could probably tell you about da Vinci’s obsession with flying, his invention of the helicopter, but not about his life.
MC: You tease in the trailer that Dorota had an epiphany about making this film – can you tell us more about what that epiphany was, and how things began to evolve from there?
HW: Her epiphany was, “I don’t need to choose!” You see, Dorota trained as a painter, but then got sucked into the world of animation, and was always in demand, so she found that she didn’t really have time to reflect on where she was going. But over time, she had this strong yearning to go back to painting. Dorota loves directing and she loves painting, and her epiphany was that maybe she didn’t need to choose between them — she could use her skills in and passion for painting and filmmaking by devising a project that combined the two. That realization started the process that has led to all the rest of us coming onboard to make this film in this way.
MC: I’m intrigued by the idea that you’re framing this story, at least partially, as something of a murder mystery. Can you speak to that some? You will have 20 characters from his own paintings telling “his story” – will the circumstances and clues surrounding his death be something of an engine to drive your narrative?
HW: Yes, the circumstances of and clues, or lack of them, surrounding Vincent’s death [are] very much an engine to drive us through a story about Vincent. There are many things that don’t add up around the traditional account of his suicide — not just in terms of the physical evidence, but also in the evidence contained within Vincent’s many and detailed letters, mainly to his beloved brother, Theo.
The people in his paintings from Auvers were the very people who were seeing him if not daily, then several times in the course of each week he was there, in the run-up to his death. These are people who must have had their own theories or ideas as to what happened. Also, the people he was around for his turbulenet time in Arles when he broke down and had to be admitted to a mental asylum would likely have pretty strong views about Vincent.
We wanted to bring these “eyewitnesses” of Vincent to life, and tell the story through them.
MC: You talk about “unexpected accounts” of van Gogh’s life – are there things you discovered in your research for this film that really surprised, perhaps even shocked, you?
HW: Unlike Dorota, who read his letters as a teenager, and has re-read them several times since, I came to this as a layman, and a pretty uninformed one at that. I knew “He cut off his ear and was a mad genius.” I’m not sure I even knew [that] he shot himself. So that was where I was coming from. And well, what shocked me most was the fact he started drawing at age 28, and started painting at 30, and by 37 was the visionary revolutionary of art. He wasn’t born with this innate talent — we often think that geniuses are just born that way, and mostly the artists considered geniuses did show their exceptiional talent in early childhood, or at least in their teens. But Vincent willed his genius through staggeringly hard work and a deep-seated, passionate belief that he had something to communicate to the world. It blows my mind.
Also unexpected is the optimism and passion for life and work that pour from his letters right up to his death, and the fact he seemed so much more balanced and stable than at any time over the previous five years, in which he was adamantly against suicide as an option. In his last letter, he writes: “I still love life and art very much.” With statements like that, and no suicide note, of course it raises questions in your mind.
Another surprise to me was the fact that he was actually quite famous, in terms of the artwork[s], at the time of his death. He was definitely seen as one of the rising stars. The story that had permeated to me through the mass media was that he died an unknown. This is not true.
MC: Creating this work as a canvas-to-canvas animation sounds like a tremendously ambitious undertaking – especially if you ultimately have “only” 40 painters working on this. Could you talk about your film from a hiring and training point of view – how will this work where you test 70 of 200 painters — I believe you say — and what are you most looking for in the hiring? The ability to replicate the technique of a genius?…
HW: The painters have to be excellent technical painters in the medium of oil painting. The painters we hire will be able to paint anything. Additionally, they have to be quick. Additonally, they have to take to animation. Painting a still painting and anticipating/imagining/achieving movement are two different skills. Some really good painters don’t get this.
Additionally, they have to have a mentality that allows them to sit and paint for between five and 10 hours in a black box, day in and day out for a year. Even if people are excellent painters and good animators, it doesn’t mean that they are cut out for doing it every day at that intensity. When you hire animators, you are getting people who know that this is what the job is — they have actively trained for it, and have sought this out. Whereas a lot of people who we are testing have trained to make individual paintings in brightly lit studios or in the open air, so they are having to embrace a whole new working life — the working life of an animator!
MC: The pedigree for this film, of course, includes Oscar-winning work. Is “Loving Vincent” like anything you’ve done before, or from a technical and storytelling standpoint, do you feel like you’re stretching your talents in whole new ways?
HW: While I think this has the same spirit as previous work, for sure it is on a whole different level in terms of scale, and the technique has dictated a whole new approach to animation and storytelling. Experience from our previous films has been useful, but we have also, to some extent, had to have a beginner’s-mind approach, as well, and re-examine all we knew to make sure we can come up with the best solution to this problem. There will be the same quality, the same attention to detail, the same originality applied to “Loving Vincent,” but I hope it will look entirely different and unique from anyting that BreakThru has done before.