“Loving Vincent” has become the surprise animated indie hit of the season, reaching $20 million worldwide at the box office and grabbing a Golden Globe nomination. An Oscar nom could follow as a result of its innovative experiment in hand-animating 65,000 frames of oil paintings, mimicking Vincent van Gogh’s bold colors and expressive brush strokes.
But that’s only part of it. By framing it as a speculative murder mystery shot with live-action performances (headlined by Saoirse Ronan and Aidan Turner), directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have created a uniquely immersive animated experience. Their team of 125 painters integrated the performances into the oil painting style of animation through a combination of computer compositing and rotoscoping, thereby achieving a remarkable seven-year, $5.5 million production. (And, yes, it qualifies for Oscar consideration under the rules of frame-by-frame animated articulation for character performances.)
Getting the Story Right
The brainchild of Polish painter Kobiela, “Loving Vincent” first began as a short project with Kickstarter funding until she teamed up with the British Welchman (co-producer of the Oscar-winning animated short, “Peter and the Wolf”). With development assistance from the Polish Film Institute and after successful testing, they decided to embark on a feature. “If you want to tell the story of an artist through this art, then you want to pick an artist that is actually describing his own life through his surroundings,” she said. “I re-read his letters to his brother Theo when I went through a dark period in my life and found them inspirational.”
The letters hooked Welchman as well and they worked on the script, imagining the last week of van Gogh’s life, utilizing the letters and playing with a theory that he didn’t commit suicide but was shot by a jealous bully. In fact, the directors initially had seven versions of their script., including a mockumentary in which they were the protagonists. “But it was too against history to do that,” Welchman said. “We had to match the paintings to the history to our story, so it was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle.”
The Live-Action Shoot
The directors spent four weeks shooting 60 minutes of live-action footage with their actors in period costume and makeup in front of green or blue screens (two weeks with the principals in London and two weeks in Poland for backdrops with body doubles). But coming from animation made it easier for the two directors, with everything meticulously storyboarded.
“Vincent always painted a real person in front of him,” said Welchman. “He wanted to interpret that person’s character and soul like a modern portrait and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted our animators to bring out the power of the performance of the actors by re-imagining it and bringing it into Vincent’s style.”
The most difficult scene was the opening fight, which they managed to complete in only two hours, even though the assistant director said it would take six. “We planned out a year before we did the live-action shooting and went through many, many different planning versions of it,” Welchman added.
When Van Gogh Met Animation
Then, after six months of editing and prep, came the hard part: two years of oil painting on canvas, using 77 originals as reference plus others that were re-imagined for time of day or the summer season when the story takes place. Kobiela likened the process to stop-motion in which oil paintings on boards were photographed and rephotographed. “For me, I liked that you can see that it was painted by different hands,” she said. “Because of my background in painting, I love the element of unexpected of surprise, of error.” Kobiela did lots of painting as well.
And the directors knew instinctively that Van Gogh’s style was a perfect match for animation. “One of the things that Vincent did was paint very fast,” said Welchman. “Vincent could do a painting in two hours (and we did two hours per frame), so there’s a lot of energy that comes from the way he painted. And sometimes when you look at his work, you could almost think that it’s moving. So it’s very appropriate for animation, and his paintings led us into how we should be animating them.”
At a third of a second per day per animator, this definitely proved to be the slowest form of animation ever. But Welchman wouldn’t trade it for any other technique. “For me, what was nice about the oil painting style of animation feels like it was hand-made, and there was a lot more control over the facial expressions. So compared to 2D animation or CG animation or puppet animation, the level of performance that we could bring out of the actors using oil paintings was more precise with many more options.
“With other forms of animation you have to stylize it because of the limitations, and you need to maybe have larger performances, or approach a story in a different way to compensate for the inability to get very subtle human emotions.”
The hardest scene was the opening, which starts from the starry night and swoops down into the town and into the aforementioned fight. “It has many points of view and four paintings and took 18 months,” Kobiela said. “When you make a decision on the brush stroke, you just have to move it a little bit more and more. That was very challenging because we had to make sure [the guy] painted the perfect ‘Starry Night.'”
The fact that “Loving Vincent” has been embraced as adult animation has also pleased the directors. “As an animation filmmaker, it allows you to do the full range of possibilities,” Welchman said.