Bringing Vincent van Gogh to Life

It’s not often that the process of making a film is as interesting — and as insightful — as the film itself. The aphorism “don’t talk about the labour pains, show us the baby” is often flung at sappy stories of indie filmmakers recounting their financial struggles in mounting their dream project. It does make sense — show us the baby, that’s what really matters. And yet, there are a few films where the process is as important. Consider the 2015 Sundance darling Tangerine, a movie revolving around the marginalised denizens of Los Angeles, made by a debutant filmmaker using just three iPhones — a fact potent enough to inspire nearly every aspiring filmmaker around the world.

On February 26, 2016, the trailer of an indie movie, still under production, hit the Internet. Almost instantly, cinephiles, entertainment magazines and websites were talking about it, sharing its link on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. This enthusiasm for a one-minute trailer made sense, for it showed us something we had never seen before: a film entirely animated out of oil paintings on canvas.

Chronicling and reinterpreting the life of Vincent van Gogh, Loving Vincent attempts to not only bring the story of the masterful painter to life, but also mirror his process. Like van Gogh’s celebrated works, Loving Vincent also has the same skeletal structure — oil paintings on canvas. The genesis of Loving Vincent, says producer and co-director Hugh Welchman, who backed the 2008 Oscar-winning animated short Peter and the Wolf, lies in a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother, the art dealer Theo, a week before his death: “We cannot speak other than by our paintings,” implying how he and his work were — in fact, still are — inseparable. “We felt that the story of Vincent can really be emotionally told if it’s intimately connected to his paintings,” Welchman told me over e-mail, “and so we used the medium of paint and his paintings to form the very fabric of the world of our film.”

Loving Vincent will come to life through 62,450 oil paintings on canvas, inspired by van Gogh’s style, where 12 animated frames will make up one second of the movie. The film will include more than 120 renowned paintings of van Gogh, and its story will be told through the characters that have dotted his work. Given that Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, the film’s directors, were so dogged about being faithful to van Gogh’s vision, they felt committed to do it justice. To accomplish that, they needed painters — ones who were serious enough about the craft, because a project as ambitious and novel as this needed a lot of work and artistic acuity. In fact, the makers not only hired painters, but also trained them. “We have run four trainings in Poland, and two in Greece,” says Welchman. The training periods ranged from three to six weeks and have, till now, spanned around 180 hours. “Half the time [in the training period] is dedicated to learning Vincent’s style and techniques,” he adds, “and the second half is dedicated to learning animation” in a slender time period of two months.

So far, 67 painters have been selected to paint Loving Vincent’s frames, and Welchman’s looking to hire “18 more artists”, who need to be “highly skilled oil painters.” The painters involved in Loving Vincent, he says, come from different backgrounds, “but the vast majority have formally learnt painting for at least four years.” Around 32,000 frames have been animated till now, and his team is looking to finish the work by September. “The film should get a theatrical release anywhere between November to January,” he says, “something that’s up to the distributors.”

But how easy will it be to recreate van Gogh’s life — a story that’s always been shrouded in mystery? For instance, even more than 125 years after his death, people continue to speculate over its cause: did he commit suicide or was he killed? Similarly, other facts about his life, such as the true extent of his mental illness, the story behind his chopped ear or the hidden symbolism in his paintings (most notably the depiction of The Last Supper in Cafe Terrace at Night), are routinely debated.

Loving Vincent pieces together van Gogh’s life through more than 800 letters written by the painter to Theo, his sister Wil, and other relatives and artists. Besides, the Loving Vincent team read “around 40 different publications about Vincent: biographies, academic pieces, essays.” They also visited “19 museums in six countries to view around 400 van Gogh’s paintings,” interviewed “experts at the van Gogh Museum,” and watched “major fictional films and documentaries” on his life to get a clearer understanding of their subject, who still remains elusive, Welchman says.

But, more importantly, Loving Vincent uses characters in van Gogh’s paintings to recreate his life; as a result, the film’s plot is part factual, part fictional. “The story is told by different characters, people who were sketchy figures in history, so they were largely a blank canvas for us to fill,” says Welchman. “And we show Vincent in flashbacks, where we’ve been as accurate as possible to historical facts. So there are things that you know happened, and then there is the swirling spin, gossip, and intrigue created by the people around those events.”

This piece was first published on the Wire.

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