In the ambitious new film ‘Loving Vincent,’ artists produced 66,960 frames of oil paintings to animate the life and work of Vincent van Gogh.
“In spite of everything I shall rise again,” wrote Vincent van Gogh to his brother and benefactor, Theo van Gogh. “I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.” Thanks to advancements in technology and inspired writers, directors and crew, Loving Vincent (2017) brings van Gogh’s paintings to life. Describing it as “the first fully painted feature film,” director and writer Dorota Kobiela gathered over 100 painters to collaborate on each frame of the movie. This June 12-17, the Annecy International Animated Film Festival played host to the movie and other cutting-edge contributions. Produced by Oscar-winning studios Breakthru Films and Trademark Films, Loving Vincent won the Annecy Audience Award. In previous years, the prize has been awarded to films such as Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) starring George Clooney, and Claude Barras’ adult comedy-drama My Life as a Zucchini (2016). This year’s festival emphasized the importance of women in the animation industry, making Kobiela’s win timely.
Kobiela and her cowriters and codirectors had been planning the idea for some time before they managed to secure the funding and crew to do it justice. It all began when she was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and, having moved gradually from painting to filmmaking, made a short about van Gogh which channeled his style through the animation. Ten years and one epic Kickstarter page later, during which time Kobiela was awarded the Minister of Culture scholarship for “special achievements in painting and graphics for four consecutive years,” the full-length feature has finally reached its debut, and U.S. distribution plans are already in motion.
Though Kobiela began the project with the intention of painting the whole thing by herself, eventually the help of other oil painters had to be enlisted as the task expanded. Over 100 painters came together to create the thousands of hand-painted frames — that’s 24 paintings per second! The behind-the-scenes video on YouTube explains how 94 of van Gogh’s paintings have been reimagined, which translates to 66,960 frames of oil paintings. Kobiela worked alongside producer and cowriter Hugh Welchman (Free Jimmy 2006, Peter & the Wolf 2006, La Vie en Rose 2007) and cowriter Jacek Dehnel (Artykul Osiemnasty 2017). The movie stars Aidan Turner (who played Kili in The Hobbit movies) and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement 2007, The Grand Budapest Hotel 2014), both acting in front of green screens. The movie’s technical artistic heritage rests in the work of Russian animators Yuriy Norshteyn (Tale of Tales 2015) and Aleksandr Petrov (The Old Man and the Sea), reports Variety, using a combination of live action, motion capture and CGI.
According to the website, inspiration for the screenplay was taken directly from van Gogh’s personal letters. The poster-boy troubled artist, van Gogh and his work have inspired painters and artists across generations and art movements over the past 130 years. The dynamism of his brushstrokes and his somber subject matter galvanized a generation of artists to shrug off the shackles of their more realist predecessors, embracing greater degrees of abstraction when evoking a landscape or the human form. The story of van Gogh’s life is almost as venerated as the paintings themselves.
Born in Zundert, Netherlands, in 1853, van Gogh spent most of his life in France, notably in the countryside and Paris, with his work being clearly inspired by his surrounding environments. Famously, van Gogh’s life was troubled. In what has become known as “the ear episode,” van Gogh allegedly confronted his friend, the painter Gauguin, with a razor, before proceeding to chop off a piece of his own ear. At different stages of his life, van Gogh was committed to various asylums and psychiatric units, variously by relatives or indeed at times by his own choice. He suffered from depression, alcoholism and insomnia, spending what money was granted him by his benefactor and brother, Theo, on art supplies, alcohol and tobacco. Theo was instrumental in Vincent’s life. As an established art dealer earning a not insubstantial living, Theo housed Vincent in his Paris home and introduced him to various artists in the Parisian scene.
Van Gogh’s art can be loosely grouped into the places he lived during the brief time he worked as a painter. Of these, the most prolific and productive were when he was living in Arles (1888-89) and Saint Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890). Over the course of these years, van Gogh painted The Yellow House (1888), Sunflowers (1888), Bedroom in Arles (1888), Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) and The Starry Night (1889).
Though it is impossible to generalize van Gogh’s style as it developed across this time, his contributions to art can be understood within the wider mantle of post-impressionism, as his work shares aesthetic principles with Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. Post-impressionism is a movement characterized by a freer interpretation of realist subject matter, diverging from impressionism’s insistence on naturalistic representations by invigorating landscapes with dynamic geometric forms and playing with dimensions and perspective.
Van Gogh may or may not have seen himself as part of a movement, but he certainly took inspiration and admired his fellow practitioners. Loving Vincent records this, following the events shortly after Gauguin visited Vincent in Arles, which culminated in van Gogh famously slicing off part of his ear. Van Gogh had wanted all his contemporaries to live together as an artists’ colony in the Yellow House, but only Gauguin visited — perhaps because van Gogh was notoriously difficult to get along with.
Van Gogh’s final years have remained a subject of fascination and intrigue for art fanatics and historians ever since, and this period forms the story of Loving Vincent. Van Gogh took his own life by shooting himself in the stomach, dying a day later (July 29, 1890) after having been found stumbling from a field near his house. The events surrounding his death are unclear, as the main record we have for van Gogh’s life are his letters to Theo, who, stricken by grief, also passed away mere months after his brother’s suicide.
Whether Loving Vincent captures the fragility, vulnerability and passion which clearly overwhelmed and drove the great artist to his end is a question for its audiences to answer themselves. The makers of the movie quote van Gogh: “We can only speak through our paintings,” and claim their unique style of animation is faithful to this.
Furthermore, whether Kobiela’s work channels the principles and passion of van Gogh, or merely mimics them, flattering his name, is also worth thinking about. Certainly, it’s a feat of the imagination that they managed to unite so many painters in commemoration and homage to one man’s work, and it is surely testimony to his influence that such a movie has been made.