Artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is of course best known for his Impressionistic paintings. But if he were toiling as an animator in 2017, his work might just look like what’s in the groundbreaking new film about him and his tragic life.
Loving Vincent is the world’s first fully-oil painted feature film, done not only in Van Gogh’s artistic style, but using computers to transform the voice actors (which include Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, and Douglas Booth) into animated versions of themselves.
And the numbers add another layer: Production took seven years with the work of 125 painters who produced 65,000 individual frames. Each artist took a 180 hour training course before even picking up a brush. Some painters took up to 10 days to paint one second of film. But according to directors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the production was not as daunting as it sounds.
“I wasn’t really anxious about the boldness of the project. I pushed for it to be a feature length project because I thought our first tests looked like nothing I’d seen in ten years of working in animation,” Welchman says. “I was excited by how it looked and thought audiences would be too. Often, people said to me it was a crazy idea!”
Kobiela adds that she was most intimidated not by the art process, but writing a feature length script for the first time. “I really wanted to do justice to Vincent’s work in re-imagining it for film. But at the end of the day, it was really a process of studying his paintings endlessly, and making the call as to the best way to re-imagine the paintings.”
The main events in the film take place a year after Van Gogh’s death by suicide—or was it? The narrative also unfolds like a good murder mystery. That’s when the son of Van Gogh’s postman attempts to deliver a letter that Vincent wrote to his brother and benefactor Theo just before he died.
Finding that Theo has passed as well, the postman’s son takes a journey retracing Van Gogh’s last year of life, encountering a series of both real people and figures inspired by his paintings, each of which has a different story to tell about their experiences and relationship with Vincent. Flashback scenes fill in the story of Van Gogh’s life up to his final days, and the animation manages to be both realistic and fanciful with lush landscapes, night life scenes, and portraits copied from actual Van Gogh paintings.
Both directors have long held a love for the artwork and life story of Vincent Van Gogh. That’s been consistent for Kobiela about his paintings since her teens, and for Welchman about his life story at a later point. The pair would pore over dozens of books, mounds of letters, and visit 19 museums in six countries to view around 400 Van Gogh paintings before they even began writing the script.
In the end, Loving Vincent – the title taken from how the artist signed letters to Theo – brilliantly tells his with all its tragedies and very few triumphs. For while Van Gogh completed hundreds of paintings, he sold only one in his lifetime. And it also raises serous questions about the “real” story of his death and the motivations and behaviors of the people around him at the time.
The directors hope that the film will be of appeal and interest to both the Van Gogh experts and those who are only familiar with a print of Starry Night from various college dorm rooms.
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“It is very hard to separate Vincent’s work from his life. That is why I thought it was important to tell his story through his art,” Kobiela says. “In his last letter to his brother, he said ‘We cannot speak other than by our paintings.’ And as someone who struggled with communicating in the flesh, he really felt the need to communicate through his work. That is why his work is so intensely personal.”
Welchman agrees, but adds one crucial point. “I want people to come away knowing that there is more to Vincent than madness, that he is a great example of tenacity and compassion in spite of finding it so difficult to deal with the world he lived in,” the co-director says.
“I would hope also it might make people want to look more compassionately on people who are going through times of crisis or struggling with depression. If everyone had shown Vincent a bit more understanding, maybe he would have inhabited the world for another 10 or 20 years and left an even more staggering body of work. And more than that, maybe he could have found some peace in this world, rather than thinking his only option was to find it in death.”
Loving Vincent screens December 21 and 22 (7 p.m.) and December 23 (2 p.m.) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet. $7-$9. mfah.org/film or 713-639-7515.