Cinema’s brush with Van Gogh

Loving Vincent, a new film on Vincent van Gogh, is fully painted by hand, and two young Indian artists have a hand in its making

“If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You are not a painter,’ then by all means paint, boy, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working." 

If the sentence Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo nearly a century-and-half ago matter to anyone in our contemporary world, then Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela certainly qualify. After all, the two filmmakers were planning to make the world’s first fully painted movie. Each frame of the film would be painted by hand. 

Only, there were no takers for an idea that scared off producers unwilling to put money on an untested technique. Welchman, an Englishman and Kobiela, who is from Poland, worked hard to find a backer, and their perseverance finally paid off after 10 years and meetings with over a hundred producers. 

Loving Vincent, currently wowing audiences in select cinemas in India, is an artistic quest for answers into the life of the enigmatic painter. The film, which had its world premiere at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France last June, showed at the Mumbai film festival in October and Ajyal Youth Film Festival in Doha last month, probes the painter’s life through a letter to Theo that was never delivered. 

Joseph Roulin, the postman of Arles, the town in France where van Gogh lived, sends his son Armand to deliver the letter. On the job, Armand is faced with questions on the circumstances of van Gogh’s suicide and learns of his madness and genius from many who were close to him. 

The animated film has already received a Golden Globe nomination and is in the race for an Oscar nomination next month. 

“There were lots of reasons why a financier might be scared off from our project, even if they liked the script and the subject," says Welchman, who won an Academy Award nine years ago as producer of the animated short film Peter and the Wolf. “It was also a technique that would be the slowest-ever devised in film history," he adds, during an interview in Doha and later over email. 

Hugh Welchman.
Hugh Welchman.

It certainly was. Thanks to Welchman and Kobiela’s decision to rope in artists from around the world to paint the film, two young Indian artists can vouch for it. Among the 125 artists selected to work as “animating painters" for the film were Hemali Vadalia from Mumbai and Shuchi Muley from Bengaluru. 

Making of canvases 

The process of making Loving Vincent was as punishing as finding producers for the film. There were 65,000 frames to paint, which would be photographed. When these stills were run on a film projector at 24 frames per second, it became a motion picture. 

“First, we wrote the script and then we storyboarded the film," says Kobiela, a graduate of the Fine Arts Academy in the Polish capital of Warsaw. 

Dorota Kobiela.
Dorota Kobiela.

It was followed by visualising the whole film on a computer and painting oil canvases that reimagined van Gogh’s works. The next step was shooting with actors, who gave the voices, on blue and green screens for the canvases. The resulting footage was edited and the oil paintings and live action material were combined to create the reference material for the animators to paint the 65,000 frames. 

The animators from 20 countries chosen from over 5,000 aspirants, worked in three studios in Gdansk, the Polish port city on the Baltic coast, Greece and Belarus for almost the whole of last year. 

“Each painter had a box to work," says Vadalia, who studied animation and film design at the Industrial Design Centre of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. She worked in the Gdansk studio, over 12 hours a day, to paint the frames that formed a film shot. 

“There was a camera mounted on the top of the box opposite the canvas," says Vadalia, who painted seven shots, including conversation between postman Roulin and his son, over the phone. The pictures taken from the camera would eventually become the frames run on the film projector at 24 frames per second to create a moving image. 

Hemali Vadalia.
Hemali Vadalia.

There was also passion--for art, van Gogh and cinema. Loving Vincent was the idea of Kobiela, who studied painting for a decade. “Kobiela wanted to combine her passion for painting with her passion for filmmaking and paint a film," says Welchman. 

It was Kobiela who proposed the idea of a fully painted film on van Gogh to Welchman, who promptly fell in love with the proposer. “I fell in love with Dorota almost instantly on meeting her for the first time," says Welchman. “It took me a lot longer to fall in love with her film project." 

The couple would tie the knot before they began working on the film. 

“Van Gogh has been a part of my life since I was a teenager," says Kobiela, who started studying art when she was 14. Soon, she read the letters van Gogh sent to Theo, and they had a profound effect on the young student. 

Kobiela visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam when she was 16 and went on to write her dissertation for her fine arts degree on the link between creativity and mental illness. One of her main subjects was Vincent van Gogh. 

“I only really discovered Vincent through Dorota and started reading about him in my early thirties because of working on Loving Vincent. I was profoundly moved by his life story, particularly by the fact that he failed at four careers in his twenties, had been written off by his family, and still had the passion, compassion and tenacity to throw himself into something new," Welchman says. 

Painting with passion 

The passion runs through the film crew as well. Interestingly, both “animating painters" from India saw an original van Gogh for the first time in 2014. Vadalia saw the Self-Portrait in Musee d'Orsay, Paris, while Muley went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. 

“It was intense and had a different energy," says Vadalia, who used to read van Gogh’s letters through the nights and into early mornings. 

Muley, a Carnegie Mellon graduate who quit her high-paid job as a software engineer in the Silicon Valley to pursue art, saw “beautiful stories" in the paintings. 

Shuchi Muley.

Vadalia and Muley came out with flying colours in a global search for oil painters for Loving Vincent. “Hemali and Shuchi were two of them ," says Kobiela. “Their work was good enough to put them with the 500 oil painters invited to audition." 

They passed and became part of the 125 painters that worked on the film. “They arrived towards the end of production, so did relatively few shots, but both did an excellent job," adds Kobiela, who worked in VFX and animation after graduating in fine arts. The selection process was tough and included a three-day test of painting in Gdansk. 

Vadalia came to know about the film from her Canadian friend in New York while studying art at the Grand Central Atelier two years ago. Both were selected, but the long work in a 4X4 foot box forced her Canadian friend to give up soon. 

“We had to adapt in the small box," says Vadalia. 

After each frame is done, a picture of it was taken by the mounted camera. The painting was then scraped again and again to achieve the moving image. It helped that the painters had been given high resolution images of original van Goghs from the Amsterdam museum, a partner in the film project. 

Vadalia, who arrived in Gdansk in May 2016, returned home seven months later. Muley, who spent her childhood in Bhopal, had a five-month stint in the Polish city between June and October. 

“The work helped me learn more about van Gogh," says Muley, who is now a full-time artist living in Vancouver, Canada, with her husband, over the phone. Muley's frames included the interesting conversation between a boatman who knew van Gogh and the postman’s son. 

Vadalia, who painted 358 canvases, had frames in the opening, middle and closing scenes. Entrusted with portrait level frames, one of her shots shows the postman’s son talking to Marguerite, daughter of Dr Gachet, in whose house van Gogh lived for some time. 

Both Muley and Vadalia worked together in the Gdansk studio and met almost every day. They also made friends in the city and among fellow painters from countries like Ukraine and Spain. 

The Gdansk studio.
The Gdansk studio.

Art and legacy 

Loving Vincent digs deep into characters who knew van Gogh to understand his mysterious mind. “Vincent had a true love and appreciation of the world around him and the people in it, which is amazing considering how much he was rejected and misunderstood by that world," says Welchman. 

The Briton and his filmmaker wife between them read over 30 books on van Gogh, covering all seminal biographies and eyewitness accounts. “The Van Gogh Museum experts answered questions we couldn’t find answers to in published literature," says Kobiela, who had been studying the painter’s letters for over two decades. 

The Amsterdam museum also helped suggest books, and answered technical questions on paintings. 

The film is ready to leave a legacy. After all the scraping and repainting, the filmmakers were left with about 1,000 paintings. About 250 of them have been sold to the public while 200 of them can be viewed in an exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum in the medieval town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. 

The remaining paintings are waiting to be sold. There are also awards to count—including the Annecy audience prize and the European Film Award. 

Welchman knows a thing or two about Academy Awards, having won the golden statuette for the Best Animated Short film nine years ago. Like Loving Vincent, Peter and the Wolf was also an unusual project, a half-hour film to be played in concert halls with a live orchestra. 

“Winning the Oscar then helped soothe my troubled and stressed mind," says Welchman.

Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela presented Loving Vincent at the Ajyal Youth Film Festival in Doha, held from 29 November to 4 December. The film won the audience award at the festival.

Faizal Khan is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

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