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Feature Film

‘Loving Vincent’: 6 Facts About The First Oil Painted Animated Feature

After years of blood, sweat, and tears — not to mention lots and lots of paint — the world’s first fully-oil painted feature film, Loving Vincent, was completed last month. It was announced yesterday that the film will screen in competition at Annecy in June.

Through 65,000 painted frames, the film recalls the challenging life of Vincent van Gogh, as well as his mysterious death. Production was in the hands of Poland and U.K.-based Break Thru Films, known for their Oscar-winning animated short Peter and the Wolf (2006).

"Loving Vincent" directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela.
“Loving Vincent” directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela.

Cartoon Brew spoke via Skype with Loving Vincent’s directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman to learn more about this unique production.

1. 125 animator-painters worked on the film

That was never the plan though. It took longer than expected to get the funding sorted out, while the film’s release date stayed the same. The filmmakers ultimately had no choice but to hire more people for a shorter amount of time. Luckily the Loving Vincent recruitment teaser went viral with over 200 million views, resulting in around 5,000 applications from painters and animators all over the world.

An intense three-day audition in Gdańsk, Poland followed. While travel expenses couldn’t be covered, people still got on planes from places like Australia, Canada, and the U.S., just to potentially be a part of the unique production.

Anna Kluza, one of the first animator-painters hired to work on the film.
Anna Kluza, one of the first animator-painters hired to work on the film.

Almost none of the film’s animators had a background in animation, but were rather classically trained oil painters. “There was no way we were ever going to find enough painting animators,” said Welchman. “And also the thing with painting animators is, very often they have personalized styles, and it’s not necessarily the case that they’re classically trained painters…We needed people who were very pure oil painters.”

2. The film was completely built up from original van Gogh paintings

In all stages of pre-production, the directors stayed as close as possible to van Gogh’s view on the world. Kobiela explained that this was possible due to the fact that more than any other painter, Vincent painted what was physically around him and shared his reality with the viewer: “His paintings represent such a big range of subjects; his room, his objects, his shoes, his best friends, his favorite bar. Together, they kind of naturally created the storyboard.”

Painters training to work on "Loving Vincent."
Painters training to work on “Loving Vincent.”

While 94 original van Gogh paintings could be used pretty much as-is, another 40 had to be reimagined for the screen. Many of Van Gogh’s canvases were 1.33:1, but some were long and thin, so they had to be adapted to work for film. Sometimes, like in the case of “Marguerite Gachet at the Piano” (1890), research would be done to add the left and right parts to the original painting. Other times a camera movement within the painting would be used, like with “Café Terrace at Night” (1888), which received a vertical pan in the movie.

In special cases paintings had to be changed from day into night, and sometimes seasons or weather needed to be altered. Welchman emphasized that while the film’s frames stayed close to the original paintings, they are not faithful copies. “They can’t be,” he said. “There’s a difference between a static single image and a dynamic art form told over time. We spent one year reimagining his paintings for the medium of film, trying to be as faithful as possible, but also adapting them so that they could move.”

3. Rotoscope was used for most of the animation

Sixty minutes of live-action reference material was shot over 12 days. “That’s even faster than soap opera,” Welchman joked. “Coming from an animation background, the advantage is that you’re pretty used to a 1:1 ratio. You’re used to planning everything very, very meticulously. You can’t afford not to.”

Actress Saoirse Ronan on the set of "Loving Vincent."
Actress Saoirse Ronan on the set of “Loving Vincent.”

For each shot the original painting served as a sort of mask on top of the live-action material. Finding the right balance between those was quite the challenge. “Van Gogh had a very interesting way of capturing things,” said Kobiela. “It looks like he used a long and wide lens at the same time. Perhaps it was like that because he used to paint in one position, and then walk around and change [his position]. This way he’d capture the essence of the thing with a very bizarre perspective.”

Actors Chris O'Dowd and Douglas Booth on the set of "Loving Vincent."
Actors Chris O’Dowd and Douglas Booth on the set of “Loving Vincent.”
4. Throughout production, the movie was updated with the latest scholarship on van Gogh

Kobiela and Welchman read pretty much all there is to read about the painter. A new discovery in the book Van Gogh’s Ear (2016) “pretty much conclusively” proved that he cut off all of his ear, rather than part of it, Welchman said, and they ended up repainting around 3,000 frames of the film, in line with the latest scholarship.

5. The film’s budget is $5.5 million

That figure is a pretty average sum for a European feature-length animation, but it’s rather amazing when you consider the laborious technique used in this case. Funding was made up from 40% pre-sales, 40% private equity, 15% government funding (Polish Film Institute, U.K. Tax Credit, Media, City of Wroclaw), and 5% from production house Break Thru itself.

Painters training to work on "Loving Vincent."
Painters training to work on “Loving Vincent.”
6. Out of 65,000 painted frames, just 1,000 survived

After finishing the painting of each frame, animators had to remove the full painting with a spatula. Consequently, just a fraction of the hand-painted frames survived. An exhibition of 200 paintings is currently being put together, to go with the release of the film. The other 800 paintings are being sold online.

Loving Vincent will be released in Europe and Asia starting in late 2017. No North American distributor or release date has been announced yet. For more information about the film, visit LovingVincent.com.

  • Pedro Nakama

    If VanGogh was alive today and someone told him that he was the subject of an animated film his response would probably be, “What?”

    • Inkan1969

      So just walk to the other side and repeat what you said.

  • Fred Patten

    What is the difference between this feature and the 1986 Pannonia “Heroic Times”, which has been described as both oil painting animation and “resembling oil painting animation”?

    • nealpatten

      I was going to comment the same. I must wonder what it means when Wikipedia describes Daliás Idők/Heroic Times as “resembling” oil paintings. The Magyar Nemzeti Digitális Archívum/Hungarian National Digital Archive released the film to DVD with English subtitles a few years back [http://mandarchiv.hu/cikk/2367/Dalias_idok]. This is a Google translation of their description:

      “Gémes József “Knight’s Tale”, inspired by the painting animation was unique in many ways in the world. It was the first feature-length film painting, which the creators made a spectacle of tens of thousands of oil paintings… naturalism of the end of the century, culture, color… [at] the most prestigious animation festival in Annecy won the best feature-length film award.”

      It’s not uncommon to find in feature animation history that claims of being the “first” in a specific medium or technology are not always accurate or true, and sometimes it’s more of a matter of PR than fact.

      The film can also be found easily online, such as on Dailymotion, but un-subtitled.

      I just can’t be certain if it’s truly made from oil paintings, or just resembles the style. Being as the film was made in 1984, we can be sure there was little or more likely zero use of computers/software!

      • AmidAmidi

        The producers of “Loving Vincent” are promoting it as the “world’s first fully painted feature film.” It’s a claim that needs to be looked into more closely. In our post, we changed it to first fully-oil painted feature film because it is very obviously not the first fully-painted feature. All the classic Disney features were fully-painted as well, if you acknowledge that all the characters were painted onto cels.

        Claiming a first is an understandable pr gimmick, and animated films need them to help get attention in the mainstream media which otherwise ignores animation, but it can also lead to situations such as this.

        • Seeing how “Heroic Times” was done, it wouldn’t surprise me if the technique was handled in a way that allowed them to use cels given how the characters don’t mess with the backgrounds or other figures for each shot. Manipulating that on glass or canvas is very challenging since you only have one layer to work with. The guys behind “Loving Vincent” have proved that challenge by sticking to painting directly on canvas for every shot.

  • Andy Prisney

    “A Scanner Darkly Vincent”
    65,000 painted frames :124 painters = 525 paints for each one
    At the end just 1,000 survived……I don’t belive that!!! Great story for sell well…

    • Pere

      The reason why only 1000 survived was because they had to use the same canvas for a whole shot. Each frame was wiped off before they did the next one. The last frame painted on the canvas is the surviving painting….which may not necessarily be the best one.

  • schwarzgrau

    Brings up the question again if Rotoscoping really is animation. To me it always feels more like a stylized live action film.

    • A Stranger in the Alps

      The artist doing the rotoscoping still has to choose the style they’ll render it in, and make artistic decisions about which details to include in each frame. It has been used as an animation technique since the Fleischer days and was a big part of Snow White. And it is incredibly labour-intensive, even with computer assistance.

      You can argue about the extent to which the animators can shape the performances vs cel animation, and whether that limits its versatility/impact as a technique. You can talk about whether software that autocompletes the in-betweens moves it away from animation (although then you’re ruling out huge amounts of CG, too). But historically, artistically and in terms of sweat-of-the-brow effort, rotoscoping really is animation.

    • Marc Hendry

      I feel the same way. To me it’s closer to being an “effect” rather than “animation”. I don’t want to shit on this film or anything, but to me it’s not really worth doing

  • cartoonguy

    It seemed like a really cool idea til I saw the thing moving. Now it just looks like a live action movie with a weird gimmick on top of it. Is there a reason do the entire thing as oil paintings other than Van Gogh was a painter? I mean, I’ll check it out before forming an opinion, but the obvious rotoscoping is kind of off putting.

  • That is an interesting quandary if anything. I suppose it goes up there with the Richard Linkletter films, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly released a decade back.

  • Marc Hendry

    my take on it is that an animator makes a fake thing look alive, while rotoscope makes an alive thing look fake

    • schwarzgrau

      Quite interesting view on this

  • Doug

    Rotoscoping discussion aside, this film looks wonderful and I am so very interested to see it. Obviously a very well crafted piece of work. I only hope it will find it’s way somewhere near us in Upstate NY.