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Loving Vincent: The World's First Painted Animation Film

This month, the world’s first fully painted film hits the big screen. Luxury London finds out what inspired directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman to animate the life of Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh wrote around 800 letters in his short 37 years, however not one of them was an official suicide note. This is curious because one Sunday evening in July 1890, the artist stumbled back to the inn where he was staying in Auvers-sur-Oise in France, claiming he had deliberately shot himself in the chest. He died two days later. Despite van Gogh’s admission of suicide, there has been much speculation since – the rifle and his art tools were never found, he was often teased by local youths, and the position of the bullet meant he would have pulled the trigger at an awkward angle.

Yet, van Gogh had an infamously troubled life: for many, the most common facts relayed about him is that he only ever sold one painting in his lifetime and that he cut off his ear and gifted it to a prostitute. He was committed to a mental asylum after this – however even before that he had struggled to find his calling. He was sacked from his uncle’s art dealing company, he failed his pastor examinations, he was even let go from the church where he worked as an evangelical preacher’s assistant because he gave away too many of the church’s – and his own – possessions.

Eventually van Gogh’s brother, Theo, with whom he shared a significant bond, persuaded him to focus on painting, and so he did this with tremendous gusto: often working all day and throughout the night, too. Many of Vincent’s letters were written to Theo, and thus we are given an insight into his personality, moods and feelings.

It is the mystery surrounding his death that is the focus of a new arthouse film – and the world’s first fully painted film – Loving Vincent, which was written and directed by Dorota Kobiela, who is renowned for her animated shorts (The Flying Machine and Little Postman, both released in 2011). The artist’s prolific letter-writing and the time he spent in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he produced notable works such as Marguerite Gachet at the Piano and Adeline Ravoux – many of which have been brought to life in the film – helped to shape the rest of the story.

“I decided I wanted to combine my two passions – painting and film,” says Kobiela. “I was 30 when I came up with the idea to do Loving Vincent, about the same age that Vincent was when he started painting.

“I have battled with depression all my life, and I was inspired by how strong Vincent was in picking himself up from similarly terrible life setbacks as a young man in his 20s, and finding, through art, a way to bring beauty to the world. His letters helped me at a low point in my life, and inspired me to make this film.”

"His letters helped me at a low point in my life, and inspired me to make this film.”

Kobiela’s story is told from the point of view of Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth), the son of a postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), who was friends with the artist. Armand is entrusted to hand-deliver a letter to Theo, however he is quickly told that he died shortly after his brother. This leads Armand to trace the painter’s last few days: he visits the village where he stayed and died, and interviews various acquaintances, most of whom van Gogh painted.

The film is interspersed with a series of black and white flashbacks from each character, which piece together a portrait of the artist and attempt to solve the mystery of his tragic death. “We thought that it would be too much for audiences to have Vincent’s intensive colour for 90 minutes. Secondly, we didn’t want to make up paintings of his that didn’t exist,” explains Kobiela.

The structure of the film is, in many ways, led by the unusual animation technique that Kobiela pioneered. “We didn’t just film the scenes before painting,” explains co-director Hugh Welchman. “We storyboarded them, pre-visualised the whole film in 3D computer graphics programs, and spent six months with 20 painters re-imagining Vincent’s paintings in a way that made them suitable for film.

“We created matte paintings, recreating the environments that Vincent lived in after taking repeated trips to Auvers and Arles, and we spent a lot of time in the Van Gogh Museum with our design painters. All that preparation work was necessary before the live action shoot on green screens, and on certain sets that we built. After that we edited the footage, and combined it with 2D or 3D elements, sometimes still animated – whatever provided the best reference material for the painters to get closest to bringing Vincent’s paintings to life.”

The frames were painted by a team of 125: photographed in stages while they were painting, until eventually a moving, swirling scene could be recorded (much like stop motion). After six years of creative development, a total of 65,000 paintings were produced, with 12 high-resolution photographs making up each second of the film.

In his last letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh wrote: “We cannot speak other than by our paintings.” Yet, so much of van Gogh’s sensitivity, wonder and outlook on the world was illustrated in his letters, which helped to shape an image of him after his death. The film might not ignite a revolution in painted animation with its hypnotic yet sometimes stilted action sequences (although there is talk of a horror inspired by Goya from Kobiela and Welchman), however it is an inspired love letter to van Gogh – an appreciation that he thoroughly deserved, but never received during his life. 

Loving Vincent is released in cinemas on 13 October