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Animated Feature ‘Loving Vincent’ Takes Hand-Crafting to New Heights

“Van Gogh failed at so many things in his life — he failed at four careers while he was still in his 20s, but he kept going even with all the sadness he felt in his heart,” says Dorota Kobiela, writer/director of the animated feature “Loving Vincent.” “And that moved me, I think, to keep going with this film even though it was a 10-year journey.”

The film was nominated for a European Film Awards for best animated feature Oct. 25.

Kobiela, whose own struggles with depression made her sensitive to the story of the legendary Dutch artist, became obsessed with the idea of somehow bringing Vincent van Gogh’s life to film. The painter’s death was mysterious and subsequently shrouded in myth (see “Lust for Life”). Van Gogh died from a gun shot wound, but recent research has put forth the theory that he may have been murdered, and did not commit suicide.

The Polish filmmaker envisioned hand-painting frames over live action footage while using the stylistic inspiration of van Gogh’s paintings. At first she thought she might try to do the project on her own but it became clear, after calculating the time it would take just one person to do that, it would be impossible. She was already about 30 when she began working on the story and it would take more than 80 years for just one artist to complete the painting.

So Kobiela, along with writer/director Hugh Welchman, assembled a team of about 125 to work as painters on the production. The filmmakers had more than 5,000 applicants for the positions and selected their finalists through a series of tests designed to show their ability to mimic van Gogh’s style.

Live action shooting was done in London with an enviable cast of talent: Saoirse Ronan, Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Chris O’Dowd and Aidan Turner.

“It meant so much to me when these actors wanted to work on this film,” says Kobiela. “It was the idea that they found something inspiring in van Gogh’s life also that they thought should be seen.”

Though the film draws on the intimate art of painting by hand, technology was a crucial part of bringing the film to life. The production team used After Effects, Photoshop and Maya for the 3D animation. Dragonframe was also used for animation and they did onset compositing using Nuke. They also had access to high-quality digital copies of van Gogh’s art through the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Painters learning to create the “Loving Vincent” frames, left; artist Hemali Vadalia paints a frame of the hand-crafted feature film.

While filmmakers have pulled from live action on many notable animated works over time (such as “Waking Life”) Kobiela wanted to aim for something unique by allowing viewers to live inside van Gogh’s works while they were watching the film.

“The title is taken from the way van Gogh would sign his letters — especially to his brother — as ‘Your loving Vincent,’” says Kobiela. “That’s how I think of him, as this person who suffered so much pain and sadness in his life but still was so full of love and the love for art that you can see in every one of his paintings.”

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