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‘Loving Vincent’ Co-Director Hugh Welchman on Putting Van Gogh’s Impasto Style on Screen

It took five years and 65,000 frames rendered by hand with oil paints for Polish animator and painter Dorota Kobiela and the U.K.’s Hugh Welchman to bring to the screen their labor of love “Loving Vincent,” touted as the world’s first fully painted feature film. Production was handled by Welchman’s Poland and U.K.-based Break Thru Films, known for their Oscar-winning animated short “Peter and the Wolf.” Variety spoke to Welchman about the challenges posed by this unique Van Gogh biopic during the Antalya Film Festival where “Loving Vincent” screened out-of-competition. Excerpts:

How did Loving Vincent originate creatively?

Dorota came up with the idea ten years ago when she was having a bit of a creative crisis in her life. She trained as a painter and then worked for many years in the film industry…so she decided she was going to combine those two things and do a painted film. In looking around for inspiration she re-read Van Gogh’s letters and it hit her very powerfully that Vincent was 29 when he started painting. She just thought it was an amazing powerful story and she wanted to bring his paintings alive to tell his story.

How did the production get started?

One of our first steps was in 2012 – we did a concept trailer. We wanted to see if the style would work. The main thing was to actually see if you could bring out the performances of the actors. Because Vincent…his whole philosophy in portraits was that he wanted to feel the soul of the sitter; to experience the character through his non-photographic technique using impasto and his color manifesto. In the same way we wanted to see the performance of the actor and bring it out even more intensely with the colour technique and also the impasto. So we did this test. One of the key issues was: Can you feel the painting and can you feel the actor at the same time?

What were some of the other steps?

We put a website together with the trailer to encourage people to write in. A Facebook fan in Italy took the trailer and put it on Facebook and within 24 hours we had 2 million views and within three months we had 300 million views. That was really the point at which a lot of things changed. We suddenly got 4,000 applications from painters from all over the world and we started closing lots of territories. We got 40 presales. But still it was a struggle to finance up until three months before the end of production

Talk to me about the animation technique

It’s based upon a lot of elements from other areas. It’s not that radically different from what I was doing in puppet animation…In puppet animation you are moving puppets frame-by-frame across the set. In painting animation you are moving oil paintings across the set. The big difference is the work force, and also it’s a lot slower. It’s basically a stop-frame animation technique, just a lot slower. We do everything on canvas, so there is no compositing at all. Everything you see is paint moving across the canvas.

How does that work?

The painters are looking at the live action footage, and then they have to redo it in Vincent’s style because the [live action] footage in front of them is just in photographic style. I could not have made this film in Britain, and I doubt I could have made it in America or France. That’s because in Poland they have this art education system where people can actually specialise in oil paintings for five or six years. You don’t have that level of skills in such a wide group elsewhere.

I read that new research during production which claimed that Van Gogh cut his entire ear, rather than just a part of it, forced you to redo roughly 3,000 frames.

Yes. Maybe I didn’t need to do that, but we’d done such meticulous research. I was worried that people would say in press conference: “oh but didn’t you know he’d cut off all of his year!” So we went back in and painted that different. I wanted it to be truthful.

The film launched from Annecy in June and started rolling out theatrically in September. It shot up to number one in Italy. What’s the distribution plan going forward?

Yes Annecy is a very supportive environment for feature film animation. We got an 11-and-a-half minute standing ovation and won the Audience Award. Then we had our Asian premiere in Shanghai which was good because we won best animation there and it also gave us some indication of the strength of feeling that there is for Van Gogh in China. Then we had the North American Premiere in Telluride, which is an amazing festival. A couple of weeks after that we released in cinemas in the U.S. Our strategy was very much a build out from one cinema to about 130 over the last four weeks. That’s still building. Then after that we had our releases in Europe and definitely the most spectacular was in Italy where they made it an event release. In three days it made $1.4 million which is just incredible! We went in straight at number one.

It’s just been nominated at the European Film Awards in the best animated feature category. Will you be campaigning for Golden Globes and Oscars?

Yes. We will campaign for all the major awards including also the Spirit Awards, the Emmy Awards…Also we just released an exhibition of the paintings done for the film. It’s difficult for people to get their head around the fact that everything [in the film] is actually a painting and nothing is done on a computer. Everything you see in the film is digital photographs of paintings. You are seeing 130,000 photographs of 65,000 frames, because we do it at 12 frames per second. So in the exhibition we have 124 of our favourite paintings from the film and we also explain in detail how we made it. We have three exhibitions: a big one in the Noordbrabants Museum in Holland, and I’d like to send that to America next.

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