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‘Loving Vincent’ Uses Real-Life Performers to Animate Canvas

If ever the term “art film” applied to a theatrical movie, “Loving Vincent” is it.

The first feature to animate oil paintings on canvas, it brings to life Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of provincial France. And within these landscapes, Vincent’s portraits of local people also come alive — inspired by performances from such actors as Saoirse Ronan. Polish artist Dorota Kobiela conceived the idea and co-wrote and directed it with Hugh Welchman, an animated short Oscar winner for “Peter and the Wolf.” Their script reflected Van Gogh’s own thoughts from hundreds of his letters.

The idea’s first test came in 2012, recalls Welchman. “We used friends as actors, filmed against a bedsheet as a green screen. We then painted animation based on that material.”

The resulting 90-second concept trailer persuaded Welchman’s partner at Breakthru Films to support their efforts.

“I also went to Ivan Mactaggart and David Parfitt, who run Trademark Films. They said, ‘We don’t do animation.’ I showed them the test and they said, ‘We do animation now.’”

The footage attracted experienced live-action performers.

“They were sitting on big seas of green, but they had wonderful costumes and action props,” Welchman says. “Some actors had worked on visual-effects shoots for ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ so they were used to this. We wanted real performances that could be ‘re-imagined’ in paint with the same techniques Vincent had used.”

Hiring scores of artists who could create “painted performances” within Van Gogh-inspired settings was an unprecedented challenge.

“We started with 20 painters,” says Welchman. “For two years we had just 50. Sometimes we didn’t know where we’d get the money at the end of the month. But the enthusiasm of the artists gave us the fire to go forward.”

An online advertisement for painters went viral and sparked wider interest.

“We had 200 million views in three months and managed to secure financing,” notes Welchman.

The crowdfunding site Kickstarter raised funds to recruit painters, and thousands applied. The eventual painting team, led by Kobiela, numbered more than 100 painters from around the world.

“We selected six ‘design painters’ who defined how we would re-imagine Vincent’s art on film. They studied the paintings at the Van Gogh Museum, which provided us with high-resolution copies so we could see individual brushstrokes.”

The artists’ methods involved painting a bit, taking a photograph and then scrubbing out the part that was moving and repainting it. Seventy-seven Van Gogh paintings were reimagined this way on more than 1,000 canvases, totaling 650,000 frames.

Five years of painstaking work produced “Loving Vincent,” which unfolds onscreen at 12 frames per second. Welchman compares it to the laborious frame-by-frame methods of his own past work with puppet animation.

“We’d averaged 2 seconds per animator, per day. On this film, we got one-third second per animator per day — six times slower. I think we came up with the slowest form of filmmaking ever!”

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