Painterly Impression
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 4: (Sep/Oct 2017)

Painterly Impression

The title of the film Loving Vincent comes from the words “Your loving Vincent,” which painter Vincent van Gogh typically used as a sign-off on letters to his brother. But it could as easily describe the feelings of filmmakers who created this homage to the artistic genius and, one imagines, of audiences who view the extraordinary animated feature film. It is arguably the world’s first feature film created with oil paintings.

You could, in fact, call Loving Vincent a stop-motion animated film. For this 90-minute exploration into the last year of van Gogh’s life, painters produced 65,000 oil paintings on canvas; 12 paintings 2.5 feet high by 1.5 feet wide for each second of film.

One hundred twenty-five professional artists worked on the film in Poland and Greece. Their paintings include careful representations of 130 landscapes and portraits that van Gogh created during his last years in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France.

To put the paintings in motion, the artists repositioned the brushstrokes in one painting when creating the next. Each oil painting was then photographed with a digital camera and retouched as necessary using computer graphics software to create the final film.

That’s the simple explanation. The process of making this film extended over seven years; the first four years spent developing the meticulous technique the crew would use, and the latter years filming live-action actors who would play people in van Gogh’s portraits, and painting the 65,000 frames. BreakThru Films in Poland and the UK produced the film; Trademark Films in the UK was co-producer.

The result immerses the viewer fully into van Gogh’s world, a world in which the people van Gogh painted are now breathing, speaking characters, but always still living in the world that van Gogh saw and painted. For anyone who has gazed at a van Gogh painting and imagined that starry sky moving, the train belching steam, sunflowers dancing in the wind, or the postman saying hello, seeing Loving Vincent will be a stunning experience. The opening sequence of the film, which takes viewers into van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” required more than 600 paintings. Three painters spent a combined total of 14 months creating the shot.

The Idea

During his lifetime, van Gogh wrote more than 800 letters, and those letters, even more than his paintings, inspired writer/director Dorota Kobiela to make this film. Originally, Kobiela, a graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw who had received several awards for her stereoscopic, painted animated short, “Little Postman,” had planned to have Loving Vincent be her seventh short film, and intended to paint it herself. Instead, she directed the artists who painted the feature.

Hugh Welchman, Kobiela’s spouse, persuaded her to do the feature film after waiting in long lines to attend a van Gogh exhibition. Welchman had founded BreakThru Films in 2002 and received an Oscar in 2008 for the short film “Peter & the Wolf,” created with stop-motion puppet animation. He became co-writer, co-director, and producer of Loving Vincent.

After exploring other stages of van Gogh’s life, Kobiela decided to plot the story over his last days, during which he had painted many portraits. Van Gogh became an artist at age 28 and died 10 years later. During that decade, the Dutch artist generated 2,100 artworks, of which approximately 860 were oil paintings, most made in France during the last two years of his life.

Approximately 80 percent of the film is based on van Gogh’s paintings; the other

20 percent features black-and-white flashbacks into van Gogh’s early life, for which there are no paintings. Kobiela decided to use black and white because many of her reference materials were black-and-white photographs and to give the audiences’ eyes a rest from van Gogh’s intense color.

The story that writers Kobiela, Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel imagined for Loving Vincent stars Armand Roulin, the son of Postman Joseph Roulin. The elder Roulin has just heard that his friend Vincent van Gogh has killed himself. So, he gives Armand a letter to deliver to Vincent’s brother Theo in Paris. But by the time Armand arrives, Theo is dead, too. Armand finds Pere Tanguy, a paint supplier, though, and Pere relays Vincent’s story of struggle and determination. But, Armand wants to know why Vincent would take his life. So, he travels to Auvers-sur-Oise to find out. In Auvers, Armand meets many of the villagers Vincent painted. They tell him conflicting stories, and it isn’t until Armand meets the influential Doctor Gachet that he begins to understand.

All these characters are played by well-known actors chosen for their resemblance to the people van Gogh painted. Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Robert Gulaczyk (Vincent van Gogh), Eleanor Tomlinson (Adeline Ravoux), Jerome Flynn (Dr. Gachet), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite Gachet), Chris O’Dowd (Postman Roulin), Aidan Turner (Boatman), John Sessions (Pere Tanguy), and Helen McCrory (Louise Chevalier) performed at London’s Three Mills Studios, with 80 percent of the shots on greenscreen stages and the rest in sets constructed to look like van Gogh paintings. Following that two-week shoot, the crew shot body doubles in Poland for another two weeks.

By shooting live-action actors, the directors could create reference materials for the entire film in a short time, and later, the footage would help the painters convey human emotion in their animated paintings.

Design Painting

Before and during the live-action shoot, 20 painters began working on the process that would lead to the creation of those 65,000 oil paintings.

“Based on the script, we had a number of shots and scenes with a specific environment – inside, outside, in the fields, the restaurant, and so forth – based on original paintings as reference,” says Head of Painting Piotr Dominiak. “Then we had scenes without the paintings as reference. We had to create environments and backgrounds for non-existent paintings, thinking how would he have painted them.”

Working from storyboards, the artists created digital matte paintings for the black-and-white scenes, the flashbacks often based on photographs, and developed an animation style for those. For scenes in color, which would look like van Gogh paintings, they created a digital image to set up color and composition. From that reference, they produced oil paintings that would be used as reference keyframes for other painters to follow.

All told, design painters spent a year re-imagining 125 of van Gogh’s paintings to fit into the story and into the size and shape of a film frame. Ninety-four of van Gogh’s paintings remained close to the originals; 31 were altered in some way. A character painted in one style might have appeared in another painting in a different style, for example. Or, paintings in one season or time of day needed to change to follow the story.

“The backgrounds weren’t so difficult to do,” Dominiak says. “The main problem was the characters. The keyframes were based on one original van Gogh painting. But what if we wanted Armand at night? We had to imagine what that would look like.” And, they had to do so with the actors’ features in mind, as well, not just the original subjects.

All told, the design painters created 377 oil paintings, none of which appear in the film. The painters spent approximately five days creating each painting.

“Once we had those physical paintings, we distributed them in digital form for the painters creating the final oil paintings to use as reference,” Dominiak says.

To find the final group of 125 with the right combination of artistic and animation skills, BreakThru interviewed thousands of painters. Even so, the studio had these painting animators complete a 180-hour training program before starting on the project.

“There aren’t many painters or animators who can do painted stop motion where every single frame is painted and photographed,” says Tomek Wochniak, production manager.

Frame by Frame, in Oil

While the design painters were creating digital matte paintings and keyframes, the directors had the live-action footage cut and edited into the footage that the artists would paint over, frame by frame, in oils on canvas.

“The live-action footage was not ready to repaint just like that, though,” Dominiak says. “We needed to do digital processing first before projecting it onto a canvas.”

The visual effects team composited the live-action footage with photos of the keyframe paintings, and added CG animation to give the background images movement and depth – a steam train rolling past a field of grain, flying crows, and blowing leaves, for example.

To minimize unintended changes from one painting to the next, to ensure as consistent lighting as possible, and to facilitate each painter’s task, the team devised a painting animation workstation system they dubbed PAWS, and installed 97 systems in the Gdańsk and Wrocław, Poland, and Athens, Greece, studios.

“The idea of creating PAWS was to give the painters a chance to paint more efficiently and quickly,” Wochniak says. “We had done ‘Little Postman’ in a painted style, and every single thing that moved had to be fixed in postproduction. The painters had to remember to turn lights off and on, hide the projector, not to kick the tripod, and so forth. So for this film, we constructed a simple workstation with a computer and software. The painters have a dedicated small area where there is no light from the outside.”

Each painter sits in front of a table angled at 45 degrees, with a monitor above. Above the painter’s head are a camera and a projector. Projected onto the painter’s canvas frame by frame are the live-action composites. Managing the projection and providing frame-based editing and drawing tools is DZED Systems’ Dragonframe stop-motion animation software.

“For the black-and-white frames, the artists traced the movement in the live-action footage,” Wochniak says. “They did rotoscoping.”

For the color frames, however, which comprise the majority of the film, the painters used the projected reference material only as a guide. They had to re-create the image in van Gogh’s style with brushstrokes.

“From the keyframe and live-action footage composited onto the canvas, the painters create a new oil painting and then photograph it with the digital camera,” Dominiak explains. “Once it is photographed, they scratch off the parts of the painting that move into a different position, and repaint it. Then, take another photo. And so on. With static camera shots, only a character’s face is repainted; the background is still. But if the camera is moving, the painter has to scratch the whole frame and paint it again.” The painters did this 12 times for each second of film.

Postproduction

The artists photographed each painting with a Canon D20 digital camera at 6k resolution. BreakThru’s three visual effects artists then went to work refining the images while maintaining the quality of the paintings. They used Canon’s internal RAW converter to move the photograph into JPEG format, and The Foundry’s Nuke to stabilize the images to avoid flickering and to fix distortions.

“The projected images weren’t perfect rectangles,” says head of VFX, Lukasz Mackiewicz. “So we had to fix all the shots.”

Adobe’s After Effects helped the visual effects artists remove dirt and specks, tone down heavy specular light on the edges of brushstrokes, and fix too rapid changes in paint tones.

“The painters didn’t always sit in the same position, so that would create a slight flicker, especially in the dark scenes, and sometimes the lights would get dimmer,” says Mackiewicz. “We might have left minor issues, but when we made a decision to improve one image, the rest stood out. We were lucky that After Effects’ Refine Soft Matte handled and interpreted the brushstrokes the way it did.”

“At the beginning, we thought we wouldn’t be able to remove dirt or fix a background,” he adds. “It would have been too tedious. After Effects sped up our work by 30 times. At the beginning, we thought only 10 percent would be [fixed in] post. At the end, only 10 percent wasn’t. We did things at the end we didn’t conceive of at the beginning.”

Of course, that might be said for the entire project, which began as an idea for a short film to be painted by one artist, Director Dorota Kobiela, and grew to become the remarkable Loving Vincent.

Barbara Robertson (BarbaraRR@comcast.net) is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW.