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  • Ravi Swami

"Loving Vincent", Dir: Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman, 2017

Although I work in animation I have to admit to being late to the table with "Loving Vincent", which was released in 2017, watched as a rental on Sky Store along with an accompanying "making of" documentary.

I was aware of the painstaking and mind-boggling process employed to realise the film and this may have contributed to my avoiding it - early in my career I became known for highly "rendered" animation using various media and I can vouch for the fact that it requires a huge amount of focus and attention to detail, especially when facing a commercial deadline and without the aid of digital tools to make the process faster.

The production company funded the film initially via crowd funding following a teaser sequence as proof of concept and the entire film spanned a period of about 6 years, employing about 100 hand-picked classical artists, ie not animators, specially trained to work in the style of the subject of the film, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, based for the most part in Poland, the home country of the co-director Dorota Kobiela, for whom this was a passion project.

The documentary itself is fascinating and takes an exhaustive look at evolution of the film, from Kobiela's first thoughts about making the film through to the setting up of the studio in Poland and development of a system to enable each artist to work off live-action reference footage projected onto large canvases in "Academy" format ie to match the 4:3 aspect ratio of a Van Gogh painting, and then painting each frame in oils in Van Gogh's style - a mammoth task that was properly set in motion once Kobiela met up with her future partner, the producer Hugh Welchman of Breakthru Films, a U.K based film production company with a history of producing award-winning animation and live action films.

What differentiates the film from examples that use a similar technique is that far from simply being animation rendered in a painterly style, which could be interesting visually for its own sake, Kobiela has crafted a solid script written as if it was for a live-action film and indeed this was the basis for sequences shot using actors in costume in green-screen sets that became a guide for the artists tasked with producing the individual frames of the film, telling the little-known story of Van Gogh's tragic early death beyond the more widely known detail of Van Gogh as the painter who cut off his own ear, in the process providing an insight into the man and the people around him.

The story starts sometime after Van Gogh's death and chooses to focus instead on Armand Roulin, son of postman Joseph Roulin, who is tasked with delivering a letter from Van Gogh to his brother Theo, and this in turns leads to Armand meeting the various key players in Van Gogh's life in a series of vignettes reflecting particular Van Gogh paintings, in order to uncover the reasons behind his death - thus effectively painting a picture in the viewers' mind of the artist himself via from the horses mouth testimonials, some favourable and others not so - a very clever device with which to frame a story familiar to many people and where the technique is invested with a poetic significance as a result.

The producers managed to harness the talents of some well-known actors, like John Sessions (as the art dealer Père Tanguy) and Saoirse Ronan (as Marguerite Gachet) to play roles in the guide footage and the quality of the acting and resemblance to the real people concerned really enhances the final film, something that could easily have been its make or break if amateur actors had been used, and what is astonishing is how accurately the artists translated the subtlety of the actors performances using oil paint throughout the film, leading to a consistent level of quality from start to finish and with no discernible difference from one artist to another.

The "rotoscoping" technique of using live-action reference to make an animated film has a long history and "Loving Vincent" is an interesting hybrid of techniques resulting in something that is closer to classical painting and live action than conventional animation, with the hand-created element being the aspect that brings them together and while it's entirely possible to create a similar effect digitally and possibly in less time, the use of real paintings created by artists under camera is entirely appropriate for the subject of the film.

"Loving Vincent" was nominated for the Academy Award and Bafta Award for best animated feature film and won Best Animated Feature for the 30th European Film Awards after a world premiere at the Annecy International Animation Festival in 2017.

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Ravi Swami
Dec 16, 2020

Yes, I thought it won the Oscar for best animated feature but only a nomination, which is something I guess - as I suggest it's in that grey area of being neither animation, as it's perceived by the animation industry, nor live action, but a hybrid of the two - it did very well commercially and I think a lot of that has to do with the script.


Dec 16, 2020

Where we live, most of the films available are broadcast from the Middle East and whilst mostly a stream of action movies, the occasional gem gets through. This film is one such jewel. In an odd way, the story is all the more engaging through the rendering of locations in a painterly form rather than in a costume drama rendition, where our attention is drawn to many details. I'm surprised the film didn't garner more major awards.

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