Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent (2017)— the Vincent van Gogh biopic — is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. That’s because it is the world’s first, ever, fully painted feature film. Inspired by the letters and paintings left behind by the intriguing artist, it features 120 of his most popular works, including Starry Night (1889), Portrait of the Postman Joseph (1888), Wheatfield with Crows (1890), and a whole lot more.
The film is comprised of over 65,000 frames entirely made up of oil paintings, with 12 individually painted frames appearing on screen per second. Considering that every brushstroke tells a story, it’s crazy to think that there are 898 shots — hence 898 oil paintings — in the hour-and-a-half long moving picture. So, it’s not surprising that the film’s stunning trailer went viral when it first premiered back in February 2016.
As evidenced in part by the massive undertaking that is Loving Vincent, the world seems to have an unwavering fascination with the artist’s tumultuous life and the circumstances surrounding his passing. According the filmmakers:
"The intrigue unfolds through interviews with the characters closest to Vincent and through dramatic reconstructions of the events leading up to his death…The plot is drawn from the 800 letters written by the painter himself...in his last letter [Vincent wrote]: 'Well, the truth is, we cannot speak other than by our paintings,' and that is what we are doing — letting his paintings tell the story of what the painter had inside his heart, and ultimately, what happened to him."
The road to making Loving Vincent was a long one. Kobiela spent seven years working on the film. The biggest hurdle was obtaining funding, since animated films are notoriously expensive to create. Understandably, investors were cautious to back such an ambitious and experimental project, though, a modest budget of $5.5 million was ultimately secured.
The filmmakers wanted real actors portraying the characters in the biopic, so Saoirse Ronan, Aidan Turner, Douglas Booth, Helen McCrory, Chris O'Dowd and Jerome Flynn were brought on board. The film’s design team spent a year re-imagining his works. The resulting paintings, storyboard, and CG layout animatic formed the foundation of the live-action shoot, for which the actors worked on specially constructed sets resembling Van Gogh’s works, or a green-screen.
Though Loving Vincent was shot in London, England, as well as in parts of Poland, 115 of the film's artist-animators worked from different locations. American painter Dena Kirk — whose creations have appeared in local, national and international art shows — was one of them. The award-winning artist spent five months collaborating on the film in Poland’s Gdansk, after she first discovered the opportunity from a Facebook post.
“There are so many paintings of Van Gogh that I love,” she stated in an interview with ARTpublika Magazine. “I saw a trailer of the animation done with original oil paintings and was intrigued from the start…I had never seen anything like it before. As a painter, I was impressed and wanted to know more.” With some encouragement from her daughter, Kirk submitted her portfolio.
Soon, Kirk was invited to take a three-day painting “test” in Gdansk, where she was asked to produce works in the style of the iconic artist. It paid off; after she completed the film’s intense three-week training program, she officially joined the crew. “The work day generally began by 9am and ended by 6pm with about a half-hour break for lunch,” recalled Kirk. “I think the directors needed to know that we could handle the intensity of the work. It took so much focus.”
Dorota Kobiela, one of the film’s directors, is also a skilled painter. “She had the final say on the quality of our work. It is because of her fastidious attention to detail, and her vision for using actual working fine artists to create every frame that makes this film so unique,” explained Kirk. “I truly felt a sense of commitment to this project, Dorota, and Hugh. [I wanted] to help them realize their vision.”
Artist-animators worked in Painting Animation Work Stations (PAWS) that resembled elaborate study cells that could be found at the library. They allow the workers to focus on painting and animating the brushstrokes without having to adjust the lighting or worry about other distracting details. “Every time a character spoke, there was movement in their entire face and body. I had to pay careful attention to make the brushstrokes look believable, yet still remain true to Van Gogh’s style,” Kirk shared.
“I have often felt the satisfaction of finishing a painting and having it work. However, painting one hundred paintings, putting them all together and then watching them move is beyond words for me…If I hadn’t done the work myself, I would have said it was like magic!”
Kirk painted three different scenes, one of which featured up-and-coming actor Douglas Booth, who played Armand. “[Armand] chucks a stick into the field and the crows rise up and fly away. This was Dorota’s favorite scene and she chose me to animate it. It really made me feel honored,” she stated. Kirk also worked on the animation for a scene that featured Van Gogh’s iconic painting, Wheatfield with Crows.
“Van Gogh committed suicide in a wheat field — perhaps this very one…As I animated the crows gradually flying away, I was thinking that they were the only ones that really knew what happened to Van Gogh that day, and they took that secret with them... Maybe it sounds a bit melodramatic…[but] this scene will always have special meaning for me.”