Loving Vincent: A Painted Life

animation clip from the movie Loving Vincent

I was recently reading about the soon-to-be released feature-length animated film, Loving Vincent, that follows the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh. I was struck by both the artistic vision of the producers and the complicated process of its production. The story of the making of the film has useful lessons for beginning artists and designers.

animation clip from the movie Loving Vincent

Based on 800 letters written by Van Gogh, the movie is set in the year after his death, taking the form of a film-noir detective story. The movie revolves around the significant people in Vincent’s life (portrayed in his paintings) who recount his story. The question they attempt to answer – was Van Gogh suicidal or was he murdered?

Director Dorota Kobiela began her life as a painter before turning to film. After several years working in film she began to miss the intimacy of painting and found consolation in the letters of Van Gogh. She decided to merge film and painting in a short 8 minute movie centered on Van Gogh’s work. After meeting the Academy Award winning animator Hugh Welchman, now her husband, the project grew into an 87 minute hand-painted film.

hand painted film still with link to video

Click on the image above to view a short excerpt.

The scope of the undertaking is what I can only call mind-boggling. Each second of the movie is composed of 12 individual oil paintings. All together there are over 62,000 paintings, each constituting one frame of the movie. The filmmakers spent three years figuring out how to make the film, and then several more years working with a team of 100 artists to complete the paintings. They began with little funding, training the painters with money raised through a Kickstarter campaign.

Loving Vincent hand painted still next to actor in front of a green screen

The film is composed entirely of hand-painted canvases in oil, no computer generated shortcuts. This doesn’t mean the filmmakers didn’t take advantage of computer technology. All of the preliminary work was done with a combination of live-action, chroma key compositing, and computer animation.

Loving Vincent 3 images- one of an actor, one of that person in a Van Gogh painting and one a handprinted film still of that person

Loving Vincent 3 images- one of an actor, one of that person in a Van Gogh painting and one a handprinted film still of that person

In the two sets of images above you can see an image of an actor, that character in one of Van Gogh’s paintings, and the painted image from the film. Actors who resembled the characters in Van Gogh’s paintings performed on either painted sets or in front of green screens (chroma keying).

Computer animators added additional elements, such as birds in flight or blowing clouds, to the live-action filming. Once edited this work was broken down into individual stills (remember, a movie is nothing more than a series of still images shown in rapid succession). These stills became the basis for the oil paintings.

painted animation station

painted animation station

The filmmakers designed a group of work stations that they named PAWS,  painted animation work stations, seen above, that allowed the artists to work from the film stills. The finished movie uses 100 establishing shots, each on a separate canvas. Once a painting was completed a high resolution photograph was made, the canvas was scraped down and the next image based on that shot was begun. The artists needed to not only capture the likeness of the image but also a fluidity of motion that is revealed from one canvas to the next.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough there was another set of issues that arose in making the film. I suggest you think about the things you’ve learned from our book, Design: A Beginner’s Handbook. The manipulation of all the design elements and principles took center stage in creating this film. Scale, proportion, space (perspective), balance, color, value, all had to be altered in subtle ways in the making of the film.

Each establishing shot was based on one of Van Gogh’s paintings. In film every frame is the same size, orientation (horizontal vs. vertical), and dimension but this is not true of Van Gogh’s paintings, which vary in size, scale and orientation. The filmmakers had to standardize the paintings by extending the frame, imagining what would have been there, and often changing the vantage point and accompanying perspective.

In other instances the filmmakers had to change the color palette. The movie takes place in the summer but some of the Van Gogh paintings used portray scenes in winter. The production designers looked carefully at light and value, color key, and other aspects of color in order to successfully make the change from winter to summer.

Artistic style became a concern in the re-creation of Van Gogh’s paintings. Van Gogh experimented with paint application, and there are both subtle and obvious stylistic differences found in his work. The painters working on the film needed to find ways to transition from one style to another as the film moved between establishing shots.

black and white animation clip from the movie Loving Vincent

Another problem to be resolved was conceptual in nature. Scenes that never existed in Van Gogh’s paintings were required by the storyline. The filmmakers came up with the ingenious idea of using flashbacks that would be painted in a monochromatic palette of black and white to create these new scenes.

So the lesson in all of this? Believe in your vision. Develop the resources you’ll need to achieve your ends – time and training. Pay attention to detail. Get help from others – big dreams often require teams of helpers. Don’t give up.

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One Response to Loving Vincent: A Painted Life

  1. Zoe says:

    Wow — this looks fascinating! What a lot of effort. Look forward to seeing it!

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