'Loving Vincent': Animating Van Gogh's Life in 65,000 Oil Painted Frames
Piotr Dominiak, the film's Head of Painting Animation, coordinated 125 painters to create the world's first oil-painted animated film.
For a film as relentlessly active as the new animated feature Loving Vincent, with its flickering, restless lines, it is at times surprising that so many of its tableaux, a large percentage of which were inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's paintings, have such a private, quiet quality to them.
We see an empty alleyway, an unpopulated bar, a treelined lane. Perhaps rain is falling. A figure walks, or should I say swims, across the frame. There is some echoing dialogue. The story, which concerns the ambiguities around the last days of Vincent Van Gogh's life before he shot and fatally wounded himself in a small town in France, moves forward.
It's surprising to learn that a film whose tone is captivating but often somber and thoughtful came to visual life through the work of 125 different painters, whose talents merged to create the first oil-painted animated film in motion picture history. Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the film took six years to make and includes more than 65,000 hand-painted frames.
No Film School touched base with Piotr Dominiak, the film's Head of Painting Animation, to find out more about the fascinating process behind the making of the film.
No Film School: How did you choose the artists who painted the frames of the film?
Piotr Dominiak: We placed advertisements with art schools, academies, and other press or media platforms for artists. After completing hundreds of portfolios, we made a ranking of them. Our rank went from 1 to 6, where 6 was a very good portfolio. We had been looking for artists who specialized in oil paints and liked to use the impasto style. Painters with good portfolios were invited to take a 3-day test in our studio.
We tested the painters’ skills in copying Van Gogh’s style—painting with the right colors, proper brush strokes, but also to check their skills in "feeling the animation." For the first day and a half, they painted the first frame. After it was done, they started animating it. Usually, we had a ‘Dr. Gachet’ portrait for the test, but later (once we had finished some footage from the film) we used our ‘Armand’ on green as a test shot. Every test (an exported animation, usually very short, around 6-10 frames) was reviewed by myself and/or by the director, Dorota Kobiela. It was a very crucial process, because painters with good scores from the test were invited to take part in a 6-week training program.
There is something intoxicating that happens, once you spend enough time with Van Gogh’s paintings. You start to feel them, almost like you could see him painting with you.
Each day, we had about five or six training rounds. The first two were the biggest with 30 painters in each. We trained more than 120 artists that way. During the training, painters were not only copying two Van Gogh paintings, but also animating two longer shots. Sometimes, we gave different shots to animate, so some of our painters had a landscape and others had a portrait shot. Some were creating color versions of Vincent's style, while some were creating black and white versions. It all depended on their skills.
NFS: The contrast between colors in the film is remarkable. The present is cast in sparkling full color, while the past focuses on grays, whites, and black hues. Can you tell a little bit about how that decision was made?
Dominiak: The decision was made by Dorota after a long process of testing different kinds of animation, including a new "full color realistic" style (you can see it in our concept trailer), a drawing animation technique, and even painting on glass.
We had to try many kinds of animation just to make sure which one would fit best. It turned out that a black and white "noir" style was best to complete or complement the full-color Van Gogh style. Also, for the viewer, it was good to have "visual breaks" between scenes painted in Van Gogh's style, which were filled with pulsating color. The calm black-and-white shots were also a good way to show different time periods.
NFS: Was there any kind of selection process involved when the paintings were being made? Did any paintings not make the selection? If so, how did you choose which to use?
Dominiak: It was all based on the script. The script changed over the years, and some scenes were left in and some were taken out of the film. We have been using original Van Gogh paintings based on the time period and tied to the location where they were created. We tried not to mix paintings from Arles in Paris scenes, or Auvers paintings with Arles. We used original paintings as references for the black and white scenes. The full list of paintings used in film will be included in our exhibition in Noord-Brabant, The Netherlands, starting October 13.
NFS: What was the relationship between the story in the script and the paintings you were making?
Dominiak: As I’ve said, we’ve aimed for accuracy by telling the story through the paintings, so, for shots that take place in Auvers, we used Auvers paintings, and so on. Of course, we didn't have an original Van Gogh painting for every shot in the film. Van Gogh simply didn't paint in all places, in all angles, at all times of the day. We had to make new paintings for those shots from the scratch.
NFS: How closely were the paintings planned out?
Dominiak: For all shots that were simply a copy of an original, and usually a static camera shot, we tried hard to make it as close as possible. Every brush stroke was important for those shots. For other shots it was different. Some scenes used just a piece of the original (for example, somewhere in the corner of the frame), but other scenes, especially the moving camera shots, used not just one, but two or more of Van Gogh’s paintings.
NFS: What was the most important aspect of Van Gogh's work that you wanted to bring out in the film's paintings?
Dominiak: I think apart from being accurate with color, it was this passion and energy you can see in every brush stroke. There is something intoxicating that happens, once you spend enough time with Van Gogh’s paintings. You start to feel them, almost like you could see him painting with you.
NFS: What kind of hiccups or stumbling blocks did you run into as you worked on the film?
Dominiak: A lot of issues came out during the whole production. Most of them were caused by the lack of similarity to the originals. The wrong color, brushstrokes that didn’t match, paintings lacking painterly gesture, paint that was too oily or too dry, poor fluency of animation—mostly technical hiccups.
NFS: What is the desired emotional effect of a hand-painted film? What kind of effect were you trying to have on the audience?
Dominiak: We were trying for a WOW effect, not just with the visual side of the film, but with the story as well. They both create a new quality in filmmaking. The two together will not leave the audience indifferent.