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Interview: 'Loving Vincent' Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman on the Creation of Their Oscar-Nominated Masterpiece

March 1, 2018Ben MK

The story of a man seeking to unravel the mystery surrounding Vincent van Gogh's untimely death, told in the iconic visual style of the legendary artist himself, Loving Vincent is perhaps the most uniquely beautiful movie you'll ever lay eyes upon.

Originally shot in live-action, each of the 65,000 frames of footage was then painstakingly hand-painted over by a team of 125 artists, in a process that took over 2 years to complete. A rare achievement in modern cinema, the end result has not only garnered numerous accolades, but stands out among its fellow Best Animated Feature nominees at this year's Oscars, where 3 of the 4 other contenders are computer-animated features.

Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have been anything but shy about discussing the long journey towards bringing Loving Vincent to the big screen. And with Oscar night around the corner, now seemed like the perfect time for me to chat with the pair to find out more about the making of this masterpiece.

What inspired you to tell this story, and to do so in such a unique way?

Kobiela: It started 10 years ago because I was at a moment of crisis in my life. I'd trained as a painter throughout my teens and early twenties, and then when I graduated I moved into making films, which I also loved. But suddenly I felt I'd gone a long way from my first passion, which was painting, and I was wondering if I should go back to painting. And then I decided that I wouldn't choose between them, instead I would combine them, and paint a film. I wanted to bring paintings to animated life to tell the story of a painter, and Vincent was the first painter that came to my mind, as his life is in his paintings.

Of all of van Gogh's 900 paintings, how did you select the ones to represent in the film? And were there any that you wanted in particular to include in the movie but ultimately didn't?

Kobiela: We wanted to include the paintings that were very well known, and most of these were painted in the last 3 years of his life, so we knew that our story was going to concentrate on the last 3 years of his life.

Welchman: But that is still a lot of paintings. Vincent was very prolific, in some periods, including the last 10 weeks of his life [when] he painted more than a painting a day. Every day a masterpiece that nowadays are worth hundreds of millions of dollars each! He did almost 400 paintings in his last 3 years, and in the end we selected 77. Some were obvious, like the portraits of the people that he knew well, as these were going to be the stars of our film, but others were less so.

Kobiela: We actually had 135 in the script at one point, but the film was too long and we had to cut it down. The biggest disagreements we had on this whole journey was about which paintings to keep in and which to jettison.

I'm sure there were many challenges along the way on a production as ambitious as this. From a technical aspect, what was the most challenging part of bringing Loving Vincent to life?

Kobiela: Color... and brushstrokes. Keeping the color consistent from one frame to the next over an entire shot that could take up to 6 months was an ordeal. And our painters actually had to physically re-paint individual brushstrokes frame by frame across the canvas, and there could be thousands of them in an individual painting. Luckily, all our animators were fanatical about being true to Vincent's work and loved painting so much that they could do this.

You speak at length about the evolution of the script on the film's official website. From a narrative perspective, what was the biggest challenge you encountered in developing the script and its characters?

Kobiela: It was the fact we couldn't do just exactly what we want. We had to make sure what we wrote not only connected all the paintings together, but we had to abide by the facts of history. Sometimes we'd want to twist the story in a particular direction but there were no paintings to take us there. Or we'd want to twist a character in a particular way, but to do so would take us too far from the facts and personality of the real historical person. Luckily, there are also gaps in the history, and we could write into these! So we managed, we hope, to weave these all together to have a good and gripping mystery.

Speaking of characters, the cast includes quite a few notable names. How did the various actors (like Douglas Booth, Chris O'Dowd and Saoirse Ronan) become involved in the movie?

Kobiela: There were lots of very tough things about making this movie, but surprisingly the casting wasn't one of them. We found that actors were very keen to be supportive of this small and unusual film, they were excited that we were trying to do something new, and we are very grateful to them for being supportive and taking a risk on this film.

Of course, many animated films contain Easter eggs that the animators — or, in this case, the painters — have snuck into various scenes. Are there any such Easter eggs in the movie?

Kobiela: Our Easter eggs were Vincent's paintings, we snuck as many of them in there as we possibly could. It was great when we showed the film to the Director and the experts at the Van Gogh Museum, who supported us on this journey with knowledge and access to study the paintings, but who didn't get to see anything of the film until it was finally finished... and of course they found all the eggs, but enjoyed the hunt!

I was also especially moved by the music in the film. Seeing as how van Gogh conveyed so much through only visuals, did you work closely with composer Clint Mansell to ensure the score complimented, but never overshadowed the artwork?

Kobiela: Clint was a part of this film long before he knew he was a part of this film. We actually wrote the script listening to his music. His sensibility is perfect for Vincent: irreverent, surprising, traumatic, sensitive and uplifting. He really was a hero to us, and it was amazing to work with our hero, and for him to not only live up to that status but to exceed our expectations. He is a wonderful and beautiful artist, full of integrity, and we couldn't imagine the film being the film that it is without him.

Loving Vincent is now available on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital HD.

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