The story of Loving Vincent begins one year after death of Vincent van Gogh, in the summer of 1891. Our hero Armand Roulin sets out to discover the truth about Van Gogh, and in doing so meets many people who knew Vincent when he was alive, and they share their memories of him with Armand.
Vincent was an avid letter writer and left behind over 800 letters which director-writer duo Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman drew from when writing the script for the film. They felt that the story of Vincent could only be properly emotionally told if it was intimately connected to his paintings, so we used the medium of paint, and 125 of Vincent’s paintings form the very fabric of the world in Loving Vincent.
“We cannot speak other than by our paintings”
Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, the week before his death in 1890
In our story, there are parts of Vincent’s life that he didn’t paint, so we came up with the idea of having flashbacks in the film. These are done in a black and white painted style, based on photographs from the era. This freed us up to show many dramatic situations from his life, without taking it upon ourselves to imagine entire series of paintings that Vincent never painted.
We found our Vincent, Polish theatre actor Robert Gulaczyk, in 2014. Here he is on set:
Vincent’s paintings changed painting and art forever, and after his death his fame grew until the point that he became the most famous artist in the world, whose work and writings have influenced the lives of millions of people. We hope that Loving Vincent will introduce more people to his work and life.
Loving Vincent first entered development in 2008, originally conceived as a short film by Dorota Kobiela. Since then the script has gone through several major drafts and changes in direction before settling on the final version, which tells the story from the point of view of Armand Roulin. Here are few words from writer-director duo Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman at various points in the journey.
Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela
Dorota Kobiela - the early drafts
By far the hardest challenge was re-writing the script as an 80 minute film. I see myself as a director, not a writer. I couldn’t just write a biopic like Lust for Life, I could only have scenes that were set in or at least started or finished in Vincent paintings. I would often write scenes that I thought were beautiful and moved the story forward, and then realise they were too removed from the paintings.
Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in Lust for Life
I wrote the first draft in Polish, based on my various short scripts, and using character monologues we had commissioned from a Polish novelist, Jacek Dehnal. I wrote the second draft in Polish as well, and it was so time consuming getting it translated, and getting notes in English, so, seeing as we were going to shoot the film in English, I decided I would write future drafts in English. So at this point I drafted in the help of Hugh and co-opted him as my co-writer. Over the next 2 and a half years we produced 5 full new drafts, and many minor revisions to those 5 drafts, and we had two complete changes of direction during this time.
I wrote many stories: stories taken from Vincent’s life; stories that started from particular paintings; stories exclusively from his Dutch period; stories when he was deep in the bohemia of Mountmartre in Paris. But the first concrete script that emerged was set during his last days. This resonated, and also I loved the paintings involved, and the fact they included paintings of people who he had regular contact with at the end: the mercurial Dr Gachet; his mysterious daughter, Marguerite Gachet, painted three times, yet her face always concealed; and the spirited daughter of the owner of the Inn where Vincent died, Adeline Ravoux.
Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela working on a draft of the script in Amsterdam.
Hugh Welchman on developing the story
We had read around 40 different publications about Vincent: biographies, academic, essays and fictional works. Over 4 years we visited 19 museums in 6 countries to view around 400 Van Gogh paintings. We also watched the major feature film and documentary productions about his life and interviewed experts at the Van Gogh Museum.
The demands of writing a script on Vincent were tough. We took as our mantra his words in one of his last letters: “We cannot speak other than by our paintings”. So we showed only what we see in his paintings. With that restriction we had many paths to follow: Vincent’s struggle; the mystery of his death; the development of his art; or an alchemy of the aforementioned.
For us it was very clear that Vincent was not insane. The story shouldn’t be about his madness, it should be sheer bewildering shock at the journey he went on and what he accomplished in 8 short years. But we also had to deal with the widely held perception that he was some tortured mad suffering artist.
Vincent in the final film
New directions - Dorota
A major change of direction was the change from a mockumentary to a regular dramatic story. For the first draft we had the unseen film-maker as the driving force of the investigation into Vincent’s life through interviews with his paintings. We also made the stylistic choice to have two different visual styles in the film- the interviews would be in Vincent style, and the recollections of the people being interviewed would be in black and white.
One draft had Postman Roulin and his son narrating events to a third party, the painter Edvard Munch. They had looked into Vincent’s death, and now they were recounting this investigation to a painter who had come south in Vincent’s footsteps.
We felt this was still too removed and we needed to identify more closely with the emotional journey of the main characters. So then we shifted to setting the investigation in the present, and made Armand Roulin the hero, interviewing people in Auvers, Paris and Arles.
Loving Vincent began development in 2008, and involved several years of testing and training before painting on the shots used in the final film began.
From various tests with computer animation we concluded that it was very important to actually, like Vincent van Gogh, paint with oils on canvas. Each frame of the film is an oil painting, based on or inspired by his paintings. We wanted real people to bring his portrait to life; actors rather than animations. By shooting live action with actors we created material in days that would normally take months in animation.
In 2012 Dorota Kobiela directed the concept trailer for the film and our first painters came on board. At the same time we also worked on a prototype for PAWS (Painting Animation Work Station), a workstation designed to make the painting animation process as efficient as possible.
In 2013 we shot test live action test footage in Poland in a freezing barn at -20c with members of the crew standing in as characters. We edited this together and used it as reference footage for the next stage of painting tests.
Hugh Welchman stood in as Vincent for our early test footage.
We researched and tested 9 different brands of oil paints from 6 manufacturers. We took into consideration quality of the paint, viscosity, how the colours came across, range of colours, and price. The colour that mattered most to us was yellow. We needed a brand that had a good range of yellows, and for the yellow to be very saturated.The tests consisted of applying paint to canvas boards and photographing them under different lighting conditions. Royal Talens Van Gogh was the obvious choice because it had the greatest range of colours, and additionally it was the cheapest of the 3 paints that passed our tests.
After we had fine tuned the painting process, we found and trained 40 more painters, whose training was partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign. In 2014 we were then able to start the design painting process, with 20 painters re-imagining the paintings of Vincent van Gogh for the big screen. The Painting Design team spent one-year re-imagining Vincent’s painting into the medium of film. There are 94 Vincent paintings that feature in a form very close to the original, and there are a further 31 paintings that are either featured substantially or partially.
Painters training in our Gdansk studio
Vincent’s paintings come in different shapes and sizes, so the design painters had to work out how to best show these paintings within the frame set by the cinema screen. This required breaking outside the frames of Vincent’s paintings, while still retaining the feel and inspiration of Vincent’s originals.
Expanding Van Gogh’s Le Moulin de la Galette
We also had to work out how to deal with ‘invasions’, where a character painted in one style, comes into another Vincent painting with a different style. The Character Design Painters specialized in re-imagining our actors as their famous portraits, so that they would retain their own features and at the same time recognizably take on the look and feeling of their character in painting form. There were 377 paintings painted during the Design Painting process.
To create Loving Vincent, we had to hand paint 65,000 frames of oil paintings. To make this process as efficient as possible, we spent 2 years during the development of the project working on our Painting Animation Work Stations (PAWS). Each of our Painting Animators, across 97 workstations in 3 studios in 2 countries, painted inside a PAWS.
When we originally had the idea for the film, the problem we faced was how we were going to be able to make it in a reasonable time frame. Our first simple painter setup was very home made: an easel; a camera; a tripod; ikea shelving unit; lamps; projector; computer; and a memory stick. Often we were losing time because the painter was knocking one of the main elements, and everything would have to be put back into alignment. Also people were walking around with memory sticks, and we had to go to the workstation to review the frames. This is fine when we had a handful of painting animators in one location, but wasn’t going to work when we had 97 across 3 locations.
So we started thinking about a workstation for our painters which would allow them to focus just on the painting, and allow us to view what they were doing without interrupting their flow. The new PAWS aimed to minimize time wasted on unnecessary actions, like turning the lamps on and off.
PAWS during our painter training period
Painter training lasted six weeks, and we used these PAWS units above. For the final film however, we needed to maintain constant light conditions, a crucial consideration for any animated film. We knew that the PAWS would need some sort of curtains, but they were too flammable to use as walls so we built plaster walled booths for the final PAWS design.
This provided a stable environment where everything is rigidly set in proportion - the canvas to the camera, the canvas to the projector, and the PAWS had its own native light source. This minimised the amount of things that could go wrong for our Painting Animators during a shot, and allowed them to focus as much attention as possible on painting and animating without being concerned about lighting and technology.
This new PAWS system, alongside the painters growing experience from training, enabled the average painting time to come down to 40 minutes per frame. The main light source came from a lamp placed right above the canvas, oriented downwards. We placed a diffusion filter on the upper part of the PAWS, to ensure the light was as even as possible and we used white blends on both sides of the canvas because the top lamp didn’t give enough light on the sides of the painted frames. As the lower part of the canvas was darker, we also added a second lamp, directed upwards toward the ceiling to reflect light.
Our Painting Animators used the reference footage which could either be projected onto the canvas area, or be viewed on an HD monitor above the canvas. Once each frame of painting was finished two photographs were taken with a Canon digital stills camera at 6k resolution. 24 of these high-resolution photographs of 12 frames of painting make up each second of the film.
Each shot (which varied in length) was painted on a separate canvas. The first frame was a full painting, then each subsequent frame was re-painted, matching the brushstrokes, colour and impasto of their previous frame, for all parts of the shot that are moving. At the end of each shot we are left with a painting of the last frame, which you can find examples of here.