‘Loving Vincent’ is a visual feast that combines traditional painting with cutting-edge animation

A labour of love, this groundbreaking animation took six years and hundreds of artists to bring Vincent Van Gogh's vivid paintings to life.

The cinematic experience continues to be dominated by digitally led projects and audiences who increasingly expect more and more technical innovation. So it is refreshing when a mainstream cinema release consciously chooses to place traditional, artist-led techniques at its very heart. Hailed as the first “fully painted feature film” Loving Vincent – the story of Dutch post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh – does just that.

Recreating Van Gogh’s vivid impasto brushstrokes (where the paint is applied thickly to create texture and convey feeling), the film resembles the struggling artist’s paintings come to life – and to mesmerising effect. But hidden beneath the beautifully painted flowing surface of animated oil paint and canvas, lie a number of sophisticated digital processes that helped bring this project to the screen. The result is a groundbreaking hybrid that perfectly bridges the space between a traditional artform and cutting-edge animation technology.

Loving Vincent.

Loving Vincent was co-directed and co-written by husband-and-wife team Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman – the Academy Award-winning producer of the 2006 stop-motion animated short Peter and the Wolf – and was produced jointly by Breakthru Films and Trademark Films.

The genesis of the film came from a very human place when, during a time of personal crisis, Kobiela, a trained painter and filmmaker, turned to the letters of Vincent van Gogh for comfort. It was in response to these letters that she developed the idea, originally intended to be a short film that would be a personal project.

Evolving Loving Vincent into a feature film was a six-year journey that allowed Kobiela to combine her passions for filmmaking, painting and the art of Van Gogh – bringing Van Gogh’s tragic story and his distinctive art to life.

Actor Robert Gulaczyk plays Van Gogh. Image credit: Breakthru Films.
Actor Robert Gulaczyk plays Van Gogh. Image credit: Breakthru Films.

Inspired by more than 100 of his paintings and 800 of his letters, the film explores the final months of the then little-known post-impressionist painter and his untimely death in 1890 at the age of 37 – an event that remains shrouded in mystery and speculation. The story is visually interpreted through his paintings, including many of Van Gogh’s most iconic portraits and landscapes, told in his own words and those of the people who knew him, from his brother Theo to his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin.

Naturally in this digital age, it was assumed that the film would be made using computer-generated techniques. But Kobiela and Welchman felt strongly that painting was the only way of bringing Van Gogh’s work to life, remaining faithful to the essence of the original works and to Vincent himself. It would be a labour of love.

Bringing art to life

In 2014 following a year-long phase of painting design, computer generated layout and “previsualisation” – a method used in live-action and animated film making to get an idea of complex scenes before filming starts – the film was then shot with real actors. The cast included Robert Gulaczyk, Douglas Booth, Chris O’Dowd, Helen McCrory, Saoirse Ronan and Aidan Turner performing in a combination of green-screen studio stages and sets built in Van Gogh’s style to replicate elements of the painted scenes.

Real actors, dressed as subjects from Van Gogh’s paintings, were filmed on green screens. Image credit: Breakthru Films.
Real actors, dressed as subjects from Van Gogh’s paintings, were filmed on green screens. Image credit: Breakthru Films.

This live-action footage was then combined with computer-generated visual effects such as digital backgrounds, buildings, clouds and animals, which would serve as key reference material for the animators. This footage, merging the actors and their surroundings was “rotoscoped” – a traditional method of projecting individual film images that are then traced frame-by-frame – by the painting animators in oil paint on canvas. It was a painstaking and meticulous process and a true testament to all the artists involved. The finished film has 65,000 frames and used more than 1,000 canvases and 4,500 litres of oil paint.

But it is one thing to paint a still image – a single moment frozen in time – like Van Gogh, it is quite another to animate in his style for a 94-minute feature-length film. So the production team set out to recruit a crew of artists – painter-animators – who could transform the live-action footage into painted form and yet remain faithful to Van Gogh’s distinctive style. This meant capturing the same technique and spirit of the original work.

Painter-animator workstation technology was patented specially for the film. Image credit: Breakthru Films.
Painter-animator workstation technology was patented specially for the film. Image credit: Breakthru Films.

These painter-animators also required an essential understanding and feeling for the movement required – the ability to literally animate every brushstroke. Following applications from more than 600 artists, painting auditions were held and the successful artists received six weeks of training delivered by Kobiela herself. A total of 125 painter animators worked on the final film.

Based in the production’s three studios at Gdansk and Wroclaw in Poland, and one in Athens, the painter-animators worked on PAWS (painting animation workstations) a new technology devised and patented specifically for the project by Breakthru Films.

These special workstations allowed the artists to focus on the creative processes of recreating the reference footage in painted form and then digitally capture the completed frames. Each PAWS unit housed a painting desk, a projector that allowed the live-action reference footage to be beamed on to canvas for rotoscoping, a customised lighting rig and a 6K resolution digital camera to capture and record each frame.

Painter-animator workstation technology used for the film. Image credit: Breakthru Films.
Painter-animator workstation technology used for the film. Image credit: Breakthru Films.

The end product is an exceptional, ground-breaking film. You cannot help but wonder how Van Gogh himself would have felt to see his extraordinary visceral paintings recreated as a moving film. For us lesser mortals, Loving Vincent is a rich visual feast that captures the spirit of a great artist who burned to receive recognition for his talent while he was alive.

Stuart Messinger, Award Leader: Animation and Stop Motion Animation and Puppet Making, Staffordshire University.

This article first appeeared on The Conversation.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.