By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Director Dorota Kobiela on “Loving Vincent”

Loving Vincent is one of the most extraordinary animated features you are likely ever to see. A British-Polish-U. S. coproduction, it’s a celebration of Vincent van Gogh’s luminous paintings, and also an inquiry into the mysterious circumstances of his death by gunshot in 1890 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Long part of van Gogh’s legend, the verdict for decades was that the tortured Dutch artist, who had a history of mental illness and poverty, committed suicide. It was certainly the view that earlier films about Vincent have shared, including Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas.

But the writing-directing team of Polish animator Dorota Kobiela and British producer husband Hugh Welchman adopt a different take in Loving Vincent. Their film draws on the controversial theory of art historians Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who, in their book
Van Gogh: The Life,” maintain that the facts point instead to a tragic accident. Kobiela and Welchman turn the final weeks of van Gogh’s life into a whodunit, as a skeptical young man, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) sets out after the artist’s death to find Vincent’s brother Theo, in order to deliver a letter he’s entrusted with by his postman father Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd). Along the way Armand talks to several key acquaintances of the dead man–Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and his daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan); Pere Tanguy (John Sessions); and a neighborhood snoop, Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory)—and becomes determined to uncover the truth about Vincent’s demise.

All these characters sat for van Gogh, who memorialized them in portraits that are renowned worldwide today. The genius of the makers of Loving Vincent is that they took live-action footage of the actors, shot in front of a green screen, and then used 65,000 individual high resolution photographs of oil paintings by 125 artists to fill in the frames with images largely copied from van Gogh’s works, making this the first fully painted feature film in animation history. The film received a ten-minute standing ovation in June at France’s Annecy Festival. Annecy is to animation what the Telluride and Toronto film festivals are to narrative features: a launchpad for awards season contenders. Kobiela, an alumnus of Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, as well as The Warsaw Film School, Direction Faculty, was in Los Angeles recently to talk about the art of her film.

As a trained painter, what do you love about the medium of oils?
I started painting at 15, and found oil to be perfect to extract different colors from the palette and to manipulate impasto [the thick application of pigment]. The medium allows so many different approaches to painting. I worked in that mode for ten years.

It’s unusual for an animated film to embrace the mystery genre. What inspired your particular narrative approach?
From the very beginning of the writing process, the concept was always inspired by the mystery surrounding Vincent’s death, and how we wanted to tell his story through his paintings, and to do it as much as possible in the spirit of his work. We asked ourselves, why did his death happen this way, if it was suicide [as reported]? Suicide didn’t make sense. [After long, hard struggles] everything seemed to be going well in his life, and he was hopeful. He had two successful exhibitions, and positive critical reviews–some acclaimed him as a genius. This disparity so fascinated us, it inspired our approach. There were so many contradictions reported; throughout our extensive research we read lots of witness statements that conflicted with each other.

How did you and your husband divide the work of co-directing the film?
I started making the film as a short, and then I met Hugh [on another project]. He had a general knowledge of Vincent as a mad genius. When I first told him about my project, he showed only polite interest. But then London’s Royal Academy of Arts mounted an exhibition of Vincent’s letters [combining his correspondence with his art], and it drew huge crowds. So, that engaged Hugh’s imagination, and he started reading and developed an appreciation for Vincent’s bravery and hard work. Hugh was doing the historical research while I was focusing on the paintings and how to tell the story. Then Hugh got the idea to make the short a feature instead, that we would script together.

After a film Hugh had produced in 2008, Peter and the Wolf, won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, the Polish Ministry of Culture approached him about a film on Chopin. I was hired to direct the animated short Chopin’s Drawings [which became part of a feature film, The Flying Machine (2011)]. We worked closely together on that short, filling time while waiting for production of Loving Vincent to begin.

Viewing a painting by van Gogh is almost a psychedelic experience: although we’re looking at paint fixed on canvas, the colors seem to vibrate, partly because of their alignment and juxtaposition, and partly because of his brush strokes. In your film, the images do indeed vibrate. How did you achieve that effect?
That was our aim, of course, an insane undertaking, looking back. We wanted to use his techniques, but using canvas boards. The key is that he painted extremely fast, taking half a day, or just one day, to finish a work. So did we, not just because of the sheer volume of paintings that were required to copy, but first to understand the period of the painting, and analyze the order in which he painted, and get the colors right—but not overthink it.

The whole film was shot based on the performances of actors, but a lot of the material flowed from the imaginations of our artists; that’s what you see in the backgrounds surrounding the actors. That vibration, or shimmering, is what comes of animating Vincent’s brush strokes in our copies and interpretations of his paintings.

Were different teams of artists assigned to different characters?
Yes. I assessed each artist’s specific abilities, which was very important for filming, to know who could paint what under our deadlines. But you also have to understand the human aspect involved in this kind of performance: someone could get sick of painting only Dr. Gachet, for instance. And an animator could easily take six months to complete one shot [depending on its duration], so you want to avoid burnout.

What were the differences between creating the black-and-white flashbacks and the color sequences that are set in “the present” time frame of the story?
Major differences on many levels. During Armand’s journey, we aimed to capture Vincent’s style as seen in the portraits of the witnesses, or the scenes set in his landscapes [the town of Auvers and its nearby environs]. And we wanted to be very precise in terms of backgrounds, costumes, characters’ faces, etc.; there’s a historical record for reference. We wanted it to feel as if we were inside his paintings come to life. We approached the black-and-white sequences as a more classic type of narrative filmmaking, imagining his past without having to reconstruct it in his own visual terms. In that sense, it’s freer.

Those flashback sequences revolve around the charismatic actor who plays Vincent, Robert Gulaczyk. He is wonderful—where did you find him?
We knew we were going to shoot most of our actors in a studio in London. But we also wanted to shoot as much as possible in our Polish studio, so we decided to ask for a Polish actor. The right actor was so hard to find that we almost gave up. Then one day I was looking again through our casting director’s file and I came across Robert’s photo and asked, “Who’s this? Why didn’t I see his picture before?” And the casting director said, “Oh, no, he’s not what you need—he doesn’t speak English.” And I said, “But he can learn!”

So Robert came to the set the same day we called him and he auditioned. We knew right then that he was the one. The most iconic image of Vincent in the film, where he turns to face the camera over his shoulder [in three-quarter profile], that’s from the first minute of Robert’s audition. He just understood.

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