In several small studios in Europe, 125 classical painters spent countless hours painstakingly creating more than 60,000 paintings. Why? To create the first ever hand painted feature film, “Loving Vincent.” The film, co-directed and co-written by Dorota Kobiela, tells the story of Vincent van Gogh, not through his life, but instead through his work.
The film follows Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of Van Gogh’s postman and subject of several paintings, as he tries to deliver the last letter Van Gogh sent before his uncertain suicide. His journey turns into a search for truth, as he becomes a detective investigating Van Gogh’s untimely death.
“The basis for my idea was to tell my story through his paintings,” explained Kobiela, “It was always fascinating for me to think about the characters from his paintings telling his story.” Though Vincent is the subject of the film, he appears very sparingly, with his art, rather than his person, as the main focus of the movie. Paintings of characters like his doctor, Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and his Gachet’s daughter (Saoirse Ronan) fill the screen, telling Vincent’s story for him.
Having read all of Van Gogh’s letters, Kobiela explained that even the method of the film came from Vincent: “This is literally taken from one of his letters, he said ‘We can only speak by our paintings’ and I felt that yes, that’s it!”
Originally, the movie began as a seven-minute film Kobiela would paint by herself. Yet when she met Hugh Welchman, her co-director, producer, and later husband, everything changed. “Hugh really didn’t know much so much about painting and Vincent van Gogh except the general knowledge. But then he got really interested and went to London and he saw people cuing for three hours to see Vincent’s letters,” she said. “And he goes, ‘These are not even paintings they are just letters!’ So he started pursuing maybe making a feature film.”
After doing the math and determining it would take her about “80 years” to paint the entire film, Kobiela and Welchman decided she would instead direct and set out looking for painters skilled and dedicated enough to paint scenes frame by frame.
The movie was first filmed with the actors and then divided into individual frames and assigned to specific artists who were trained to paint like Van Gogh.
“It was very important for us to find the same shade of colors and the same texture and same technique,” Kobiela said. “We completely forgot about our own artistic personality, we were trying to pay homage to Vincent.”
Kobiela, with the help of two painting supervisors, oversaw the entire process, approving each of the 62,450 frames individually, sometimes asking painters to redo entire pieces when it wasn’t right. “I don’t have a mean streak,” she laughed. “It was just crucial that the film was built like this, with the same style and brush strokes. We just really wanted to make this movie and we wanted people to believe that it’s possible.”
At first, Kobiela hoped to paint many frames, but directing consumed most of her time. She did manage to paint one frame though, within the “black and white shot where the boys are throwing stones, keep your eye out for it,” she laughed.
In the end, Van Gogh’s paintings are transformed into moving, flowing images on the screen. Some are recognizable, such as his “Sunflowers” series and “Café Terrace at Night”, while others are beautifully brought to the audience’s attention for possibly the first time. Perhaps his most famous, the iconic “The Starry Night” makes repeated appearances throughout the film, often functioning as a striking transition from scene to scene.
The opening shot — a mere 10 seconds of footage — was done in this way and took seven months to create. “That one was divided between three painters because I think one painter would end up in a psychiatric place,” laughed Kobiela. “I think we invented the slowest way of movie making.”
Despite its painstakingly detailed creation process, “Loving Vincent” is worth every brushstroke. Not only is the film a dazzling tribute to a man whose entire notoriety came after his death, but it is a spectacular piece of art in its own right.
Kobiela noted that the film has come a long way since it was just an idea in her head. “I remember sitting in that attic in the middle of Poland and I was thinking about this short story that was meant to be seven minutes long, not the very first painted feature film that has distribution in 130 countries around the world,” she explained. “It’s very different from what I had originally thought, and that’s due to the scale I guess, but what was in my heart and the origins of the idea are still there and that’s the most important part.”