One of the most exciting aspects of animated films remains how artists continue to iterate and innovate the conventions of the medium to both accommodate their stories and push the art form further; such is the case with the 2017 film Loving Vincent— the first feature film animated using paint on canvas.
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent tells the story of famed Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh through the account of the life he had left in the letters to his brother. Indeed, the film initially spurred from the personal effect reading these letters had on co-director Kobiela in 2008, with her thereafter pursuing the make an adoption that paid tribute to the late artist. Moreover, she sought to portray Van Gogh’s life story by animating in his signature style. At first, Kobiela and her animation team attempted to match Van Gogh’s aesthetics by experimenting with 3D CGI animation. However, they later decided that to best celebrate the artist’s work, the animators, too, should accomplish their animation by painting each frame with oil paint on a canvas. The crew would go on to create a test animation to demonstrate their animation technique, exhibiting these production materials in a Kickstarter campaign in 2014. With help from Kickstarter and additional funding from the Polish Film Institute, Kobiela and Welchman hired over one hundred artists from around the world to help painstakingly paint the over sixty-thousand frames of animation. The film would premiere in 2017 at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and subsequently won Best Animated Feature at the European Film Awards in addition to nominations from the Annie and Academy Awards.
The artists’ ambitious animation technique helps give the film its enrapturing identity. Painting and animation have always had a considerably arduous relationship; stemming primarily from the medium of painting demanding a high level of dedication to a single image (spending hours, days, or sometimes years rendering each detail) whereas animation relies on the result of several drawings playing for fractions of a second. This difference in priorities compounded quick-drying of most painting materials has lead to most animators using other approaches. Although, painting— specifically paint-on-glass animation (which, to sequel-plug, deserves a discussion of its own)— does have a long, if understated, history among independent animators like Aleksandr Petrov and Miyo Sato. Yet, those independent productions that relied on combining animating with painting– because of the impending restriction in budget and personnel– took shape as shorts— until Loving Vincent.
Loving Vincent archives its homage by combining traditional and contemporary painting and animation techniques to emulate Van Ghog’s aesthetics several times a second. As mentioned, the film exists as the first feature film completely animated with paint on canvas; however, the process begins with the actors in a green-screen studio performing the film. This footage then becomes compiled into a rough cut of the film that editors then composite into a picture lock, which the animators rotoscope (trace over) by projecting each frame onto their canvases as the paint. Additionally, many scenes use a single canvas with the artists shifting paint comprising and around the characters as they and the camera move.
The result of its meticulousness is a film equal parts respectful of Van Gogh’s work and visual triumph in its own right. The paint-on-canvas approach creates a mesmerizing effect that never wanes in delight throughout the film’s run time. Similarly, the roughness of line shake in traditional hand-drawn animation reminds the viewer of the hand of the artist, so too is affectionate tenfold when amplified by the filmmaker’s naturalistic/ humanistic camera work and acting style and their homage to Van Gogh’s heavy brushwork. It never ceases to amaze and excite watching the bold colors of film vibrate as they follow the movement of the actors and the world around them. Moreover, the film directly references or incorporates over thirty paintings by Van Gogh in addition to using portraits he painted as inspiration for the film’s character design. The effect allows the film to pervasively exude its passion and respect for its subject material in every frame.
Biographic movies often present a tricky balancing act between the desire for captivating and dramatic storytelling and the necessity for a narrative that remains factually and spiritually authentic to the subject matter; thus, Loving Vincent approaches this dilemma with an investigative sensitivity. Rather than linearly following Van Gogh throughout his life, the filmmakers instead chose to frame the story of the letters around a fictitious investigation conducted by Armand Roulin— a man whom Van Gogh painted the portrait— and on his journey to understand Van Gogh’s life, death, and legacy. This framing device leaves the viewer in a position where they— like Armand— can only reckon with Van Gogh in retrospect— much like his paintings, the portrait of Van Gogh the film leaves us with comprises the impressions of those who knew him. Thus, the film feels more human and sincere because it embraces the subjective experiences of the people around him. Admittedly, although the film’s compassion for the artist remains a highlight, my primary critique against the screenplay remains the film’s aggrandizing of “tortured artist” stereotypes– too often posing Vincent’s struggles as requisites to his art rather than symptoms of an illness. Too often in the film will Armand ask someone about Vincent’s strife, and they will muss to him about how it helped him ‘see the world’ or something so really pobody’s nerfect— it cheapening its own interest in its narrative by reducing the effort Van Gogh put into his work to intrinsic talent that just so happened to parisiticly attach itself it him.
Yet, this flaw in the screenplay, too, displays the admiration the filmmakers hold for Van Gogh. The narrative focuses on Van Gogh’s tragedy to— in its own way— understand how to reckon and cope with its parasocial loss. In the film’s final moments (spoilers: Van Gogh dies), Armand stares out over the night sky as a letter from Vincent narrates about the temporality of death— the frame slowly forming his iconic painting The Starry Night; this, I think, is the true thesis of the film; to interrogate the life and death of an incredible artist in the attempt of better understanding the impact their art has had on you, but ultimately discover a more authentic version of that artist’s humanity through their art. Van Gogh’s legacy affects artists to this day because of how emotionally honest he revealed himself through his work, and it’s that emotionality beyond anything that Loving Vincent tributes so expertly— and it doesn’t hurt that such a tribute is so gorgeous and enthralling to watch.
Loving Vincent is available to rent on Amazon Prime. This is not an ad, I just like animation.