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Hugh Welchman Paints an Incredible Picture with the New Film Loving Vincent

Updated: May 6, 2023

Hugh Welchman

Hugh Welchman

Paints an Incredible Picture with the New Film Loving Vincent

by Brad Balfour

With his collaborator and wife, Dorota Kobiela, Loving Vincent co-director Hugh Welchman digitally paints an incredible picture of Vincent van Gogh. But these two didn’t just tell an intriguing and intimate mystery since it is set a year after this painter of visually stunning images had killed himself. They decided to take the live-action footage they shot on digital cameras – which had been performed by experienced actors – and reproduce every frame as an oil-painting and then make it into an animated film. A huge team of painters rendered this series of images, thousands in fact, to be transformed into the feature as it is seen today.

Besides the Ripley’s Believe It or Not construction of Loving Vincent, it had to tell a valid narrative using top-flight actors to make it all work. To do that, these two turned to such world-class talent as Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan and Aidan Turner to bring alive a set of people in van Gogh’s life who had never had the cameras turned on them much until now.

Were these two crazy to take on such a challenging and complicated project as relatively novice feature filmmakers? Explained Welchman with a laugh, “Am I crazy? Maybe not me, my wife was the crazy one because she came up the idea for it. But I think she knew what she was doing.”

Loving Vincent

A graduate of Poland’s Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Kobiela discovered animation and film, directing a live action short, and five animated ones – including 2011’s “Little Postman,” the world’s first, and, to her knowledge, only, stereoscopic painting animation. It won her the Stereoscopic Best Short Film at the LA 3D Film Festival, 3D Stereo Media (Liege), 3D Film & Music Fest (Barcelona).

For her sixth animated short, “Loving Vincent,” Kobiela rendered a passion for the painter into a film where she intended to paint it entirely by herself. As she expanded the idea into a feature, she realized the task was so daunting that she had to direct 95 other painters to make her full-length film debut. Thankfully, Welchman, who has had experience in working on features, brought his own insights and skills to bear.

Loving Vincent

As he explained, “When we went from making the short to making the feature, it scared us. How could we come up with a tale that justified the visuals? After you’d look at the film for 20 minutes, we were afraid audiences would say, ‘Ok, it looks nice but…’ So, we had to find the right story that would sustain a full-length film. Thankfully, Vincent had such a tumultuous life and so many dramatic episodes in it that we had lots of drama to drawn on.”

Of course, the subject had to warrant such an enormous effort. In the story and work of Vincent van Gogh there’s just that material. His work so impacted on visual communication that he spearheaded a revolution. The Dutch artist – along with Frenchmen Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin and the Spaniard Pablo Picasso, among others – redefined modern painting through a profound rethinking of visual statements. As some of the 20th century’s benchmark artists, these creators were responsible for many significant paintings, re-conceptualizing the use of materials, shapes, color and process of creation. Van Gogh also made a profound statement on how painting can be experienced.

Loving Vincent

Though an intelligent, sensitive man, he suffered from what’s now called bi-polar disorder, had a sad childhood in a bourgeois family, and was a social misfit. From his earliest drawings on, he showed immense talent and over time used his unique brush techniques to create a huge body of work for such a short life – he committed suicide at age 37.

As to the notion of what drove him to shoot himself – he died several days later because the wound wasn’t initially fatal – there were many questions as to whether he really wanted to die or just hurt himself, and was he allowed to die through either neglect or something more insidious? In response to such concerns, Welchman and Kobiela devised a story which brought together many of the figures in the troubled artist’s life and the subjects of many of his greatest and most profound paintings.

Loving Vincent

The filmmaker explained the process behind his creation. “His death was a mystery. Why would he commit suicide after things started turning around for him? We felt that after such films as Kirk Douglas’s 1956 film Lust for Life, 1991’s Van Gogh directed by Maurice Pialat, and Van Gogh, a 1948 film made by Alain Resnais, [were] all set while the painter was alive, [audiences] have had enough about what happened during his life. The real mystery was his death – whether he committed suicide or not. Why, at that time when he seemed to be on the upswing, he was provoked to shoot himself? Then again, we didn’t know what happened after his death, so there was a lot of room to imagine something around that.”

Taking place in France, the summer of 1891, Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth) is given a letter by his father, Postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), to hand-deliver to Paris to Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent, who, they’ve just heard, killed himself. Armand isn’t pleased with the mission, because he was embarrassed by his father’s friendship with Vincent, a painter who had cut off his ear to give to a prostitute and had been committed to the asylum. There’s no trace of the brother in Paris. His search leads him to paint supplier Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), who tells him that Theo died shortly after Vincent, apparently distraught over his death. That leads Roulin on further adventures and interactions with key figures in Vincent’s life – which had resulted in many of his landmark images.

Loving Vincent

To put this story together one would imagine that Welchman would become quite the van Gogh expert. In reply to that notion, he explained, “Well, I read a lot of academic publications and got a lot of help from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 2013. I read several of the biographies about him, the many accounts of his illness and related texts about it. And I trawled the museum’s archives to make a script that would work.”

But in order to do a film as unique as this one, he and his wife had to survey many of van Gogh’s paintings and become deeply familiar with those that the general public knew and championed – and many more. That seemed like a daunting task in and of itself, for these directors not only had to find the paintings, they had to figure out how they would fit into the story. Then they had to assemble a legion of them to make the images.

Loving Vincent

As Hugh noted, that was much more in Dorota’s bailiwick. “That was the toughest part,” he said, “what paintings would we use and how we would choose them.”

To do that, it was like putting together a really difficult jigsaw puzzle. “We had to take into account all his famous paintings. The list of faves had to be included but they also had to relate to the dramatic events in the story. Many did not relate, so we had to go back and forth on what we should use, since the film was only going to be 90 minutes long. That was a really small amount of time. Even though he had his short life in the nine years he was painting, he made a lot of them.

Loving Vincent

“I had turned in a 120-page script, but we could only afford to shoot an 80-page one. If there was anything we have argued about since we’ve been married, it’s been about cutting parts out. For example, there was a section about the asylum in Holland that he was in but we had to jettison it. That was tough. He was always painting; we had to use portraits in this animated version of his life that told a story and didn’t conflict with who he was. We got in nearly all of the famous paintings like ‘The Starry Night.’ We used his sunflowers as well, but it was a real shame we couldn’t shoot them all in the film.”

Still, it is pretty amazing what they did get in. There are 94 paintings that are featured in a form very close to the original. There are a further 31 paintings that are imposed in the film substantially or partially. Van Gogh’s paintings come in various shapes and sizes, so the painters had to work out how to best show them within the frame set by the cinematic format. That required that they break outside the frames of the actual paintings, while still retaining the feel and inspiration of Vincent’s originals. So, after a much-complicated process that bring these images onto the screen, audiences see 65,000 high-resolution photographs of actual oil-paintings.

Loving Vincent

Of course, after having with lived with the conceptual van Gogh, one wonders what would Welchman have to say to the real one? After a pause, he replied, “If I spoke with him? I would tell him how much his art means to so many people. He made such an incredible art because he had difficulty communicating, he did not find love in his life and he had such conflicts with his friends. Only two remained out of the many he fell out with.”

Welchman continued, “I would be scared to meet him knowing he was such a genius. I read his letters; they were the poetic creation of a wonderful man. But I guess I would tell him not to get into so many arguments. I’d tell him to keep on living and creating. He changed the lives of thousands if not millions. He thought he was a nonentity but he showed that what he had in his heart really made him special.”

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: October 4, 2017.

Photos © 2017. Courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment. All rights reserved.

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