Loving Vincent: how the world’s first fully-painted feature film brings Van Gogh’s art to life

Top image: Still, ‘Loving Vincent’ (2017) dir. Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Words: Robyn Sian Cusworth

As the world’s first fully painted feature film, Loving Vincent transports the viewer into a lucid, oily world as seen through the pale blue eyes of Vincent Van Gogh, the tragic pioneer of contemporary art.

Directed by painter Dorota Kobiela and Oscar winning producer Hugh Welchman (Peter and the Wolf), the film breathes life into the landscapes and portraits of Van Gogh via 65 thousand individually painted frames by 125 international artists.
The feature centres around Van Gogh’s last days in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where he died in a mysterious state of sanity. The suspected suicide unravels in lashings of colour following the young and severe Armand Roulin – born from Van Gogh’s famous portrait and portrayed by Douglas Booth (Riot Club, Jupiter Ascending) – who is sent to deliver a letter to Vincent’s brother Theo, after hearing that the artist had shot himself.
Learning more, Armand sensitises to a world that he was so willing to take on with a clenched fist. Alongside Booth, the experimental film sees a best-of-British cast including; Aiden Turner (The Hobbit), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark) and Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones).
Together with the poetic visuals, the words of Van Gogh resonate throughout the story, sourced from 800 of his personal letters, revealing the heartache and drive that was inside the imitable artist. Here, we speak to the film’s directors to discover the process and production behind this unique project. 
Robyn Cusworth: The film is mesmerizing, as the first of it’s kind, how would you label the genre? Hugh Welchman: Well, it’s a painted film in the spirit of film noir, but we had scenes in the night time that we’d taken from Vincent’s paintings set in the day. His paintings are incredibly bright, with no shadows and they feel really optimistic, when his life story is actually quite murky, so we took these scenes into the nocturne and between us we dubbed it ‘Vincent Noir’.
Robyn: Dorota, painting and film are your two loves. At what point did you want to infuse them for this story? Dorota Kobiela: It was ten years ago, I think. I wanted to tell the story of an artist through their paintings. With Vincent, it was a very personal response to reading his letters and it came at a difficult time in my own life. It was so natural, it was an idea that had stayed with me. I had it in my heart for a long time.
Robyn: What was the most liberating thing about the process? Hugh: In terms of painting animation, a liberating factor was how we could do transitions by changing the frames of paintings. It’s so fluid. You can’t do something like that in live action. Though, it costs a lot more and takes more time. So we had to fight and justify every time we moved the camera – we had to really want that movement. With a painting like Cafe Noir at Night, for example, it’s just too famous and brilliant to change it, that’s why we had the camera coming down from the sky in that scene.
Robyn: And the most restricting? Hugh: Well, for me, there were a lot of constrictions we came up with creative solutions for. When we were scriptwriting there were a lot of paintings we wanted to use but it was important to match them to the story and be respectful of the real history. Sometimes we tried to shoehorn paintings that we loved but they that took us on a detour from the narrative so we had to be brutal and cut them out.
“Vincent said that he wanted his paintings to appear as apparitions, so we took that into the film. He wanted to use his colour manifesto and his impasto to bring out the soul of the sitter.”
Robyn: Did the painting on live action match up to your vision? Hugh: Sometimes, it felt like the actors were so good, we questioned if we had written the script! Dorota: Yes, having actors was really exciting. They gave another dimension to what we had imagined. Hugh: Though I wouldn’t say the painters improved the actor’s’ performance, it did give something extra special for me – maybe less so for Dorota as it was her vision. It was a process of discovery for us to go to work. Sometimes we were like, “Woah! So this is how it’s going to look!?” It was new and beautiful for us to see.
Robyn: Yes, there’s something quite hauntingly beautiful about it. Hugh: Well, Vincent said that he wanted his paintings to appear as apparitions, so we took that into the film. He wanted to use his colour manifesto and his impasto to bring out the soul of the sitter.
Robyn: So why did you choose Armand to be the passenger of this story? What was it about him? Dorota: Armand’s role grew and grew every time we wrote the script, and eventually he became the hero. He has his own journey. Hugh: He’s very sceptical of Vincent at the beginning. We wanted the emotion to move and Armand had the ability to do that. Historically, there’s a lot written with his father, the postman, but with Armand, there was nothing other than being a blacksmith. This gave us some creative leeway without changing the facts. We used the portrait. He’s good looking, sceptical, charming. He’s relatable.
Robyn: There is a solemn undertone about mental health, especially amongst men. Hugh: There are different faces of mental health in the film. Armand has a very young man’s problem, he’s figuring out his place in the world. He’s fighting, he’s drinking, but this journey opens his eyes. He gains a new perspective. Vincent is an unbelievable example of that. He failed four careers, his family and his love life was a disaster, then at 27 he picked up a paintbrush and in ten years he transformed art forever. He’s an inspiration for all young people in their twenties trying to find their place.
Still, 'Loving Vincent' (2017) dir. Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Robyn: Finally, what are your favourite Van Gogh paintings? Hugh: I have three. Self Portrait – the last one he did in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France. That one really stands with me. I think it’s the closest I felt to knowing him. Café Terrace at Night always blows me away, it gives this atmosphere that makes me want to be in a cafe in the South of France on a dreamy summers night. The third is Portrait of Armand Roulin, you really do get this image of an edgy young man with a story to tell. Dorota: Ah, I love so many. It really depends on what’s  happening in my day, what I’m thinking, what is going on in my mind. I guess I have a painting of the day. Today, I think would be the Sewer with the Setting Sun, because it brings hope.

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Robyn Sian Cusworth
writer, content coordinator