This animated film is not merely about the mysterious death of Van Gogh, it was hand-painted in oils over seven years by 125 artists in his imitable style.
Any artist’s biography faces the usual critique: it shows us the life, but does it show the work? From Vasari’s scurrilous Lives of the Artists onwards, the affairs and angsts of our great creatives have often overshadowed their achievements. The actor Douglas Booth agrees. “When you see stories about artists, to some degree I feel their art gets left behind. You come away maybe knowing about the darkness inside the human being, but not really having experienced that person’s art.”
Booth’s complaint is common: what is rarer is that he suggests a remedy. A new film he stars in, about Vincent Van Gogh, melds biographical inquiry with a vivid rendition of the Dutchman’s vivid, hyper-coloured canvases; the work illuminating the life and vice versa. And it has been achieved by the most extraordinary of means — in, we are told, “the world’s first oil-painted feature film”.
Loving Vincent is a 90-minute feature conceived by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. Revisiting the last few mysterious weeks in the life of Van Gogh before he died, a supposed suicide, in an inn in Auvers-sur-Oise in July 1890.
Yet in Kobiela and Welchman’s method, the live-action scenes filmed by the actors, against basic sets and green screen, became the template for some 65,000 frames to be painted over, in Van Gogh-esque oils, by an army of 125 professional painters recruited from all over the world. Hi-tech photographs of these paintings were then placed in sequence to create an odyssey through Vincent’s world, told in Vincent’s style: imagine the most high-end flipbook technology can deliver. The result is at first delirious and distracting, but soon becomes intriguing and moving.
Booth plays Armand Roulin, a young man from Arles who, a year after Van Gogh’s death, sets out to deliver a final letter from Vincent to his brother, Theo. Armand, like many of us today, knows little of Vincent except as that madman who cut off his ear, but soon finds out much more — that Theo is also dead, that Vincent’s suicide was questionable and that, more to the point, he was a rare genius. The treatment was absolutely a factor in taking the role, Booth says. “Your performance is shared with another artist — a painter who has interpreted it and brought it to life in a unique way.”
He is, inevitably, full of admiration for the filmmakers. “They didn’t want to just ‘create’ Van Gogh paintings, so the story happens within his paintings. It happens within scenes that he has painted and using characters that he has painted.” Thus, 94 Van Gogh’s are replicated closely in the film, with a further 31 featured in part. For once, the paintings really do “come to life”. The labour was long, though: it took a full seven years to get from Kobiela’s original idea to the final execution.
Someone who can testify even more to the process’s painstaking aspect is Sarah Wimperis, one of the lucky 125 who got to paint on the project. I say “lucky” — it might seem like a Sisyphean chore, churning out dozens of paintings, only to see each one destroyed and replaced by the next in the sequence, with maybe an eyebrow more raised.
“I think in total I got five shots, which adds up to one minute of the film, which is about 800 paintings over a period of five months,” Wimperis says. “So you can tell how intense it was.” Her longest shot was a full 17 seconds; it took eight weeks to paint. Despite this, she insists she had a ball. “Making the film felt like a massive tribute from lots of artists to one artist who died not knowing that he would be so loved and admired.”
What is remarkable is how much the film has been funded by enthusiasm and goodwill. Wimperis, a professional painter with 30 years’ experience, heard about the project via a short trailer on Facebook; a small text underneath advised how people could get involved. It turns out she was one of thousands who emailed Welchman asking if they could contribute. She was flown out for a three-day trial in Poland — it sounds like postimpressionist boot camp. “It was kind of like the bit on Master Chef where they say ‘The person leaving us is...’, and there’s a long pause. It made me vow I’d never do anything as stupid as go on Master Chef!”
Having passed, she returned for three weeks’ training, which involved each artist having to iron out their own individual kinks and become Van Gogh copyists. Was it easy? “For me, it was about getting enough paint on the canvas, because he works in an impasto manner, which means an awful lot of paint. I am used to being stingy, because I have to buy my own materials, I suppose — but we were obviously supplied with as much oil paint as we needed. And it was just about getting that into your head: to load the brush with enough paint and to get enough body into each brushstroke.”
Once trained, they worked six days a week for nine or 10 hours a day. Most found it more inspiring than draining. “All of the artists who worked on it would go home at the end of the working day and start on their own work. I did, too — in fact, several of us held exhibitions while we were there. So it kind of revved us up rather than exhausted us.”
The technique took so long because each corner of the picture had to be reimagined afresh. You could not just paint over a fixed background: the world in Loving Vincent is always in a Van Goghish tumult, forever churning like his feelings inside. (Flashbacks in black-and-white provide variety and relief.) “With the old Disney animations, they had a background artist, then they had acetates with moving bits on — this wasn’t done like that,” Wimperis explains. “The background is part of the painting, and you’d have to paint little bits in the background so it didn’t just look like the figures had been cut into it and stuck on.”
This was difficult to get just right, as she discovered painting her 17-second scene — where Armand talks to Marguerite Gachet, one of Van Gogh’s friends, in a field. “I think I got a bit carried away with my wheatfield, because at one point it looked like either a storm was coming through, or there were GM crops or something,” she laughs. “It grew rather wildly! I hope they’ve sorted that out.”
Why Van Gogh? Booth and Wimperis explain his enduring appeal identically: “The emotion.” Wimperis loves his use of texture and his freedom with colour. Booth says: “He paints a scene not just as he sees it, but as he feels it, and I think a lot of people connect to that. He opens up a scene to something that to a naked eye isn’t quite there, but he had the emotional understanding to pick up on it.”
The seasoned painter’s admiration we might logically expect; the younger actor’s, not so much. However, Booth is now a fully-fledged fan — and says his peers feel the same. “I’ve never had a movie where so many friends have been excited for it to come out. Generally, if I post on my personal Facebook account that I am off to do some big zombie movie, everyone’s like, ‘OK, cool.’ When I mentioned this project, everyone lost their mind! I’ve never had so many people asking me, ‘When can I see it?’”
The mystery around Van Gogh’s death we should leave to the film to reveal. All we can be sure about is his legacy. Booth now has a Van Gogh image on his wall, and on his phone case. As for Wimperis, when we speak on the phone, she is in France, where she has been visiting some Van Gogh landmarks.
The day before, she had been to the room where he died. “I was in tears,” she says. She also went to those wheat fields he painted and she then copied. “The skies are obviously the same, the trees a bit more grown. It felt strange to be there, but very good, very nice. I’ll probably do my own version.”
Loving Vincent is out on Oct 13 in the United Kingdom