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Dorota Kobiela • Director

"Our bravery was nothing compared to Vincent’s"


- Polish animator and painter Dorota Kobiela joined forces with the UK’s Hugh Welchman to create Loving Vincent, a unique, hand-painted biopic of Vincent van Gogh

Dorota Kobiela  • Director
(© Wojtek Rojek)

Cineuropa: Loving Vincent [+see also:
film review
interview: Dorota Kobiela
film profile
is your feature debut as a director. How did the idea for it come about?
Dorota Kobiela
: It all started ten years ago. At that time, I was working at an animation studio. I was taking part in an amazing project and learning a lot, but after it had finished, I felt that I needed to start my own project and combine my passions: painting and filmmaking. I’d been reading Vincent van Gogh’s letters, and I loved them – they were so passionate and genuine. I thought that maybe I should make a film about his life, which I would hand-paint myself. Originally, it was supposed to be a short animated film, entitled Vincent. I put together a grant application for the Polish Film Institute (PFI), and luckily, I got it.

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You co-wrote and co-directed the film with Hugh Welchman. When did he get on board with Loving Vincent?
When you get a subsidy from the PFI, you have to wait a few months for the money to come through, so I went to work for the Lodz-based animation studio BreakThru Films. I was hired as an animator and a concept artist. Hugh had been working there on Magic Piano, a full-length film about Frederic Chopin and his beloved instrument. We started to work together, and then we became an item in our private lives. Every now and then, Hugh would look over my shoulder, and he became very interested in Vincent. Before he finished his film studies, he graduated from the History and Politics department at Oxford. Therefore, he approaches his projects much like a researcher. Hugh is a real bookworm, so he devoured dozens of books on Vincent van Gogh. One day, he went to visit an exhibition of van Gogh’s letters. He came back very excited – he saw people queuing for three hours just to read those letters! It was unbelievable, as if van Gogh had been a sportsperson or a rock star. We thought that if he still generated so much attention, maybe there was an audience out there for a full-length animation about his life. And maybe it was worth committing to a big, risky project, although our bravery was nothing compared to Vincent’s.

How did you develop the storyline?
Our initial idea was to bring his paintings to life and to “make” the paintings talk about Vincent. This idea was taken from one of his letters, where he wrote: “We cannot speak other but by our paintings.” Still, the character of Vincent remained mysterious, and we could only talk about him through the mouths of the people he had painted. The second concept we had early on was that the characters in the film would become closer to Vincent by discussing the mystery surrounding his death, which was ruled a suicide. We read all of the theories on why he killed himself, including the most popular, “official” version authored by Emil Bernard, which was used by Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor in their film Lust for Life. We started asking ourselves, “Is this really what happened to Vincent?” At that point in his life, everything seemed to be going well for him, and he had even sold his first painting. We decided not to give any clear answers on what happened to him. We had seven drafts of the script; each was different in terms of the visual inspirations, the canvases the characters would be speaking through, and the letters and facts we quoted. Finally, we decided to use paintings from van Gogh’s mature period and promote Armand Roulin from being a side character to a leading one. He was young, and he was the son of probably the only true friend that Vincent had, so it made sense that he would set out on such a journey.

Did you have any rules or restrictions when you were putting all the pieces together?
We decided not to “invent” any of van Gogh’s paintings, only re-imagine them if it was necessary for the plot. For example, we changed daylight to night, or a winter landscape to a summer one. If we wanted to show events that Vincent never painted – something we called “a memory reconstruction” – we used black-and-white animation. The second rule was not to change the facts from Vincent’s life.

It seems like you were inspired by Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane.
While developing the film, we watched a lot of investigative documentaries, like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. After all, we were making a film about a dead man who wasn’t there to tell his story. When I discussed that theme with cinematographer Lukasz Zal, he noticed that our storyline resembled Citizen Kane and said that we should re-watch it.

The film is fully hand-painted, but you also directed some live-action sequences. How did you combine them?
The black-and-white scenes are very close to the rotoscoping technique; everything else was hand-painted. I’m an animation director, so before working on a set with the actors, I had storyboards, previsualisation and animatics prepared. Most of the sequences were shot on green screen, but since we already had matte paintings prepared and everything was online, the actors could come to the monitors and see the backdrop of the scene.

And then the frames were painted over?
No; our team looked at the frames and recreated them on canvas, using brush strokes and the vibrant style of van Gogh himself. The reason we did this was because Vincent himself painted from real life. His friend Gauguin tried to convince him to paint from his imagination, but van Gogh refused. He had his own way of perceiving the world, and he did not always obey the laws of physics. That was another technical challenge: our DoPs had to combine wide lenses with long lenses to shoot the world the way that Vincent would have seen it.

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