Van Gogh's works brought to life in feature-length animated film
Danuta Roman is channelling her inner Vincent van Gogh. She applies short brushstrokes of azure, turquoise and Payne's grey to mimic water reflections on an oil painting by the Dutch master.
"I'm trying to figure out how he created this landscape," says the 42-year-old painter as she studies an 1887 canvas featuring the river Seine and a scene outside Paris.
She and about 70 other artists are working on what is billed as the world's first feature-length animated film made entirely through hand-painted canvases. Entitled Loving Vincent, the €4.5 million (HK$39.5 million) production aims to bring to life van Gogh's works and his tortured soul, to mark the 125th anniversary of his death - often held as a suicide - from a gunshot.
Its creators are the Oscar-winning BreakThru Productions, which won an Academy Award in 2008 for the animated short Peter and the Wolf based on the story and music by Sergei Prokofiev. Polish painter-director Dorota Kobiela is at the helm.
Known for his bold colours and rough, vibrant painting style, van Gogh is considered one of the most revolutionary painters of the 19th century. The post-Impressionist died at age 37, after suffering bouts of mental illness including the infamous episode where he sliced off part of his ear. And although he sold only one painting during his lifetime, his works - the most recognisable of which include Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers and The Starry Night - today carry multimillion-dollar price tags.
The BreakThru artists have already toiled for six months at a studio in the northern Polish port city of Gdansk and are scrambling to finish by the end of the year. "For every second of film, you need 12 key frames, so 12 paintings," says BreakThru head Sean Bobbitt. "One artist can create six paintings a day on average, the equivalent of half a second of film."
In all, the 80-minute celebration of the artist's work will require about 56,000 key frames. The studio created its own technique called PAWS, for Painted Animation Work Stations, to make the film.
"We're basically playing at van Gogh and we become van Gogh by using these hi-tech digital methods," says graphic designer Bartosz Dluzewski. The artists' studio in Gdansk, where it gets dark at 3pm in winter, is far from the sunlight of southern France that so inspired van Gogh, but "our painters are flexible", Roman says. "Even surrounded by halogen light, we're able to recreate the Provencal glow."
When a scene like the one she is working on is done, it is photographed, then sent to animation. On the same canvas, Roman then paints the next frame - this time shifting the boats a few millimetres to convey the sense that they're floating. The van Gogh original features a train crossing a bridge - but there is no sign of it yet on Roman's canvas.
Loving Vincent is told through the eyes of van Gogh's entourage, including Armand Roulin, a passenger on the train whose family in the southern French city of Arles inspired many a van Gogh portrait.
The scenes are first shot with actors in a studio in Wroclaw, in western Poland. Then the footage is traced and painted over in the style of the post-Impressionist.
"The PAWS animation technique we use involves projecting scenes shot with actors so they can be painted by brush on a canvas," says graphic designer Dluzewski. "So the film becomes a canvas. The digital image is translated into a painting."
More than 100 van Goghs are used in the film, says Marlena Jopyk-Misiak, who supervises the painstaking artwork. "We're making exact copies. But often for the purposes of film, you need to adapt them, to modify or enlarge, while adding in elements that don't figure in the originals," she says.
"We also came up with tableaux van Gogh never painted himself," including the closing sequence, which is "in the style of his famous self-portrait", she says.
The film, which also draws from 800 of the artist's letters, examines the mystery surrounding his July 1890 death in Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris. "I don't think anyone actually knows what the truth behind van Gogh's death is," says Bobbitt, "whether it actually was a suicide or was he accidentally shot. [Instead,] what we try to do is look into the various theories and give credibility to this one or to that one - and let the viewer decide," he says.