[Interview] Hugh Welchman over de handgeschilderde film Loving Vincent
Hugh Welchman is een bekende in de animatiewereld. Hij heeft verschillende nominaties op zijn naam staan en met Peter en de Wolf won de producer in 2008 een Oscar. Onlangs sloot hij samen met zijn vrouw Dorota Kobiela (Breakthru Productions) een monsterproject af: Loving Vincent, een animatiefilm geschilderd door 125 verschillende kunstenaars. Wij spreken hem over de liefde, Nederland en sceptische financiers.
Dear Hugh. When and how did you get the idea for Loving Vincent?
I didn’t, my wife, Dorota, did. She trained as a painter, and worked at a painter when she left education, but turned to film for most of her 20’s. After years of working on other people’s films, she wanted to find a project for herself. And she wanted to combine her two passions: painting and film. At this time she was turning back to one of her favorite books - the letters of Van Gogh - and had an epiphany, that she could bring Van Gogh’s paintings to life to tell his story.
I met her about a year after this and was busy on another film. I fell in love with her, and then a couple of years later I fell in love with her project, and I’ve been working on it with her ever since.
Can you tell us more about the storyline?
The film is set a year after Vincent’s death. The son of his best friend in Arles comes North to hand deliver to Theo Van Gogh a letter left behind in Arles along with the condolences of the Roulin family. However, once Armand Roulin gets to Paris he finds out that Theo is dead too. He travels on to Auvers, where Vincent died, to give the letter to a friend of the Van Gogh family. In Auvers he gets sucked into the mystery around Vincent’s final weeks. Everyone in the village seems to have a different story, Armand decides he is going to find the truth.
Were you always fascinated by Vincent van Gogh?
Not really. I was shamefully ignorant about art and painters. I only became interested because there were so many books about Van Gogh lying around our flat because Dorota was working on Loving Vincent. I started reading them, and I became hooked. I had always assumed he was an artistic genius from birth, like Mozart or Da Vinci. I assumed anyone that famous must just be born specially gifted. And then to read that he had failed miserably at 3 careers, was the black sheep of his family, and was written off at the age of 28, and came back from that to transform the art world, I was blown away, what an achievement. Most people think of him as some crazy genius who cut off his ear and now his paintings for lots of money. Even many Van Gogh fans think of him as a crazy genius.
What is remarkable about him is that he was a self-made genius. He worked with such incredible focus and passion, and he changed the world, or one important part of it. I didn’t think art was that important before doing this project, now I think art and storytelling and music are very integral to being human and to our identity. 5 years ago I barely knew who he was, now he is absolutely one of my all time heroes.
It all started 4 years ago. How did the film came to life?
Dorota first came up with the idea 10 years ago. She worked on it for a year as a short film, then she met me, and I got her to work on some other film projects, then we both started working on Loving Vincent full time together in 2012. There were two things that really brought the film to life. Firstly was when we took the decision to make a feature film that was entirely painted by hand. It has never been done before, and people thought we were crazy. Therefore we needed to do tests to prove that we could do it. We did our concept trailer in 2012, and this showed us, and some other true believers, that we could paint an entire film, and make it a couple of years, and not a couple of decades as most people thought.
Which were the most difficult parts of creating this movie?
Persuading people to give us money to make it. I think traditional film financiers were skeptical about whether it could be done, and even if it could be done, whether anyone would like the style. Film is a risky business, and we were doing something never done before, and so therefore unproven. At the beginning I thought inventing a new style of filmmaking and painting 65,000 frames of oil painting was going to be the most difficult thing, but no, persuading people to back us to show that we could, that was the most difficult.
Loving Vincent premiered at the Annecy Animated Film Festival. What were the reactions?
We had a 10-minute standing ovation at the World Premiere, every screening was sold out and we won the Audience Award. It couldn’t have been better, it was a dream for me and Dorota, we were struggling to believe it was really happening. And then the following week we win Shanghai Film Festival. It has been two very special weeks in our lives, very special. To be honest you don’t even dare to dream about the kind of reactions we have had from audiences. We’re very grateful for and humbled by the passion and love we’ve had from audiences so far.
The movie will premiere in The Netherlands in October this year. Is it like any other premiere, or is there something special because of Van Gogh being Dutch?
There are 4 premieres that are special for us: Poland and UK, because the film was made there, and because I’m British and Dorota’s Polish. And then The Netherlands, because we’ve had such great support from the Van Gogh Museum, and from other Dutch members of Van Gogh Europe, like Het Noordbrabants Museum and Van Gogh Brabant. Also Dutch friends of mine started out being a bit sceptical, telling me that there are too many Van Gogh projects in Holland, but once they saw what we were doing they all got behind our project, and of course we’ve made new friends in The Netherlands because of this project, we’ve been several times each year for the past 4 years, so it sort of feels like a home from home for us, and we’re very grateful for all the support we’ve received. And the fourth premiere which will be special for us will be the US, because over half of our fans and supporters on-line over the past 2 years are based in the US.
With who did you partner up to be able to create this movie?
Sean Bobbitt joined my company 5 years ago, and he has been a rock for me and Dorota. Trademark Films joined us a year later, and they have been hard-working champions for the film. The Polish Film Institute came on board early. Then Odra Film and the City of Wroclaw. Once we had CMG onboard as sales agents then we started to sign up distributors around the world, and now we’ve sold the film to 135 countries.
Our head of painting Piotr Dominiak was with us from the beginning as was our studio manager, Tomek Wochniak. We had 125 painting animators on the film, and there was a core of 20 of these who were with us for over 2 years. And then there was our fabulous cast. Someone special for us was Clint Mansell, the composer, as we wrote the script listening to his scores from previous films. When he agreed to do our film we were ecstatic, and we love his score for Loving Vincent.
What’s your vision of the animated film branch nowadays?
It becomes more and more diversified every year. There are new ways to combine techniques, and now most of the big budget Hollywood live action films have a lot of animation in them, so the boundaries between live action and animation are blurring. However I think the beating heart of animation is people who can draw, and that computers can distract from that marvel, someone being able to bring to life a line, or a brush stroke.
Any recent news you want to share?
We’re going to show our very best paintings from the whole production in Het Noordbrabants Museum in an exhibition which will not only show paintings, but reveal how we made the film. We’re very excited about this exhibition, as we think that it will extend and enrich people’s experience of the film, and the full exhibition and the best paintings will only be in The Netherlands.