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Animating Van Gogh – canvas by canvas

Oscar-winning studio Breakthru Films is making an animated film where every frame is an oil painting.

He might have made multiple copies of his most famous works, but Vincent Van Gogh could never have kept up this pace. An animation studio aims to create 1,200 paintings in the style of the Dutch post-Impressionist for the first feature-length film made solely through hand-painted canvases.

Telling the story of Van Gogh’s life through fictional interviews with the characters in the artist’s works, Loving Vincent will use a new oil painting for each shot, with movement added from one frame to the next by a painter’s brush. Producer and co-director Hugh Welchman, who won an Academy Award six years ago for Peter and the Wolf, plans to employ 42 painters to make the animation, recreating Van Gogh’s life using workstations designed for ‘stop-motion painting’.

The painters will be allocated landscapes or portraits to work on in a process that the studio has created from scratch. “No one had set up an infrastructure to make painting animation at scale,” says Welchman. “Disney did this for 2D, Pixar for 3D, and Aardman for stop motion – but no one has done it for painting animation.”

Using an approach that mirrors the master-apprentice workshops of Michelangelo, Rubens – and, today, Damien Hirst – the workshop will have a prolific output, producing each frame in just 40 minutes. But it won’t be a canvas sweatshop. “Some painters will be part-time because of personal limits of concentration,” says Welchman. “Some of our best painters find that five hours of intense painting is enough for one day.”

Animators paint frames for Loving Vincent on specially designed workstations (PR)

Welchman is keen to use the technique again, and says that the studio’s painters will be showing animations on giant screens in London this June. After the film is completed, a quarter of the paintings will be selected for a touring exhibition; the rest will be sold off.

Drawing its plot from 800 letters written by the painter, Loving Vincent is a fresh take on someone whose life has been well documented – and it might be more fitting than a conventional biography. In his last letter, Van Gogh said: “Well, the truth is, we cannot speak other than by our paintings.”

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