Encounters Short Film Festival 2016: “Loving Vincent” shows us the world through van Gogh’s eyes

Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival (20-25 September) was already well past halfway finished when I managed to arrive in Bristol on Friday morning, finally free of day job obligations and intent on seeing and writing about as many animated films as possible. There wasn’t much time to feel sad about what I’ve missed due to my tardy arrival, though. The first event I attended would be enough to make me the envy of any animation connoisseur: a talk on the upcoming film “Loving Vincent”, including a half-hour preview of actual footage.

You may have already heard of “Loving Vincent”, an incredibly ambitious biopic of Vincent van Gogh, hand-painted and animated in the visual style of the Dutch painter himself. The film was originally imagined by Polish director Dorota Kobiela as a short, but now it’s on its way to becoming a feature-length movie, which you will hopefully be able to see in cinemas next year.

Producer and co-director Hugh Welchman explained why “Loving Vincent” couldn’t have been CGI: van Gogh’s unique brushstrokes were essential if the film had any serious intention of staying true to his aesthetic. It wasn’t easy to assemble the right team to make it reality, though: while there are plenty of excellent animators as well as oil painters out there, there aren’t many people who have both skills.

In the end, professional oil painters were offered 180 hours of animation training; every second of the film is made of 12 oil paintings on canvas, using live-action footage of actors as reference (the cast includes well-known names such as Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan and “Poldark” heartthrob Aidan Turner). And all of this is being achieved on a budget of just 5 mil $, mere pennies compared to the finances available to Hollywood films. Just thinking of the sheer amount of work involved in the project makes my head spin, and many of the usually mundane details of filmmaking pose unique technical challenges (Welchman told us that some of the painters on staff are specialised exclusively in transitions and dissolves between shots).

The centrepiece of the event was, of course, the half-hour screening, and I felt very privileged to hear that the footage had never been shown to an audience before. What we saw was definitely a work in progress, rough around the edges, but it’s already more than obvious that the finished movie will look amazing.

30 minutes of film filtered through a van Gogh lens are an intoxicating experience: bright yellows and bold brushstrokes make the film’s universe look more alive than reality, but at the same time it’s all somewhat ominous, overwhelming, off-balance, vertigo-inducing, just like van Gogh’s paintings themselves. Many shots are lifted directly from a van Gogh canvas, adapted and extended as necessary (the filmmakers chose the Academy format for the film, as it most easily matched the aspect ratio of most paintings of the time). It feels like falling into an alternate dimension, one where we can, perhaps, finally empathise with the painter, a man stigmatised for his mental health issues both in life and post-mortem.

This empathy may come too late, of course. Even in the main plot of the film, van Gogh is already dead: “Loving Vincent” investigates his demise as if it were a mystery tale, piecing together conflicting accounts from people who knew him (and who featured in his paintings). But applying the painter’s aesthetic to everything we see emphasises the impact of his original artistic vision: van Gogh is gone, but we can’t help seeing the world through his eyes.

Welchman also talked about the importance of following van Gogh’s approach as a painter of people, by properly fleshing out characters and their stories. I would venture to guess this is the most difficult part of the endeavour (what we saw of the film contained a bit too much expository dialogue for my taste), but there is definitely plenty of room to tell a different story about van Gogh, a painter whose personality and talent have been largely overshadowed by the well-known ear-cutting incident. I hope we’ll get to find out more about Vincent the person, rather than Vincent, the sensationalised caricature.

Those of you who weren’t at Encounters can also try to catch a screening of “Loving Vincent” footage at the National Gallery in London, in October. I, for one, can hardly wait to see the finished product in 2017.