By Marie Defreitas.
Last fall, the film “Loving Vincent” made its southeast premiere at the Lucas Theatre. Nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, “Loving Vincent” tells Vincent van Gogh’s story through a unique animated style of over 65,000 hand painted frames, the first of film of its kind.
This weekend SCAD students had the opportunity to meet one of the artists who worked on the movie and see her demonstrate the classic post-impressionist style of painting.
Dena Peterson has been painting for over twenty years. She stumbled upon the film’s website and discovered that they still needed artists. With a little encouragement from her daughter, she applied and was accepted. After passing a three day long test to prove she could handle the work, she moved on to three weeks of training. She was among the 125 artists who made the cut out of 5,000 who applied and made her way to the studio in Gdansk, Poland to bring van Gogh’s life to the big screen.
For six long months, Peterson painted for the film, working in tight cubicles side-by-side with other talented artists or “detectives” as they called themselves. After only ten days of gathering live-action footage for the film, the painters and animators took over. Projecting the live-action frames onto the canvases, the artists painted over them with thick, large strokes. Coincidentally, after testing numerous oil paints to find the perfect fit, the aptly named Royal Talens van Gogh oils were chosen for their quality.
The artists were kept on tight schedules by incredibly detail-oriented directors. Although each painted frame for the movie was loosely based on van Gogh’s portraits, the artists still strived to capture the likenesses of the actors themselves.
Lighting and color matching was quite frustrating for the artists. Light diffusers were built over the painters’ work areas for more consistent lighting, and color swatches and full paintings had to be regularly tested to see if colors on screen matched how they looked to the naked eye.
One of the techniques Peterson shared was the “blur motion” technique. Here, the painter used loose strokes in the direction the character was moving in transition for the next frame, creating a blurred visual to represent motion.
Peterson discussed how much she loves and admires van Gogh and his work. “He painted with emotion,” she said. She discussed how he painted not necessarily so much what he saw, but how he felt, quoting him by saying “we are not human cameras.”
After six months of working on the film, Peterson completed five scenes and 230 paintings which equated to about 21 seconds of footage. That may not sound like much but the experience left an impression on her and her work. She firmly believes that CGI would not have worked for the film. “It’s the beauty of the imperfections,” she said, that make the film what it is.
Peterson found mimicking van Gogh difficult. “Van Gogh’s genius was his uniqueness, true genius can’t be copied. That was my personal dilemma,” she told us. Even though she thinks that artists interpret instead of copy, she does believe the crew did indeed capture the spirit of van Gogh’s style, reinforcing the importance of originality in art for her.
“Be bold and be true to yourself,” she ended the presentation before exhibiting a montage of photos from the film’s set and some of its stills juxtaposed with van Gogh’s paintings set to Johnny Cash’s “I’ll Fly Away.”
For the demo, she chose a frame that had a significant meaning to her. Armand Roulin (the film’s lead character played by Douglas Booth), stands in a wheat field after he has thrown a stick and watches a murder or crows fly away, hinting at the Johnny Cash song. This field is where van Gogh supposedly committed suicide. Peterson described the crows as a symbol of peace for van Gogh in death.
Peterson first prepared her canvas with an acrylic base. Then, as she added large, loose brush strokes, the painting slowly began to come together, a whirlwind of blues, yellows and reds that shaped the light and shadow of the landscape and figure. As she painted, Peterson reflected on her experience and how scary it seemed to leave Illinois for Poland to work on something so different. In the end, it proved to be an amazing opportunity that left her with more confidence and courage to take more risks. “The best things,” she concluded, “happen when you don’t have time to think about them.”