Van Gogh’s Portraits Are the Talking Heads in the Ambitious Animated Documentary ‘Loving Vincent’

By  · Published on January 18th, 2014

This could be the most ingenious mix of animation and the documentary style since Nick Park’s Creature Comforts. Is it technically a documentary? I don’t know, but I’m calling it one for now. “Mockumentary” doesn’t seem to fit, and anyway the film will be dealing with a genuine investigation into the circumstances of Vincent Van Gogh’s death. The expert talking heads here are from long ago. They are the people whose portraits were famously painted by the artist (including Postman Joseph Roulin and Adeline Ravoux), and their testimonial dialogue is based on actual letters and diaries and other artifacts telling of what they knew of him, much of which comes from his own words. There is likely some fictionalizing involved, but that’s fine. Docs aren’t always fact-exclusive. Loving Vincent is like time travel by cinema, and I’m certain it’s going to be an incredible trip.

From the producers of the wonderful Oscar-winning stop-motion short Peter and the Wolf (watch it here) and directed by Dorota Kobiela (The Flying Machine), this new animated feature may be one of the most ambitious ever made. The plan is to have it completely consist of oil paintings on canvas, for every frame, the number totaling 56,800. Even with 40 painters on board it’s going to take a lot of time, though they’re hoping for a 2015 release to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s suicide (or murder?), and it’s also going to take a lot of money.

The latter is where you might come in, as Loving Vincent is currently reaching out to the crowds for funding. The means is Kickstarter, the goal is £75K ($123K) and the deadline is February 6th. The incentives, naturally, are mostly original works of art – not Van Gogh’s obviously, but there are available paintings used as replicas for the film, as well as the chance to have your own portrait painted in Van Gogh’s signature style.

Loving Vincent so far reminds me of the new documentary Tim’s Vermeer (in theaters later this month), which involves a quest to determine how Johannes Vermeer painted his masterpieces. Are we experiencing a trend of art history mystery films? Probably not, but between the two we’re seeing an interesting little wave of efforts to explore centuries-old artists through innovative means. This one presumably isn’t going to have, or even be as concerned with, making a conclusion the way the Vermeer doc does. I expect it to present certain details about Van Gogh’s life and final days that make the audience ponder the nature of his death rather than make an outright case that he was killed by anyone other than himself. I can’t suppose an animation studio holds the key to some truth that has so far eluded countless scholars and even a number of other films about the artist.

I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, or the production, here, but Pixar better watch out as far as what’s likely to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in two years. And that’s with the promise that Pixar’s got two releases in 2015, one of which, Inside Out, has already been written about as possibly being the studio’s most clever idea yet. What we see in the campaign trailer for Loving Vincent is very impressive. The technique and result are the sort of thing we’re used to with short animated films, where there’s more capability for experimentation and time-consuming labor on the smaller, cheaper scale. Especially with such a highbrow, non-kid-focused concept. Even a company as big as Disney wouldn’t spare a couple-hundred grand for something like this. Hopefully those of you who are into pledging to crowdfund efforts or are huge Van Gogh fans can, and will.

Do you want to see this film? Enough to help fund it?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.