Interview with Hugh Welchman

Loving Vincent is the world’s first fully painted feature film. Under the direction of husband-and-wife duo Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, 125 artists worked for six years to produce this animated biographical film about the life and mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh, primarily in the unique and instantly-recognisable painting style of the artist himself. 65,000 frames and 1,345 discarded paintings later, the film has emerged to huge global acclaim, and is the only British animation Oscar nominee this year. I caught up with Welchman, an Oxford alumnus, when he came back to the city for the first time in nine years for a one night only return of Loving Vincent to the Oxford Curzon cinema.

You graduated from Keble with a degree in 1996, and since then you’ve taught history, sold carpets, sold fish, and now you’re an Oscar-winning director – can you talk me through that journey a little bit?

I’d been doing student theatre here in Oxford, but when I came out of university I realised that I didn’t really want to do theatre. I thought that film would be cool, and I wanted to do that, but unfortunately I didn’t know anyone in the film industry. I sent off hundreds of applications, but no one really got back to me, so I got a job teaching, started doing a couple of part time jobs, and then started joining film co-operatives – but the problem with that was that most of the drama was behind the camera, rather than in front of it. After about two years I decided that I needed to be working with better people, so I applied to the National Film and Television School as a producer. Initially I’d wanted to be an editor, but I realised that I was congenitally unsuited to being an editor because I’m just far too impatient – I thought being a producer would be good because it combines going out and being entrepreneurial with finding something creative that you like.

As well as doing live action films, in our first year we got the option to do an animation. I’d never really thought about animation before, I’d just kind of thought it was Disney and for children, but then I fell a bit in love with it. It opened my eyes to different visual approaches, and the animation directors were just really fun to work with – they were very collaborative and less ego-driven, and there was a lot less ‘soul-searching’ than with the live action films. When I left film school the live action films that I’d produced were actually a lot more successful than my animated films, but I set up a company and my business partner was my former animation tutor.

Peter and the Wolf, which went on to win an Oscar, was the big animated project that kind of took over the company, and once you’ve won an Oscar for animation people start sending you animation proposals. I got a call from the Minister of Culture in Poland, because Peter and the Wolf was actually only the second Polish film to win an Oscar – there was another short animation that had won before, but never in any other category, so it was a big deal there. I was invited back to Poland to do another project, and whilst I was there I met my wife Dorota and fell in love. It turned out that she was making this short film called Loving Vincent, and we discussed whether it could actually be a feature film. On the face of it, it was a crazy idea to paint an entire film by hand, but the more we talked about it the more we convinced ourselves that it wasn’t a crazy idea and that we should do it.

There we go! Twenty years in three minutes.

You mentioned student theatre – have you ever acted, or did you always direct?

I acted in a couple of my own productions here in Oxford, and then in Loving Vincent I do some of the background voices, and I’m also the body double for Jerome Flynn, who plays Doctor Gachet. So that was fun, doing a bit of acting again. But before we got all of these big people onboard, like Aidan Turner and Saoirse Ronan, me and Dorota did all of the voices ourselves; we did the storyboard and then we did the animatic, and we did it to our voices. In our studio pretty much everyone is Polish, but Dorota’s English is good enough and she’s a pretty good actress, so we ended up doing about 80% of the voices initially.

I read that Dorota had been a big fan of van Gogh for years?

Yeah, she first read his letters when she was 15, and went to the van Gogh museum when she was 16 – which is a great experience, everyone should do it. Whereas really I had very little interest in going to art museums when I was a kid or a teenager, or even when I was at film school. I think in Britain we’ve been pretty poor in terms of the visual arts. We’ve got this kind of theatre tradition which is very writer-led, and also in terms of poetry or in terms of pop music or rock music, we’re good at lyrics, but we’ve been surprisingly un-pictorial. And we’re living in a pictorial age, so I was so surprised that I managed to go through this education system, culminating in going to Oxford, and not really know much about painters. So it was such a joy going out with Dorota because she’d been to all of these museums and she knew European art history back to front, so it was really exciting to discover all of that, and it gave us all of the ideas for the film – and it will for future films. And the other thing is – we’re very lucky in Britain that we can go to the museums for free, so everyone should go to the museums. It’ll be fun! I think the reason I never found it fun is that I never read about the painters or the context of their lives, but when you do you start to join things up and relate things, and all of a sudden you start to make these connections and it becomes much more personal and much more emotional.

Do you have any advice for current students or recent graduates who might be in a similar position as the one you were in at the end of university, who know that they want to work in film but aren’t really sure how?

I think what I did was sensible. I joined clubs, I tried to get involved with films, I found people that I liked and tried to do films with them – and even if they were disasters I kind of liked it and I thought that it was what I wanted to do. I went and got a formal education at the National Film and Television School, and I couldn’t imagine being where I am today without having done that. A lot of the people at the film school had done two film degrees, and someone was asking me the other day, ‘What use was your Oxford education?’. I think there were a couple things that were good about it; obviously I have very strong opinions about politics, but my PPE degree is kind of useless to my career, but there are a couple of things. I had to do two essays a week, so sixteen essays a term, whereas friends at other universities would do two or three essays a term, and I think that that ability to just sit down and wade through material that you don’t really want to read has been really helpful. I think it was useful with Loving Vincent because I wanted to sit down and read every single book that had been written about Vincent, which was a lot; I read around thirty books, and I think that the ability to focus on research has been useful not only for my writing, but also on the producing side – being able to sit and analyse what I want to do, and then put out my arguments and pitch it to people. I think that the intensity of the education system here gets you ready for hard work, and if you’re going to work in the film industry then you’re going to work sixty hours a week and you’re going to get paid the same amount as a friend of yours if they’re working about fifteen hours a week. It’s badly paid, by comparison to other jobs, but then again you’re not going to be working in the city doing a worthless job. Most of my friends ended up doing worthless jobs as lawyers and bankers and – why? You only have one life, and it’s really a waste of time to do any of those jobs where you’re really just siphoning off money from society and not really contributing. Whereas, with something like Loving Vincent… – actually, I can read you a letter I got today from a German art student:

“Dear Loving Vincent team,    Firstly, I would like to say thank you for what you’ve created, it’s a true masterpiece to filmmaking and I’m so grateful for having eyes to watch this movie. […] On Saturday I went to the cinema during examination time. I wanted to make myself a gift, inviting myself to the cinema. The room was totally overcrowded, my mood was getting very low, but a few seconds later I saw the first pictures on the big screen and my anger turned into joy. My eyes got wider and my heart was filled with warmth. It’s been a long time since I’ve been moved that much because of a film. I cried half the way through it; I could not stand this beauty. […] Afterwards, I decided to believe more in my skills and I have sketched daily since then. […] Vincent van Gogh and your great team of artists have helped me to embrace my creative spirit. […] Hopefully this letter will bring you some joy and happiness.”

For me, things like that are compensation for not earning lots of money in the city. But you know, maybe ‘the city’ will disappear now because of Brexit, and Oxford graduates will become things like filmmakers and painters and poets and go away and make the world a better place!

I think it’s weird, because when my dad was at university they wanted to be rocket scientists, they wanted to go to space. But my generation, they just wanted to become billionaires, and I just thought – why? Why? We need to shift the culture so that people think that they’re going to get status and value from being a professor at a university, or from inventing something that brings renewable energy and will actually help people.

We need to shift the culture so that people think that they’re going to get status and value from being a professor at a university, or from inventing something that brings renewable energy and will actually help people.

In making this film, you were doing something that had never been done before on this scale. Were you nervous about how it would be received?

I wasn’t nervous while we were making it – there was just too much to do, and my job was to be the person who was very confident, making sure everyone else was feeling like it wasn’t going to collapse and that it was going to carry on and go well. There were a lot of people working very hard who were very nervous about it. But as soon as we finished it I was in pieces. That was the worst period of the whole seven years for me – the period between when we finished the film in February last year and when we showed it at the world premiere in June. It was really strange, because you go from running a studio, making decisions all day every day, trying to make it better and better, and you have 150 people around you – and then suddenly there’s no one around you, it’s me and Dorota in a freezing house with no central heating, in the coldest winter for a long long time in Poland, and just going nuts really because we didn’t know if people were going to like the film and like all of that effort. We’d kind of pulled everyone through this, and we were just thinking, ‘What if we wasted everyone’s time?’ So the world premiere in Annecy was very special. We actually got a standing ovation for eleven and a half minutes, and I think that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But even during the film I didn’t know if it was going to be okay – I was convinced that I could hear people snoring, coughing, fidgeting… but then we got to the end of it and there was some polite applause, and I thought, ‘That’s fine, that’s respectable,’ and then it just sort of kept going and going and going, and then people started standing up. We went through the whole credits, and the lights came up and people were still going. But until then I was very nervous. Even after that I was still nervous, because that was one particular audience, but it was enough feedback to know that it was probably going to be okay, even if lots of people didn’t go to see it in the cinema. In the end five million people did go to see it, and it’s the most successful adult animation film ever done.

Loving Vincent is the only British animation Oscar nominee this year, and the first British Oscar nomination ever for a company other than Aardman. Do you think that animation as an art form, and how powerful it can be, is often underestimated in the UK?

Absolutely. I remember we were at the Shanghai film festival, and we won the prize for best animation, and it was this big event where maybe 300 million people watch it, so we had this rehearsal and they were telling the people from documentaries and from animation not to speak, and to just leave it to the actors and directors to speak. And it’s always like that, it’s crazy. We kind of have this little tucked away category at the Baftas or the Oscars – they actually only came up with an animation category in 2006 I think, before that it didn’t even have a category. It definitely is looked down on, and I think in part that’s because of Disney and the success of Disney. 2D animation was completely associated with children’s films, and then the same happened with CG animation with Pixar films. There was just this link between animation and children’s films, and I think what’s been really exciting for us is that adults have embraced this film. I don’t think there’s a prejudice against painted animation being for kids, because this is a first and this is for adults. We want to do horror films, sci-fi films – films for adults in this genre, and hopefully we can shake it up a bit.

There was just this link between animation and children’s films, and I think what’s been really exciting for us is that adults have embraced this film.

Loving Vincent has moved and resonated with a huge amount of people. Do you think it has the potential to open up van Gogh’s work, but also art more generally, to different audiences and groups?

We hope so. I mean, if you think that 1.6 million people go to see the van Gogh museum every year, and obviously there are millions of people around the world who can’t get to Amsterdam to go and see it, and 5 million people have seen the film in the last 4 months. It’s no substitute for seeing the real painting in the flesh, but if it excites people’s interest then it means that if they have a chance to travel somewhere where there are real van Gogh paintings then they’ll go and see them, and if it stimulates people to read his letters a bit, then that’s very exciting for us. That’s part of the reason why we chose the mystery story about his death – people come out of it saying, ‘What really happened to Vincent?’ and they want to know the real answers. We wanted people to have questions and look it up online: was he shot or did he shoot himself, and if he did shoot himself then why?

The van Gogh museum told us that after they posted the trailer for our film on their Facebook page they almost doubled their Facebook fans, so they’re happy with us because they think it’s stimulating people’s interest about Vincent. He’s an incredibly interesting person. He failed four times in his twenties at different careers, and he was really in a very depressed place. His family had kind of given up on him – he came from an upper-middle-class family, well-educated people, with pressure on him to succeed, and I think a lot of students from Oxford can probably relate to that. But to fail several times and then still to find the power within yourself to try again and to start painting at the age of twenty-nine, and by thirty-seven have changed the world of art forever – that’s pretty cool.

Would you ever consider doing a film like this about another artist, in their style, or do you think this needs to remain unique to van Gogh?

I think we can do it with another artist, but not next. We don’t want to be ‘those people who make films about painters,’ because a lot of people are more interested in the visual approach in itself – a lot of people who go and see it are maybe not interested in art, but they’re still really interested in the way it looks and the fact that it’s new and it’s different, and I think we can play on different emotions than computer animation or live action can. I feel like we’ve surprised people with this, and we have to surprise people again.

LOVING VINCENT is available to buy in the UK and Ireland on digital download from February 5th and on DVD and Blu-ray from February 12th.