Dorota Kobiela is one half of the directorial duo behind Loving Vincent, the world's first fully painted feature film. Loving Vincent is an intimate look at the mysterious final years of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, based off a collection of Van Gogh's letters depicting his daily life and mental state. Nominated for Best Animation at the 90th Academy Awards, Kobiela's work with partner Hugh Welshman redefines the boundaries of animation — each of the film's 65,00 frames is an oil painting on canvas, created by 125 painters. Funded through Kickstarter as well as funding from the Polish Film Institute, the film has gained the admiration of many.
Kobiela breaks barriers with her nomination, becoming one of only six women directors to be nominated for the Animated Feature Film Academy Award — compared to eighty men. Kobiela and Welshman also fought against gender bias when hiring their crew, which is 60% female. We caught up with Kobiela via email and talked about the creation of Loving Vincent, sexism in Hollywood, and more.
How did this idea come about?
It came about at a time of crisis in my life. I was 29 years old and I’d been working very intensively on friends of mine’s animation projects, and I felt I wasn’t really pursuing my own art. I had studied painting through my teenage years and my early twenties, and then I become involved in film and animation. I was excited by the storytelling possibilities in film, but I also really missed painting. I didn’t know whether I should go back to painting or if I should come up with a film project of my own. And that’s when the idea came to me, that I should combine my passion for film and my passion for painting and make a painted film. I wanted the two to work seamlessly together,, and I thought the best subject matter would be to bring the work of a painter to life to tell their story. Very soon after this idea formed in my mind I decided to make my film about Van Gogh. Vincent’s work, his paintings and also his letters, have been close to my heart ever since I started studying art: I first read his letters, which really are an inspiration to anyone pursuing an artistic path, when I was 15, and a year later I visited the Van Gogh Museum, which had a profound effect upon me. Vincent’s paintings are intensely personal, and so it is really possible to feel his life in his paintings, and to tell his life through his paintings. The project started as a short film, which I would entirely paint myself.
How did you form the story? Paintings first or the script based on the letters first?
In terms of developing the story, the two go hand in hand, but of course I wouldn’t make the film about Vincent if it wasn’t for his exceptional paintings. It is because of his amazing paintings that I wanted to tell his story. But also his life story is also amazing, and you need an amazing story for a film, so it is hard to separate or prioritise between the two.
As a painter, did animation come naturally to you?
My very rigorous artistic training meant that I didn’t have to struggle with the drawing side of animation. Also, I have a good aptitude for computers, and in most forms of animation there are computer programmes to master, and this came quite easily to me. I’ve also always been interested in story-telling and acting, so I think that animation was made for me! It combines storytelling, art and acting, that’s probably why I was drawn from painting to animation.
Did you consciously make sure the crew was over 60% female?
No. I just chose the best talent for the project. In this case it happened that 60% of the best applicants were women.
Was that difficult to make happen? Many in Hollywood cite lack of female talent as a reason for lack of women being hired.
I think because we were already outside of the industry, as we were doing something that had never been done before, that we weren’t constrained by the existing hierrachies and the existing entrenched workforce, which is overwhelmingly male. And also the fact that I am a woman meant there wasn’t a bias against women, there wasn’t any kind of culture in my studio that animation is predominantly a man’s world, so I think the fact we were outsiders, and the fact that I am a woman removed any barriers that may exist at other studios.
Loving Vincent was originally a short — was it difficult to expand into a feature-length film?
Yes, very. I’d been working in short films only before we decided to make Loving Vincent into a feature film. I was terrified by the prospect of making a feature film. I dealt with this terror by reading all the scriptwriting books I could get my hands on, and by studying the structure and storytelling in my favourite films. Through this intensive learning process I gained confidence. In the end you just have to throw yourself into a huge task, and keep working at it until you think you have something that is good enough. It was fine when each draft was getting better, but inevitably there were drafts where it felt like we were standing still, and that was really disheartening, but again the only solution is to keep working at it, and work through those tough times.
Did you know that you would be creating the first fully painted animated film? Did this intimidate you?
Yes, I was well aware of this, and no it didn’t intimidate me. I feel confident in painting, and I feel confident in animation. That’s why I wanted to make a painted animation because these were my strengths and these were my passions. I knew if we could crack the story, that the making of the film would be an exciting challenge.
How did you balance your creative decisions as a director with the style of Van Gogh's art?
My rule was that I had to justify my decisions from a position of knowledge. If I decided to deviate from any aspect of his painting — turning a daytime painting into a nighttime painting, adjusting the framing — then I had to justify this in terms of the story and the coherence of the film. This also meant that if there wasn’t a vital reason for making a change, then I wouldn’t make a change. Vincent was a master artist, and this film is absolutely a homage to his work, so it would defeat the point of the film if I didn’t do my upmost to stay true to his work. Obviously, film is a dynamic art form that tells a story over time, whereas painting is a static moment in time, so we often had to re-imagine his work into the medium of film, and I had to decide how best to retain the spirit and intention of his work in that process of reimagining.
What was it like directing painters as a painter yourself?
I can’t imagine being able to direct painters without being a painter myself. It was a very pleasurable experience working with the painters. They were full of passion for the process, and our shared background as painters meant we had a shared language on how to discuss the shots. I was only frustrated that I was too busy directing to be able to be a painting animator on the film myself. I did one shot in the film, I would have loved to do more. I often felt a bit envious of the painting animators, and was itching to pick up my brush and get stuck in, but with directing 125 painters it was impossible to be an animator on the project as well.
You've made history as a woman in film through your Oscar nom, how does that feel?
It makes me angry that I’m one of six women who has ever been nominated as a director in the feature animation category. There have been eighty men nominated and only six women, that’s less than 7%, it is shameful. I of course would like to be thought of as exceptional as a filmmaker for my work, but being exceptional by being one of the only women directors in feature animation just illustrates how biased against women the feature animation industry currently is. I hope this will change, it needs to change, there is no way that men are 13 times better directors than women, or in any other area of the arts for that matter. This imbalance is a reflection of bias in the industry and within our society. I look forward to being unexceptional in this regard, and I hope I can contribute in some way to making this so.
Why is it important to talk about identity when discussing art?
Art is fundamental to being human. Our impulse for art, for music, for storytelling is very strong, and is with us from the moment we can talk, the moment we can clap along to a song, from the moment we put crayon to paper. That’s true of boys and girls equally, and is true of all races everywhere. If our top artists, our top musicians, and our top film-makers aren’t reflecting that, then we are letting down many people, maybe even the majority of people. There are enough divisions in the world, and as artists we should be positively trying to heal these divisions, to lead the way, and I don’t think that is happening at the moment. That is why it is important to talk about identity when discussing art.
Do you have any advice for female filmmakers looking to enter the industry?
Go to a good film school. Find supportive networks. I was lucky to be very well supported. My husband Hugh is my biggest supporter, but also our business partner Sean Bobbitt. They were both fully behind my vision for this project, and we assembled a team, including our co-producers Trademark Films in the UK, who were all committed to making this happen how I envisioned it. Of course we had heated creative and production discussions, but we always were fighting together. And I think the fact this film was so difficult to make, and we had such problems for years persuading the "industry" to get behind this film, made us very close. It was such a battle to make the film that we never wasted energy battling each other. I think finding a team that supports you, finding like-minded people to collaborate with, finding people who believe in your vision, this is really vital.
Loving Vincent is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and iTunes from Good Deed Entertainment.
Top photo: Vincent (Robert Glyaczk) in color
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Kim Hoyos is a filmmaker and founder of the Light Leaks, a site for female and GNC filmmakers. She works to create spaces of education and empowerment for marginalized voices because she believes in the power of diversity. Kim enjoys writing personal narratives on her Latina identity and mental health topics, exercising, and traveling. Follow her at kimhoyos.com and on Twitter and Instagram.