‘Loving Vincent’ and ‘I’m OK’: two approaches to documenting the life of an artist

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Image: ‘Im OK’  by Elizabeth Hobbs

 

While still in production, there was a lot of talk among art lovers about the 2017 animated documentary Loving Vincent. ‘It is completely hand-painted’, ‘an army of artists has been employed for its production’, ‘it will look like a moving painting’ (see Frizzell, 2017; Mottram, 2017; Vollenbroek, 2017)… I was in suspense for its release and fascinated by all the hype surrounding it. When I finally got to watch the film, I could not help but feel a bit let down. Yet, I could not understand the reasons behind this disenchantment. The imagery imitated van Gogh’s style flawlessly, the storyline dealing with the circumstances of the artist’s death was interesting enough, and as far as I could tell, the acting was good. What was it then? Why was I feeling like I wanted to see more? 

Part of me felt that my art education was to blame, an education that was perhaps wrongly distinguishing and discriminating between art and craft. I could not see the point behind this repetitive exercise of recreating an art style whose value lay in being different, in being original and unique. The recreation seemed like a copy, an imitation and therefore to me, of less value. It seemed no further away from art than a printed reproduction of the original painting. It seemed almost futile, unnecessary, a bit kitschy. The story could hold its weight without the hand-painted stylization, and the stylization might have had a stronger effect without a storyline. However, I remembered how art students and apprentices used to study images and still do to some extent by copying the masters. This film employed over one hundred artists who worked painstakingly to recreate the footage in Van Gogh’s style. Keeping in mind this tradition of learning art, it seems like Loving Vincent acted as an apprenticeship for them. An homage to the technique of this master of modernism. To me, it is a performance that pays tribute to this great artist, not so much in its completed form, the final film, as by the painstaking process of its production. And that change in perspective elevates a rather good film to a masterpiece.

Loving Vincent. Dir. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.

In her short film I’m OK, Elizabeth Hobbs (2018), took a completely different approach in depicting the life and work of the Austrian Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka. Despite some loose references to his work here and there, Hobbs did not try to emulate Kokoschka’s style, nor did she have a script and employ actors and rotoscoping. Using expressive, playful lines and bright colours on paper, the animator highlights aspects of Kokoschka’s life. She specifically focuses on the time when the artist volunteered for service during WWI, after being rejected by a lover. Although Hobbs communicates well the message of heartbreak, war and pain, unless a viewer is already familiar with the life and work of Kokoschka, it is unlikely that they would gain an education of the artist merely by watching the film. This, however, does not seem to be the priority of the short. Instead, it acts as a loose interpretation of the life of an artist.

I’m OK Dir. Elizabeth Hobbs (U.K. and Canada)

These two examples are very different approaches to document the life of an artist through animation. Both films take advantage of the medium to simulate an aspect of creation that van Gogh and Kokoschka were using. Loving Vincent partially employs rotoscoping in the form of hand-painted live action footage but remains confined within the indexical qualities of the recording. It takes advantage of van Gogh’s painterly aesthetics and simultaneously maintains a strong relation to ‘reality’. I’m OK, on the other hand, does not involve the tracing over live-footage and without this strong and recorded initial connection to the world, it recreates Hobbs’ own version of it from scratch. I’m OK applies an expressive approach with emotive brushstrokes, music, use of colour and symbolism to tell a story while highlighting the animator’s unique perspective and is without any pretence of presenting ‘the real’. Hobbs refers to Kokoschka’s style not by directly emulating his art, but by adopting a similarly expressive aesthetic while maintaining her artistic voice. Hobbs’s film is not only an homage to an artist. It is much more than that, as it is, at least in my humble opinion, a work of art in its own right.

References

Frizzell, N., 2017. 65,000 Portraits Of The Artist: How Van Gogh’s Life Became The World’s First Fully Painted Film. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/13/loving-vincent-van-gogh-painted-animation-dorota-kobiela-hugh-welchman [Accessed 9 March 2020].

I’m OK. 2020. [DVD] Directed by E. Hobbs. United Kingdom and Canada: Animate Projects Limited and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).

Loving Vincent. 2017. [DVD] Directed by D. Kobiela and H. Welchman. Poland and United Kingdom: BreakThru Productions and Trademark Films.

Mottram, J., 2017. Loving Vincent: How The First Fully-Painted Feature Film Took Six Years. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/loving-vincent-van-gogh-douglas-booth-armand-roulin-hugh-welchman-dorota-kobiela-a7994186.html [Accessed 9 March 2020]

Vollenbroek, T., 2017. ‘Loving Vincent’: 6 Facts About The First Oil Painted Animated Feature. [online] Cartoon Brew. Available at: <https://www.cartoonbrew.com/feature-film/loving-vincent-6-facts-first-oil-painted-animated-feature-150443.html [Accessed 9 March 2020]

 

‘Nyosha’ by Liran Kapel and Yael Dekel

Nyosha is the story of a young Jewish girl who becomes fixated on a pair of shoes as the source of her salvation while her life is ripped apart by the Holocaust. Based on the diary and video recordings of Nomi Kapel, one of the young filmmaker’s grandmother, director Liran Kapel and Yael Dekel have employed both stop-motion and traditional 2D animation to render this harrowing tale.

A certain uncanny charm keeps the viewer afloat in the rippling currents of such a dejected context. Despite the truly terrible nature of the historic narrative, naïve optimism is provided by the child’s perspective. The medium also engages us with a toy like simulacra; for better or for worse this buffer dampens the emotional response to the distressing subject matter.

This towering project is impressive but by no means is it flawless. At times the stop-motion is a tad jerky, the models still have their flash lines and the illusion of scale is not fully realised. That said these are the imperfections that come hand in hand with such a challenging medium: an Aardman production, for example, would be missing a great deal if all thumbprints were removed. Set design on Nyosha is impressive and at times the lighting is too. Particular attention has been paid to attempting tricky post-production effects, like the beams of light that cut through the forest. Despite not always being entirely convincing, the over all atmosphere these create is invaluable.

You can watch a making-of film here:

Nyosha – Behind The Scenes! from liran kapel on Vimeo.

‘Disfarmer’ by Dan Hurlin

It seems that puppets are further crossing the threshold of reality by taking on non-fictional roles. Though this is not animation, the documentary genre is forever expanding and shifting mediums, even extending to live puppet shows.

Dan Hurlin’s ‘Disfarmer,’ is a biographical puppetry performance about the American realist portrait photographer Mike Disfarmer, whose haunting and intimate portraits of the inhabitants of rural Arkansas became iconic works of art after his death in the 1950s. Hurlin’s show sees a full stage of puppeteers share command of one lithe puppet. The show chronicles Disfarmer’s solitary existence as a reclusive artist. The show ends up almost autobiographical, with the puppet bearing far more resemblance to Hurlin than Disfarmer, their respective determined and obsessive natures becoming clear throughout the performance.

Here’s a taster of the show:

To add another ‘meta’ element to this piece, first-time filmmaker David Soll has been following Hurlin’s ‘Disfarmer’ project, creating a documentary film about the documentary performance. Soll’s film entitled ‘Puppet’ charts Hurlin’s successes and failures, as well as scrutinising the art of puppetry in general. Soll sheds light on the negative reception puppet theatre often receives among an adult demographic.

For those in London, ‘Puppet’ is being screened at The Little Angel Puppet Theatre for the ‘Puppets on Film Festival’ 12th-14th April 2013 – so watch this space for a review.

Review of ‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’

Graham Chapman, in his own voice, leads the audience through his bookish youth at Eton, confused sexuality at Cambridge and the early days of success with Monty Python, but this is not a narrative of glory. The deceased narrator also provides a cutting analysis of alcoholism and the vacuous existence of fame.

The feature is divided into 17 scenes, animated by 14 different studios in the UK and abroad. This proves to be a huge challenge in terms of continuity. Often the feel is that of a stream of well-curated short films. Without the ever-present voice of Chapman himself cohesion could be lost entirely.

One way to look at this is as an anthology of contemporary British animation. In these terms there are many diamonds to be cut from the rough. Matt Layzell directs a sumptuous journey through space and celebrity. We encounter abstracted polygon caricatures of Graham’s peers as he drifts though a swirling cosmos in search of famous guests to attend his party.

The aesthetics of alcohol withdrawal are successfully encapsulated in the sweating glow of the oil on glass technique employed by Arthur Cox director George Sander-Jackson. The intricate free hand texture lends itself superbly as a luminous expression of suffering. The fiery sepia glow goes so far as to suggest a sort of hell on earth.

The glassy veneer of Los Angeles was captured in all its transparent glory by Matthias Heogg. Rendered digitally, the Beakus director made every component see-through to emphasize the falseness of Graham’s life at that point. This superb visual metaphor is both beautiful in its simplicity of concept as well as its formal execution.

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Sadly one or two of the scenes were behind the quality of the others and stood out in contrast. Mr & Mrs Monkeys, a gathering of 3D primates each representative of a Python member, were not appealing. The look of the scene was visually underwhelming; textureless with a muddy colour palette, while the character design was at the level of the most basic of caricatures.

Such a plethora of styles has it’s pros and cons. A certain excitement is built up when waiting to discover the next scene regardless of the narrative arc. Some say a change is as good as a rest, however I must admit this may not be true for 17 changes. Being exposed to a new visual language every few minutes was at times draining, but more concerning it distracted on from the narrative and drew attention to the frame.

Nick Park of Aardman speaks of around 200 people working on any one of their features, but he emphasises the studio would always make the effort to create the illusion that this all came from one person’s mind. This cohesion is so clearly disrupted in A Liar’s Autobiography. The unique selling point of dividing labour between studios, despite all its richness, shouts of practical reasoning. Potentially it is more affordable to ask many animation houses to complete relatively short sequences in exchange for a modest fee and the chance to contribute to a feature film.

I must emphasise that despite a disordered formal composition the film is thoroughly enjoyable, visually fascinating and witty. The feature is propelled forward by the sheer quality of its source material. Graham Chapman lived life like a shambolic rock star while maintaining dignity, self-awareness and a self-deprecating tone which is unique to British comedy.

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. The trailer can be watched here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbW842eMNtI

Interview with Jeff Simpson, co-director of ‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The untrue story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’

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Here is our first interview with a film maker in what we hope to be a regular feature on our blog.

Jeff Simpson, one of the three co-directors of A Liar’s Autobiography, talks about the experience of making the animated feature based on Graham Chapman’s life.

I asked Jeff to explain the genesis of the project. He sprang into a well rehearsed monologue, recounting professional encounters with the Pythons in which he had dropped in the idea of making a documentary about Graham Chapman, the only deceased member. With the help of David Sherlock, Graham’s long-term partner, Jeff tracked down the voice recordings Chapman did of his autobiography.

Jeff talked about his formal training as a BBC Arts documentary maker, so unsurprisingly his first instinct was to approach the great British Broadcasting Corporation for a talking heads documentary.  To quote Jeff “In their wisdom they turned it down; they didn’t feel Graham Chapman was interesting enough”. He made it clear he was not bitter, the tone of light sarcasm bubbling underneath, and proceeded to spell out the surname of the BBC executive who rejected the project.

The other two co-directors, Bill Jones and Ben Timlett, seemed to come into play soon after this point. Similarly to Jeff, they had been working with the Pythons recently on a big budget documentary series for U.S. television. Bill (who is the son of Terry Jones) was crucial in gaining them access again to the other Pythons. However Jeff was repetitious in his emphasis that this was a Graham Chapman film, not a Monty Python feature.

Saying that, inspired by Terry Gilliam’s cut-out paper interludes, Bill & Ben had explored animation as a structural device in their documentaries, while Jeff had done the equivalent for his pitch to the BBC. Jeff described a eureka moment which happened after the three of them partnered up. This was where they realized the autobiography was more or less divided into a series of scenes with dialogue.  “We realised we could take out Graham’s voice from the other characters and replace them with other members of Monty Python… so effectively you’ve got a new scene. As soon as you say we can get Terry Jones to play the mum, Michael Palin to play the dad then you’ve got it.” As the project developed into an animated feature, the other Pythons were keen to come on board as they all had great respect for Graham as a writer. Palin in particularly used a passage from A Liar’s Autobiography to describe their first visit to America in his one-man show.

In reference to working as one of three directors, Jeff explained, “When I signed up for this I thought it would be a disaster”. As it turns out now Jeff recommends it as a formula; “With two [directors] I can see it would be difficult. There’s no way of brokering a disagreement… It happened on Holy Grail, the plan was that Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones would co direct it but they ended up fighting.  One Terry would shoot something in the morning and then the other Terry in the afternoon would re-shoot it differently… With three there’s always a majority vote.” Jeff used to tell his editors at the BBC “ I probably come up with ten new ideas every day, but only two of them are any good and your job is to tell me which two are the good ones.”

The animation was a technically daunting process. Not only had they recruited over a dozen different animation studios but also they took on stereoscopic cinema or 3D with none of the crew having much experience. Luckily for Jeff, Bill and Ben they had Justin Weyers, the animation producer. Jeff humbly proclaimed at the cast and crew screening “…people wonder what the directors actually do on a film. We tell Justin what we want and he makes it happen.” Justin was not only the go between, animation wrangler, director of animation and technical guy, he was also one of the animators, directing the Biggles scene in the fighter plane. Jeff explained it was the directors’ role to concentrate on script and story while also keeping the over view, making sure what was essentially a set of shorts works as a feature film.

Later he went into detail about the process of gaining funding. Crucially Ben Timlett managed to negotiate a final cut with Epix, a US broadcaster who footed half the bill. Initially another channel had rejected the script because it was a bit raunchy while Epix picked up the project for the reason the other studio discarded it.

When I asked how he saw this film fitting into the wider context of animated documentary Jeff retorts “We do see our film as something completely different. It’s interesting that you think of it as a documentary. Because we actually see it as fictionalised. It claims to be fictionalised. So how could it be a documentary?  In fact it was put up for an award as a documentary and we asked for it to be withdrawn from the category as we didn’t want it to be seen [that way].”

“Ben calls it a new genre; a fabricated animated bio-pic. We always liked the idea that Graham is teasing you with what’s true and what’s not true. As it happens when you dig into it you find that a lot of it is true, apart form his abduction by space aliens.”

A Liar’s Autobiography, which is now available in store on Blue ray and DVD, will be reviewed in a forthcoming Animated Documentary post.

 

‘Patients’ by Alex Widdowson

Continuing our promises of exciting new things planned for the blog this year we are extremely pleased and excited to welcome on board two very talented people; Alex Widdowson and Charlotte Kaye. They will both be our resident interns for the spring and will be contributing to the blog on a regular basis, so watch this space!

Both Alex and Charlotte are makers of animated films, Charlotte is an animator and sculptor, more about her work to come in the next few weeks and Alex is an artist animator.

Here we feature Alex’s most recent film ‘Patients’ a semi-autobiographic animated documentary about psychosis. It is a valuable and insightful piece of work which addresses the stigmas attached to mental health – in both a medical and a wider society context through personal experience.

https://vimeo.com/43970364

For more updated info on what Alex is up to you can follow his blog here: alexwiddowson.tumblr.com

Review of the Spectrum Portraits series on the BFI site

An article, published yesterday on the BFI site, on the series of films for autism charity Spectrum which we blogged back in August.

http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/animating-autism-spectrum-portraits-project

‘Portraits’ curated by Art & Graft for autism charity Spectrum

Five beautifully designed and animated short films about individuals who UK autism charity Spectrum work with, made by Art & Graft, Matthias Hoegg, Mikey Please, Kristian Andrews and Sebastien Eballard.

You can watch all the films from the project page here.

There’s also a film by Art & Graft about the charity and what they do on their website at
http://www.spectrumasd.org

‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi

Here at animated documentary.com we were debating if Persepolis is an animated documentary or not  …what are your thoughts?

Persepolis is the poignant story of a young girl in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It is through the eyes of precocious and outspoken nine year old Marjane that we see a people’s hopes dashed as fundamentalists take power – forcing the veil on women and imprisoning thousands. Clever and fearless, she outsmarts the “social guardians” and discovers punk, ABBA and Iron Maiden. Yet when her uncle is senselessly executed and as bombs fall around Tehran in the Iran/Iraq war, the daily fear that permeates life in Iran is palpable.

Trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZ22VyjJ6n8