‘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]

 

‘A Conversation with Haris’ by Sheila Sofian

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A young Bosnian immigrant recounts his experience with war, illustrated in painting-on-glass animation.

The Paint on glass technique used in this film is a great example of what this technique can do. We are visually drawn, pulled, pushed, washed and wiped through the memories of a young boy as he recounts his experience of war. His memories dissolve and reconstruct as we travel seamlessly through time and space in a seemingly endless wave of images, which commands our interest.

The Directors voice can be heard asking direct, probing questions, which results in some unsettling honest answers, accounts of brutality and murder of Haris’s family members, it’s hard listening coming from such a young boy and reminds us of the strength animated documentary can poses in giving voices to those that we dont always get to hear. This is an important film.

We were very lucky to collaborate with Sheila for the first Animateddocumentary.com award given at FAFF 2016

http://www.sheilasofian.com/

‘Feeling My Way’ by Jonathan Hodgson

Annabelle Honess Roe recently released the cover image of her new book, ‘Animated Documentary’ (published by Palgrave), on her ‘Animating Documentary’ blog. The image features a still from the film ‘Feeling My Way’ by Jonathan Hodgson. Honness Roe indicates the personal significance of this film when she writes that it ‘…first got me thinking about how animation can function in documentary.’

Commissioned by Channel 4’s Animate Projects and Arts Council England in 1997, the director, Jonathan Hodgson, combines live action point-of-view shots filmed in 35mm and Digibeta, overlaid with hand painted and drawn animation.

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Hodgson has been able to observe and deconstruct the thought processes which occur passively when one is engaging with one’s surroundings. This is a phenomenon which takes place when no deliberate attempt is made to think clearly about a particular topic. Personally, I am impressed by the lucidity and universal sense of subjectivity this film evokes. Simina Pitur comments on the film’s Vimeo page ‘At last, I have found a piece of art that accurately translates what I feel 24/7.’

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Rather than beginning by storyboarding, I wonder whether Hodgson first filmed his journey then tried to deconstruct why his eye was drawn in a certain way, or for what reason he was not actively observing anything. I am fascinated by how he was able to capture what is often an abstract cognitive experience in a believable sequence.

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While I often expect I am viewing my surroundings with the crisp objectivity of a video image in fact it is more likely my attention is shifting between weighted content, be it appealing or repulsive. I sometimes observe in hindsight that while on auto-pilot my mind had been taken completely from my surroundings. This film tangibly depicts subjectivity with rare effectiveness. Such a feeling of recognition of one’s self in another person’s work is more commonly restricted to less subtle field of observational stand-up comedy!

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‘Feeling My Way’ is strangely reminiscent of a scene in James Cameron’s ‘The Terminator’.  In an introductory scene the audience is granted the point of view of the murderous robot in which a combination of audio-visual information is processed by recognition software and cross-referenced with a database. These relatively crude visualisations help the artificially intelligent machine to navigate and decode its surroundings. Google have recently produced ‘Glass’ a voice-command operated headset with a transparent eyeglass frame-mounted screen. This allows you to observe the world augmented by smart device abilities such as satellite navigation and Google search. As this sort of technology develops and becomes more prevalent our technological experiences might become tangibly close to some of the scenes depicted in ‘Feeling My Way’.