Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Loving Vincent's diary - 8th week // the Story [part 1/7]

BreakThru's producer Hugh Welchman (Oscar Winner for producing BreakThru's Peter and the Wolf) and painter/director Dorota Kobiela (director of BreakThru's Little Postman and Chopin's Drawings) are co-writing BreakThru's latest film, Loving Vincent, the world's first feature length painting animation film. The film is a mystery thriller looking into the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, and is told through bringing over 120 of Vincent's masterpieces to animated life...

The script is on its fourth, and final, draft, and wth production scheduled for spring 2013, the pressure is mounting. This weekly diary will candidly record their process of writing the elusive final draft.

Loving Vincent's diary - 8th week // the Story [part 1/7]

The demands of writing a script on Vincent… are tough. We want it to look a certain way. We take as our mantra his words in one of his last letters: "We cannot speak other than by our paintings". So we show only what we see in his paintings. With that restriction we have many paths we can still follow. Vincent's struggle, the mystery of his death, the development of his art, or an alchemy of the aforementioned. You can't know Vincent if you don't know his early life, but also big chunks are missing. Tersteeg, his first boss, and somewhat the bain of Vincent's life, by his son's own admission burnt all of Vincents 300 or so letters to him. Letters around the crucial trip to Paris, which could be seen, however you believe he died, as the beginning of his final downward spiral.

So to help me I have written a short story in 7 parts, the story of Vincent as I see it, tell me what parts you identify with, what strikes a chord, it'll help…

It starts in a barn, and ends in a barn. Here's section one.

Section 1 - away in a manger

Our story starts in a small barn, a shed really, for animals, an outhouse in a poor village on a starry winter’s night in a desperately poor mining village of the Borinage in French speaking Belgium. A finely dressed young man, who would seem short in other circumstances, but among the hunched miners, stunted by generations of gruelling poverty, he addresses the habitants from a lofty height, accentuated by his fine apparel. They point him through the frosty rutted mud streets to a small barn on the edge of the village. They will go no further, the young man goes on alone. Apprehensively he opens the barn door. He recoils in shock…

What he sees is an emaciated man, naked but for a coarse coal sack fashioned as a nightshirt, with wild red beard, matted hair, who gives the visitor a grin, exposing a smile missing teeth, and who wears a look crazed by hunger. But two years ago this man, freezing naked in a hovel under the onslaught of a Walloon winter, was strutting around London in a fine top hat and tailored suit, not so different from those of the fine young visitor. In fact he had been, formerly, like his visitor, an assistant art dealer at the world renowned Goupil’s art dealership, where his uncle, his namesake as it happens, and not by accident, was a managing partner. Groomed from an early age to be his Uncle’s heir apparent how did this young bourgeois, find himself naked and starving, and living in an animal shelter in one of the most miserably poor places on the planet? The fine young man closes the door behind him, and outside the villagers listen as fierce shouting, in a foreign language,  emanates from the wooden shack.

This is a turning point, indeed, there is no lower that Vincent Van Gogh could have gone. Vincent, is the emaciated naked redhead, and the fine young man is Vincent’s younger brother, Theo Van Gogh, rising star at the very company that Vincent was thrown out of.

Theo looks down at the figure lying in the straw, at the figure that used to be the older brother he loved, adored and looked up to; a man so burning with the desire to do good in this world. Theo demands to know why Vincent is wasting his life. Vincent takes in Theo, who is seething with rage in his impeccably tailored clothes, that fit him in a way they never did on Vincent; Vincent never looked or felt right in those clothes, as if nature knew he was a fraud in them, clothes that showed to the world that however he brushed or cut his hair or starched his collar, he was a fraud.

“Theo There are wastrels and wastrels. There are wastrels who waste the golden hours because they are cowardly, idle and vicious, But there are others, idle in-spite of themselves, consumed by a passionate desire for action, who do nothing because they cannot do anything, because they have no tools to work with and because they are hemmed in by circumstances. People like this do not even know what they could do, they only feel instinctively: I am good for something; I have a right to live; I know I could be different from my present self; What purpose could i serve, how could I be of use, there is something serviceable within me, what is it?”

Theo’s pent up anger subsides: “Of course you can do something, what about art? Drawing? You like that, and you love art so much, and that you know everything about: why not make some art?”. Vincent scoffs at the notion. Him, an artist, huh, he isn’t even worthy to be a missionary’s assistant preacher in the back end of humanity: he failed even at that, how can he be worthy of something as sanctified as making art? Theo descends back into fury. “Stop wallowing in your own self pity, look around you! These miners you profess to love: they get up everyday and work all day underground, amidst lethal danger, to earn enough to stop their families starving! Get up and get working at something!” With that Theo gets out 50 francs. “Use this to buy some clothes, have a decent meal so you can start thinking straight again”. Vincent gets up and violently stuffs the money back in his brother’s pocket. Theo walks out in disgust, but a few steps outside he turns and goes back through the stable door, and leaves the money on the ground. “Buy some paper and pencils; at least try Vincent, in the name of the Rijswik mill, in the name of our pledge to each other, at least try!” And he is gone.

by Hugh Welchman

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Loving Vincent's diary - 7th week (Oscar night)

BreakThru's producer Hugh Welchman (Oscar Winner for producing BreakThru's Peter and the Wolf) and painter/director Dorota Kobiela (director of BreakThru's Little Postman and Chopin's Drawings) are co-writing BreakThru's latest film, Loving Vincent, the world's first feature length painting animation film. The film is a mystery thriller looking into the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, and is told through bringing over 120 of Vincent's masterpieces to animated life...

The script is on its fourth, and final, draft, and wth production scheduled for spring 2013, the pressure is mounting. This weekly diary will candidly record their process of writing the elusive final draft.

Loving Vincent's diary - 7th week (Oscar night)

Well today is the 5th anniversary of the night I won an Oscar. So I thought I would write a blog on the Oscars. I warn you there is not much Vincent content in this one… He’ll be back to centre stage in the next one!

The Oscars meant very little to me before 2008. Peter and the Wolf was the first one of my films that I actually submitted to the Oscars.

At film school all the people around me where very focused on Cannes, that was seen as the prestige event, and for animators it was Annecy. The Oscars was this distant American thing that seemed to get everyone excited. I remember promising one of my friends, who had just done well with his internet start-up, and who invested in Peter and the Wolf, that we would of course win the Oscar, not really thinking it was that big of a deal. When we were nominated then I noticed it was a big deal. All of a sudden I was getting 100’s of emails a day, from people I knew and from people I didn’t. This would culminate on the day after winning when I received 3,000 emails in 24 hours.

Two weeks before the Oscars I travelled out to California, and we went on a tour showing all of the Oscar nominated short films at the studios: Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, ILM, Sony Pictures. There was a lot of hanging around, a lot of playing table tennis. Table tennis is big among animators on the west coast it seems. I arrived at one studio, Disney I think, and a guy came up to me and asked me if I was the producer of Peter and the Wolf. I was flattered that he had heard of the film, and that he was fan enough to seek me out. But it turned out his friend from DreamWorks had called ahead and said that I played a mean game of table tennis, and he was the studio no.1 and wanted to challenge me! I was also hanging out with all the other nominees and got to see their films many times. I was confident that we were the front-runner. There was another stop-motion, Madame Tutli-Putli, which had startling technique of combining real eyes with stop motion puppets, but that’s all I remember about the film, I don’t really recall the film, it was kind of a one trick pony. There was a half hour painting-animation melodrama from Petrov, My Love, which I did love, but I felt it was too melodramatic for most tastes. There was a lovely CG French film about pigeons, but not significant enough in style or story to challenge, and then there was ‘Where was the Walrus’ and innovative film about John Lennon. I thought this had an outside chance, but Peter and the Wolf had story, charm, humour and style, so quite honestly I expected my name to be called out.

The Oscars, appropriately, takes place in a shopping mall. Yet this pedestrian precinct is covered with red velvet, tacked on, stapled in, giant gold statues made of plastic are rolled in, and the venue is transformed. And once you see all the starlets and stars walking down the sidewalk, now a glistening red carpet, and under the glare of the lights and the flashlights, tinsel town comes to glamorous life. I walked down the catwalk next to George Clooney and Halle Berry. You can imagine that there weren’t many bulbs flashing in my direction. However as I had the foresight to smuggle in my Peter puppet we did get some attention. People like dolls.

When my name was called out, even though I expected it, I had a huge feeling of elation. Also relief. I had promised people this, and by the time it came to the Oscars I realised that this prize is by far and away considered the greatest prize you can win in film, and it is not something I should have promised! But, it worked out. And over the next few weeks I learnt just how highly the world regards the Oscars, and what store they set by it. I think with Loving Vincent we will have a chance at being nominated for Best Feature Animation. This category is dominated by Disney and Pixar with films normally made for around $200m, 20 times the budget we will have, but I think if we make an involving story, as well as having the most stunning visual style, that we can stand a chance. In the year I went up with Peter and the Wolf we were the favourites, if we get to be there with Loving Vincent we will be the plucky little underdogs, that has a Vincent-esque feel to it. He was the insider (in the art world) who was always the outsider. As someone who has won one Oscar I guess I am on one level an insider, but I live in Northern Poland far away from the Movie industry, and I engage in projects that attract the labels of ‘artistic’ within the industry. I don’t have any friends who are agents or actors, I don’t know any people who work at the studios, it still feels like another world that happens somewhere else, I still feel an outsider.

I will be fast asleep by the time the Oscars get announced tonight. But I predict that it will be a clean sweep for Disney. Wreck it Ralph and Frankenweenie are superior films to Brave (beautiful look but a weak and derivative story by Pixar’s groundbreaking standards); Paranorman and Pirates (for me the weakest stop motion film ever to come out of the wonderful Aardman Animation studio). This year there are only studio films in the mix, but interestingly three out of the five are stop-motion. For me Frankenweenie is Tim Burton’s best film since Edward Scissorhands. I am not a huge fan of his style, but the girl with her cat, and the science teacher are brilliant, the film gets a bit OTT at the end, but definitely a success. And much as I hate films that have inane content – a film about computer games????- I was blown away by the entertainment value of Wreck it Ralph- incredible inventive directing- why can’t they just use that awesome directing skill, technical brilliance and general film making mastery to tell stories that are about something that matters?

In the Short Animation category I hope Disney’s Paperman wins. The style is amazing, and the animation is really great. It fell down a bit as a story in the last third, but it was a pleasure to watch (especially in 3D). Wow if Paperman and Frankenweenie win it will be not only a double for Disney, but also a double for Black and White! The other shorts… Fresh Guacamole (no idea how this got nominated); Maggie Simpson short (not the Simpson’s finest hour- shouldn’t win); Adam and Dog (a few nice images at the start, but atmosphere doesn’t make up for the boredom, shocked that it was nominated) and finally Head over Heels from my old school, National Film and Television School. This is a very clever idea, and an epic achievement for a graduation film, but they puppet design is poor, and really they should have told the story in 6 minutes, not 11 minutes, it would have more impact. Still half of my sleeping brain will be rooting for them- to win an Oscar with your student film, that’d be something.

At the moment I tend to watch feature length documentaries, particularly biopics, because it fits with the story work we are doing for Loving Vincent. However it was refreshing over the past couple of days to watch all of the animation nominees. Refreshing but not inspiring, with the exception of Paperman there was nothing visually fresh or exciting.

Animation, despite representing films that go toe to toe with any blockbusters (Pixar/Disney far outrank any other studio in blockbusters and profitability) at the Oscars is still a sideshow compared to live action. By the time the animation winners are getting their rare chance to mix it up at parties with the Hollywood glamour set (an Oscar gets you into any party in LA tonight), the red-carpets will be already rolled up and the shopping mall will be restored, and I will be setting out on my 15km morning run through fresh snow to our big empty studio… which will someday soon start to be filled with painters…. And after they paint 56,800 paintings, over the next 2 years, then maybe Loving Vincent will also be a Cinderella for one night, propelled briefly into the West Coast lime light of Tinsel Town.
by Hugh Welchman

Monday, 4 February 2013

Loving Vincent's diary - 6th week

BreakThru's producer Hugh Welchman (Oscar Winner for producing BreakThru's Peter and the Wolf) and painter/director Dorota Kobiela (director of BreakThru's Little Postman and Chopin's Drawings) are co-writing BreakThru's latest film, Loving Vincent, the world's first feature length painting animation film. The film is a mystery thriller looking into the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh, and is told through bringing over 120 of Vincent's masterpieces to animated life...

The script is on its fourth, and final, draft, and wth production scheduled for spring 2013, the pressure is mounting. This weekly diary will candidly record their process of writing the elusive final draft.

Loving Vincent's diary - 6th week

So on Saturday I walked for 14 hours. I made a new years resolution to do a 100km run on 11th May. I have something of an extremists mindset, so I need something extreme to aim for. Having done 4 marathons I don’t see any point just running them faster, and I had vaguely said to myself that I would do a 100km run before I am 40. That is two years away, but I thought, ‘well why wait, why not do it now?’ So since the start of the year I have been running into work three times a week, which is 15km, thankfully it is along the beautiful snowy Baltic coastline of the Three Cities (Gdynia, Sopot and Gdansk), where I live and work. However each marathon has virtually sent me to A&E, so I know there is a big difference between 15km and a distance equivalent to two and a half marathons. So on Saturday I thought I would kill three birds with one stone: see how far I can actually walk in a day; walk to Hel and back; and listen to the read-through to our present draft of Loving Vincent.

I should explain that Hel is a real place, and ironically it is idyllic and every summer there are pretty much non-stop traffic jams of people wanting to get into Hel. Hel is a 35km peninsula, as narrow as 500m in places, that juts out into the Baltic to the north of the three cities. It is a continuous strip of sandy beaches, fringed with sand dunes, around a spine of coniferous forests, stunted by the blustering Baltic winds. Needless to say at this time of year it is deserted. At 07:20 Michal, our co-head of painting, dropped me off at Wladyslawowo, and I started up the un-interrupted 40km of beach that would lead me up to and past, and then back to, Hel. 

The landscape was eerily calm for a sandbar in the middle of a winter sea. Mist hemmed me in on all sides: the twisted dark green of the forest barely visible beyond the dunes; with the sea to my left, and beach in front of me, gradually petering off into a greyish white. There was no wind, and the gentle lapping of the waves was more akin to that of a large lake than a sea. Nothing stirred save a few ducks.

So I listened to our read thru of Loving Vincent as I walked in complete isolation. Vincent was a formidable walker; he walked everywhere, sometimes covering up to 20km in a day. There is an account of a 50km walk that he did between Kent and Berkshire, but it seems he slept a night on a church step, so probably he did the walk in two days.  He was proud of the km’s he trod, and heavily invested in the symbol of his worn out boots, that reflected his relentless toil and journeying for the cause of his art.

It struck me after listening to the read through that we don’t really make the popular case of his insanity, and we don’t make the case to defend him against the accusation of being insane. For us it is very clear that Vincent was not insane…

yes he committed himself to a mental asylum,
yes he is documented as to having fits and drinking paint and having hallucinations, and …
yes he did cut his ear off and give it, nicely wrapped up as a present the day before Christmas, to a prostitute…

but I don’t think this necessarily means he is mad.

Last week I had been forced to remember the end of production of Peter and the Wolf, and its immediate aftermath. I had a meeting with shareholders of the company that owns the project that meant going through some history that lay forgotten in the recesses of my mind.  The end of Peter and the Wolf was a nightmare; the film should have collapsed and never should have been finished. I went into a crazed state of mind, where all that seemed to matter in the world was Peter and the Wolf. Family, relationship, best friendships were all warped by and sucked up into my mania for that project. I charmed, bullied, bribed, screamed, despaired… By night, night after night, I took key people from the crew out to drink, made speeches, threw parties, slept rarely, and woke at dawn making new sales, argued a lot. All through this I lived in a communist bloc of flats in central Lodz, just above where the garbage trucks came every morning at 5am.

The film arrived at the Royal Albert Hall 1 hour before the start time, and if it hadn’t have arrived I would have had to refund 6,000 people their tickets, about $150,000, which of course I couldn’t so it would have spelt the certain end of my company, and maybe the end of my career as a producer.

Well I had to read through some of the emails flying about at that time, which stirred up memories of what went on, most of which I don’t particularly want to
local branch manager, received to feed a family of five. But as a spendthrift, and because he felt emasculated by being supported, his perceived financial stress was very great. In terms of sleep he would often be found by his mother when she came down for the day still working, having worked all through the night. And at the same time as working long days toiling over drawing the same exercises again and again, or working all day under the Mediterranean summer sun, he would read voraciously- all of Dickens, all of Shakespeare, all of Zola, etc. 

Vincent went from not being particularly good at drawing, really his natural aptitude was mediocre, and paled in comparison to the artists around him, to making himself a visionary of art, in the space of eight years…. Wow, that is some force of will, the focus that requires, for someone who probably has as little aptitude for drawing and painting as me, probably less than all the 30 painters we will work with on making this film, worked with such fierce focus that he made himself a genius. You are not even meant to be able to make yourself a genius! It is meant to be innate, like with Mozart or Leonardo Da Vinci… but he did it.

Is it any wonder that his mind cracked? Add to this the constant rejection of his work, ridicule even, at the hands of everyone around him. Add to that the pressure cooker of working under the Mediterranean sun, and then being cooped up by the Mistral in the yellow house alongside the highly competitive and mercurially monomaniacal Gauguin. Oh… and living off bread and coffee and cheap alcohol to save money for materials and prints. Most people would have cracked long before he actually did. If I can see madness in myself from the pressure-cooker of Peter and the Wolf, which was child’s play compared to what he put himself through, and then I think it is easy to explain his breakdown.

And the hallucinations? Well with a whirlwind of images and ideas swilling endlessly through his brain; intense thinking about symbolic meanings and colours and looking more keenly than any of us ever look, it seems logical that if he worked himself to the point of breakdown, that in this breakdown images would stream and burble through his worn-out brain. Very often artists are in a fragile state after performances- they throw fits, they party euphorically- well Vincent was performing masterpieces which now fetch the sunny side of $100m  twice-a-day every-day just before he cracked. I think anyone who ever put themselves through a regime of focus and work like that, without even the nutritional deprivations, without even the stroke inducing sun exposure, without even the absinth and cheap wine, would crack.

The story shouldn’t be about his madness, it should be sheer bewildering shock at the journey he went on, what he accomplished in 8 short years. But we do have to deal with the widely held perception that he was some tortured mad suffering artist. He is far from the archetypal suffering artist- he wasn’t poor… he wasn’t even an artist! He is exceptional and utterly unique- please someone tell me of a comparable story: of someone who goes from not lifting a pencil, a pen, or an instrument; to became one of the towering artists of all time? Is there anyone else who has done it?

By the time I finished thinking this I had reached Hel, and was only 4 hours into 15 hours of walking, and I was wondering what possessed me to think that I can run for 100km in a day in 3 months time. I am, at this present moment, about as well suited to long distance running as Vincent was to drawing and painting. I am 90 kilos and 1m 86cm, much bulkier than any ultra-runner I have ever met. For the rest of the 15 hours I resorted to listening to audio books, and when I could no longer concentrate on this – rage music from my teenage years: prodigy, new model army, that kind of thing, it turned out to be the most helpful music in distracting me from the pain of putting one foot in front of the other. It also distracted me from reading the sign: Military Zone, Keep Out! The guy in the gate-house was obviously engrossed in some activity on his computer or some TV show, as he missed the foreigner in bright blue rain gear hobbling past the gate! When I came up against a high barbed wire fence in the middle of a twilight forest I finally woke up to the fact that I was no longer where I should be. The pain in my legs magically disappeared as I walked increasingly frantically through the darkness, and repeatedly came up against high fences that weren’t marked on Google maps. I was starting to think I had been cursed by a Leszy or an Ognik or a Bled (Slavic forest demons that get travellers lost in the woods) as I experienced déjà vu with another barbed wire fence across a track. 

However I realised that this one was actually the first barbed wire fence I had come across, and from there I was able to retrace my steps to Hel. From Hel I walked the forest path south alongside the road, my mind a little affected from cold, fatigue and dehydration. The fact is if you put yourself through extreme things it affects your mind, and this is what happened to Vincent. Yes he experienced mental breakdown, but not because he was innately mad, or because he was some mad genius just instinctively able to see the world differently. He worked tirelessly at being able to see the world differently, and a side effect of this driven work, was breaking down.

Feeling fairly broken down myself I hobbled past a hotel that thankfully, unlike the rest of the peninsula, was open out of season, and called Michal. I had walked 55km in 14 hours… hmmmm three months to get myself where I can do twice that in the same amount of time. Not sure about that. Just have to wear out some of my own pairs of shoes over the next 3 months, and then, just maybe, I’ll be able to do it. My whole family is coming to support me for the race… think I will warn them to leave me in a room for a day after, and just push food and water
across the threshold, as I might need to regain my mind as well as my body after such a trial!

by Hugh Welchman