Loving Vincent was a very successful film – from all points of view. Audiences around the world loved it, making it the highest-grossing Polish film of all time. Critics were satisfied as well with the immersive hand-painted animation. Now producer Sean Bobbitt is working on another film Chlopi with the same team and a similar premise, weighing the luck and the obligation to make a follow up to a huge success.
Your company Breakthru started in England, but in the end, you moved to Poland. Can you introduce your story?
Hugh Welchman, who is British, naturally founded the company in his home country. He was working on his first project, Peter and the Wolf, and when he finally got the financing, he found out that all of the stop motion animators in the whole country are busy with other projects, one of them being Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. So there was seemingly not a single animator available in Britain. Hugh knew that Central Europe has a great tradition in this area, so he looked around and found the production company Se-ma-for in Poland and decided to enter the co-production here. He finished, won an Oscar and had a good experience here – there was really no reason for him not to continue in this direction. During the making of his second film, he met his wife Dorota Kobiela, so you can say he really found himself here. Then he brought me in, and we found Breakthru Productions and did Loving Vincent as a first feature together.
When I first saw the trailer for Loving Vincent, I was quite sceptical. It felt like a gimmick. But the movie just works, there is no way around it.
Quite honestly, we knew that first, we must do a film that has this spark of immediate appeal in it. We needed to do the story about van Gogh in his distinctive style because we knew this is the way to get funded and get the attention the idea and effort deserve. We couldn’t do Chlopi first, it would be impractical to try.
First, we proved how strong this type of animation could be with the help of an internationally recognisable story, and now we can move to a bit more nuanced approach. I mean, it makes sense to start with a full exhibition of the potential. And by all of that, I don’t mean it was a purely functional decision – Dorota worked on a short film about van Gogh before we ever decided to use it in this huge way, so she really cares about the topic. It is still a very emotional film with a human face, not some overblown showreel.
And why Chlopi?
Dorota knew the book since school; it is part of the Polish culture – her culture. And she always loved the descriptions in it, especially the descriptions of nature. She always imagined it through the lens of painted art, and the success of Vincent gives us the opportunity to realise her vision. Even thought Vincent meant a lot to her, it is no wonder Chlopi feels a bit closer to her heart.
For you as a producer, wouldn’t it be more practical to do a more internationally recognisable story again? Animation is universal, it has no national limits unless they are put in.
In fact, we thought about it, and we decided to adapt the novel a bit more universally than it is written. We did away with all the things that are extremely specific, would feel alien or would have to be explained too much. It is truly our interpretation of the text, and we want to make a movie that speaks to everyone. There is a balance of making a film that speaks about your culture but is not locked in it, and Dorota wants to find it. She has also decided to focus on one specific character of many, which was necessary because this is a book of 800 pages. She chose a young woman, which gives the movie the potential to be in touch with the present day. We already showed the script to some sales agents, and they were surprised how modern the story was despite winning a Nobel Prize one hundred years ago.
Was it easier to get funded now that you have proven what you are capable of?
Yes. A couple of things happened. With Loving Vincent, we really didn’t get a large level of support from the Polish Film Institute. We got under EUR 250k on a budget of 5 million. This time we talked to them and explained why it was important to have access to more funds. Plus, Poland introduced the 30% cash rebate, which is a big deal.
We all hear about political changes in Poland. But the film industry seems to be relatively untouched – or at least Agnieszka Holland told me as much a few weeks ago.
Sometimes you hear some things, but I myself have a good relationship with the Polish Film Institute. I am even a member of the board, and I think things haven’t changed that much – decisions are still made by committees that are filled with experts, not politicians. Our current agenda is to encourage and help first time directors. So I hope the Institute will work as it does and as it should.
Are you optimistic about financial success?
We know we should expect less with this story because we don’t have that one big name in the title, but we still have the painting style that is both accessible and impressive. When I showed the trailer at Cannes, people were amazed, which gives us some healthy optimism. There was a time before Vincent when people, sometimes very smart people, tried to convince us that we should make the film as a short because there is no way the audience can be comfortable with 90 minutes of this type of animation. This is far behind us.
Animation for adults, unfortunately, is no easy genre to sell. What is your experience?
It sure is harder than an animated fairy tale. It wasn’t easy to find a Polish distributor for Loving Vincent. Not even Persepolis or Waltz With Bashir attracted more than 10k people into cinemas, so we had a hard time convincing a distributor. They expected 50k thousand at best. You know how much we got? 500K! In Poland alone. And we got some good numbers from the Czech Republic, among many countries. So it is possible. What you need is a good product attractive enough to gather crowds. Then people will remember, and the next time, when the story itself isn’t so obviously catchy, they will know the film can be good. That is the barrier that needs to be broken – the barrier of positive association. I wish it would be as easy with the Oscars. I don’t think they will ever be willing to award adult animation.
But people really fell in love with Vincent.
I know, I think the movie has just everything. There is not only a story of the hero, but the film itself – hand-painted, with the call for painters to help… it was really a whole event. And you can feel the effort together with the emotional story. It just clicks.
We won over 20 audience awards at different festivals. We didn’t expect that at all. We did think we would be able to pay for the film, but we had no idea we would sell it around the entire world. There was never a fight among distributors, but we always managed to find exactly one who got it.
When the trailer went viral with 200 million views, we finally started to understand how much we managed to engage the audience. And it ended up as the highest-grossing Polish film of all time with 40 million dollars. More than double what was our highest estimate.
It seems more an exception than the rule. It might be dangerous to draw conclusions from it. Can people be charmed in this way more than once?
As I said, we do not necessarily expect the same numbers, but we are not pessimistic either. Look at Pixar – they also found one specific mode of filmmaking they use repeatedly in many different ways. We can’t invent a new technique for every film, and an animation technique can’t be obsolete after a single use. If anything, we now must work on a very good story because we know we will not be saved by the notion of novelty or a famous protagonist. Plus, we do not use the same style – for Vincent, we replicated his personal aesthetic, now we are much more realistic, in the name of contemporary paintings of the time, the Young Poland movement.
So you are trying to evolve?
Of course! In many ways, Chlopi is more challenging. There are, for example, many crowd scenes on a much larger scale than anything in Vincent. We will need the help of computers for some details this time because it is impossible to achieve the level of detail for every frame painted by hand. We also use tracking shots – we deliberately avoided them before, but this material demands them for artistic and practical reasons. And we could go on.
I have seen some promotional photos of actors in full costumes. Was that just PR, or did you really shoot the whole film as live-action on location and in costumes before converting it into a painting?
Oh yes. We are basically doing two films. And if you ask, “why even paint it over then?” the answer is simple: When you once see it in animation, you would never go back. You can really take the live-action material and edit it into a fully functional film, but why would you want to do it? There might not be such an obvious reason to use animation as with Vincent, but the art of film is not about obvious and strict choices. Chlopi could be a live-action film, there already is an adaptation from the 70s, but it can very well be an animated one because the artist, Dorota, felt this is the way to express herself. And there is a connection if we really need one – when people think about the novel Chlopi visually, they often imagine it through the Young Poland movement, just as Dorota does. That is the art that captured the period, so it naturally comes to mind.
Do you again have an army of volunteer painters?
Of course, it is a demanding production, and we again used all the potential of international cooperation. Originally we started as a Poland-Ukraine-Serbia coproduction.
Ukraine, because we have 13 painters there since producing Loving Vincent. Back then, they managed to come to Gdansk, but this time they have families, little kids, and it is impossible for them to come here. We thought that was a good pretext to co-produce with Ukraine and work with them from afar. Quite honestly, Ukrainian painters were the fastest we had, and we were unwilling to part with them. So we have a studio in Ukraine now.
Serbia was a curious case – we expected to gather 5 or 6 other people, but 130 painters answered our call! And don’t forget Serbia is a smaller country. Of those, we tested almost 100, trained 36 and used 14 because that was our logistical limit. So now we have 40 painters in Poland, 14 in Serbia, 10 physical and 5 digital painters in Lithuania and up to 15 in Ukraine.
How far are you?
We’ve just started animation. Loving Vincent was very static – a very ordinary shot/reverse shot approach. Chlopi will be much more ambitious. Not only a few characters, but the village itself also plays a big role, so the direction must be much more dynamic.
As for shooting, the movie basically already exists in the physical form; now, we must dress it for the occasion.
The interview was conducted for CEE Animation by journalist Martin Svoboda.
Check the trailer and film visuals.