Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent van Gogh in Loving Vincent (2017)
Rotoscoping is a technique in animation developed by director Max Fleischer in 1915. Fleischer filmed his brother, Dave, wearing a clown suit, then projected each frame of film onto a sheet of glass. An animator then traced each frame onto paper to create animation that has wholly realistic motion. Though conceived of as a short-cut, it proved to be a laborious process that was only used for special occasions – Snow White in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) is rotoscoped. The expense and time involved put rotoscoping on the back shelf as a special process, though it was put to usually detrimental use in a number of director Ralph Bakshi’s animated features, such as Wizards (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), and Fire and Ice (1983). The process is still used today, largely done by computer in visual effects work, where separately filmed elements need to be combined, but it is hardly ever used in cartoon animation anymore. This gradual abandonment of rotoscoping is, I think, a good thing.
First, rotoscoping removes a lot of the artist’s freedom to exaggerate motion in appropriate ways. Motion in cartoons is more dance-like, fluid in ways live actors cannot or should not emulate. It’s a different language of expression. Second, it’s a substitute for the artistic skill of the animator. When Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope, few animators could approximate a human figure with any accuracy – I say few, because I know of only one, the comics and animation genius, Winsor McCay, but there might be other, more obscure examples. As the field of hand-drawn animation grew, demands on the artists grew apace. Figure drawing classes became a requisite part of training; believable human figures became possible without the need for a live-action guide.
Which brings me to Loving Vincent, a hand-painted animated film that is, while lush and a great achievement, rotoscoped throughout. That’s too bad.
Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1888. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Consider van Gogh’s Portrait of the Postman, Joseph Roulin (above), painted in the summer of 1888. Roulin sits somewhat awkwardly in a chair, his left forearm resting on a table. Look at his hands. Van Gogh had trouble with hands: it’s as though he was aware of each bone separately, and had a hard time uniting them into a coherent whole. Roulin’s left hand, which is hanging loose off the table, is carefully delineated, but the positioning of each finger is awkward. Roulin’s right hand, resting on the arm of the chair (which appears to have only the one arm) is curiously flat and sketched in. It looks deflated. Time and again van Gogh drew hands that almost over-emphasized their structure. It’s part of his visual vocabulary. He emphasized certain elements (you can almost feel Roulin’s bushy beard) while sketching others in loosely (his postman’s uniform).
Loving Vincent, however, is rotoscoped. Hands are hands, no more or less important than any other element. The hands in Loving Vincent are not van Gogh hands.
As a work of animation, Loving Vincent is extraordinary. Some of the backgrounds are marvelously like van Gogh’s landscapes. The people, real as they are, become approximations. They’re too real. One of van Gogh’s final works, Wheat Field with Crows, is particularly noticeable: the characters fail to meld with it, and look like performers standing in front of a painted backdrop. The artistic logic of van Gogh’s perspective doesn’t match photographic perspective.
Wheat Field with Crows, 1890. Collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Portrayals of Vincent van Gogh on film have run from the Hollywood version of inspired madness (Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, 1956), the warts-and-all approach (Tim Roth in Vincent & Theo, 1990) to the incongruous (Martin Scorsese in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, 1990). Robert Gulaczyk plays Vincent here, though he cannot rightly be said to star. We see snatches of Vincent, from the recollections of others. Willem Dafoe plays van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, to be released this November; I’m curious to see how that turns out.
A frame from Loving Vincent: Theo stands by Vincent’s bedside as Vincent lies dying.
The choice of painting in color for present-day scenes and black-and-white for people’s memories is a wise one. The black and white scenes are not drawn, they’re more like wash drawings, and at times are quite powerful. Theo sitting by Vincent’s bedside as the light changes, and a shot of a basin of water with Vincent’s reflection (which opens the trailer) are gorgeous – but they are not van Gogh in the slightest. Neither should they be: these are other people’s memories, and only Vincent van Gogh saw the world the way he did.
Dramatically uneven but visually dazzling, Loving Vincent is well worth a look, if for no other reason than to show how hard it is to capture the essence of originality. All the skill marshaled for the film only gives us echoes of van Gogh – but that is what the film is about: trying to understand the man from the echoes he left behind. Did he commit suicide? Or was he shot, as some recent research suggests? Ultimately, he is dead, and the method of his death does not change the works he left behind. That strange, troubled man helped define the stereotype of the tortured genius, and Loving Vincent does nothing to dispel that, though it does suggest that there might have been some happiness in his later days. Seek out Loving Vincent and watch it a few times, to absorb the beauty of it and see van Gogh and his work in slightly different ways.