Interview British Polish

Meet Hemali Vadalia, the Indian artist on world's first fully painted animation Loving Vincent

Two artists from India worked on the international project for 10 months in Gdansk, Poland. In an exclusive interview, Vadalia speaks with about being selected for the project and how a typical day on the film went.

Photo: Hemali Vadalia

Sonal Pandya

Seven years in the making, Loving Vincent, directed by the married couple Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, dives into the death of the artist Vincent van Gogh. The film is created in a similar style as that of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) which rotoscoped live-action video with actors.

Actors Douglas Booth, Chris O’Dowd and Eleanor Tomlinson were first filmed and 115 artists from all over the world were called in to make the film’s 65,000 frames into van Gogh-style paintings.

Loving Vincent won the audience award at the prestigious Annecy animation festival in France in June and this week is being shown at the 19th Mumbai Film Festival held in the city. spoke with Hemali Vadalia, one of the two Indian artists (Shuchi Muley being the other artist) who were selected to work on the project in Gdansk, Poland.

Vadalia, a former programmer, has a Masters in Animation and Film Design from IIT Mumbai and pursued her dream of learning and studying classical art in Europe and New York. She worked on 358 painted frames on Loving Vincent which made for seven shots in the film.


How did you get to work on the world's first fully painted feature film? Did they approach you?

Actually, I saw the trailer in 2012 and that time [I thought] it would be really nice if I get to be a part of the team. But [then] they were not looking for artists from outside of Poland.

In 2016, a friend of mine from Canada was selected for the film project. Through her, I came to know that they are now inviting artists to complete the film. I also applied and then in three days, I got an email saying that they are inviting me to do a test in Gdansk, Poland. So l went and cleared the test. We had training for three weeks and then we were confirmed.

Is this the first time you have worked on a feature film?

Yes, it was the first time working on a feature film. I have done short animation before, for advertisements, mainly commercial projects. When I was a student at IDC (Industrial Design Centre at IIT Mumbai), I made two short films. It (Loving Vincent) was my first time as a part of a big project.

Is animation something that interests you now?

Yes, because this is the film that combined two of my interests. One is filmmaking and other painting. It is a great combination. The feel of it is just so beautiful. I saw the trailer [on YouTube] and it gave me goosebumps.

Can you tell me about your background as an artist? Where did you study and what mediums do you like to work with?

I started painting in 2014. It’s not been too long, because I had a very different background. I was working as a programmer after doing my bachelor’s in engineering. I worked for three years and I wanted to do something creative. In Mumbai, I thought the closest to painting would be animation and I got admission into IIT Mumbai for two year's masters programme, in animation and film design. So I pursued that. It’s like everything I have done has brought me a step closer to where I want to be.

I was mainly interested in classical art. Though I studied animation, I still wanted to learn more so after working for two years as an illustrator and animator, I went to Italy for 10 months to study classical art.

Photo: Hemali Vadalia

When you go outside, they have museums and the atmosphere is so inspiring. I didn’t know much before, but after going to Paris and Spain, I visited all the museums and artists’ homes that are now converted into galleries.

After seeing all this, I was even more sure that this is what I want to do. Of course, I love animation, making things come to life, it’s beautiful. But painting has its own energy. In animation, you have music, you have dialogues, you have a lot of other things, visuals, to create that emotion. Painting, it has to be powerful in itself, to speak to you. [It’s] just an image.

After 10 months, I came back and then there was another atelier in New York which I was really interested to study with because the instructors there are really great. Initially, when I had applied there, they did not accept me. I had no portfolio as I really didn’t have an art background.

After coming from Italy, I again applied after a year and then they accepted [me]. I went there for six months and I got a little better with my art. I understood a little more.

You gained more confidence as well.

Yes, you meet a lot of people and they all change you a little bit. Personally, I’ve grown quite a lot in the last couple of years because of the travel and the people I’ve met.

What was a typical day of work like for you during the making of Loving Vincent? There are 65,000 frames in the film, how were they created?

We were assigned shots for the film and each shot had a number of frames. The video had been shot already [the actors had been filmed]. The frames from the video were projected to our canvas and we were expected to paint that image in Van Gogh style, with strokes and color palette decided for it. The task was to complete as much as possible in a day.

Based on the complexity of the image, we were supposed to make four frames, sometimes 11 frames a day. I mostly worked on the portraits, which took about two-three hours per frame. I was to finish four-five frames a day. So we paint a portrait and then capture the image in camera, then project the next frame on the canvas and scrape off the paint from the last frame to paint a new one. Click a picture of that and continue the process to create a movement.

The timelines were based on the shots, depending on how much time would go into painting each frame. Then based on the number of frames in one shot, they would calculate approximate time needed to complete the shot. We all had our own personal project finishing days. Sometimes you can work faster, sometimes you’re not as productive. It all depends. Basically, you go in and paint, paint, paint.

Since the entire film is created with oil paint, what were the challenges?

The expectation was to try and make assigned number of frames each day, to complete the shots on time. Sometimes, you are unwell and think this frame would take longer than four hours. And sometimes you can manage it.

Photo: Hemali Vadalia

Were you working solo or with the other artists?

We had our own PAWS, they called it ‘Painting and Animation Work Stations’. It’s like a box, with all the controlled light and camera and projection set up to capture the paintings that are painted. We all worked in our respective PAWS, but the thing is that, when you work on a particular shot, you have to match the previous shot. You are given a reference so you have to continue from there. The colours and some strokes have to match with the previous shots or the reference shot that is provided. It shouldn’t be abrupt.

We had supervisors, so after the first frame is painted, they come and check it. Then supervisors, if they feel the shot is fine, get it checked by the director. And once it is approved, you move on to the next one.

Loving Vincent focuses on the famed painter's infamous last weeks, were you aware of the story before you joined the film?

I read letters of van Gogh, the correspondence with this brother. But as you said, it’s about the mystery behind his death, I didn’t know about that earlier. I just liked the way he presented his work through paintings and his thoughts through his letters. (They are) very inspiring. If you go through his letters, the way he writes is so beautiful and for me, the combination of his work and letters was so incredible. That makes van Gogh the artist that he is.

In painting, first we sketch the idea, make thumbnails before starting to paint. Van Gogh would go out into nature and paint rapidly en plein air to capture the beauty as he saw it. Then he would sketch out a drawing for his brother to show him what he has been working on and the paintings he finished. His letters to his brother Theo are very inspiring for any aspiring artist.

What are you working on now?

I worked on a commercial ad film in stop-motion (a form of animation) and then I went to Israel, some of my works were selected for a show there. And I have been creating some artworks for shows and working on some personal projects. I want to spend more time learning classical art and pursuing it professionally.

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