Painting the past: Hugh Welchman on animating Polish history in The Peasants

Kamila Urzędowska in The Peasants (dir. DK and Hugh Welchman, 2023)

Husband and wife filmmaking duo Hugh and DK Welchman made waves in 2017 with the release of Loving Vincent: the first fully painted animated feature film. Conceived by DK as a means of exploring the inner world of Vincent Van Gogh, every single frame of the film – some 65,000 individual images – is an oil painting, fashioned after Van Gogh’s own works and made using techniques available to him. The production, which involved 125 artists from around the world, was painstaking but wildly successful, ultimately leading to an Academy Award nomination.

For their follow-up, the Welchmans have turned to the artistic history of DK’s native Poland. The Peasants, which is currently screening in London as part of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, is an oil painting animated adaptation of Władysław Reymont’s eponymous, Nobel Prize-winning novel of 1909. The intricate narrative follows the travails of a nineteenth-century peasant girl named Jagna in the village of Lipce, near present-day Łódź. The film was shot much as any other period drama would have been, with Polish actors on a set – before being turned over to a team of painters who broke it down into individual frames. Reymont’s kaleidoscopic vision of rural life is well suited to the vivid visuals of the oil painting method, with its passionate affairs, political repression, and proto-feminist morality play. We spoke to Hugh Welchman about the meticulous process of bringing the past to life on canvas and onscreen.

 

You must be tired of answering this question by now, but why exactly have you settled on this approach to animation, given the difficulties it involves?

It started with Loving Vincent. DK wanted to bring Van Gogh’s painting to life to tell his story. We tried several different methods: 2D animation CG animation, and painting animation based on live action subjects was by far, visually, the most exciting. Because Van Gogh painted from people, from life. Nothing looked as good as using the same visual technology that he did.

 

What was the process that led you to pick Reymont’s novel, and then to continue with the same oil painting approach?

Technologically, it was about three times more difficult [as Loving Vincent], so it wasn’t just continuing the same process: it was developing that process in another direction. We’d spent seven years setting up the infrastructure [for Loving Vincent]; we were very excited about the visual results. One of the most exciting things about oil painting is that it’s a technology that has developed over 500 years, and it’s hugely sophisticated and versatile compared to other art forms: sculpture, puppet animation, photography. We thought it was a shame that no one was really exploring this in the filmic world. Around 2016, we started to think that Loving Vincent would have some success – and then it ended up being the most successful Polish film of all time at the international box office, so we thought there was an appetite for this fresh visual approach.

We looked at different artists, but we didn’t want to do Loving Vincent part two. We wanted to do something more ambitious, in filmic terms, this time. DK read the book at school – everyone has to read it at high school in Poland. She was listening to the audio book when we were doing Loving Vincent, and it struck her that Reymont’s powers of description were very painterly – the larger-than-life characters and the vivid world he describes. She was worried that it was too Polish, so she gave me the book to read without suggesting that we do it as a film. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it was, the poetic way of describing the Polish village and rural way of life. It seemed to me that it fit with oil painting animation. When we think about nineteenth-century peasant life, what comes to mind are things like the Pre-Raphaelites, the French Realists, the Realist paintings from across Europe – artists who went out into rural areas to make assertions about national character. We think about nineteenth-century rural life through painting as much as anything else.

When we think about nineteenth-century peasant life, what comes to mind are things like the Pre-Raphaelites, the French Realists... We think about nineteenth-century rural life through painting as much as anything else

With Loving Vincent, the animation style is obviously informed by Van Gogh’s art. With The Peasants, I understand that your painters were drawing on the Young Poland art movement?

The Young Poland movement and the Realist movement in general, which spread across all of Europe and North America. DK and Piotr, our head of painting, wanted to draw on their Polish heritage. Reymont was actually a Young Poland novelist, part of the same movement, so it was a nice fit. They selected around 350 painting references and divided them up to create a colour palette for each of the seasons. In Loving Vincent, the story had to join the dots between paintings; with this, it was a milieu we were drawing on. We would have a direct [visual] quotation only where we needed one. Some of those are from [Józef] Chełmoński, a Polish Realist from just before the Young Poland movement who did these incredible contemplative views of the Polish countryside in areas which are now mainly in western Ukraine. He became a touchstone in terms of the look of the film.

 

Before you can introduce the paintings, you have to shoot the live action footage to serve as a reference. I imagine that as a director approaching that material that must be quite different than it would be for someone shooting a regular period drama. How is the directorial process informed by what comes next?

It’s really about planning with the team, wanting to achieve this painterly look. Other than that, I don’t think it’s that different. The difference is that we make the film twice. That has some budgetary limitations, particularly on the length of the film. We were planning on shooting this film in a much more static way, because technologically we hadn’t really worked out how to do dynamic camera shots in painting; they were taking us five times as long as static shots. When we got on set for The Peasants, we quickly realised we needed a different approach: the story is about brooding emotions and outbursts of passion, visceral experiences, dances. We quickly changed to a very dynamic camera: we had handheld, a lot of Steadicam scenes, crane shots. When it came to post-production, we had to learn how to do motion blur, which was fun. We had to adjust to the demands of the material. We also had to adjust from Vincent’s pastels to the level of detail in Realist painting.

Kamila Urzędowska and Robert Gulaczyk in The Peasants (dir. DK and Hugh Welchman, 2023)

What’s your role once the painting starts? Are you able to provide critical responses to the images as they come in?

At the beginning, of course, you’ve got to find the style. It’s a very critical process. But when people are spending five hours on a frame, it’s in everyone’s interest if they don’t have to be redone. It takes most painters two to three months to really understand the style of painting and animation, so that’s the tough part. It’s really about training each artist in the style. These people are incredible painters, so they have the tools to learn how to paint anything, really. That’s really DK and Piotr’s role in post-production. I’m more working on the effects, the sound, and the music.

 

This material and these actors are very familiar to Polish audiences. Did you conceive this as a film for Polish audiences, or do you think the same film can work for Polish and non-Polish audiences in different ways?

For me, it was like reading Great Expectations and finding out that no one had ever done a film adaptation. I thought it was a world-class piece of literature that was unknown outside of Poland: the greatest piece of literature about the peasant experience, which has been part of our lives for 9,000 years. So, I was excited to tell that story and bring it to the world outside of Poland. In Poland, everyone reads it in school – it’s like Shakespeare in Britain. Everyone knows Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be adapted for film.