Toronto: ‘The Peasants’ Directors Talk Adapting Novel as Fully Hand-Painted Animated Film

The Peasants, directed by creators D.K. Welchman and Hugh Welchman, uses much of the same oil live action-painting-on-canvas techniques captured in their earlier Oscar-nominated animated film Loving Vincent.

But the artistic process of actors first shot in live action and then thousands of oil paintings created from the film footage was also far different, and unshackling, say the directors, as they were no longer restricted by the specific work of Vincent van Gogh, like the famous Starry Night, and his inner mind as he painted the world around him.

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In The Peasants, which is receiving a world premiere in Toronto, the directors had the freedom of embracing an epic 19th century Poland and a far wider range of realist and pre-impressionist paintings for the animated film inspired by their source material, the Nobel prize-winning novel of the same name by Wladyslaw Reymont.

“This is the opposite approach. We had the story and then we had to come up with the visuals for that story and it’s a much bigger scale,” D.K. Welchman told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday. Rather than rely on talking heads to shoot in live action and then paint, as happened mostly in Loving Vincent, The Peasants offers up a lush, epic portrayal of a 19th-century Polish village where a beautiful young woman is torn between a widowed landowner she marries and a torrid love she feels for his son.

“It was incredibly liberating for us. This is very fast-paced, we have dances, we have this big battle. And we were able to be free with the camera, to have that camera get inside the action,” Hugh Welchman added.

D.K. Welchman insisted the novel itself used naturalism to depict everyday life, including peasants, villagers and pastoral animals. But Reymont was also in parts wonderfully evocative in his picturesque descriptions of characters, down to their costumes and mannerisms.

“When he describes colors of clothes and reflections in the clothes, he has one-page descriptions of whirling and dancing, and it’s really an impressionistic style of narration,” she said. At root, The Peasants called for shooting a live-action feature and then hand-painting the footage using a frame-by-frame animation technique similar to stop motion.

As with any animation film, the directors started out with storyboards and for the layout used Unreal, a games engine to create photoreal visuals. For the live-action shoot on The Peasants, around half the action was done on soundstages with big set pieces and the other half went before a green screen.

For sets, houses were constructed using metal frames covered by cardboard as artists would eventually paint over each frame. The live-action scenes were then composited together using Photoshop, and set extensions were completed with Maya software. In addition, 2D and CGI animation was used to create small characters and animals.

But The Peasants is not a Disney animated film. That’s because artists then entered the artistic process for hand painting oil on canvas. Significantly, they did not trace over live-action photographic images as if in traditional rotoscoping. Instead, they had a picture overhead for reference as they did an entirely original painting on canvas.

“They see an image on a screen and they not only repaint it, but bring oil painting and painting strokes and textures to it,” while also adding skies, motion blur and weather effects, Hugh Welchman explained.

“We’re combining, live, CGI and 2D animation with oil painting animation. We use all of those together, to varying degrees, depending on what’s in the scene,” he added of a drama that is at times comic, tragic or nostalgic for ancestral times.

The Toronto Film Festival continues through to Sept. 17.

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