SIGGRAPH Spotlight: Episode 13 – The Making of ‘Loving Vincent’

SIGGRAPH Spotlight: Episode 13 – The Making of ‘Loving Vincent’

ACM SIGGRAPH International Resources Committee member Santiago Echeverry (professor, University of Tampa) sits down with Łukasz Mackiewicz and Francho Melendez, two members of the team behind “Loving Vincent,” the first-ever, fully painted animated feature film, which takes viewers through the life of artist Vincent van Gogh. Mackiewicz and Melendez discuss their work on the film, what it was like to work in Poland, and so much more!

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FULL PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Santiago Echeverry (SE)
Hello everybody, this is Santiago Echeverry. It is a pleasure for me to introduce Francho Melendez and Lukasz Mackievicz — I hope I pronounced the names the correct way — who are visiting us and participating with us from Poland. I am in Florida, in sunny Florida. Welcome Francho and Lukasz, it is a pleasure for me to participate in this interview. I would like to ask you a series of questions to benefit the global community of SIGGRAPH members. This question goes to both of you. I will start with you Francho, and then I will go with you Lukasz.

What is your background and what is it that you’re doing now for a living?

Francho Melendez (FM)
Hi! Thanks for having me first of all. Well, my background is, I’m a computer scientist. I did computer engineering back in Spain, and I also did a PhD in Computer Graphics in Manchester, and now currently I’m working at the Wrocław University also in the Computer Science department, and I teach Computer Vision and Computer Graphics in general.

SE
Fascinating! And Luksz, what about you? What is your background and what do you do for a living right now?

Lukasz Mackievicz (LM)
Hello! My background is for the most part a basic one, and I have a master’s degree in the art school in Krakow in Animation department, and in general, I was interested in drawing and 2D animation. So that hasn’t changed much since. Now I’m doing the compositing of 2D animation in a studio. So I’m continuing my passion.

SE
This is truly an interdisciplinary collaboration between the two of you! How did you get involved or hear about SIGGRAPH?

FM
My first experience with SIGGRAPH was in 2008 as I had the pleasure to go there without knowing what to expect really. Well, I was hooked, I guess. Then, I got involved with the Manchester SIGGRAPH chapter. Later I started to volunteer for the IRC, and eventually when I moved to Poland, I thought it was a good opportunity to bring some of that energy and some of that content to people in Poland to form the Wroclaw SIGGRAPH chapter and that’s kind of my story with SIGGRAPH.

LM
Well, I’d heard about SIGGRAPH I think as early as 2008. So that was the first time I had heard about SIGGRAPH, but it wasn’t until I met Francho that it offered me an opportunity to go to SIGGRAPH and participate. So I offer my thanks to Francho otherwise it wouldn’t be possible for me to attend.

SE
It is a life-changing experience, you’re right! It is an experience that once you tried once, you know you’re hooked, and mine was 1996, my first time. It was ages ago! And I also wanted to ask you, have you ever worked with international communities before SIGGRAPH?

FM
When I moved to Manchester, my fellow thesis students were from all over the world, so that was my first contact with the cultural communities, I guess. But actually at SIGGRAPH, my first volunteering was my first opportunity to actually work with people from many different places that are actually working in many different countries and in many different areas of work as well.

LM
Well, for me, the opportunity to work with an international group was at Wroclaw at SIGGRAPH, where I met Francho. That was the first time, in a serious manner, collaborated with someone from abroad. Later, it was the Loving Vincent experience where there were some painters who were from all over the world with who I had a pleasure to work on the movie. So, that’s my background of collaboration on an international level.

SE
That’s amazing, I’m definitely going to ask you about the Loving Vincent experience. How are your experiences as an expat, Francho? You left Spain, then you went to Manchester and now Poland? How can you see the differences in working in these different countries?

FM
So, obviously, if you think of it, in an intercontinental way, all countries in Europe are fairly homogeneous. I would say that Spain and Poland are even more homogeneous than UK, for example, in the sense that people living there are mostly Polish people in Poland and Spanish people in Spain. In the UK, the community is more international; in particular Manchester, where I was living. There are other differences in the way we socialize. Spanish people, I think, are more social than Polish people and British people. Also, Polish and British people are maybe a little bit more individualistic in the sense of doing things more as individuals whereas in Spain, we tend to do things in groups. Simple things like everyday social things like going for lunch and things like that.

LM
Well, Loving Vincent was a very specific experience. It was enriching in the sense that the people coming from abroad really wanted to participate in it. For me, it was very important to enable to do their work, because it was part of the things I did. So the mutual exchange and collaboration was my main focus. So I couldn’t say that from my point of view, I saw much of a difference between collaborating with people from abroad and Poland. So in that sense, everyone was very professional and highly engaged. Maybe the engagement was their most rejuvenating aspect of the movie, but it was a project in general. The only difference I could see was this engagement and the love for the project. Apart from that, I couldn’t tell much about the differences and similarities. For me, it’s mostly the same experience with language being the only difference.

SE
That shows that it is a more global community and we were more connected than we were before, but in that sense, I had the chance to grow up in Latin America and Lukasz believe in or not, we used to watch animations coming from Communist Europe because they were free animations that were distributed and we grew up watching animations coming from Poland, USSR, coming from all these countries that were under occupation and different political regimes and for us in our education, we knew that Poland had a very strong tradition in animation and because Francho, you are also working in Poland, I wanted to ask you both what is trending in Poland today? What are things that people are most interesting in? What are the most popular topics in Poland?

FM
Well, I personally work in a very narrow area of expertise and I’m not sure whether my point of view is very real or very biased. I think, Wroclaw is particularly big in software development in general and obviously we have quite a big company doing video games here and there are some other companies in Poland that are growing. Of course, the rest of the technological trends like deep learning and computer vision, virtual reality, all these are getting very popular here because there is a very young community of computer scientists and programmers and they is a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship in Wroclaw. So, all the topics related to trending technologies out there are popular in Wroclaw.

SE
And Lukasz, with your background in animation and art, what are the trends among your peers and students in Poland?

LM
Well, I think I cannot speak on the students because it was about sometime ago when I finished my master’s degree and I’m not keeping in touch with the students. However, what I can say at least in Poland is that there is a high drive to do high quality, professional work. Of course, in relation to what is done in the West in general, in France, in United States and Japan. So, at least in terms of animation, so Polish animation creators aspire to do a very high quality production and collaborate by going abroad to work in high profile animation studios. So, that’s the aim in general among the young people in the studio. They have this ambition not to just stay here, but to expand their experience and to work with the best.

SE
Are there any notable companies or labs or researchers or engineers that we should keep an eye on? Like what schools or companies, research centres should we be putting our attention on?

FM
I think in the areas that I’m most interested are video games, video graphics in general and also post-production. Obviously, CD Projekt Red has become bigger and more popular, and Techland are the two biggest video game companies in Poland and they will probably keep growing and Dues and Platige image are two flagships in terms of production and post-production work.

SE
You related to any of those companies so that we can still contact you?

FM
I know some people in Techland and some common friends that work in Platige Image.

SE
So, there is communication between academia and the production field?

FM
There is a bit. We are a very small group in the University doing graphics but we try to keep in touch with, in particular with Techland, which is I think, the most technical company that has any relationship with graphics in our town. The intention of the students for internships, for masters projects and things like that, and we have done some events for the chapter with them and in general, they are very open to collaborating with us and to be present for students as well.

SE
I wanted to ask another question, do you get any state support or European support or is it more technology driven with the private sector driving the research in animation and new technologies?

FM
There is quite a lot of support for innovation, but actually lot of this support goes to private companies for them to actually do the research and development. So obviously, universities can collaborate within these projects but most of the funding programs, at least the relevant ones are more oriented to the industry. Of course, we also have funding to do research but they are not specific for one particular area but they are shared between all the areas. In Poland, in particular, there is a program called GameINN organised by the National Research and Development centre, which is specific for video games companies to actually invest on innovation and technology and research, which is actually a very interesting idea and is also good for researchers as myself to be part of the industry and also be able to push the technology.

SE
This is a fascinating answer. Thank you and related to that, based on both of your experiences, what do you think is going to be the next thing and what is going to be popular and strongest feature of research coming ahead in Poland?

LM
This is only my opinion, I’m not sure whether it will be the way it is, but I think the game industry in Poland expands very rapidly or maybe it’s just the CD Projekt, which is the company that attracts the highest attention and it has a highly successful game and that’s where I guess most of the resources go and the young people see a lot of opportunities to engage in. So, I think that’s where the Polish industry is heading. In terms of animation industry, we are developing since most of the successes have been in the game industry, the animation industry may not change much from now, but I cannot say for sure. I can only say that there are 20 animation studios in Poland, which specifically use 2D animation, but they are aspiring to do international feature animation but they are mostly in Poland production.

SE
Is there a big market today for local production and animation in Poland?

LM
I think it grows more and more because of the internet and they collaborate with the productions from other countries. So, it is not only the animation which is for the Polish market, but they execute production for other countries such as UK and USA or others.

SE
The world is becoming smaller as we were saying earlier and I now would like to ask you a series of questions about your experience with Loving Vincent, the movie. I cannot imagine trying to coordinate the work of over a 100 painters. What were both of your roles in the movie to make sure that things process of painting was going to work in the most efficient way?

FM
Since my answer is shorter, I think I will start. My role in the movie is utterly small. I just did some small programs that helped with the contour detection of the guides that we were producing for the painters and guide them in the process. I think Lukasz actually is the one that has been dealing with coordinating and actually with the painters themselves.

LM
I went onsite specifically to see what exactly are the issues and in that sense helped as much as possible with the issues and the challenges that were ahead. I would say that what we initially started with Francho, trying to come up with what will work the best in terms of materials provided for painters, that was the philosophy that I tried to implement during the whole pre-production or production stage of the movie because the challenge was that no one did it on the scale, at least no one in Poland had done this kind of movie. So, a lot of stuff needed to be invented from scratch let’s say.

SE
Did you have to implement the PAWS, the painting animation work stations, that you created?

LM
That was actually BreakThrough Studios that development this specifically for this movie, but even in the PAWS system what we had to provide were the reference video materials and only during the production, a lot of issues presented themselves. Beforehand, we did not know of all the challenges and it only became visible when we had to do specific scenes of specific sequences. So, until we didn’t have an issue, we were able to foresee it and prepare a solution for it. So, I would say that we were discovering the issues or the problems along the way of producing each sequence and only then we were able to come up with the solution. So, we were very open-minded and very focussed on what the issues were and try to pick up the best multiple solutions.

SE
It is very creative, it is a question of combining creativity.

LM
That’s why, in my opinion, partly why this movie worked out so well in the end because it wasn’t so obvious how it should begin and we were trying many different things, like many of the tools that we used were new, but regards to providing the animators the video references, we had no limits or guidelines on how to specifically do it. So, we were just solving the problems along the way. In that sense, that was how the whole process was refined. There were initial ideas of how it should be done, but when it didn’t work, you just had to try another start. In that regard, there was a lot of openness to try to fix all the issues and I think that’s a big part why a lot of sequences end up so beautiful. It is amazing what we did with just 80 painters and I won’t exaggerate that each painter in the parts did the hard work on their own. We were trying to help them but it was their effort that allowed each sequence to look the way it did. They had to compare all the frames and ensure the fluency of the animation. Of course, they were supervised by even more talented people and all of this was supervised by the director.

SE
Wow! I do have a question from some of my students and actually they were figuring out if in the process of animation, the backgrounds were static and the rest was added through key framing or green screen in the paintings? They were wondering if they look at the paintings and say the backgrounds are static. So, how is it that the painters managed to paint that background in each one of the frames or did they paint just one background and added the characters on top?

LM
Well, actually, each sequence was printed always on the same canvas. So, after you paint the first frame and as long as characters didn’t pass from left to right, for example, the background didn’t have to be repainted. So, in the areas where the character did not obscure the background, it just stayed in the manner as it was painted in the first frame. But, in some instances, where the differences were too big, we had to use post production to even it out. There was post production on some sequences for the continuity issues that were handled. So, most of the time, the background was repainted or was repainted meticulously to match the first frame. In that sense, it is all the painters work! That is why I said they were the ones that made the movie how it ended up.

SE
Where are the paintings today?

LM
Some of them were sold at the auction. Most of them were stored to studio lots or archive magazine. So they stored all the frame that were created, the last frame of each sequence. I think there were, between 600-800, I’m not sure exactly because some of the sequences were repainted or painted second time or had to be divided between a couple of painters. I think 6 or 5 was the biggest division of a long sequence that occurred in the movie. Some of them can actually be bought or I think they sold all the frames but the ones exhibited not for sale. I think they have lot more paintings left.

SE
I can imagine! There are a lot of frames! I’m going to ask you both the last question and see how you can answer the question. Every time we work on a long project that is time consuming, there is something that changes in us for the better. How do you think that working in Loving Vincent contributed to who you are today?

LM
I didn’t meet my fiance yet! It contributed greatly in my life! I will never forget that. In regards to the animation, it is really hard to stress out. I started out completely green, without any knowledge of how to do this and without any experience. So, it was a great learning curve I can tell you that. This is the most richest or valuable thing I have got out of this production that was the extreme steep learning curve. I was allowed to try out a lot of stuff because no one knew how to do it and I’m very grateful for this because finally it ended up that everyone loved the final result. So, it was an amazing experience to try to do something that hadn’t been done before or not on that scale. We had the opportunity to try new stuff, it is hard to express how enriching it is.

FM
For me as a computer engineer, the opportunity to be involved in this kind of project that is so hand crafted and a piece of art and meet all these people, all these artists, for me it was a fantastic experience and opportunity. It just reinforce my dream of somehow being able to participate in these very creative projects, not just from a technological perspective but from hand by hand experience with all these people with artistic skill that I don’t have.

SE
Are we going to see any creative endeavors from the two of you collaborating in the future?

LM
I think so!

FM
We both live in different cities but I do think it will happen and it will be a great idea.

SE
We cannot wait to see it. It is going to be amazing! Francho and Lucasz, thank you so much for spending this time with us. This was Santiago Echeverry from Florida, US with Francho Melendez and Lukasz Mackievicz in Poland and we are very thankful for your participation and please stay tuned and we are always going to be bringing you more surprises. Thank you guys!

FM
Thank you very much! It was a pleasure!

LM
It was a pleasure!

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