How ‘The Peasants’ Used 40,000 Oil Paintings to Make an Animated Movie

TheWrap magazine: “We are doing this because we want to push the boundaries of film,” says director Hugh Welchman

The Peasants Sony Pictures Classics
"The Peasants" (Sony Pictures Classics)

In 2017, one of the animated features nominated for the Oscar was “Loving Vincent,” a film about Vincent Van Gogh in which every single frame was painted in oil on canvas. Six years later, that film’s directors — Hugh Welchman and his wife, Dorota Kobiela, who now goes by DK Welchman — have produced another film, “The Peasants,” using the same painstaking technique.

“It’s the slightest form of filmmaking anyone’s ever invented,” Hugh Welchman said. “Incredibly labor-intensive.”

“The Peasants” is one of three animated films submitted in the Oscars Best International Feature Film category, but the only one that also qualified for Best Animated Feature. (The other two, “Four Souls of Coyote” and “The Missing,” didn’t get the required U.S. release, but “The Peasants” did via Sony Pictures Classics.)

The film is based on an early 20th-century, Nobel Prize-winning novel by Wladyslaw Reymont about a young peasant woman (Kamila Urzędowska) who pays the price for being too attractive and too unwilling to quietly do what men want her to do. “It was the greatest book I’d ever read about the peasant condition, and it’s pretty much unknown outside of Poland despite its Nobel Prize,” Welchman said.

The film used essentially the same technique as “Loving Vincent”: It was shot in live action against greenscreen backdrops, with the actors wearing full costumes but working with cardboard sets. “We edited it together and it was pretty compelling,” Welchman said. “Like, maybe we should not do the next two years of killing ourselves to paint it. But we are doing this because we want to push the boundaries of film.”

Where “Loving Vincent” was inspired by the look of Van Gogh’s paintings, many of which were directly quoted visually, “The Peasants” took its inspiration from the Young Poland modernist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and from other painters in the realist and plein air movements in Europe during that time. 

“We have 36 direct (visual) quotes in the film, and we had 80 in ‘Loving Vincent,’” Welchman said. “This was more about the feeling and the style of the painters.” (Jean-François Millet’s “The Gleaners” is the best known of the paintings directly referenced in the film.)

Working in studios in Poland, Lithuania, Serbia and Ukraine (which had to shut down after the Russian invasion), painters used oil and canvas to duplicate 40,000 frames from the live-action shoot, with another 40,000 frames created from those oil paintings using Photoshop effects. Where each frame in the Welchmans’ first film took two and a half hours to produce, the frames in “The Peasants” took twice as long.

“In ‘Loving Vincent,’ we restricted ourselves to a few moving camera shots,” Welchman said. “But here we have wild dances, big community get-togethers and lots of people in a small space. The film is so full of passion and jealousy and anger that we felt like we needed to be inside the action. So we used a lot of Steadicam, a lot of handheld camera, and we needed to learn how to paint motion blur.”

This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Ava DuVernay on TheWrap Magazine cover


One response to “How ‘The Peasants’ Used 40,000 Oil Paintings to Make an Animated Movie”

  1. Michael Kaplan Avatar
    Michael Kaplan

    I wonder if they could sell the 40,000 oil paintings as a way to recoup the cost of production? Lots of folks (me included) might be interested!

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