The Peasants is a visually thrilling, cinematic rendering of Władysław Reymont’s Nobel Prize-winning book, made using an advanced oil painting animation technique. Ahead of it’s release in cinemas on December the 8th, Evie Hatch spoke with Co-Writer and Director Hugh Welchman, and Painting Supervisor Biskerka Petrovich, to discover more about the unique method used to create this film.
Evie: Could you each start by introducing yourselves and your roles in The Peasants?
Hugh: I’m Hugh Welchman, and alongside my wife DK (Dorota Kobiela), I am one of the writers and directors on the project, and I’m also one of the producers of the film.
Biserka: I’m Biskerka Petrovich, I’m a Serbian painter. On this movie, I was the painting supervisor and key-frame painter, and also painted some shots.
Evie: Hugh, what is it about Władysław Reymont’s novel, The Peasants, that you and your co-writer and director wanted to bring to screen?
Hugh: Well DK, like everyone in Poland, had to read it she was at school because it’s in the national curriculum. So she read it when she was 16, and like most people reading it when they are 16, she struggled with it. It’s quite a big book. So, she read it again in her 20’s, and then was listening to the audio book while we were doing Loving Vincent, and it really resonated with her, and became interested in making it into a painting animation film, mainly because Reymont’s language is so descriptive, so poetic. There’s impressionistic writing, the characters are sometimes larger than life and very intense in their emotions, which is great to get across in painting. Oil painting’s great for an emotional effect. Also there’s this vein of religious mysticism running through it.
So she thought it would be an epic challenge for painting animation, but she was worried that the subject matter may be “too Polish”. She gave me an antique copy of the book as a present, which she had to send off to America for, as it hadn’t been published since 1943. Then I had these intimidating antique books sitting on my bedside table while we were making Loving Vincent, and never got around to reading it until after we finished. I finally read it and I thought it was a masterpiece. Epic in scope, and incredible in the beauty of the writing. Like DK, I had the same response by seeing it as a painting animation. Reymont was a young Poland movement writer, which was a movement of both writing and painting, so this fit very well. For example, the Young Poland movement painter Chełmoński has a painting called Babie Lato which is one of the paintings which we “quote” in the film. For some reason, we didn’t think adapting that into a two hour film was going to be difficult, but it was.
Evie: What role did oil painting play in this film? Could you describe the process of painting each frame and then, how the animation was created?
Biserka: We got the a copy of the movie which was, of course, made with actors, and then selected painters by their skills and portfolios. It’s pretty difficult, especially for those who don’t always paint realism, so there were rounds of testing. First, they were tested over three days for the basics, learning the techniques, using the software (which was not so difficult because they were a new generation of painters), and also trying to get the style.
Then, whoever passed this test entered into three weeks of training. Over the three weeks they had to get used to painting in the style, and also get faster with the whole process. Each painter was given a separate studio space to work in, with a computer, painting board, a camera above, colours, and brushes of course. Then they had to follow the references of Polish painters from the Poland movement.
Then, after those three weeks, those who were able to paint fast, and in the style, moved to production. The painting team was 85% women on this project, and every painter has different skills. Each shot was assigned to a painter based on their skills, and the style they are most inclined to paint in, i.e. portraits, landscapes etc.
Hugh: We had a bit of a Jagna mutiny at the beginning of the process. No-one wanted to paint her because she was too perfect, too symmetrical. With the older women characters, or the male characters, there’s some forgiveness from frame to frame, but because her features were so symmetrical, if you mis-painted it even slightly, animating from frame to frame, suddenly she wouldn’t look like Jagna. Eventually everyone had to learn how to paint Jagna because she’s the main character in the film. After a year, they liked painting her.
Biserka: In the first year, the supervisors wouldn’t assign Jagna to everyone, just a few people could get the soft brushstrokes and manipulate the paint well enough. After that, they got better and entered the process with more skill.
Hugh: I think the structure of their painting brains changed if you look at what they were painting at the beginning and the end. Because it’s very unusual for painters to paint six to nine hours a day, five days a week.
Biserka: I paint eight hours a day, so for me it was easy, there are some people that do, but not everyone.
Evie: The painters must have really formed a connection to the faces they were painting over and over again.
Biskera: Yeah, they were even falling in love with the characters! Those were funny times during production. It’s beautiful when you paint something that you love. I was always trying to love the character I was painting. Everyone loved Jagna in the end.
Hugh: When Kamila Urzedowska who plays Jagna, visited the Serbian studio it was a very emotional day for all the painters. If you think about it, she’s this person who they have been living with… on some shots they were spending six months painting. Staring at her face, painting it, moving every detail, every eyelash. Even using a brush with a single hair on it for her eyelashes… and then this woman came into their painting animation workstation! So it was a really special day. Also for Kamila, it’s really strange to meet these people who have been studying her face so intensively for two years.
Biserka: The walls were covered in paintings of her, it was so impressive, she was overwhelmed.
Evie: Which oil paints did you use for the paintings, and why?
Biserka: Talens Cobra Water-Mixable Oil Paint. I didn’t use that kind of paint before. We started off using regular oil paint with turpentine, but then we got water-mixable which is the best paint ever because it doesn’t smell and poison the space. Their colours are perfect in terms of the pigments. They were the best paints ever.
Hugh: Talens sponsored Loving Vincent as well, and ventilation was a big issue in the studio because we were still working with turpentine. We were using linseed oil to make the paint more pliable and dry slower, because we need to move the paint around the canvas and if it crosses over, it takes the painter longer. In the studio in Serbia, there were 20 people; 17 painters, 2 supervisors and a painting assistant, and we had up to 40 painters working in Poland, so we were really happy to be able to get rid of the turpentine.
Evie: Was there anything else you learned from Loving Vincent that you brought to The Peasants?
Hugh: Everything! No-one had done oil painting animation for a feature film. Most of them were short films, and they were done as painting on glass. So we had to invent the entire pipeline from scratch. We were using Dragonframe Stop Motion Software which is something that I brought over from doing animation with puppets. We had to work out what kind of canvas to use and went with canvas board as we could secure it to the painting animation workstations, which we had to invent.
They are these 2 x 3 m metal units, where we can have the lights in exactly the same position, the camera that photographs each finished frame in the same position, space for the colours etc. A huge part of the process is preparing the palette before they start painting which can sometimes take up to a whole day. During Loving Vincent, we were learning all the time about what was most efficient to organise the space, which order to put the paints on, and a lot of that became standardised. We were making more innovations at the beginning of this process. Vlad, who was the other supervisor running the Serbian unit, came up with an innovation in terms of how to paint for this realistic style, which was then very useful and applied across the different studios.
Biserka: It was always changing. Yes, from Loving Vincent, we knew the process, how to organise ourselves, the most efficient way to paint, but for this movie, the style was different. We had to make it fast, but make it smooth. Realism has many brushstrokes, but also has smoothing to be done, and this takes time.
Hugh: Twice as much time on average. For Loving Vincent the average frame took 2.5 hours to paint, and for this film the average was 5 hours per frame. When we budgeted the film, we thought it was going to be a 30% increase in time. We were completely unprepared for the fact that realism was going to take double the time of the impasto style of van Gogh.
Evie: Artworks by artists of the Young Poland movement are integral to the film. Were the painting techniques and methods inspired by their work?
Biserka: Yes, I studied their techniques, but didn’t copy them. We made new paintings to capture the overall style of the movement, because there are many different styles within it. So we were trying to create something that encapsulated them all, more or less.
Hugh: Biserka was reporting to Piotr Dominiak who was the head of painting on The Peasants, and also on Loving Vincent. Piotr and DK both studied in the Polish art system from the ages of 14 – 23, so that’s 9 years of specialist art education and learning about Polish art history. They had an incredible encyclopaedic knowledge of this period, and they were really excited to re-discover Polish paintings from this time too. They got together a whole database of references, but we also used paintings from the realist tradition across Europe. If you’re beady-eyed you’ll spot that there are two French paintings that are quoted and also one Danish painting that was quoted.
Biserka studied in Serbia and when we went to the National Museum of Art in Serbia to study the collection, there were a lot of similarities, because it was a movement across the whole of Eastern Europe, Russia, Western Europe, North America. The plein air movement, where painters were recording a rural way of life was also a way of recording their national identity and what they wanted to say about the world they were living in.
Watch the trailer for The Peasants, in cinemas from December 8th