DK and Hugh Welchman on THE PEASANTS (TIFF 2023) – Leslie Combemale interviews

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There’s a new animated feature from writer/director wife and husband team Dorota Kobiela (DK) and Hugh Welchman known for the Oscar-nominated film Loving Vincent, called The Peasants. It’s based on a novel of the same name by Polish 1924 Nobel laureate Wladyslaw Reymont, a thousand-page tome so well-known in Poland that it’s taught in schools, and considered one of the classics of world literature.

The novel’s story is meant to deliver a complete and evocative look at the customs, behaviors, culture, and daily life of people in Lipce, a small Polish village, and unfolds over the four seasons. Although the original book follows multiple characters, including Boryna, the village’s richest farmer, his son Antak, Antak’s wife Hanka, and young, beautiful dreamer Jagna, The Peasants centers on Jagna. She is an optimistic artist, and quite a beauty, and all the men of the village want her, including Boryna. Against her wishes, Jagna’s mother makes a deal for a marriage to the old farmer. Jagna is guileless, and chooses her own lovers and interests, which include the married Antak. This causes judgment and hatred from the religious women of the village. This feature film shows the devolution of Jagna’s life resulting from her determination for independence and autonomy.

Created in the same style as Loving Vincent, The Peasants was filmed in a technique in which live action is shot, and then used as reference and interpreted through oil paintings, each created by hand at four studios in Poland, Serbia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Those oil paintings then are shot and become the images seen as the finished film. Women made up 75 to 80% of the artists working on the film.

Not only did the pandemic prove a challenge for the production, but so too did the war in Ukraine. Female artists in the Kyiv studio in Ukraine (most men were not allowed to leave the country) were evacuated to the safety of the Polish studio. The Kyiv studio was reopened after the fighting in Kyiv eased, but bombing plunged the space into darkness, so the producers started a Kickstarter campaign to buy a generator.

The film, in keeping with the novel, is often very serious and sometimes emotionally oppressive, but every frame is nothing short of gorgeous, and really demonstrates the level of artistry animation can reach as an art form. It takes the work DK and Hugh Welchman did on Loving Vincent and expands upon it, showing the possibilities of their technique through this worthy interpretation of a classic novel.


Leslie Combemale of AWFJ spoke to filmmakers DK and Hugh Welchman about their latest project in this exclusive interview:

Leslie Comebale: Can you talk about how the visual language of The Peasants reflects the artistic style of the Young Poland period? I know Wladyslaw Reymont was part of the literature of the time. You use symbolism in the paintings, like, for example, the use of red with Jagna, and that’s part of the movement. Can you talk about that, what other aspects of the Young Poland period are represented, and in what way?

Dorota Kobieka (DK): Yes, we definitely reference aspects of that movement, using it as inspiration, more often than quoting the paintings, although we do have particular pieces that we quote. Mostly it is in elements like the composition and colors. There are a number we do use, like the painting Indian Summer, where Jafgna is lying on the grass playing with the bit of fluff in the air, which is by Jozef Chelmonski, one of the main painters of that period. There’s another, with flying storks, when the farmhand and the boy are in the fields looking at the storks, that’s called Bociany, or Storks, also by Chelmonski.

Hugh Welchman: We have 42 direct quotes in the film, and actually 15 of them are Chelmonski, so he became our main guiding light, although we took inspiration from around 30 different Polish painters, and also more broadly across European realism. For example, we have a direct quote from the French painter Jean-Francois Millet. We wanted to draw on that whole movement. The Young Poland painters were particularly appropriate, because they were presenting this view of Polish culture trying to keep Polish identity and national spirit alive during the partitions, and the period that Poland had been wiped off the map by the three empires. They’re showing Polish life and Polish culture, and were presenting a positive image as well as trying to show how life was really like. That seems really appropriate for Reymont, because he presents his characters, warts and all, with their failings, but at the same time, he has a very affectionate view towards his characters. Even though they can be awful sometimes, you still love them, feel for them, and can understand them, even if they sometimes do some terrible things. Also, his descriptions are so beautiful, very often it’s magical realism rather than straight realism, because of his poetic descriptions, and his bucolic portrayal of nature and the peasant world. The Young Poland movement and the realist movement seemed to be the best ways to bring his prose alive.

LC: The transitions into each of the four seasons are a particular opportunity for stylization. DK you were part of the editing team, which was an important aspect of those transitions, but what were the discussions around that with production designer Elwira Pluta and director of animation Piotr Dominiak? Were each of the four sections of the film, in each seasons, separated stylistically?

DK: That was very big part of the development process, there’s a divisions of the story by the seasons, because that’s how it is in the book. It’s actually divided, originally, into four books, each book for a different season. We thought them really good for representing a certain mood and part of the film, so we tried to design around them. Mainly the colors represent the seasons, and we tried to find the mood of each season that is represented in the story.

HW: It was a big part of it actually, from when we wrote the script, because in the Reymond novel, the transition to a new season, he has these long descriptions at the beginning of each novel, so it was an opportunity for us to be visually quite flashy. We wrote these very long camera moves at the script stage. For example, when we went from autumn to winter, we always wanted to have a continuous pullback to represent the change of the season. Then with spring to summer, we wanted to have the 360 degree camera move. I think those transitions were always going to be set pieces for us, which reflected the fact that they’re set pieces in the book. One of the things that attracted us about making this into an oil painting animation is if you take three pages of his description of the winter storms coming in, we can do that in one twenty second shot.

LC: It also offered you the opportunity to advance from the style of Loving Vincent, and show many other ways in which you can utilize the techniques you use.

DK: It was absolutely more liberating to be able to do more camera movement and more challenging animation.


HW: We didn’t want to do Loving Vincent 2. A lot of people were asking what artist we would be doing next, and it was really important for us that we found something that would show that oil painting animation can be more than that, so that we can show the many possibilities of the technique. DK was very clear not to repeat the restrictions that we had with Loving Vincent. Part of the concept was was bringing portraits to life, so it was a talking heads concept. She wanted us to do something that was much more free, and have dynamic camera movement. The story of the ever-changing seasons and landscape, and the very volatile, dramatic story of the characters lended itself to this dynamic approach. In the novel, you have these amazing celebrations, and we saw that as a great opportunity, and you can see that in the dances, the battle scenes, and the wedding.

LC: The Peasants feels like a mixture, in terms of paintings, of portraiture, landscapes, and paintings of people in nature, like the one we discussed of Jean-Francois Millet. Was that intentional, and how did you determine the composition of the shots?

DK: Yes. exactly. In the book itself, Reymont uses different styles, which is very interesting. It’s very unusual for one novel to mix so many styles. He uses realism, Impressionism, and symbolism, depending on who is speaking, because sometimes he uses inner monologue of a character, and sometimes it’s the external narrator, who is very objective. Sometimes it’s the village itself telling the story. So it’s very interesting, and we thought it would be great to find the way to represent that in the painting styles.

HW: DK and Piotr put together an enormous file referencing nearly 400 paintings, and so while we only directly reference 45 paintings, there were over 300 elements of paintings that went into the film, like the clouds from a Ferdynand Ruszczyc painting, or the trees from another painting, so we not only had landscapes and these peasant portrait paintings, but we also had elements from lots of other paintings as well, like skies and sunsets.

DK: It was also something that we discussed a lot with our cinematographer, who was very sensitive to the painting style and he also didn’t want to shoot this like a movie. He was always thinking, “How would a painter sitting at an easel paint that?” We wanted to be true to that.

LC: How did you approach storyboarding the film? The process is so different between animation and live action.

DK: For some scenes we storyboarded in a very precise way. Lots of our storyboarding was done by one of our directors of photography. He’d finished school in the painting department first, then went to film school, so he’s an incredibly talented guy, and he’s also an animator. We love doing storyboards with him because he can not only use film language, but also draw really well, so that made it much easier and much more straightforward because he was the one that was shooting. That was great when we storyboarded scenes that we knew we’d use animation a lot, like with scenes of the seasons changing. Sometimes we just used storyboards more as a planning tool for where we were going to put the camera, so more like very quick sketches of layout.

HW: Sometimes, we didn’t use storyboards. Sometimes we found the approach we wanted to take on set. Then, for the lynching at the end, and the beginning when we meet the whole village outside the church, we had Steadicam, and that was crafted on the day of shooting. For something like the battle, for which we had six cameras, and over 100 people and 12 horses, that needed to be very tightly storyboarded, because we had one day to shoot the whole battle. It was, a military operation, appropriately, for for the battle.


LC: At the center of this story is the experience of free spirit Jagna, and how conforming to patriarchy crushes her – and in a way it feels like some of the stories of the Salem witch trials. Sexuality is seen as demonic or evil. I’m curious about your discussions around religion and gender, and religion and piety or hypocrisy, and control over women’s bodies – because there’s a strong throughway about all that with Jagna’s arc, certainly as it relates to a woman of the time rejecting men and choosing independence, and other women leaning into the patriarchy by ostracizing someone who has made that choice.

DK: Yeah, that was very particularly a subject that was important for me to bring. Thank you for the way you put it. It’s actually it’s perfect. The book has got so many elements, so many aspects of many subjects. There are so many issues, like the relations between farm hands and their very powerful land owners, and the way they treat them is on the verge of slavery or serfdom. There are lots of subjects, but the one in particular about women, and their freedom of choice, autonomy, and sexuality, we knew we wanted to explore and focus the story around that.

HW: The book tells the story of the whole village, and we knew we had to focus on particular characters. Even in our first treatments we did, after we decided we wanted to adapt The Peasants, Jagna was coming out very strongly, as if she was speaking to us, as if we needed to give her a voice, because Reymont obviously was fascinated by the character, but he actually didn’t draw her as precisely as the other characters in the book. She’s very enigmatic, and we just thought that it was such a great opportunity for us to make her the main character, and make it about her, particularly as DK said she’d spent seven years doing a film about a middle class Dutch guy, she wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, and do a woman’s story. Jagna just seemed to encapsulate what’s going on in the 21st century, because despite the fact that you had the suffragette movement, you had the feminism movement, you’ve had the #MeToo movement, there are still double standards today for men and women, and particularly for young women. Pretty much everyone we know has had that experience.

DK: And also the general dominance of what is called ” traditional values” we felt like, we wanted to give voice to the other side.

HW: It’s so much internalized, is one of the problems, so even if it’s being addressed in society, women center themselves to support the patriarchy. In the book, the women are operating in the space that the men are leaving to them, so even when Boryna is comatose and Antek is in jail, and Hanka is finding her feet in terms of taking over running the farm, it’s only in the space between the men. As soon as Antak comes back, Hanka has to shrink back and give up her power. I think part of the reason that Jagna is so fascinating is because in the novel there are lots of strong women who find a way to to eke out a space for themselves and a position of power as it’s allowed by the patriarchy, and also by the religion and the dominance of the church and the church structure. They have to do it in in a way that’s sneaky. Jagna refuses to be sneaky, and that’s really her downfall. She won’t go to confession. She doesn’t want to marry again. Other women are having affairs, but do so in secret, so they get forgiven for their actions. What they can’t forgive with Jagna is she refuses to hide who she is, and they turned on her for it.

LC: You had artists and studios in Poland, Serbia, Lithuania and Ukraine, there’s so much about the art and culture of Poland that’s represented in the film. And Poland is very much impacted by the war in Ukraine. I know the war impacted the work, but I’d imagine also the context of the film, especially since so many of your artists are women.

HW: It wasn’t intentional, but it just turned out that 75 or 80% of our painters are women. Our recruitment wasn’t skewed in any way, but that’s how it turned out, so we do have an incredibly female dominant workforce. They feel the story very keenly and they identify very closely with what they’re doing, and I think adds passion to the work. It definitely helps the artistry, and we feel that when we watch the film, that passion they have for the story comes through.

DK: We didn’t want to focus, in terms of the traditional art and folk art of the story, on the Polish part of the land. We wanted to give it more universal Slavic character, in the music and in the art of the film. That’s why I think people who worked with us from Lithuania, Serbia, and especially Ukraine, were able to identify with this.

HW: Actually, quite a few of the paintings we reference in the film were painted in lands which are now Western Ukraine, formerly part of the Polish kingdom. Then a very direct result of the war is that when the war broke out, we evacuated as many of our painters as we could, but only the women were allowed to leave. Our male painters had to stay behind in Ukraine. The women, we had to go and pick them up from the border, and they came with a rucksack or one suitcase and with elderly mothers or with their children, and we had to resettle them at our studio in Poland. They became an incredibly important part of the Breakthru family in Poland. Over a third of our painters in the Polish studio were actually Ukrainian women, and one Ukrainian man who was allowed to leave because he has five children, so he was allowed to leave. We set up the studio again, once the defense of Kiev had been established and the Russians had been repelled. We built a new team there, so we actually had two Ukrainian teams, we had the one in Poland and the one in Ukraine.

LC: What is happening to the paintings from The Peasants? You sold the art from Loving Vincent, are you doing the same for The Peasants?

HW: Absolutely, we’re selling them all off immediately on the release of the film, so there will be 200 up for sale. We’ve been processing them, as it takes time to process paintings, over the past like four months. So we’ve been painting for two years, but we had more and more painters towards the end, and we got faster and faster towards the end, so a lot of them are still wet, because oil paintings take a long time to dry. For Loving Vincent, the art was between 1,000 and 12,000 Euros, but with this film, we want everyone to own a part of the artistic adventure that we’ve had, so we’ve set the prices as low as we can, really, to try and make it accessible to everyone. They are between 250 up to 2,000 Euros. And they’re just beautiful, so I’m hoping that people will want to put them up on the walls in the houses.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website,, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.