Illinois State alum Dena Peterson ’84, M.S. ’88, played a critical role in making the innovative, Academy Award- and Golden Globe-nominated Vincent Van Gogh biopic Loving Vincent come to life.

Peterson studied psychology at Illinois State. Even as she moved into her post-collegiate career, art was always a major passion of hers. She took art classes whenever possible and became involved in multiple art organizations.

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Peterson saw a trailer for some of the early work that was being done for Loving Vincent on Facebook. Loving Vincent bills itself as the world’s first fully painted animated feature film and was funded by the Polish Film Institute and a successful Kickstarter campaign. The teaser trailer was released as a recruitment tool to get more painters to join the film.

ISU alum Dena Peterson hard at work on one of the 230 frames she created for Loving Vincent.

Loving Vincent features real actors that completed their work prior to the animation. All of the artists on hand painstakingly recreated every other frame of the film in the style of Van Gogh. Approximately 65,000 frames by 125 painters make up the 95-minute film.

“I was just mesmerized by it because it looks like a real painting. It didn’t look like computer animation,” she said.

Intrigued, she decided to be one of the nearly 5,000 painters to apply. About a month later she got an email from the crew saying that her work was a good fit for what they were trying to accomplish. First, Peterson had to take a few tests to see if she could handle the process of animating the film. She had her reservations about making the trip to Gdansk, Poland, but at the urging of her daughter she was on a plane to Europe.

“They gave us a bit of a crash course,” she said. “The training was very meticulous and very rigorous. They needed to see if we could deal with this intensive work.”

It took 125 artists working long hours to complete the paintings that make Loving Vincent.

Peterson passed the test. After three weeks of training, she worked for six months in a light controlled cubicle to ensure consistency from frame to frame. She would create a frame, take a high definition photo of it, and load that photo into software that showed that frame in sequence with the rest of the scene. There, she could see if there were any adjustments that needed to be made. When the work was just right, she would scrape off the canvas with a spatula and start the process anew. By her estimation, she created 230 frames for five different scenes, which translates to about 21 seconds of footage in the completed film.

“I have such a greater appreciation for animation now than I did before,” she said. “I like the old school nature of it. I like how it looks hand-made. Each artist had a hand in making these characters come to life.”

Peterson was always influenced by Van Gogh’s art, and there were aspects of it that she applied to her own work. Mostly, she respected how he stayed true to himself as an artist.

“He probably could have sold better if he would have changed his style,” she said. “But he didn’t believe in copying what he saw and instead he painted what he felt.”

Peterson will be watching the Golden Globes, rooting for the film she put so much work into to win the award for Best Animated Motion Picture. For Redbirds who are passionate about art, Peterson says that it is important to stay positive and be yourself.

“If you’re enthusiastic and passionate about art like I am, just keep doing it. Don’t let people discourage you,” she said. “Don’t worry about getting your work out there until you are really ready to do it. Don’t be afraid to take a lot of classes and sample different things. You never know what you will get into.”

For more information about Peterson and her work, check out her website.