Moving pictures

Filmmakers have long used art as a basis for their features but now comes a trend to use technology to make films that show art as it has never been seen before.

A visitor examines a magnified version of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
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A number of recent films have used art to great effect. Think Julie Taymor's Frida Kahlo and Persepolis, for example. Now new technologies are taking the exploration of art on film to another level, as seen in several new productions, including Lech Majewski's The Mill and The Cross, Caroline Cocciardi's documentary Mona Lisa Revealed, and Paulo Henrique Fontenelle's Brazilian biopic, Loki: Arnaldo Baptista.

With Mona Lisa Revealed, Cocciardi sets out to show how the development of a multi-spectrum camera, which uses a resolution of 240 million pixels, has been used by the French structural engineer, and its inventor, Pascal Cotte, in a series of ground-breaking photographs, which show what Cocciardi calls the "real" Mona Lisa behind its thick glass panel and the effects of ageing. "When I first saw Pascal's images, I realised I had never seen the painting," says Cocciardi, a long-term Mona Lisa aficionado. "Did you know there are seven veils Leonardo painted on her? Her dress is green, not black, and the interlocking embroidery thread on the bodice is intertwined in crimson red and ochre yellow. Through Pascal's photos we give people a chance to see what it would be like if you had the chance to be up close and personal with the painting."

Cocciardi's film also documents her fascination with the passion of Cotte who declared as a young boy that he would one day create a camera to capture the picture in all its glory. "When I met Pascal, the first thing I wanted to find out from him was how did he get access to the Mona Lisa?" said Cocciardi. "It would be easier for you and I to have tea with the Queen than to get a private showing."

Another point in making the film was to show that experts and scholars are not always right. "For the last five centuries scholars and experts of Leonardo da Vinci concluded that he did not paint the Mona Lisa with eyebrows and eyelashes so when Cotte discovered that he did in 2007 it was a major story that circled the globe," she says. Cocciardi's own interest in the Mona Lisa began because she wanted to know what the connection was between the painter and his sitter. She has since read every book written on Leonardo da Vinci and travelled to eight countries to make the film and meet the experts to get to the bottom of the story.

The curious can decide for themselves with Cotte's 36 Mona Lisa photographs part of a travelling exhibition Da Vinci - the Genius, which can currently be seen in Singapore, Canada, South America and Europe. Negotiations are under way to exhibit the images in the Emirates next year. Majewski, meanwhile, is incorporating new technologies into the making of his film, The Mill and the Cross, to get inside the paintings of the 16th-century Dutch Renaissance painter Peter Brueghel. Majewski has long made art a subject of his films, for example the 1996 film about the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which he co-wrote and produced. With The Mill and The Cross, he uses 3D technology, and a four-year-old digital camera, known as the 4K Red One, to penetrate one painting by Brueghel in an exploration of art on camera, which he said, has never been done before. The project started when the art critic Michael Gibson asked Majewski to make a documentary based on his book of the same name which is about the Brueghel painting, The Way to Calvary, which hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Majewski opted for a feature film.

"We used 3D in a new way, using the Red Camera together with the textures from the paintings, texturising every shot of the landscape in a way that hasn't been done before," he explains. "This is the first time this camera has been used in a film on an art object. We are creating a new world." The director not only relied upon advanced cameras to make his ground-breaking film. He also staged the film like a work of art. "We shot every image like a painting," he says, adding that the process involved building sections of the image and then reassembling them back into one piece. "It is a Benedictine work piecing together this painting from various materials. I haven't seen a movie like that."

The film involves several characters from the approximate 500 people featured in the original painting. The Dutch actor Rutger Hauer plays Brueghel and Michael York his art collector. Majewski is currently in post-production on the film, which he is planning to show at the Louvre in Paris, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Museum in Washington and at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, which also did a retrospective of his work in 2006, and on general release.

"Making the film was very old-school in terms of painting, like the Expressionists. You have to paint the film bit by bit," he says. "When we started to do this there was not a single perspective, but several perspectives merged together in one landscape. I found bits and pieces that correspond to his landscapes so we built sections of the images and shot them. Then we had to reassemble the image and sew it together. Then we went to a film studio with a lot of blue screen and green screen and brought in our stars and shot them against the landscape."

Majewski is meanwhile preparing a second film with Hauer called Stoneman with Steven Spielberg's regular cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. Fontenelle's biopic of the Brazilian musician, Loki: Arnaldo Baptista, which won best feature film at the 7th Cine Fest Petrobas Brasil in New York, earlier this month, uses Baptista's paintings to tell his story. Baptista's life is shown through the paintings, which he created after attempting suicide, which show the different stages of his life. The film also incorporates historical images, showing him on the road to becoming one of Brazil's most famous rock stars.

"I didn't use any techniques that merge painting into film like Waking Life. The technique is Arnaldo painting himself and his soul," said Fontenelle, adding that he based the film on the philosopher John Locke's idea that a newborn is a blank canvas and society will change him. "I introduced Arnaldo's painting in the documentary to illustrate this thesis," he says. Fontenelle began working on the film in 2004 and had accumulated around 500 hours of images by 2007, working with his three crew members, which he was able to edit into a first version of the film in one month, using his laptop.

Loki is currently showing in select cities in Brazil and has been selected to take part in a number of upcoming film festivals, including events in Chile and Brazil, In-Edit in Barcelona, and the Antimatter Film Festival in Canada in October. "Arnaldo began to paint a lot of art. I decided to use it as I was trying to find something to tell this part of the story. He began to paint his childhood, his youth, his almost death."