CASE STUDY: RUSSIAN FILM GROUP CORPORATION

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We have new amazing stories from Cerebro customers. This time, we talked to the film producer, director Alexey A. Petrukhin, and VFX producer Maria Zaykovskaya from the Russian Film Group Corporation about the release of the Viy sequel, their experience with film production in China, and further plans.

Alexey, tell us how you started your career in the cinema industry. Your first higher education was in management economics in sport, the second was in law, a PhD in juridical science. At what point in this story did cinematography come into play? Was it your childhood dream — to bring some good into the world?

Alexey Petrukhin: That was strongly put. People don’t often say that filmmaking is a mission. For me, it all started as a bit of fun. All things you’ve mentioned are a certain background, my life experience, the kind that was received at the time when the country was being rebuilt after the collapse, and it gave me potential. Among other things, it gave me decent income that allowed me to come in contact with the magic of cinema. To be fair though, back then it was mostly vanity-induced. It was only later that I understood that cinema is not just entertainment, but a serious industry for any country.

Cinema creators are, essentially, as important as doctors. There are doctors that heal and doctors that do harm. Filmmakers have the same kind of responsibility. You can bring something good and kind into the world with your film, inspire people — that’s what films should do, first and foremost; they unite people, teach them something, tell them something new. But you can just as well make a film that can make people lose the will to live.

When you run into serious difficulties, you are faced with a choice: to fight or to change the route. It was a similar moment when I came to a realization of how filmmaking fits into my life, how I myself want to be working with it, precisely. I decided to make filmmaking my primary occupation and start working more in that department.

When you were little, did you ever think you would one day act in movies, become a producer or a director?

No, it was never my dream. There was a period in my childhood when I wanted to join a circus, become a clown. I was a very serious child, had perfect grades, was one of the leaders, and not just in my grade. I felt uncomfortable revealing it, but on the inside, I did dream. This is the only connection my thoughts at the time had to the entertainment industry.

We did always love movies, went to the movie theater to see the same ones dozens of times, it was inspiring; for instance, the Indian Disco Dancer, the Russian Pirates of the 20th Century, and all of the Jackie Chan movies.

Then, in the 80s, I had my own video rental store, so there was a bit of a connection with movies, but I had no intention of being in them, I was just making money.

On your website it says: Alexey Petrukhin — producer, director, screenwriter. Why does it not mention that you are also an actor?

In every feature, there is always a micro scene with me in it, just for a gag and for the sake of showing up in a film, but at some point, I realized what I really can or cannot do. Of course, a film is an illusion, and computer graphics, special effects, superb editing, music, and sound design can make even the least talented actor into a superhero people will love.

I often get asked how I choose the movies when I give money for a film as a producer. But it’s the investors that give money for the films; the producer is the person who creates a film from an idea and delivers it to the viewer. You take an idea, you feel that it is needed, useful, good, kind; you determine what it bears and for whom exactly. After that you need to choose a screenwriter, and if you have one confirmed, you select a director and cinematographer who understand the initial idea and share it with you.

For instance, we have Artur Abidinov working with us. He is a fan of China and India, the culture and history of those countries, and all Eastern martial arts. So for him, working in filmmaking is not just a job, it’s life itself. The producer’s goal is to connect all the dots, make it work, find the money, the sponsors, the investors, take on the responsibility for everything. Although it often happens that as a team, we also put the money up and become investors in our own projects. 

It seems that cinematography is a very personal story for you. You spoke very emotionally about how film awards are given to people who have shown their country in the worst light.

What I meant was that if you show your own country in the worst possible light, then aside from just the festivals that we all want to be in — in Cannes, Venice, Germany — you will have considerably higher chances to be recognized. And if you make a film that straight up calls for a revolution in the country, then Hollywood will put you on a pedestal, you’ll get an Oscar and a Globe, the whole world will learn about you, and everyone will go and watch it in your own country, download, buy, even reluctantly. Then some portion of the people will be charged with negativity and join the opposition. This way cinema is used as a weapon of mass destruction. This is not a conspiracy theory. Many people say, “Make a movie like the ones Americans make, and you will get screen time.” But you try and make that kind of film. The market capacity is incredibly small, and it’s all controlled by the major players. When you make movies, you need viewers, like in China. But India and China, they don’t give up; they thrive and hold an immensely large society in unity and genuine patriotism.

When countries are conquered, natural resources and mass media are captured first. Cinema is the strongest, most powerful, and ubiquitous form of mass media. We’ve learned how to read newspapers, yes, but even now society believes them, no matter what they write. Many people say, “There is no smoke without fire. There is still some truth in there, even if altered or embellished a little.” And only a small percentage of people can understand what has been exaggerated or made up in order to cause a sensation. Journalists are just like directors. You’re doing an interview with me, but the true purpose is not PR, but inspiring the readers. They will learn something new and that’s the educational side you bring to the people. Any piece of news can be delivered differently. It can be done in a way that will make you want to lock yourself in your home and be afraid of everything, and you won’t want to live. But information could also be delivered in a way that will make people informed, composed, and react faster in a difficult moment.

How would you describe, in a sentence or two, what the Russian Film Group corporation actually does?

It’s a team of like-minded people. I’m often called its founder and owner, but that is not true. The company has several legal persons, a team, directors, founders, partners, investors. What I am is a representative, a participant, a producer. This is not stipulated by the company’s charter, I just represent the team. We want to participate in the creation of the brand for Russian cinematography. We want to release films that awaken and reinforce the Russian genetic code.

Is that why you decided to rebrand in 2008?

In the commercial sense, this name has disadvantages, considering the global attitude toward anything Russian, but we were not afraid and acknowledged that there would be certain difficulties; and we believed that in about 10 years, Russian films would be a brand that would attract interest. Russian Film Group and the China Film Group have started a joint project. China Film Group is a state corporation financed with billions of yuan to produce the nation’s own films, but it has the same mission that we would like to take on. We, on the other hand, are a private entity; nonetheless, we have gotten support from the Film Fund and the Ministry of Culture. This is pleasing, and even if we don’t become a state corporation, we can still grow and bring many useful things to the industry.

Why did China appear in the Viy-2 project?

Initially, the first Viy was planned to be based on Gogol, the second would be called Journey from Transylvania to Moskovia, the third — Journey to China. The fourth film was conceived as Journey to India. We knew we’d be travelling to China and that the film would have dragons. Every nation has its own deities which are similar in description and function to the pagan Viy.

When we started to research the beliefs of various peoples, it turned out that there is a myriad of entities that guard the land of the dead and the passage into it from the land of the living. We combined the first and second films and released them under the name Viy in 3D in 2014. As such, Journey to China became the second film and was named The Mystery of Iron Mask, while Journey to India became the third film.

How much time do you spend in China?

In 2015, I had 52 flights, in 2016 — 63 flights, in 2017 — 24, this year, I’m actually flying to China tomorrow, which will be my 16th flight. Currently, I don’t travel there as much, but by the end of the year, it appears there will be a lot of flights again.

How was work on the second film distributed between the Russian and Chinese divisions, in percentage terms? How much of the film was shot here in Russia, and how much in China?

If we’re talking about filming, about 10% was done in Moscow, 20% in Prague, and 70% in China. If we’re talking about postproduction, 90% is done in a studio here in Russia, and only 10%, related to voiceover, will be done in China and America.

The first Viy was the highest grossing film in 2014, you received the title of best producer of the year for it. What kind of feelings does a person have after receiving that kind of an award and being talked about by everyone?

On the one hand, you have more responsibility, on the other, it gives you a certain carte blanche, you have more trust from partners, from producers. There’s certain satisfaction; you realize that all of your calculations had been correct and you understand a thing or two about filmmaking. Yes, I would have filmed it a bit differently now, and I feel like a bit more work could have been done. But we still have the pleasure of knowing that this was the record box office for the first day and first weekend that still haven’t been beaten to this day by any other Russian film. This is why we’re hoping to raise that bar a little with the second Viy. Of course, the overall box office of Going Vertical is very impressive and motivating as it demonstrates the possibilities and the capacity of our market, and we’ll be striving for that. Nonetheless, we will at least try to keep the starting records for ourselves.

Do you think it’s a problem of the Russian film industry that no one here knows the producers and barely anyone knows the directors?

Hollywood is a great example of how an industry serves its country, and it’s more important than the army. Their films have brought up the entire world and convinced it that America is the strongest, richest, most powerful state. America has well-developed film journalism and film criticism aimed at advancing the industry. They have the main and very simple rule: you either speak well about your colleagues within the industry, or you say nothing at all. This helps a lot.

Even if an American hasn’t seen a film, they will still praise it, even if unnaturally. No one will badmouth someone else’s film behind their back. But here, unfortunately, bad things are covered more eagerly than good things. Basically, in America, they write about success, while here, more is written about failures, scandals, rumors.

So if you want to become famous in Russia, you need to accuse, insult, bully someone, fail disastrously, and then journalists will show up and write about what an epic fail it is. That’s when everyone will know you. It’s difficult to get famous here otherwise.

You said in an interview once that you tend to gather a team with difficulties. How does this happen? Are there people who show up and say, “I want to work with you. Hire me!”?

The more flaws you have, the more likely you are to be on our team. Of course, you want to work with extraordinary people who are creative and who sparkle. If you are a producer, your main goal is to enthuse everyone with an idea, unite them, direct all those sparks into a single fire so that it would give warmth to everyone. That is the hardest part.

Please, tell us about the Indian Viy and your future projects.

The Indian Viy titled Journey to India: On the Threshold of Immortality is a very powerful story that will include all of the best things we’ve learned in the first films. I can feel that we’ll have a lot of fun with it. The only thing I’m scared of is that we have once again set a high bar for ourselves, came up with new effects, new scale, decorations, characters, because we wanted everything to go down smoothly; I don’t know how we’re going to do all this and whether it can be done at all, even though I’m certain that we’ll do it. We’ve already shot some of the footage. We’re slowing down for now, because we’re having some trouble coordinating in China. We’re moving forward thanks to the Film Fund and the Ministry of Culture, for which we are immensely grateful.

This film will be an Indian-Chinese-Russian coproduction; we will attempt to combine all three cultures. The feature should be interesting for each country, and we have worked on the screenplay for a very long time to make sure we don’t make our old mistakes.

Indian celebrities will take part in the film, so those who love Indian movies will be glad. Our Indian colleagues have visited us, and now our specialists are going to visit them for two or three months to organize everything in their studio; they are some of the greatest Indian showrunners, making 2000 episodes a year. This means they make five episodes a day. That’s insane. At first I thought I misunderstood them, but it’s true. We’ll try to get them to working in Cerebro, so that our cooperative postproduction is more efficient.

In the story, our characters end up in India, where Asurs appear, meaning zombies, i.e. entranced people who can still become themselves, but very few know about this. We are also planning to have China, Cossacks, our cartographer once again with his scientific story, Indian princesses, all of them freeing the Indian people and saving the world with dancing, kung fu, sabers, and horilka. There will be monsters, there will be zombies, and we can’t forget magic either.

What are you planning aside from Viy?

Crime and Punishment. It will be a powerful film based on Dostoyevsky’s novel. The narrative will be from the point of view of Dunya Raskolnikova, who arrives in search of her brother. At the end of the book, Rodion was sent into exile. He wrote letters to his sister about demons possessing people’s souls and the Earth being in danger. He was considered insane. Dunya sets off to look for him, goes to all the seedy places that he used to visit, meets the occult society that summons those spirits. This will be similar in style to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, or Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, a fantasy story mixed with reality, quick and lively.

We’ve also finished The Final Trial (sequel of the original Uchilka, The Teacher), which is a thriller and a drama. It turned out to be socially important; it’s a uniting, inspiring story. Viewers will be able to see it at the beginning of February of the next year.

Aside from that, we are shooting Leave the Group, about social media and the so-called death groups. We also have two comedies completed, Greek Nut and I’m Not Like That, Neither Am I; although I would rather call them dramedies — philosophical, but with subtle humor as well. We’ll also please the youngsters with the release of a film about Russian hip-hop titled BEEF — this is a unique experiment which viewers will be able to see at the end of January. These are the films that allow us to work within our distribution territory during the year, while big releases still take two or three years to make. We could do it stronger and faster, but we don’t always have enough investment.

I would like to express gratitude to the entire Cerebro team for our productive collaboration, and I really hope that our partners and colleagues will also make use of all the possibilities that your company provides.

Please tell us who you are and what you do for the studio.

Maria: My name is Maria Zaykovskaya and I am a visual effects (VFX) producer. I’ve been working for the studio since 2012; when I started, the first Viy was already in post-production. Now we’re working on the second part and have the third one at the development stage.

When you introduced yourself before the interview, you said your name was Marusya, which is an affectionate form for Maria. Any reason why you like to be known as Marusya?

I’ve always been Marusya, since childhood. Ours is serious business, but not too serious at the same time. “Marusya” is easier to remember than “Maria” and that’s why people tend to know me as the Marusya and don’t mistake me for someone else. But I don’t mind when they call me by my full name too (laughs); when we have a business meeting, I am Maria.

Tell us more about the work at the studio. How is it organized and how many people you have?

We have a rather complicated setup. For many years, Viy has been our fundamental project. We do all stages of film production, starting with the script and up to post-production. The whole thing happens in multiple countries and different stages require that a great number of our employees work out of the studio. That’s why we, like most businesses like ours, have a backbone group of 10 people or so, and they are our think tank. On different stages of production, we change people, places, and objectives, but the main tool stays the same. Further down the road, depending on the stage of production, a number of employees may vary, but it’s usually around 25-50 people.

So most people work from Moscow?

Depends on the production stage. Our director is a very interesting, creative person who likes to have things under control and make sure everything is okay. That’s why it is important, and even more so during the development and pre-production, that everyone involved is at the same place. Most of the time, it happens to be Moscow. All artistic, technical, and creative development happens in the studio since it’s faster and the director can be more precise in setting the goals. During the filming, the majority of people are not in Moscow, but rather on the move. Now we’re at the post-production stage and most of us are engaged with management and control. As a VFX producer, I mainly work here in Moscow, in our “think tank”.

How do you control your employees and keep track of their work?

We use Cerebro and all existing communications and control methods employed in different countries. We have an established process and Cerebro, of course, helps us a great deal. We’ve been using it since the post-production of the first Viy. Since we’re starting the next film as soon as we finish the previous one, it’s very important that we maintain the work made five, six, or seven years ago. For example, Viy 2 was partially filmed in China, and before that, we spent six months getting ready. So the production designer responsible for computer graphics was in China, but the director and the CG supervisor were mainly staying in Moscow; set construction, graphics, and further locations were dealt with all at the same time. If you take into account the time difference, the firewall, etc., it was crucial that everything worked fast and could be found in the same space. But since our work was based on Cerebro, it was very convenient and at times even faster than via FTP or remote access, despite the fact that we had people working in Moscow, China, India, and Germany at the same time.

How did the implementation of Cerebro go? Were you working for the studio at the time?

As far as I remember, the first wave of implementation was a long time ago, even before both parts of Viy, probably when they were filming Velvet Revolution. As for more current times, active implementation started during the post-production of Viy in 2010-2011.

Did you have any problems with the implementation?

No, not really. We’re used to any tools, whether it’s Cerebro, a website, or a forum like good old times. And that’s why we didn’t have any problems and neither did our employees, people and studios we’re working with. Most of them already have well-established relations with Cerebro. I recall that we didn’t even use your servers but our own from the start. And we had no problem with external access either.

Are there things Cerebro lacks in your opinion? Something to make you work more efficient, something you would like to improve?

Your developers and us maintain a very close relationship (laughs); we have a wonderful chat room, where we can suggest ideas, ask questions, make corrections, and ask to add something specifically for us. We are a fairly unique project in a way that we have an enormous number of technical and creative tasks going at the same time, a lot of processes, and we simultaneously perform production and filming in different countries. We have a very dynamic editing process with constant changes since we work with different markets. Corrections are made quickly and are often counterintuitive,  when the relevant process has already been initiated. And it’s crucial to be able to make corrections in time and see the history of changes. And many options that Cerebro offers help with it a lot.

There are many technical requirements that we must meet. Specifically, we have our own file naming system for the internal CG and DI processes. And this is where we disagree with our developers, who, say, are trying to save server space. So as soon as issues arose, we asked you to cancel some updates, and your developers promptly helped us. After all, every studio is unique and that’s why we work closely with your developers and they often take our wishes into account. What distinguishes us from the others is that we are not a computer graphics production studio, but rather a management center. Production studios mostly use connectors with gateways to other software systems, which supervisors find the most convenient to work with. But we, as a studio that mainly deals with development, goal-setting, and CG, would rather prefer to have a connection with editing software and import things straight to the assembly. But it’s pretty hard to achieve in Cerebro as I recall.

Please, describe your typical day at work.

There’s no such thing as a typical day at work; because of the time difference we have to stay in touch 24 hours a day. When we were staying in China, I had this joke that my day lasts 29 hours: 24 local hours and five extra due to time difference with Moscow. When people go to bed in China, it’s evening in Moscow: people are in high gear and everybody wants something from you. The only typical thing about us is the basics: we check dailies in the morning and in the evening, while in between, we work the most productively, because the majority of people is at the studio or in touch. Of course, it’s pretty hard to synchronize the work of all departments, people, and studios working with the graphics, and that’s why we must always stay online. Night is our favorite time (laughs).

How do you feel about the time spent in China? Have you been there long?

I was staying during the whole filming period. We know now that we can achieve a lot and in little time, because we had two sets going and the CG team working in Moscow all at the same time. It was difficult, but it was also exciting because we were one team with great professionals from different countries. We have developed our own language during the years: it’s like we read each other’s minds and can predict what another person is going to do several steps ahead; we were like a well-oiled machine. I’ve had a good experience in China and with the Chinese team. There were some difficulties, of course, and it took some getting used to like in any international team. Everyone has their own style of work, there are cultural differences, some day-to-day matters, you have different opinions on how this whole thing should be organized. But you can solve it quickly.

How did you solve the language barrier problem? Did you have an interpreter with you at all times?

Every department had at least one interpreter, but honestly, we work in the same field, talk about the same things, and it’s not like we’re discussing abstracts ideas; after all, you can always mime. Since there are no strangers on set but professionals just like you, there’s no language barrier as such. Sure, China is special, because not many people can speak English, but they have a strict hierarchy in their departments, which is convenient. You usually talk with the person in charge and they pass on the instructions to their subordinates. Naturally, discussions were a bit slower: everything had to be translated into Russian, English, and Chinese—we were mainly using three languages. But we didn’t feel any discomfort. Of course, it is a bit extreme when so many cultures are mixed together on set: a big Russian crew, a big Chinese crew, German stereographers, English actors, but it was also great, a very interesting mix.

And what about the Great Firewall? What is the internet quality in China?

As far as the technical part goes, we didn’t have problems, only inconveniences. You could get a high-speed internet if you wanted to and employ other means of communication as well. It’s just a question of money or savvy. At the end of the day, you get used to it, you can always find a way: if FTP doesn’t work, we can transfer via Cerebro; if Cerebro doesn’t work, we’ll think of something else. If you can’t find a monitor, bring one from Moscow; if a download takes too long, ask your friend who travels by plane to deliver. All in all, everything went pretty well.

And the most important question: when will the film finally come out?

We’re finishing the graphics and finalizing the rest of the processes. So, the film will be out in the nearest future!

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