FX artist, director Ivan Baryshnikov is working on his own project ‘Don’ together with film industry enthusiasts. In the interview, we’ve talked about how Ivan manages to draw attention to the short film, and where to look for ideas and resources. We’ve also discussed the development of the project and the creative team’s future plans.
First, let’s talk about why we’re here. It all started with a video that already has 50,000 views. Tell me a little about what it has been like.
Actually, it’s been a very long process. I’ve been working on the Don project for two years, and I can’t say I’m seeing any sharp surge in activity right now. I try to plan everything in advance. As for the people on the project, I’ve known them for quite some time.
By people on the project, do you mean JCenterS?
Yes. I have a habit of keeping in contact with anyone who can help me or whom I can help. I’ve turned to JCenterS because they’re quite progressive. On top of that, about six months ago they began advocating the idea of staying in the Russian CG community and trying to make a name for themselves because now is the perfect time for that.
At the time, I was preparing to release the teaser. When I did, I first wrote to Zhenya Kormilitsyn, who watched it, liked it, and posted it on his Telegram channel. Then JCenterS launched free online courses, and I thought — why not tell people about my project to gain some recognition and support? So I offered to use my teaser to explain how an approximate movie pipeline looked based on a single shot, and things got rolling.
The 46-minute video they have on their channel is a short version, right?
That’s right. I have a long, three-hour version on my channel. They called me on Telegram and we held a webinar-style lecture.
Did you speak to an audience? Was there anyone else during the shoot besides people from the channel?
At first, there were only students from their online courses. A little later, they posted the video on their channel, shortening it to 40 minutes and leaving only the most important information so that people wouldn’t have to waste three hours of their life watching the full version.
And you say you haven’t noticed any changes since the video appeared on their channel?
Of course I have. I’ve got a lot of people writing me and offering to help with the project. I’m getting more and more new ideas. Thanks to that video, I now have a lot more people to turn to. My Telegram channel has also grown a lot, for which I’m very grateful.
I want to tell you that story from our point of view. We knew nothing about your video until we suddenly started getting a lot of spontaneous registrations on our website, and all of the users said they had come to us after watching your video. We’re still getting new users thanks to you. We really appreciate such an honest and good-natured promotion, which we knew nothing about. It looks like a full-fledged integration. Thank you very much. We’re very pleased.
I think it is only natural, as Cerebro is a great tool. It’s very convenient and accessible.
Not everyone would agree with you.
Well, for me as someone who has worked in CGF, 3D, and several companies it’s true. I’ve come to that conclusion by looking at the pipeline. I like the pricing policy, the accessibility, and the free trial version. It’s great, and it has helped me a lot.
I first got introduced to Cerebro at Premier Studios, which is now called 1-2-3 Production VFX. To be honest, I had trouble using it at first, as I had no prior experience with it. They would tell me, “Here’s the task. Open the program and do your thing. Publish posts.” I understand very well how it may look for a contractor. When you switch from one task manager to another, you may encounter some problems. It was difficult for me at first, but then I realized I couldn’t just keep track of everything in my head. So I started to study different options and decided that Cerebro was the most adequate one.
This system helps me a lot, so I’m always happy to talk about it. A fair share of the JCenterS audience is not super experienced, so they find that information really useful. I’m very glad that it has brought you new users and that you got interested in my project.
We discussed on CG PODCAST #1 why Cerebro is hard for some people to use. The answer we got was, “We spend a big part of our lives mastering complex professional software, so nobody wants to spend even more time learning how to use Cerebro.” So we try to help as much as we can because if you configure everything properly, it works well.
That’s right — it’s because we have to learn a lot of things. For example, the company I work at uses Houdini, plus I have to master a lot of new areas as I am the director and producer of my project, not just an FX artist. I understand perfectly well that Houdini is a very complex piece of software. Although any software is complex if you want to truly master it; It could take years to do it. So when someone needs to learn something new, they often think, “Damn, I really don’t want to do it. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll send it to you. After that, you can post it wherever you like.” People just don’t want to waste their time! But if you want to be organized, it’s worth learning such things.
Let’s get back to your project. Why the 1970s and 1980s and an alternate reality? Why not something else?
I’ve been interested in all things military ever since I was a kid. During school, I attended military training camps and did a lot of hiking. My father served in Chernobyl, and my uncle — in Afghanistan.
Besides, I’m just interested in military equipment: humanity is very creative! Of course, all those inventions haven’t been used for the best of purposes, but the way they work is fascinating: the devices themselves, the development of technology… When I was at school, I would watch all sorts of weapon documentaries after classes. There was a really good TV show called Udarnaya Sila (lit.: Shock Force). It had great storytelling.
The 20th century was packed with events: civil wars, revolutions, conspiracies, armed conflicts, espionage… Why the 1970s and 1980s, you ask? Because for me, that was the most interesting period of the entire era. Of course, there were also world wars, but they get enough attention as it is.
When you decided to do the project, did you settle on an era, theme, and content right away or did you choose between several options?
I originally wanted to make a scene with a flying helicopter. I love helicopters. Besides, you can fit a lot of special effects and elements into a flight scene. I’m talking about surroundings, flight animation, and camera movement. The helicopter also has weapons; missiles are flying, smoke coming out, etc. Initially, I wanted to make the scene in the rain, but changed my mind and chose Indian summer — a really beautiful time.
Eventually, the story got more and more complex, and I decided I wanted the scenes to feel like a logical continuation of each other, and not as something completely unrelated. I originally wanted to do everything using CG and alone, but then I realized I wouldn’t be able to cope with so much work. I started writing to people, asking what skills they had and if they could use them to help me.
For example, I have a good friend called Vlas Vladimirov. He’s a movie stuntman. He told me, “Vanya, I know a couple of camera operators, and I can fall, jump, and fight on a professional level.” So I offered him to play the main character. That’s how it all began.
The person you see in the teaser is not the main character — it’s me. Everything will be a little different in the final version. The teaser’s job is to be intriguing. Why am I the actor? Because it’s difficult to find enthusiastic people who are ready to do something for free.
Maybe you just wanted to play the main character yourself?
No, I’m not an actor. I can’t play. It’s best if everyone does what they do best. That way, the project will look better.
Does your choice of topic have anything to do with the fact that it’s easy to find military equipment references?
I’ve always wanted to make something related to that topic; something powerful and moving. By the way, there isn’t that much content about the 1970s-1980s era, the heyday of technology, and the nerve-bending moment in history when the Cold War could have turned into a real one. That works in my favor.
You talk about the 1970s and 1980s, but the warfare you show is an alternate reality. After all, there were no real hostilities at that time, were there?
That’s right. There was no fighting at the time. Actually, I’m leaning toward the 1970s, not the 1980s. But we haven’t decided on the exact year yet.
Why show hostilities if they were none? Did you simply want to show some military equipment and fighting?
First of all, it’s a statement about us as a team. “Look what we can do!” The military theme is perfect for filming, special effects, etc. Of course, there is cyberpunk, sci-fi, magic, and so forth, but I’m not interested in them. I need a story that feels more down-to-earth and real. I’d even go as far as to call it science fiction. We show alternate history, but it has real logic behind it. It is physically capable of existence.
The JCenterS channel calls your work A Movie from Scratch. You yourself call it a project, a short movie, and a video. So what will it be in the end?
That’s a good question! Why does JCenterS call it A Movie from Scratch? Probably because you can use my video to show people how to make a movie.
Is it not because you consider yourself a film director?
I’m not making a movie. That would have been a colossal, difficult undertaking for which I’d have to study a lot and in which I’d have to invest a lot of time. I consider it a video, but you could also call it a short film. It’ll last approximately five minutes. I say approximately because my friends keep suggesting new ideas, and I keep adding new scenes.
For example, I have a friend who helps me with props and with finding new locations: he explores abandoned places and bunkers. I recently went to a location with him, and he suggested we add a new scene to the video. He said he was ready to take it upon himself and take care of the technical issues, and I agreed. That scene wasn’t originally in the video, but it explains the rocket scene in the teaser.
Do you have a script for your short film?
Yes, it is gradually growing larger. I add things, change the storyboard, tweak the animatic, etc. There is no professional script because I’m not a screenwriter; I have no relevant education and experience. I have a good, proper outline; a story description fixed on the storyboard and in the animatic.
If there is a script, can we count on seeing a coherent story?
Of course. Those aren’t just some random shots — it’s a proper story. There has to be a meaning so that it all doesn’t seem like a hectic and chaotic series of explosions. I want the viewers to understand the logic behind the story. To some extent, you can see that in the teaser.
You say you want people to see that you can create graphics. Who are those people? Your colleagues? The entire world? Ordinary people? The God?
Our potential customers. For us, Don is a testing ground of sorts. It’s teaching us a lot of things. It’s my first ever directing, supervising, and managerial experience. Our project is a statement. We’re saying, “Look, we can make graphics. Contact us if you need our services.”
So it’s a professional statement?
Yes. It’s also a statement for ordinary viewers so that they understand and feel interested. A lot of people from outside the VFX are interested in what I do, but they won’t watch a video that has no plot or message.
If the story is a success and people like the project, then I have a big, huge dream… I don’t know how long it’ll take to achieve and whether it’s possible at all, but I hope that the project will help us attract an investor and make a full-fledged movie or at least a short film that’ll be longer than five minutes. In that case, we’ll have professionals capable of writing a good script, directing and producing the project, and so on.
So you want to finish the project on your own and use it to find people who can help you make something bigger, right? Or do you want to turn the project into something bigger?
It’d take a lot of time to turn our story into a full-fledged movie. It’s simply too much for us at the moment as we have our main jobs and other things in life we want to do. We don’t have enough time to spare to turn the project into an actual movie.
At this stage, our main goal is to find as many people as possible who’ll help us complete the small Don project. Then we’ll have something to show to the clients and the audience, who’ll say, “Wow! Great job. Let us help you make a cool story out of it because we’re also interested in that era.”
You’ve been working on the project for two years in your spare time. Do you still feel as enthusiastic as when you were starting out? Are you afraid you may not be able to finish the project at all?
It depends. Sometimes I think that it’s over and that we won’t be able to shoot again. We depend a lot on the weather, so when something doesn’t work out for us, I get really upset. Still, I’ve already invested so much into the project that I’m not ready to give up.
At the same time, I want to meet the viewers’ expectations, but I don’t want them to expect too much from us. We’re first and foremost doing it for ourselves while asking other people for their opinion. I’ve seen negative comments about that and I want to say — the government doesn’t sponsor us. I’m doing this mostly for myself, and my team is also doing it for themselves to improve their skills.
Many people see my work as propaganda, but they’re wrong. I started the project two years ago and, I’ll say again, I’m doing it solely for myself and so that the viewers like the visuals. I want to create something good, and my enthusiasm doesn’t fade over time.
Sometimes we have to cancel our plans because someone can’t make it or has other work, or simply isn’t feeling like it. But then, when we do manage to shoot something and I see the result, I realize that it looks really good and that we should keep going. It gives me energy. I also have good folks like JCenterS and yourselves helping me, and that also motivates me and charges my battery. I see that people are interested and that my audience is growing, and that keeps me going. It means a lot to me.
Do you know when you’ll finish the project?
At first, I wanted to finish it in March 2022, but it obviously didn’t work out (laughs). Now I realize that I shouldn’t set strict deadlines for myself. Deadlines are useful, but it’s important to be realistic, and that’s what I’m learning on this project. To be honest, I’m not ready to say when we’ll release our short film. If we keep working at the same pace as we do now (although, of course, I wish there were more of us and that we could devote more time to the project), I expect it to take another year or two. At the same time, I don’t want our potential viewers to expect it to come out in exactly two years, because if it doesn’t, there’ll be questions. That’s why I don’t set strict deadlines for myself.
Does being the boss feel nice? Or do you find the responsibility challenging?
It’s very interesting and very challenging. I like it because it makes my life exciting. When you face difficulties, you don’t fill your head with things that may upset you. You complicate your life and grow stronger for it. Some people like everything to be easy, but I’m the opposite of that — I love challenges. They say it’s called masochism, but for me, that’s just the way to make things interesting. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, you have to solve lots of problems. But solving them feels amazing! It gives me the energy to keep going, to keep living, and to keep learning.
Are you hard on yourself and others when it comes to work?
I can’t be too hard on someone who’s helping me for free. I consider it our common project. Everyone has a role in it. I act as a director, producer, supervisor, and FX artist. However, someone responsible for the sound is just as important. We all contribute something.
Can you tell someone that you don’t like something and that they need to change it?
Of course. That’s what my role on the project entails. We change a lot along the way. We’ve already re-shot some scenes — not because I thought they were bad, but because I got negative feedback from the person responsible for match moving.
Can you call yourself a perfectionist?
To a certain extent. For example, I want the way the military, the fighting, and the buildings look in our video to match the 1970s. I want to stick to that era as much as possible, but it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes I lack the knowledge and have to consult with my friends who know more about that time period.
In terms of CG tasks, I’ve been greatly influenced by CGF’s pipeline — clear, smooth, and convenient. Besides, I worked in the movie industry for four or five years and picked some things up from other studios.
How much experience do you have in graphics?
My whole work experience has to do with graphics. I began to immerse myself in it in 2016, after university. I first tried to be a modeler but found it too boring. Yes, it’s a very difficult and important job, but it didn’t suit me personally. After that, I moved to Moscow and became a motion designer. That’s when I realized that there were movies where everything was possible and where I could realize all my desires and put all my hard work to good use.
So I started to do some CG, but it really kicked off when I left to work in the movie industry and landed a job at CGF. I’m very thankful to them for that. They have great employees who can teach you many things, I’m still friends with many of them, and they’re helping me with the project.
I also really appreciate the pipelines of various other studios. They help me learn, and I integrate some moments into my small-team pipeline to make it strict, correct, and clear. I’m trying to put everything I’ve learned into a formula that works specifically for our team.
I have a question about criticism. Do you see it as a bad thing, or do you feel like it can benefit you?
I absolutely don’t see criticism as something bad. Yes, sometimes it upsets me, but some things are much more obvious to outside observers. I’m fine with criticism as long as it’s objective.
If some random person starts saying that we’re incompetent and that we don’t know or understand anything, I tell them, “If you want to make the project better, help us. We don’t mind criticism, but we’ve already finished this stage and don’t have the energy or time to return to it. If you’re ready to do everything by yourself, be our guest. I always want the project to get better.”
When people hear it, they usually disappear or start telling us that we’re not professionals. But that’s exactly what I’m talking about — I’m doing this project for myself…
There have been many comments regarding the last scene in the teaser, with a lot of them mentioning audio latency. Have you fixed it?
No, I’ve decided to leave it as it is. It looks like the missile is close to the camera, and from the cinematographic point of view, people would have probably preferred for the sound to match the visuals. But the missile is actually far away — it’s just very big. I’ve assembled that scene myself. The missile is standing 320 meters away from the camera. Maybe there was another way to do it, but I decided to stick to the laws of physics. But I’ve made a mental note to myself about it.
Has there been any criticism that has made you change your mind about something?
Let me think… For example, when I posted some photos of our main character, I got a lot of feedback regarding his military uniform. There will always be some critical comments, and I’m okay with that.
Do you read all the comments under your video on YouTube, Telegram, and other channels?
Yes, because I’m very enthusiastic about it. I’d love it if someone could handle the advertising, social networks, and promotion for me, but I don’t have someone like that. I read all the comments myself because I want to see what’s happening and how people are reacting. I find it all very exciting. I love positive feedback and get a little upset about negative comments, although I often change my attitude after I re-read them. However, it’s never okay for people to be rude.
Would you like to be a guest on CG PODCAST No.1 and talk about your short film?
I’d love to. I’ve suggested it, but I’m not famous enough yet — I’m only trying to gain some popularity.
I feel like you’re fairly well-received in the community.
I’ve known Igor Eit long before the special operation. By the time it began, I had made the teaser showing a nuclear missile launch. Some people thought I was doing that for the hype, but I immediately made it clear that it had nothing to do with what was happening.
Maybe you should have waited? Did you regret posting the teaser when you did?
Not a bit. I’ve been working on the project for two years, and I’m not ready to put it on hold for who knows how long and ruin my professional life because of it. Had I waited to post the teaser, I would not have attracted the audience that supports the people helping me with the project. It’s harder for them to stay motivated than for me. As someone once told me, when you’re working on a project, you eventually end up with it one on one. A lot of people come and go.
Did Igor turn you down?
He said, “Vanya, I’m not ready to talk about war right now. It’ll look really bad to the public.” And I get it, but I don’t want the real world to influence my work. Those are two completely different things. I was very upset by the rejection. Eventually, I decided I would try to make a name for myself on my own. That’s when I wrote to Kormilitsyn, and we still keep in contact.
I later wrote to Igor again, asking him to post my teaser on his channel, and he agreed as if nothing had happened. He didn’t even ask me if I had changed the video. He asked nothing at all. I wrote a post, and he reposted it to his group — to a very strong CG podcast community. Those are people I hold in very high regard, so that also played a big role.
I have a question about Cerebro. Is there something you’d like to change about it (aside from the text highlighting feature, which we have mercilessly removed)? Or maybe you’d like to add certain features?
I haven’t updated yet, so I still use the highlighting feature…
I suggest updating.
I’m all for it, but I just haven’t had the time. I should probably update Cerebro and see what’s new, but we don’t have a super strong need for that at the time. I’m used to working in that space. I find it convenient. It has a lot of cool and complex features, but I don’t really need them right now. But if my colleagues ask me to add them all to Cerebro, then, of course, I’ll have to dive deeper in order to explain everything to them and track their work. I hope that sooner or later that moment will come.
You see, the team isn’t always in touch. They all have other work and plans. For me, this project is an important part of life. I spend a lot of time on it. For me, it’s a big goal, but it’s not the same for the other people involved. They have other commitments and interests. For them, it’s a chance to gain experience on someone else’s project. And I understand it perfectly.
Sometimes a person agrees to do something, only to say they’ve had something very important come up a couple of days later. Naturally, it’s annoying, but I understand. I’ll never tell someone that they are a bad person and that they’ve failed the team. They don’t really owe me anything. When I can pay them for the work they do, I can demand something from them. Ideally, I’d like to sign contracts with people who are helping me, but that’s not happening any time soon.
One last question: Do you ever plan to quit your job and become a full-time CG artist?
I’m not ready to leave my job yet. I’ve got a lot of interesting tasks. and the projects are really strong, serious, and with great prospects. They give me the experience of working in a team. Besides, I like my work. Also, my job helps me with my project. A lot of people are currently having difficulties in finding a job, but I’m doing well, and I’m not ready to sacrifice my financial stability.
It’s still not clear how our project will turn out. Perhaps no one will be interested in it. No one will come to me and say, “Let’s make this into something big, Vanya. We’re ready to help you.”
And now, please say something inspiring. We ask all our guests to do that at the end of the interview.
I often think that if I had done something a little differently or had taken into account some particular thing, either as part of the project or in life in general, everything could have turned out much better.
Many people do that. They start regretting their actions. My aunt once told me, “If you did something, then you saw it as the only right decision at the moment, or you would have done otherwise.”
That means that you shouldn’t dwell on what’s already been done. You need to think about what to do next. Don’t let events of the past hold you back, or you’ll never be able to move forward.