All posts by Scott Prewitt

Drumming with Destiny: Sick Mystic’s Zhenya Prokopenko’s Musical Journey to Success

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Drummer Zhenya Prokopenko shot by Andrey Ivlev

You may know him as the unmistakably fierce drummer from the Californian rock band Sick Mystic, but Zhenya Prokopenko is also a world class producer and songwriter, with 25 years of experience recording, performing and touring. One of the biggest and most in-demand musicians in Russia and Ukraine, it’s hard to believe that he could have had a very different career path had the fates not stepped in.

He was born in Belgorod, Russia in 1983, and despite excelling in his percussion classes at school, Zhenya Prokopenko didn’t choose to be a drummer – drumming chose him. At the tender age of 11, he had a date with destiny and unwittingly joined a neighbourhood band on the premise that he would simply remain “devoted” to the band. The rest, as they say, is history…

“They didn’t have a drummer yet. No one in the band was a decent musician, so requirements for me were minimal, just agree and be devoted,” Prokopenko recalled. “But we were all so inspired by the idea of our own band that everyone started taking lessons in order to play their instruments. We started to practice and rehearse regularly playing cover songs of our favorite bands and composing our own music.”

Rocking out to cover songs in the dank and unglamorous surroundings of a garage are where all the greats start – and Prokopenko followed in the footsteps of some of the greatest musicians of all. Having gone on to play with some of the best known acts within the two countries, including Quest Pistols, 4POST, Libido, Velvet and Lera Lera, lovers of pop rock music throughout Russia and Ukraine will immediately recognize him as one of today’s great drummers.

Music was always prevalent in the Prokopenko household. While his parents were more into pop music, the moment he discovered the spine-tingling riffs of Metallica, his true passion for rock music came out giving him a direction in which to build his own skill.

He says, “As I got older I was introduced to hard rock and heavy metal music. I remember the moment when I listened to the CD ‘And Justice For All’ by Metallica and realized that was my kind of music as it had lots of power, energy and a strong vibes.”

With undeniable passion for rock music, Prokopenko worked hard to perfect his skill on the drums at an early age, which has endowed him with a powerful, punchy, and solid groove based playing style.

“Drums were my first and the only true love. Of course as I was training and growing as a musician I learned other instruments, but drums for me are forever and ever,” Prokopenko admits.

“The first thing you hear when you listen to any modern track is a drum beat. You just can’t miss it. It’s powerful, loud and beautiful to me. When I was young I was always attracted to the magic a drummer creates. It was absolutely incredible to me how they play. I was much more interested in the drummer than the frontman.”

Zhenya Prokopenko
Zhenya Prokopenko shot by Sergey Naumov

Regardless of his intentions to blend into the background however, the spotlight seems to have followed him, and the recognition too. As the drummer of a number of celebrated bands over the past two decades, Prokopenko has accrued an illustrious reputation as a sought after drummer. In 2009 he was chosen to be the drummer for the band Lera Lera, the solo project from famous actress and singer Valeria Kozlova, who become an teen icon as a member of the massively popular Russian pop rock bands Ranetki and 5sta Family.

“When we were creating the project Lera Lera, we had been looking for musicians who would be able to be a star along with the frontman. Zhenya fully met the criteria,” said Lera Lera tour manager Yuri Fedorov.  “Filigree precision and very spectacular technique of musicianship, the whole appearance and unique charisma made him a special part of the show. He’s like Tommy Lee or Kate Moon in that sense.”

With Prokopenko by her side, Kozlova was named Singer of the Year by RU.TV in 2010, and in 2011 Lera Lera was awarded the Gold Bravo Statue. At the same time Prokopenko was also serving as a key member of the band Velvet, a pop rock act that would go on to earn major celebrity status in Russia. Spending 27 weeks on the Russian Radio charts where it held onto the No.1 spot with a firm grip, the song ‘Forgive’ would earn them a Golden Gramophone Award, as well as a Best Song Award nomination at the MUZ TV Awards. The awards continued to roll in for Prokopenko.

Not one to stay idle, Prokopenko added another act to his name when he joined the band 4POST in 2011. Maintaining a recognizable position in the spotlight, while playing with 4POST Prokopenko and the band were nominated for Best New Band at the RU.TV Awards and Best Pop Rock Band at the Real Music Box Awards. Quickly becoming celebrities on a global scale, 4POST proved to be a tough contender in the national qualifying competition to represent Russia in the Eurovision Song Contest where they earned 6th place, and InStyle magazine would later award them a Royal People Award for the work organizing charity concerts for the youth in Russia.

One career highlight Prokopenko has under his belt, that few others in the world can claim, is having the honor of playing at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi with his drum show Drum Cast alongside Russian celebrity Mitya Fomin. Fast forward to 2018 and Propenko is now devoting all of his time and energy into his new project in the states, the alternative rock band Sick Mystic.

Based in Los Angeles, California, Sick Mystic sprung up in 2016 with the promise of delivering original music and excellent sound, and they have definitely not disappointed their growing fanbase. The band may be new to the music scene, but what they lack in history they make up for with their unrivalled potential and drive – and it hasn’t gone unnoticed either as their promo tracks have already received a lot of positive feedback. To top it off, their social media interest is growing by the second, ‘Music Connection’ magazine has raved about the band, and they will even get their chance to shine on the Frosty, Heidi and Frank show on 95.5 KLOS. But perhaps most excitingly of all, Sick Mystic is releasing a brand new album, and they’re currently planning their US tour for next year. Needless to say 2019 is going to be huge for Sick Mystic and Zhenya Prokopenko, so keep your ears tuned to the music.

 

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From Russia to LA: Daria Khovanova’s Journey into the Music Biz

Daria Khovanova
Management Coordinator Daria Khovanova shot by Isabella Behravan

It takes far more than music alone to keep the music industry running like the finely-tuned machine it is. Anyone with dreams of graduating from garage demos to packed stadiums needs the support of somebody with the connections and know-how necessary to make that dream a reality. For those lucky musicians whose sounds and skills have earned them her discerning confidence, management coordinator Daria Khovanova has been an invaluable lifeline in a highly competitive business.

Long before she worked her way up the ranks to her position as management coordinator, Khovanova knew her path in life would lead her to the industry. Born and raised in Moscow, she began training in piano and music theory when she was only six. As a teenager she was glued to MTV and VH1, which led in part to her lifelong love of American and British music. The local bands weren’t her style, so Khovanova set out to explore the scene out west.

“I was never inspired by the music industry back home, in Russia. There were no bands I was excited about. Most of them came from abroad,” she recalled. “So I started travelling to Europe early on to go to shows and music festivals. While also seeking out any book I could find in the vein of ‘How To Make It In The Music Industry.’”

The worldly experience she gained from her travels proved invaluable. She began establishing and growing her professional network, discovered countless new artists and influences, and built the foundation for her future career. Before long, she landed a life-changing position that gave her an opportunity to get some hands-on experience working in the field she loved.

“I managed to secure an intern position at Monotone. It’s a management company run by Ian Montone, and it has a pretty amazing artist roster including Jack White, The Kills, LCD Soundsystem, The Shins, and Vampire Weekend,” she said.

With a myriad of illustrious clients that includes legendary 12-time Grammy-winner Jack White, Monotone is exceptionally discerning in who it hires. Luck played no part in the decision to offer Khovanova the internship; even then, in her earliest days, it was clear to anyone in the know she had an innate gift for navigating the ins and outs of the labyrinthian music industry. Her natural aptitude for finding, fostering and cultivating talent is what’s enabled her to rise to the top of her field.

During her time at Monotone she discovered her talents and passions made her perfect for the role she now fills. As a management coordinator, there’s very little Khovanova doesn’t do for her clients. Khovanova is there at every step of her clients’ careers, watching like a hawk and constantly ready for any opportunity or obstacle that might arise.

“As an artist’s management coordinator you wear many hats, and that’s what I enjoy most. There’s never a dull moment,” explained Khovanova. “I realized a long time ago that working in music I didn’t want to be stuck in the office. Maintaining personal contact with the artists is of great importance to me, and it’s something I think the artists appreciate also… It’s important to be in it together, share adventures together and grow a bond.”

That level of personal involvement in the creative process requires a delicate balance. Khovanova never veers in the direction of being either controlling or detached; her finely-honed talents enable her to find the perfect middle ground where her clients are never interfered with nor neglected, but given exactly what they need to thrive. That philosophy, and Khovanova’s unbounded passion, are a large part of what her clients consider when they choose her as their ally.

Years spent immersed in the music scene of Western Europe, followed by her experience at Monotone, made Khovanova a formidable figure in her field. Through skill and sheer perseverance she earned the trust and partnership of Los Angeles rock band Allah-Las. Active for a decade in the L.A. scene, Allah-Las have become headliner darlings of the indie music scene in both the U.S. and Europe. After a long friendship between Khovanova and the band, she became their management coordinator in 2017.

“We met at SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, through mutual Angeleno friends who are now based in Berlin. We stayed in touch and crossed paths many times in Europe and Russia,” she recalled. “[It’s my job to] secure endorsement deals, take part in merchandise development and production, manage touring and advancing shows, book flights and accommodations and make sure everything runs smoothly on the road.”

It’s virtually impossible to name an aspect of the band’s day-to-day schedule that Khovanova isn’t personally involved in. She’s the wizard behind the curtain, and everything she does as the band’s management coordinator revolves around her longtime love of the music they make.

“Their music is timeless, not affected by trends or new technologies. They like to record the tried-and-tested, old-fashioned way, which I think is very appealing,” she described. “Well, they take you in and you become part of a family. There is a certain magic in being on the road with a close-knit group of best friends… They always manage to put a smile on your face somehow. There’s never a dull moment.”

The camaraderie between the band members and Khovanova is invaluable when it comes time to plan and manage the band’s innumerable events. That was especially true when the Allah-Las headed to Texas to play the Marfa Myths festival. Khovanova handled nearly everything for the trip, ensuring it was an epic show for band and fans alike.

“[My job included] liaising with festival organizers and the record label, Mexican Summer, in preparation for the festival, negotiating set length, order of appearance, financial compensation, and more,” Khovanova said, describing the details of her unbelievably packed agenda. “I also did scheduling, handled the van rental, seeking out and booking the best accommodation options within close proximity to the venue, arranging advance shows, renting backline if needed, hiring and flying out the sound person the band trusts for the show, handling guest lists, and often settlement at the end of the night.”

Marfa, Texas
Daria Khovanova in Marfa, Texas

Handling the Allah-Las’ show at the iconic Marfa Myths festival speaks volumes to Khovanova’s abilities as their management coordinator. The festival has become a renowned showcase for artists, filmmakers and musicians at the forefront of the industry. Many of those who’ve shared their work at Marfa Myths, like Allah-Las, already have huge followings internationally. Others are receiving their first major exposure before going on to become household names. For a band like Allah-Las, nailing the perfect set at Marfa Myths meant a chance to gain thousands of new fans and an immeasurable boost in publicity. Thanks to Khovanova’s tireless work, the show went off without a hitch, further cementing her already stellar reputation.

Khovanova is extensively involved in groups and projects in addition to her work specifically with Allah-Las. She is a key member of Reverberation Radio, a creative collective of musicians who discover, create, and curate the best new tracks and deep cuts from artists around the country and internationally.

“Reverberation Radio is a close-knit group of record collectors who create weekly mixes of largely forgotten tracks drawing from decades of strange pop and instrumentals,” Khovanova described. “All members of Allah-Las are part of the collective and regular contributors to weekly mixes that come out each Wednesday.”

Working with what is essentially a think tank of musicians, Khovanova’s role is to ensure Reverberation Radio receives every possible opportunity to grow its brand and reach. By coordinating with artists, venues and event planners, she is constantly hard at work finding new ways to expand Reverberation Radio’s presence in the digital media landscape. Because of the close ties between Khovanova, the Allah-Las’ band members and the collective, she is uniquely qualified to bridge the needs of both groups. And with the westward move of a legendary East Coast venue, the popularity of Reverberation Radio exploded.

“There would often be Reverberation Radio DJ’s at the Allah-Las’ shows to ensure the right atmosphere. Lately though, with the opening of Zebulon – the legendary Brooklyn venue that relocated to LA in 2017 – the musical landscape has changed,” she described. “The Reverberation Radio dance party grew from playing smaller bars to being the most popular dance party to go to…, often with lines of people forming outside trying to get in. No one expected that kind of success, and it’s become a monthly event.”

Daria Khovanova
Daria Khovanova at Zebulon

That venue, Zebulon, is another example of a huge success that is covered in Khovanova’s fingerprints. In the time since it opened in L.A., it’s become one of the premiere Saturday night spots for the city’s young and trendy to dance, drink and discover new artists. Working hand-in-hand with Reverberation Radio, Khovanova has a key role in making the club what it is.

“I also work at Zebulon, where Reverberation Radio have a monthly dance night which has become the successful and well-attended ‘Party at Zebulon.’ Zebulon has become a new centerpiece to the nightlife in L.A. for people looking for a higher quality of music and art,” she said. “I do social media, marketing and some booking at the venue.”

The full list of duties she performs for Zebulon is seemingly endless. In a nutshell, she is responsible for all communication between the venue and Reverberation Radio. It’s a big task with bigger stakes for both the venue and the collective. Her results, however, speak for themselves. With the immense growth of popularity of both Zebulon and Reverberation Radio, the groups’ success hinges on the talents of Khovanova. Just as she’s done for Allah-Las, she’s guided both the collective and the venue along the path to becoming hugely influential forces in the industry. Through her constant networking, negotiating and coordinating, both have prospered and expanded their audiences exponentially.

What Daria Khovanova does best is organically develop mutually-beneficial relationships between musicians, venues, and the groups that promote both. The music industry is a complex network made up of thousands of tiny pieces all moving independently of one another. What Khovanova does is bring order to the chaos. With personal experience in every part of the process, an unrivaled talent for finding and making the connections her clients need, and a vast understanding of how the industry works from top-to-bottom, she is by far the most valuable asset her clients have.

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An Interview with Indie Rock Band Migrant Motel & Producer Peder Etholm-Idsoee

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David Stewart Jr. (left) & Chava (right) of Migrant Motel shot by Ernesto Stewart

We recently had a chance to catch up with Norwegian music producer Peder Etholm-Idsoee, and rock and roll power duo David Stewart Jr (vocals, bass, guitar) and Chava (drums, live loops) of the band Migrant Motel, for an interview on their collaboration and upcoming releases.

As a producer Peder draws upon a wide range of skills to help shape and co-create projects with the bands and artists he produces. A highly trained multi-instrumentalist and brilliant songwriter who’s known for his work on a lengthy repertoire of hits, such as Nico Farias’ single ‘Que Los Mares No Se Enteren,’ which took home the Song of the Year Award from the 2015 Latin Billboard Awards, Peder’s passion for experimentation and innovation has been key in the success of many artists.

Producer Peder Etholm-Idsoee
Producer Peder Etholm-Idsoee shot by Alex Winters

As much as Peder brings a diverse range of influences into his work as a producer, so do the guys of Migrant Motel. With David Stewart Jr. coming from Peru, and Chava hailing from Mexico, they’re collaboration emits a heavy rock and roll sound that is made even more intriguing by the modern synths, musical arrangement and various cultural influences.

Released last year, Migrant Motel’s album “Volume One,” which Peder produced, offers everything from hard-hitting power ballads and wailing guitar solos through songs such as ‘Snapshot’ to more jazz and blues driven songs like ‘Bottleman.’ Likened to a modern version of Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way,’ their powerful single ‘New Religion’ appears on top Spotify rock playlists, such as Dirty Rock and New Noise. A strong and compelling first album that brings in elements of the old and the new, “Volume One” showcases the band’s musical range and magnetic energy, not to mention their potent lyrics.

While some artists can strike it big on their own, most artists who ‘make it,’ whether they’re in the art or music industry, having a visionary backing them like producer Peder Etholm-Idsoe. Someone who sees the bigger picture and acts as a force to ground, inspire and fuel the creative collaboration, makes a world of difference in an artist’s career, and that’s exactly what we see through this collaboration.

Thanks for joining us guys!

First, Peder can you tell us what you feel makes a great producer?

PE: The ability to be as versatile as possible. Always be open to new genres and experiment as much as possible outside of your own comfort zone of genres.  It is easy to make the decisions that you are used to and you know come easy for you, which works of course for a while, but at one point you will plateau your own development and that’s a huge point with music for me, it is always developing.

When did you guys first start working together?

PE: We started or collaboration a little over two years ago now. I saw them play at a club back in Boston, Massachusetts and decided to approach them after their set to word my enthusiasm about the band, and that I would love to collab with them.

How did you know you were the right fit for one another as artist and producer?

MM: After working on one song, “Blue,” we realized the chemistry and final product was unlike anything we’d ever done before. We immediately signed him on for a full album and dove into work.

PE: I truly enjoyed the experience after the first song we did together. Working with raw talent like these guys is always a pleasure for a producer.

Would you say Peder had a pretty strong role in shaping the direction of ‘Volume One’?

MM: Absolutely! Without his help, I don’t think we would have the success that we’re having right now. He was quintessential in the development of our sound, look and vibe.

When did you guys sign with InGrooves and how did that come about?

MM: Our manager Marya Meyer knew of InGrooves for a while and when it was time to choose a distribution method, they seemed like an obvious choice. We met a few times and really enjoyed their energy and enthusiasm for our work, so we signed off on a 3 year deal with them. It’s been a great add to the team.

Migrant Motel
Migrant Motel shot by Ernesto Stewart

I hear you have some music videos coming out for two songs off the debut album ‘Volume One’– can you tell us about those?

MM: We have re-releases planned for “Bourbon” and “Physical,” a couple very fun videos for each. There’s still a lot of life in this album that we wanna make sure to explore before moving on to new material.

What other projects do you have planned for the coming months?

MM: We have 3 brand new singles already plotted out with Peder, all of which we are extremely excited about. We can’t wait to share and give more details in the coming months.

As their producer, what was the collaboration like on the new songs?

PE: One word. Fun! Since we are so used to too working together it makes the creative process really fluid. And we trust each other when someone wants to “take a risk” with a musical decision, because 99% of the time it really works out.

Can you guys tell us a little bit about the music videos you have coming out for these songs?

MM: It’ll be a wide range since the 3 songs are vastly different. One may or may not include some very RuPaul inspired themes however! We are working with Christian Klein, a cinematographer based in LA, and his team, and are in the midst of pre-production now.

When are they expected drop?

MM: Sometime mid winter

Peder, how do you fit into the mix when it comes to ideas and the process of creating the music videos for Migrant Motel?

PE: The guys usually bounces ideas during our sessions about music video ideas which makes the whole product really well thought out. It makes the whole project really coherent.

How has working with Peder changed the game for you guys as a band since you first began working together?

MM: Thanks to Peder’s contributions in a technical and artist aspect, we’ve reached almost half a million streams on Spotify, opened for bands like Journey and Cafe Tacuba, and are preparing to tour internationally this year. Working with Peder has ABSOLUTELY changed the game for us.

Migrant Motel
Migrant Motel shot by Ernesto Stewart

Why do you enjoy working together?

MM: Peder’s ability to be creative and artistic within his production is something I haven’t seen from anyone else. His fluidity on a technical level is astounding but, above all, the care and passion he brings to each second of every song is what we look for in a great producer.

PE: The natural talent and passion the guys are bringing to the table is a really amazing motivator to “bring your best” to every session, which makes the whole process really fun every time.  Also that David and Chava are some of the nicest and caring people you will meet doesn’t hurt either.

Make sure to checkout Migrant Motel’s social media page to stay up to date with their new releases:

http://www.migrantmotel.com
https://www.facebook.com/migrantmotel/

An Early Love for Design Led to Saif Al-Sobaihi’s Celebrated Cinematographic Career

 

Saif Al-Sobaihi
Cinematographer Saif Al-Sobaihi

While many cinematographers find their way into the field through photography and other areas of filmmaking, cinematographer Saif Al-Sobaihi, who’s made a powerful name for himself in the U.S. film industry and abroad in recent years, initially found his way to the craft through a love of visual art and design.

“I used to collect a lot of visual books, especially interior design books,” Saif explains. “I just loved looking at the lighting, composition and the smooth design… At that point I had no idea what cinematography was.”

Growing up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Saif immersed himself in design at a young age, swiftly developing an acute visual eye and an unparalleled attention to detail. His boundless creativity  even led him to be recognized by his country whilst elementary school when he earned the First Prize Award in the Saudi Arabian national painting competition “Homeland in the Eyes of Our Children.”

Constantly collecting photographs and books focused on visual design, those roots eventually taught him to recognize such things as the interplay of objects in a room, how to achieve an aesthetic balance, and the way the light or lack there of sets the mood, have been key to his success in the film world.

As the cinematographer of highly praised films such as “La Calvita,” “El Circo,” “Pinwheel,” “SKEMO” and others, his unique ability to blend the technical and creative sides of his work in the field of filmmaking shine through flawlessly.

“Some cinematographers are more artistic and others are more technical… To me cinematography is a balance that can’t be defined. It’s a field where creativity, energy, personalities, obstacles, and the importance of timing overlap on set,” explains Saif. “Just like the way harmony in music supports the melody and provides its texture and mood, cinematography supports and even creates the texture and mood within the stories we see on screen.”

Saif has earned extensive accolades for his film work, with “Pinwheel” garnering him two Best Cinematography Awards at the Festigious International Film Festival and the Around International Film Festival in Berlin, “El Circo” earning the Southeast Regional EMMY Award for short form fiction, “La Calvita” being screened as one of “The Coming of Age Mixtape” films chosen by the Bushwick Film Festival, and “SKEMO” being chosen as an Adobe Design Achievement Semifinalist.

“El Circo” director Pablo Ramirez says, “Saif understood perfectly what I had in my head and helped me transform those ideas into beautiful images that showed the organized chaos we wanted to portray… Saif has a unique vision, he has the ability to listen to what his directos want and he also has the sensibility to express himself when he has a different opinion. Saif is one of the most professional persons with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work with.”

While he’s been key to the success of multiple narrative films, Saif actually began his professional career as the cinematographer on the music video “We Are” for well-known Swedish popstar Peg Parnevik. The vivid colors, combination of panning shots and close-ups, as well as the pace of the frames reveal Saif’s unparalleled skill behind the lens.

 With nearly two million views on YouTube, the video serves as an impressive accomplishment for even the most seasoned cinematographer, so that says quite a lot considering it was his first professional project in the field.

About the video, which he shot on a RED Scarlet Dragon 6K sensor with Zeiss CP2 primes, Saif says, “I learned a few valuable lessons from this project: lose the ego, keep things simple, and have fun!”

Out of all of his work, Saif marks the 2017 film “La Calvita” directed by Giulia Jimenez as ‘one of the most interesting projects’ he’s been the cinematographer on to date. With the saturated colors, shots of miscellaneous items such as tires, bathroom sinks and other odds and ends riddled through the streets communicating the semi-impoverished nature of the neighborhood, and a storyline that centers on Lupita (Karina Rovira), a young Latin American girl who travels to the Venezuela-Colombia border on a mission to make some money by selling her hair, it’s easy to see from the trailer alone why the film was so interesting for Saif.

In addition to being an Official Selection of the Bushwick Film Festival, “La Calvita” was also an Official Selection of the 2017 Georgia Latino Film Festival and the 2018 San Diego Film Festival.

With an almost surreal visual style, and a transporting latin garage style score composed by Hugo Raúl Blanco, “La Calvita” has a unique appeal that’s reminiscent of of experimental psychedelic films like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain” and Vera Chitlova’s “Daisies.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way Saif takes us into Lupita’s world through close ups on her face that allow us to truly feel the complexity of her emotions. This, coupled with the wide shots he takes to reveal the peculiar nature of her surrounding, make it feel as though she lives within her own world– one removed from the actual environment where the film takes place.

Saif shot “La Calvita” on a Sony FS7 using only the Cooke 25-250mm T4.0 Zoom as his lens for the entire film.

“As a cinematographer in stories like that where the world seems a bit surreal, you get to experiment with different equipment and techniques more comfortably. And that is a lot of fun,” explains Saif.

I wanted the look of the film to be gritty and authentic… This film talks about real social issues, so I made sure I captured not only the physical performance of the actors, but their psychological processes and inner world as well. ”

Some of the social issues Saif refers to revolve around Lupita’s economic status and feeling that selling her hair is the only option to make money to pay for her mother’s medication, and the concept of beauty promoted by society compared to what it truly means to be beautiful on an individual level.

After having her hair lopped off in exchange for $35, Lupita wanders through town looking forlorn over the messy buzz cut that sits in place of her previously long and beautiful brown locks. As she runs her fingers through her hair clearly trying to make sense of how this new look has changed her, she encounters a billboard where the model comes to life and begins speaking to her as she stands alone in the middle of a grassy field. The model tells her she wants her to feel better and that she needs hair to feel better; and like a fairy godmother, she releases a waterfall of pink flower petals that graze Lupita’s face and like magic, her hair reappears. From the viewer’s perspective the scene is touching and emotionally subtle, but on a technical level it’s easy to see that a lot of effort went into it on the part of Saif and his team.  

“The director wanted the billboard model to be commercially “well-lit” like a 90’s latin billboard commercials kind of vibe. We shot that section in a green screen studio lit with spacelights, Kino Celebs and later on used a Mole Richardson 2K” explains the cinematographer. “My gaffer Dylan Genis rigged the camera on a 12 ft ladder for the high angle shots. For the ‘low angle’ shots, we used baby sticks and hi-hats.”

He adds, “It’s great to have a team who are interested in the project and have good sense of communication and experience.”

Through narrative films like “La Calvita” it’s easy to see Saif’s talent for creating impactful visual stories that draw the audience in and evokes emotion. His attention to detail and his aptitude for blending the technical and creative sides of his work in film make it easy to understand how he got to where he is today, and it all started from his love for visual art and design.

 

Maria Venturini’s Style Reminds Viewers of the Creative Power of Cinema

Maria C. Venturini
Maria C. Venturini on set of “Waiting for Adams”

Throughout cinematic history, the most exalted and iconic filmmakers have been those who’ve had the vision and audacity to defy convention and blur the line between narrative and art. Italian director Maria Chiara Venturini is reminding audiences of cinema’s origin as an extension of the imagination.

Through her films, Venturini lovingly channels a nostalgic, avant-garde aesthetic that’s been absent from the silver screen for too long. Among her productions is the 2015 film “Ancien Régime,” an ode to the French New Wave and a thinly-veiled critique of vapid materialism. The film captured critics’ attention at festivals around the globe, and was chosen as the winner by judges at the Sprockets Film Festival in Toronto. At the heart of the sophisticated send-up is the iconic brand Chanel and its instantly recognizable style of highbrow black-and-white advertising.

“This was my first approach to black-and-white 16mm film. I liked the idea of creating something that would fit the look of the media itself — a dystopian world where a fashion dictator imposes his fashion rules on society seemed perfect,” Venturini described. “The film takes place in a classroom where the only word that people are allowed to say and teach is ‘Chanel,’ and the only solution for arithmetic problems is ‘N°5,’ like the perfume.”

To the untrained eye “Ancien Régime” is virtually indistinguishable from any of Chanel’s countless ad campaigns. Stark black-and-white cinematography, minimalist mise en scène and a strong focus on physical acting and borderline absurdism are defining characteristics of both “Ancien Régime” and the perfume giant it satirizes. To a great extent, however, Venturini’s affectionately ironic admonishment uses the iconic brand as a synecdochic catch-all for the kind of fanatical devotion many high-fashion brands elicit.

“We live in a society where sometimes we [confuse] real priorities with what’s [secondary]. Fashion… for some people comes before many more important issues. I wanted to pay homage to such a great brand, but also shake that part of the audience that behaves this way,” explained Venturini adding that, “with a smile you can make people understand the concept better too.”

Drawing inspiration from the surrealism of Salvador Dali and the eccentricity of Henry Selick, her 2015 film “The Laboratory of Dr. Enerd” offers a brilliantly dreamlike glimpse into the director’s mind.

“‘The Laboratory of Dr. Enerd’ is made with a stop-motion technique called pixelation that merges animation with human characters,” Venturini described. “I was exploring this new part of the world of animation but I still wanted to make a piece that will make the audience feel the same way I feel when I see other pixelation projects.”

Using the experimental new technology in combination with her years of experience in fine art photography, Venturini created a film which can only be described as simultaneously stop-motion and live-action. What may sound like a contradiction in terms is actually a mesmerizing, almost magical film about a young scientist and the outré experiments she conducts in her laboratory.

“Dr. Enerd is trying to follow her mother’s recipe to make something a little unusual,” explained Venturini. “Also bizarre are the ingredients and tools she decides to use in this preparation: unicorns, gummy bears, syringes and a stethoscope.”

The film is a meticulously calculated spectacle of imagination. From costuming and set design down to the finest details of every prop in the whimsical lab, every frame of “The Laboratory of Dr. Enerd” was crafted and vetted by Venturini with enormous care. That level of attention to color and design are perhaps what most distinguish the director as an artist first, filmmaker second. It’s also what earned the film the honor of being an official selection at the Citizen Jane Film Festival, as well as enabling it to reach audiences as far away as the Chinese festival circuit.

Venturini built on some of the stylistic eccentricities of “The Laboratory of Dr. Enerd” with her 2016 film “Waiting For Adams.” A much less vibrant film in comparison, “Waiting For Adams” instead takes on a more dreary aesthetic in its focus on a mysterious waiting room that seems disconnected from time and reality.

“‘Waiting for Adams’ is so far the most ethereal piece I’ve ever done. The whole project could be seen as just a dream,” she described. “People gave me lots of different interpretations of the story, and I felt like a psychiatrist that shows those inkblots to his patients.”

The film opens on a nun signing in at the reception desk of an indescript doctor’s office. As she takes a seat, keen-eyed cinephiles will recognize that she and the other waiting room patients are all characters from films that were nominated-but-snubbed at the Academy Awards.

“Only a movie geek could possibly know that all those characters are from movies that were nominated for an Oscar but lost. Thus, a desire for redemption brought them to consult one of the craziest plastic surgery doctors in order to change their look and have a second chance,” Venturini explained “Dr. Adams, inspired by Patch Adams, has no real surgery skills and ends up transforming everybody into monsters.”

One-by-one, a string of familiar characters enter the office of the insane Dr. Adams, and one-by-one they return as horrific beasts that would seem right at home in a Tim Burton movie. Meanwhile, the characters in the waiting room engage in awkward banter and show off their idiosyncrasies. The entire film is delightfully unusual and thoroughly original. Every detail is deliberately and painstakingly crafted to be like a dream — ethereal and open to interpretation. With “Waiting For Adams,” Venturini once again proved herself both a visionary director and artiste. Critics in Venturini’s native Italy rallied behind “Waiting For Adams,” choosing the film as an official selection at the Scrittura e Immagine Corto Film Festival.

More than a century ago, cinema began as an exciting new medium for artistic experimentation. Every few years since then, some brilliant mind will break through the mundane and familiar, uncovering for the first time some virgin territory in the limitless expanse of cinema’s artistic potential. In this generation of filmmakers, there are few figures as likely to follow in those revolutionary footsteps as Maria Venturini.

 

Samantha Van Der Sluis moves from Composing for the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra to Feature Films & TV

Samantha Van Der Sluis
Samantha Van Der Sluis recording violin

Great cinema is far more than just the images projected on the screen. When a film’s score is truly exceptional, it can often tell as rich a story as the film itself. While moviegoers fix their gaze on the characters and places they see, it’s what they hear that often sets the tone and subtly guides their imaginations. Few people understand the relationship between sight and sound in cinema as well as film composer Samantha Van Der Sluis. Fueled by an early love of storytelling, Van Der Sluis strove to find a medium perfectly suited to the tales her mind would weave.

“I was 15 years old when I started learning to play songs on the piano,” Van Der Sluis recalled. “I started venturing toward other instruments like the violin, French horn, bass guitar, and choral singing.”

As she developed an understanding over an array of instruments, her mind became filled with countless unwritten scores desperate to see the light of day. She found the outlet she needed when she began her work as a composer.

“Once I discovered I could perform music, I realized I had the potential to create it too,” she said. “Music is meant to be shared and listened to, and I believe the best form takes place in visual media like film, where music works together with the visuals.”

Samantha Van Der Sluis
Samantha Van Der Sluis conducting an original composition

Before she began her work as a film composer, Van Der Sluis received critical acclaim for many of her orchestral compositions. One of her pieces, ‘Searching For Home,’ was chosen by the Dublin Philharmonic to be performed as part of their world tour in 2015. Soon after, composer Jeff Russo collaborated with Van Der Sluis as part of his team; and she was given her first big opportunity to shape the musical soundscape of an array of hugely-anticipated television titles. The wide-ranging list of projects Van Der Sluis worked on included the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning FX series “Fargo,” the CBS All Access series “Star Trek: Discovery,” and Netflix’s dystopian thriller “Altered Carbon.”

In 2017, Van Der Sluis composed the score for the tensely claustrophobic and relentlessly terrifying feature film “Landfall.” The film centers on a pair of young lovers as they barricade themselves inside their beach house, desperate to keep out something much more sinister than the impending cyclone.

Though “Landfall” was completely unlike any project she’d worked on before, Van Der Sluis’ meticulous and immersive approach to scoring the film was exactly the same as it had always been. She wrote every note of the score around what the characters were experiencing. But because suspense was a major component of the film, she was careful that the story her composition told didn’t tip off audiences to any of the story’s secrets.

“Over the duration of the film, a lot of questions the audience may have at first are answered,” she explained. “Because of these mysteries, I had to be very cautious of the score not to give away the unexpected twists in the plot.”

Directed by Travis Bain, “Landfall” stars two-time Melbourne Underground Film Festival Award winner Kristen Condon (“The Beautiful and the Damned”) as Maisie and Rob Stanfield (“Windscreen Watch”) as Dylan, the film’s main characters. A testament to the power of the film and Van Der Sluis’ work as a composer, “Landfall” was recently purchased for distribution by industry heavyweight Archstone Distributions.

“Landfall” director Travis Bain says, “Thanks in part to Sam’s terrific score for ‘Landfall’, we’ve now secured a worldwide distribution deal, which will see the film be released in multiple countries around the globe… Samantha brought plenty of enthusiasm plus a willingness to help me fulfill my directorial vision… Her professional scores really help elevate all the other elements of my films. Her music adds so much production value, and for international audiences and distributors who expect a certain level of quality, production value is everything.”

Samantha Van Der Sluis
Poster for the upcoming film “Landfall”

As the film progresses and more is revealed about protagonists Maisie and Dylan, it gradually becomes clear that neither is the person they initially seemed to be. In the same way, Van Der Sluis’ score evolves dramatically between the first introductions to the characters and the tense final moments of the film.

“I had to compose themes for the characters dependent of their situation and not who they were, because in Landfall, this has a very different meaning,” she said. “I created tense cues around the main female character, Maisie, utilizing chromatic melodies, atonal harmonies, a variety of rhythmic passage to achieve inconsistency, and cadence that never resolved… Later in the film, when the audience starts to understand the character’s situation, this music turns into something more tonal and warm.”

Masterfully, Van Der Sluis captured the film’s characters not as they were, but as the audience was meant to believe. Together with the action onscreen, her score lulls viewers into a false sense of security and sets them up to be shocked by the film’s big twists.

“For the duration of the film, until the last 20 minutes, we assume Dylan and Maisie are completely innocent — turns out they aren’t,” Van Der Sluis said, careful not to reveal too much. “The music in the last 20 minutes starts to reiterate themes of what was heard previously. The theme used for the bad guys are now being played when Dylan and Maisie are seen.”

As the storm closes in and the main characters’ true natures are seemingly unveiled, Van Der Sluis continues to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Her score takes on a more sinister tone, building in urgency until the storm makes landfall and at last the full truth is revealed.

Prior to her work on “Landfall,” Van Der Sluis composed a much different score for a much different story. Soulful and nuanced, the 2016 drama “Day Off” is a tragic drama from director Stephen Hall that tells the story of a middle-aged couple whose lifelong love is being taken away by an insidious disease.

“A 50-something year old man is struggling with dementia and having trouble remembering things. He vanishes from his caretaker,” Van Der Sluis described. “His caretaker calls the man’s wife, Laura, explaining that he has walked off and she can’t find him. Laura leaves the cafe she was sitting at with her friend and runs around the city to find him.”

The film follows Laura as she desperately races to find her husband, Brendan. She’s frantic and alone, yet her determination is unwavering. Her search leads her to places from their past, when their life and future together seemed perfect.

“The most important scene was when Brendan wanders around, having flashbacks of his wedding day,” Van Der Sluis explained. “Although these are happy memories, he’s still frustrated because he feels like he’s forgotten something, and therefore, [like he’s] losing something.”

Van Der Sluis’ score for the film is poignant and resonant. The music of “Day Off” perfectly echoes the deeply-nuanced emotions felt by Brendan and Laura. Her compositions tell the same story as the dialogue and images on-screen; they ring with lows every bit as devastating and highs just as euphoric as those of the film itself. Without uttering a single word, it was with “Day Off” that Van Der Sluis proved herself a master storyteller.

“It starts off delicately with a lone piano, which gradually increases in size with strings, winds, and rhythm section. It begins with a sparse, minimal texture and evolves into a more orchestrated, thick texture, which constantly repeats itself,” she explained, before revealing just how meticulously she considered every detail of the piece. “The act of repetition is a little ironic, due to portraying a character who is having trouble remembering certain life moments. But because one of his important memories is still there, his wedding, the repetitive music pieces seems to work.”

Every note of every piece she’s written has been guided by her philosophy that cinema is at its most powerful when the two are weaved together. Her adherence to that guiding tenet, together with her unrivaled skill, earned her quite a bit of attention for “Day Off,” including a nomination for the Best Score award by the Underground Film Festival.

The full breadth of Samantha Van Der Sluis’ work is staggering, yet each of her projects is linked by a common thread. Regardless of how different any two films may be, Van Der Sluis’ defining quality as a composer is her ability to visualize a project from the perspective of a storyteller. That skill, together with a meticulous attention to detail and a virtuosic understanding of music on an instinctual level, are what make Samantha Van Der Sluis an unrivaled composer in modern narrative cinema.

 

Actor Alvaro Ramos Shines on the Big and Small Screen

Spanish actor Alvaro Ramos
Spanish actor Alvaro Ramos

Alvaro Ramos is one of those rare people who can seemingly pick up just about anything and excel at it. The worldly Spanish actor speaks four languages and has worked in virtually every city between, and including, Kiev and Anchorage. Most impressively, he boasts a list of credits that includes a multitude of hit television series and movies, a bevy of theatre productions, and a film which was showered with enough awards to drown a man.

By relying on his keen wits and unrelenting drive, Ramos has earned a lofty reputation as an actor in a class of his own. But it was his upbringing that set the stage for his future in front of the camera. Ramos was born in Madrid, a city whose flourishing culture has been legendary for centuries. His mother and sister ran a nearby travelling theatre company, and together the duo both organized and performed in countless stage productions.

The years Ramos spent immersed in that world as a boy no doubt inspired him to pursue acting as a career; it also helped prepare him for the day he was cast in the lead role of a film that went on to sweep festivals the world over and serve as a defining milestone in Ramos’ career. That film was the 2006 surrealist drama “Anonymous.”

Alvaro Ramos
Film poster for “Anonymous”

“It was the leading part so I had to deliver the best performance possible,” Ramos explained briefly. “It was a total challenge for me. I’d never played a character as intense as Fred was, [both] beautiful and hard work.”

Ramos’ character, Fred, is a writer with a looming deadline. Day after day he follows the same routine, but no matter how many hours he spends in front of his typewriter he simply can’t find the words to fill his stack of blank pages. Rather than focusing on writing, Fred’s mind is instead consumed with thoughts of Laura (Luz Altamira), the woman who lives in the apartment next door. He’s madly in love with her, but the only time he can work up the nerve to speak to her is in the stories he writes about her every night.

Alvaro Ramos
Alvaro Ramos as Fred in “Anonymous”

Terrified of missing his deadline and overwhelmed by loneliness and self-loathing, Fred cracks under the strain. He begins waking each morning to find more finished pages in his typewriter, but has no memory of writing them. With the weight of the world over his head and his sanity slipping away, Fred has to figure out what’s real, what’s just part of his dreams and what will it take to climb back out of his downward spiral.

A near-total absence of natural light throughout the film creates a dreary atmosphere which is further emphasized by the ever-present heavy and often-shifting shadows. The sounds of typewriter keys clicking and film whirring in a projector punctuate the dreamlike milieu and echo the anxiety of Fred, whose neurotic self-doubt Ramos captures brilliantly in his performance.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of Ramos’ performance is just how much of his acting was physical, not verbal. The film’s characters speak to one another only very rarely; the rest of the time a pervasive feeling of claustrophobic isolation hangs above the already-overburdened Fred. From beginning to end, Ramos delivers a compelling rendition of a man whose mind begins to falter under the weight of it all.

The decision to cast Ramos for the part was made by the film’s director, Cristián Pozo. When Pozo first saw Ramos act in a stage production, he immediately knew beyond a doubt that he had found his leading man.

“I saw Alvaro perform… and I was totally amazed by his presence, voice and personality on the stage. He was what I was looking for for my movie,” Pozo recounted. “Alvaro Ramos is a powerful actor with an incredible stage and film presence… [and] that was reflected in the film and on the big screen. It’s clear that his fantastic performance had much to do with the great success of the film and its numerous international awards and selections in different film festivals.”

The critical response to the film was far greater than either Ramos or Pozo could have guessed. By the time the dust had settled, “Anonymous” had been screened at more than 80 film festivals worldwide. It won 20 awards from festival judges, including Best Short Film and Best Editing from the European Independent Film Festival, Best Short Film from the Anchorage International Film Festival, Best Director of a Short Film from the New York International Independent Film Festival, and Best Director from the Young Frames International Short Film Festival.

The wild success of “Anonymous” paved the way for Ramos’ next endeavors, including a myriad of prominent television roles. He’s had recurring roles on the long-running hit Spanish drama series “Centro Médico,” the young adult comedy “SMS, Sin Miedo a Soñar,” and a major role in “La Familia Mata,” a series about a modern Spanish family and the community they call home.

Musketeers
Still of Alvaro Ramos (center) in the BBC series “The Musketeers”

Ramos has also been featured in a number of biopics and historical dramas, including BBC’s  “The Musketeers” and National Geographic’s “Genius.” In the latter, he plays a priest whose life intersects with that of Pablo Picasso in an incredibly intimate way. The first season of the series, which centered on Albert Einstein and starred Geoffrey Rush, was nominated for a Golden Globe and 10 Primetime Emmys. Joining the cast of the second season was an exciting prospect for Ramos.

“I was working with an international cast, beside great actors such as Antonio Banderas,” Ramos said about his experience working on the series, which was produced in part by the legendary Ron Howard.

The boy growing up in Madrid, watching his mother and sister perform on stage, would have been awe-struck at the idea of working on a production with names like Antonio Banderas and Ron Howard. But after innumerable roles and thousands of hours spent on stage and in front of the cameras, Alvaro Ramos has grown into what he was always meant to be. Both critics and audiences are rightfully enamored with the brilliant actor, his work has been lauded with praise all over the world, and he has no intention of slowing down.

Additionally, we’ve been informed that Ramos is being considered for a role on the British-American series “Snatch,” which means he’d be sharing screen time with other notable actors such as Rupert Grint from the “Harry Potter” movies and Luke Pasqualino, whom he acted alongside in “The Musketeers.” We wish him the best of luck and hope to see him on the series this year!

 

Meet VFX Artist Zhaoyu Zhou!

VFX artist Zhaoyu Zhou
VFX artist Zhaoyu Zhou

Beginning in the 1990s, a promising new technology kicked off a period of revolutionary change in the film industry. The advent of computer generated imagery made it possible to create worlds and characters that could never have been dreamed of before. From epic superhero blockbusters to beloved animation franchises, filmmakers across every genre rely more and more on visual effects artists like Zhouyu Zhou to bring to the screen what cameras alone can’t.

Years of experience, a background in photography and design, and a mastery of the complex technical aspects of the post-production process are what make Zhou such a powerful force in the field. Seamlessly weaving art and science in equal measures, he sculpts and breathes life into each production using cutting edge technology and the eye of a visionary.

“[Visual effects] consists of CG production such as modeling, rigging, look-development, pre-visualization, post-visualization, animation, lighting, rendering, and compositing in the typical pipeline,” Zhou explained. “All these aspects and elements are crucial to making the tremendous and surprising imagery.”

His skill set has proven to be an invaluable asset, particularly on projects like the ambitious 2016 film “Dancing Blue.” A creative tour de force that lies somewhere between an art exhibition and an extended length music video, “Dancing Blue” is a mesmerizing and at times abstract story told in three parts.

“‘Dancing Blue’… consists of everything from celluloid animation, computer animated graphics, and hand-drawn artwork,” Zhou said, describing the laborious process. “First we got the music, then started brainstorming and visualizing the motion and design based on the sound and music.”

Much of “Dancing Blue” is whimsical and surreal. The film starts in the vacuum of space, shifts focus to the inhabitants of a living painting, and ends with an absolutely hypnotic sequence of abstract animations. Zhou’s painstaking attention to detail is apparent in every frame, an incredible feat given the staggering amount of work he was faced with.

“One challenge was to create a 2D look by using 3D techniques… I used dynamic simulation and animated the smoke trail’s travels through space. However, in order to create the fluid experience I decided to animate the camera along with the strokes,” he said. “It was hard to pair both, so I went into the timeline to match them perfectly.”

Zhou was also the driving force behind “Reunion,” a heartwarming animated film about a young boy looking for his father after the two become separated. The film uses visual cues and a haunting score in place of spoken dialogue, making its stark, expressionist style that much more profound. The most striking thing about the film, however, is the method Zhou chose to use for the animation.

“Unlike most of the films that I’ve worked on, ‘Reunion’ is primarily a sand animation, shot frame-by-frame using a live-action camera. I shot footage on the camera and then ended up compositing CGI into it to create an organic and unique aesthetic to the animation, as well as to the entire film,” Zhou said. “This film has a supremely unique and original feeling.”

In addition to handling the visual effects, Zhou also wrote, directed and animated “Reunion,” giving him complete creative control over the production. The result is a truly one-of-a-kind animated experience and a pure, unadulterated representation of Zhou’s artistic vision. Of course, having control doesn’t mean the undertaking would be easy by any means.

“Shooting frame-by-frame was a big challenge, especially because I had to deal with loose, soft sand,” Zhou said. “In post-production, all the pain from shooting live-action was relieved because I could composite all those frames and added frame-blending and re-timing some shots. Even though it was sand animation, VFX in post definitely enhanced the final look of the film.”

His expertise as an animator and mastery of CGI have made Zhouyu Zhou among the most highly sought-after visual effects artists in the industry today. But it’s his artistic and creative instincts that give him an added edge. As visual effects continue to become more and more prevalent in film, it will be up to artists like Zhou to lead the industry forward.

 

Costume Designer Spotlight: Claudia Sarbu

Costume Designer Claudia Sarbu
Costume Designer Claudia Sarbu

A passion that courses through her veins and experience far beyond her years have earned costume designer Claudia Sarbu her place at the forefront of her field. Her sheer talent is reflected in her diverse work on films ranging from the epic 2014 blockbuster “Divergent” to the heartwarming drama “20th Century Women,” released early this year. Few in the field are able to move so seamlessly between such wildly different productions, but Sarbu has been training her entire life.

She was born near Bucharest, and growing up she lived just blocks from the film studio where both her parents worked. Her mother made costumes for the studio and encouraged her daughter’s natural talent.

“I remember when I designed my teacher’s wedding outfit, and then my mom made it,” she said, recalling how she got her first taste of design. “It was very avant-garde for that kind of small town wedding, but she looked great.”

Having been immersed in the field for longer than she can remember, Sarbu knows better than anyone how crucial good costume design is to any production that aims to create a believable universe. She proved this on an enormous scale when she served as Costume Coordinator for “Divergent,” the first in a hotly anticipated series of films based on the trilogy of internationally bestselling books by Veronica Roth. As the costume coordinator, Sarbu was responsible for ensuring the film’s costumes were made and prepared perfectly.

Divergent

The cast of the film made raised the stakes for Sarbu even higher. In addition to Shailene Woodley, known for her roles in “The Fault in Our Stars” and in “The Descendants” (alongside George Clooney), the film also stars Ashley Judd (“Double Jeopardy”) and Academy Award Winner Kate Winslet (“Titanic,” “Finding Neverland”).

The events of “Divergent” take place in a dystopian future where every person must fit neatly into one of five factions, each representing a different virtue. Anyone who is unable to assimilate into one of these factions is labelled a ‘divergent’ and faces mysterious but almost certainly deadly consequences. At the heart of the story is one such divergent, Tris (Woodley), who defiantly resolves to fight back against the unjust system.

The world in which the film is set is fractured and extraordinarily complex, which is mirrored in the relationships between characters and factions. It was an indescribably difficult undertaking to create a costume for each and every character that both captures the individual’s personality and visually represents the character’s faction and their station in the world’s social hierarchy.

“The majority of the costumes for ‘Divergent’ were manufactured in Romania by two workshops, and I was in charge of overseeing both. My job was to develop and translate the illustrations into actual garments by choosing fabrics, deciding on patterning and finishing details, as well as overseeing the quality of the manufacturing, aging and distressing processes,” she said, detailing her staggering list of responsibilities. “At the same time, I had to keep up with the shoot schedule’s demands, meaning prioritizing what to ship first while working under very tight deadlines. It was almost four months of intense work, but in the end we’d delivered over 2,000 pieces of costumes.”

All of Sarbu’s tireless work proved well worth it when “Divergent” was released in March 2014. It immediately shot to the top of the box office in its opening weekend as casual moviegoers and longtime fans of the novels piled into theaters to catch the first chapter in the epic trilogy.

20th Century Women
Poster for “20th Century Women”

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum lies “20th Century Women,” the exceptionally moving autobiographical story of two women who help a mother raise her son against the backdrop of Santa Barbara in 1979.

“The script for ‘20th Century Women’ is one of the closest to my heart, and also one of the most challenging ones I’ve read… spinning between past, present and future and mixed with dreams and flashbacks,” said Sarbu. “The costumes were extremely important to the film’s authenticity. We were dressing real life characters whose personalities and vibes needed to be conveyed through their style.”

The film debuted early this year and starred Annette Bening (“American Beauty”) and Elle Fanning (“Maleficent,” “Super 8”). Audiences and critics lauded “20th Century Women” with praise, and the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Comedy, and a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for Annette Bening for her powerful performance.

Despite being completely unlike “Divergent” in every conceivable way, the importance of Sarbu’s work to the industry at-large is illustrated by the fact that both of these wildly different films needed costumes, and both relied on Sarbu’s talents. For both, and for any other film, Sarbu knows that good costume design starts with understanding the characters and the worlds they live in. In this way, the process she follows for a film set in a nightmarish future is much the same as it would be for a film set in ‘70s-era Southern California. In practice, Sarbu’s process requires the instincts and training that she has honed throughout her illustrious career. When she describes what she does, however, she makes it sound straightforward and almost simple.

“Film and TV are essentially visuals,” she said, “and what people wear is essential to creating that visual.”

 

Cinematographer Yan Rymsha’s Creative Vision Flows Strong

Yan Rymsha
Yan Rymsha on set of “Zaar” shot by Ibrahim Nada

Yan Rymsha was born into a family of artists in St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia and the historic home and muse to Vladimir Nabokov and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others. A love of the arts is ingrained in the very fabric of his city and flows through his family’s veins, so it’s little wonder that Rymsha’s creative drive comes so naturally. Since childhood he has been drawn almost magnetically to the camera, a trait which was encouraged and fostered by his father.

“I [have dreamed of becoming] a director since I was 10. Of course, I had very little knowledge about directing craft,” Rymsha said, recalling how his love affair with cinematography began. “I remember my father brought me a video camera and taught me how to make very simple stop-motion films using old school techniques. He had experience with 8mm film cameras when he was my age, so he showed me dozens of awesome tricks with film.”

Rymsha swiftly mastered those first tricks, and in the years since he has mastered the craft and even invented a few tricks of his own. That mastery is evidenced in one of his most minimalistic, yet absolutely striking works, “Emerald Dream” directed by Leonid Andronov, who won the Festival Award at the International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema in London for the film “The Admired.” The film’s dystopian story is told by an unseen narrator entirely through photographs, which required Rymsha to boil down the visual impact of an entire film and concentrate that into a series of still frames. Rymsha carefully calculated his style of photography for the film to convey as eerie and foreboding a tone as one could imagine.

Set in a dark, distant future, “Emerald Dream” tells the tale of Gary Jibbons, a man whose unusual job it is to extract dreams from donors in much the same way people donate blood. As the narrator’s story goes on, the photographs become more and more mysterious; it soon becomes clear that Jibbons has fallen hopelessly in love with a young woman with the most vivid dreams he’s ever encountered.

It speaks volumes about Rymsha’s skill as a cinematographer that using so little, he was able to create an entire world inhabited by characters whose highs and lows are so familiar they could easily be real. But it takes more than skill alone to create works of the magnitude he has; it demands a level of passion and devotion that Rymsha has in spades.

“You always want to make your current film better than anything you’ve done before. Otherwise you’ll never grow,” Rymsha beamed. “I put part of my soul into my work. It’s more than just time and energy.”

"The Rat"
Film poster for “The Rat”

That philosophy is a defining quality of Rymsha’s work, an excellent example being the 2015 film “The Rat.” Once again he was tasked with making a film that would test the extent of his talents. Rather than a series of photographs however, “The Rat” required Rymsha to shoot the entire film from inside a single car. As events spiral out of control, audiences share the tense, caged-up sensation with the characters onscreen.

“The challenging part of it was that the whole story took place in the car, so the main goal was to make the audience attracted to the visuals. I spent a huge amount of time picking locations,” Rymsha said. “A location must be interesting with some action going around. My favorite was the airport, with planes taking off and landing.”

It was up to Rymsha to leap into action and scout all possible filming locations. A whirlwind tour of the city later, and he had his list.

“When I got a script I was quite surprised because the whole story was happening in the car. It was challenging to figure out how to make the move visually attractive, and the same time follow rhythm and beat of the storyline,” he explained of the process. “The story was gradually intensifying, so the visuals also had to follow.”

The crime thriller starred Jonte LeGras (“Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy”), was nominated at the Burbank International Film Festival, and its director Vasily Chuprina has been recognized for his Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking by the Newport Beach Film Festival for “The Boy By The Sea,” among a dozen other awards.

“When I got the synopsis of the movie, the first associations that popped into my head were of postmodernism with a huge element of restrained film noir style,” Rymsha said. “I thought that this combination will perfectly fit to the story of such genre.”

Rymsha also served as director of photography for director Ibrahim Nada’s 2016 “Zaar,” the dramatic story of a would-be suicide bomber who has second thoughts. A philosophical head turner fraught with suspense, the film has the distinction of being one of Rymsha’s favorite projects. The film itself has won prizes at more than half a dozen festivals, including a Best Cinematography win for Rymsha from the renowned Santa Monica Film Festival.

Constantly driven to take on the most challenging projects he can, Yan Rymsha has proven time and again what he can do with a camera and a little imagination. He has dedicated his entire life to the pursuit of cinematic greatness, and it would seem now that there is nothing left standing between him and that dream.