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.”
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.