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“Develop a Workflow to Effectively ‘Play Ping-pong'”: Editors Roman Liubyi and Mila Zhluktenko on Iron Butterflies

A child's hands are shot in a black and white photograph.Iron Butterflies,courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Ukrainian director Roman Liubyi’s Iron Butterflies examines the ramifications of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down by Russian forces as it passed over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 passengers on board. With an intricate nonfiction narrative laid out by Liubyi and Mila Zhluktenko, Iron Butterflies confronts the political aftermath of this atrocity.

Liubyi and Zhluktenko discuss the process of cutting Iron Butterflies, as well as their involvement in the Babylon’13 film collective. 

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor interviews here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Liubyi: I have worked in the film industry mainly as an editor and my films are generally very much based on editing. For this reason, I have also edited most of my films myself so far, and working with Mila became my first positive experience working with another editor.

Zhluktenko: Like Roman I am also a director myself. I am a Ukrainian based in Germany and I was also cooperating on several projects with the Ukrainian film collective Babylon’13. In 2019 I started to work together with Roman on Iron Butterflies as a script advisor. We were tossing ideas back and forth and I learned about Roman’s fascinating way of thinking, associating, and composing different thoughts. And together with Roman I dived deep into the topic and the cinematic world of Iron Butterflies.

Since 2020, after the outbreak of the pandemic I started to edit a lot for my friends. I have edited two fictional feature films in the time between 2020 and 2022. In spring of 2022 I planned to pause my editing, travel to Ukraine and shoot my next film as a director. The Russian war of aggression started when I was finalizing my last work as an editor. Everything changed. 

It was at that time that Roman and his producer and DOP Andrii Kotliar decided that it is really important to bring Iron Butterflies out in the world, and to also contextualize the case of MH17 in the bigger picture of the outbreak of a full scale war that was preceded by an aggressive hybrid war in the east of Ukraine, and on the scale of monstrous propaganda.

And I think that, at that time, I qualified for the job of co-editing Iron Butterflies because I myself was a hybrid creature, like the film itself. As I have lived in Germany for quite a long time now, I felt like I could see a way of shaping the film for a more international audience. At the same time, as a Ukrainian I know and deeply feel the context and the Ukrainian poetic way of storytelling that Roman incorporates [in the film], so it was very important for me to keep that spirit. 

I feel like Roman gave me a big leap of faith, by sending me his hard drive from a war torn Ukraine to Germany and letting me shape the film together, and because we trusted each other, it was a very positive and fine co-working experience, for which I am thankful.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Liubyi: My goal was to keep the poetic flow and focus on the visual language of the film. Mila was probably more the writer in our tandem, trying to tell and structure the story clearly. I, on the other hand, was looking at the film more from the perspective of a musician or a painter. 

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Liubyi: The editing process of Iron Butterflies was not so separate from the production phase for me. There were big gaps between shooting days, and we used those gaps to edit what we had already shot. It was later a more complex process where I was constantly playing ping-pong with Mila in the editing. 

Zhluktenko: I came into the editing when the film was already in a very advanced stage. Roman did several cuts of the film and I also knew the different stages of the evolving cut. When we were editing the war was ongoing—Roman was in Ukraine and I was in Germany. We thus had to develop a workflow to effectively “play ping-pong” as Roman says above. I was sending Roman different versions and he was giving me feedback. 

First I had some time to adapt to Roman’s project and to analyze what was already done and why. After I felt that I understood where Roman wanted to go with the film, I started to reshape the structure. My feeling was that everything we need is there, but it has to fall into the right order. I also started to play with the rhythm of the documentary sequences, trying to make them easier to grasp without knowing the cultural context of Ukraine.

When we found the structure, the backbone of the film, we once again swapped parts and Roman started to polish the fine editing in the project, while I was giving him feedback.

I guess our biggest task and achievement was in the end, that we could highlight the dramaturgy of the criminal case around MH17 and through that build up the moments for the dramatic sequences, that are shot with the techniques of physical theater, to really stand out and have an emotional impact for the audience.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Liubyi: I edited so-called highlights of ice hockey games for one of the Ukrainian sports TV channels—that was my first job. In 2013, Babylon’13 came into my life and there I could show everything I can do. It was a unique moment in my professional life when I could work alongside well-known magicians of our industry. We shared everything we know for a common goal—the Revolution of Dignity. It was activism, not business, but it also led to some commercial jobs. So I became more of a freelance editor for different types of material. Music videos, commercials, but mostly documentaries.

It’s a difficult question to say which influences have affected me in general. It’s easier to say what influences have affected this particular work—Iron Butterflies.

In the pre-production phase, Mila shared various references with me as a co-writer to give me feedback on my ideas. I think Theatre of War by Lola Arias was a big influence as an example of the completely blurred line between documentary and fiction, as well as many of Harun Farocki’s works. My own references were Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog, an investigative film made partly with footage from a criminal case, but which at the same time gives the feeling that the director is talking about something far removed from the physical world. And, of course, Pina by Wim Wenders and the works of the DV8 collective as examples of how choreography and physical theater can be represented on screen.

Zhluktenko: My first editing job that I did was at University. I edited The Absence of Apricots—a hybrid, performative documentary by Daniel Asadi Faezi. As I am a documentary director most of the time, I was mostly influenced by experimental creative documentaries. Also our editing professor Karina Ressler was an inspiration for me. Her way of thinking and working with the material was fascinating and really put the job of an editor in a different light. Lately, and while working on Iron Butterflies, documentary films by Philip Scheffner were an important reference for me, as I feel that they are highly artistic but also have an almost investigative structure to them. Also as Roman mentioned before, Lola Arias and Harun Farocki, but I was also thinking a lot about That Which Does Not Kill by Alexe Poukine, Present.Perfect. by Shengze Zhu and I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians by Radu Jude.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Liubyi: Adobe Premiere. It was simply the most convenient platform.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Liubyi: I can’t describe any scene as more difficult than another. What’s interesting is that we worked with Andrii Rohachov, the sound designer, on the sound of the “media monster” scene (the fictional scene about the life cycle of the aggressive propaganda creature that causes confusion and doubt) much longer than on any other part of the film. We used tons of plug-ins to find the right voice for this creature.

Another of the scenes is the media war between the Joint Investigation Team that thoroughly researched and investigated the case of MH17 prior to the trial and the Russian propaganda machine. This sequence was created during the research phase. It was changed and reshaped again and again for three years, but the core of this scene remained the same.

The fictional scene of the “white etude”, where the musician Oleksandra Morozova is playing piano in a field with 298 empty chairs, was also rewritten several times. The music theme was much longer and contained much more detail. I simplified it layer by layer.

The last fictional scene, which we called “the vain,” is not included in the final cut, but the music that was made specifically for the cut remained in its place with other images at the end.

Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit? 

Liubyi: The language of our film implies theatrical and simple effects rather than cinematic ones. Maybe it’s not about VFX, but I was looking for a visual treatment for the fragments of the Russian propagandist TV shows in our cut, that would create some kind of distance to this “toxic” footage.

Because all the digital solutions we tried didn’t fit, we started looking for the right TV monitor with a rough structure, and the right lens in order to film the whole thing again, but from the screen. The result—a strong distortion—helped us to mark propagandist footage in the film and give formally some kind of warning to the audience, when watching manipulative footage.

Another very simple but powerful post-prod technique we used was pixel masks. I used them in several scenes with physical theater, in order to mark the actors, who were incorporating soldiers. People around me didn’t like it for a long time, but for me it was a strong idea from the beginning. It brings the sense of horror (it’s really creepy to imagine a person wearing a pixel mask), it mixes anonymous documentary characters with fiction, and it draws attention away from the actors’ eyes and faces and helps us see more detailed body language.

Another interesting thing is the work with sound. Andrii Rohachov is usually pretty minimalistic and his work is almost inaudible in a good sense, but we were all shocked at the expressionistic solution Andrii brought to the scene with the BUK crew and the black piano. It was one of the scenes where we used pixel masks, as mentioned above. To connect the sound to the image, Andrii took an extreme digital degradation, a pixelation of the sound, and it’s funny that he’s sad that there’s no other way we can do it.

Another very simple post-prod trick is the black and white mode. Originally, the fictional scenes were supposed to be shot in color as well. But after the first day of shooting, the most complex fictional scene with the queue in the field, I was really bummed about the look of it—people’s clothes were more like those of an overland bus than an airplane passenger. And I found a really simple solution to this problem: I made it black and white, and that helps separate the world of our artistic reflection from the facts and documentation. So all the following scenes were deliberately shot in black and white. 

Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?

Liubyi: The point of the film has remained essentially the same for me, but the world around us and the context have changed dramatically, so I have a wider palette as a director to share the concept with my audience. From the beginning, it was about the danger of unpunished crimes, and now we have a horrific example of how that works. But a couple of choices changed the meaning of the film in very interesting ways.

Intuitively, I decided to film the testimony of one of our protagonists, Dmytro Sherembey, among the stationary passenger planes on the almost dark, snowy airport field near Kyiv. Initially it was supposed to be an abstract space of memories. But now that civil aviation is no longer functioning in the entire Ukrainian airspace and every missile attack leads to the destruction of power plants and makes whole cities fall into darkness, this artistic solution seems to have a new meaning and turns out to be not so abstract anymore.

Furthermore I asked my daughter to help me with a scene. It was a sequence about the naive mind of a child who doesn’t really understand what war and weapons are, and sees everything as toys to play with. This scene was supposed to be a deeply disturbing mix of things that obviously shouldn’t be together in one picture. And the abstract message of this scene became a kind of omen, because now my daughter has seen war with her own eyes and crossed the destroyed bridge, that you can see in the final scene, with her own foot.

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