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“The Audience Must Be Transported Here to Feel What It’s Like”: DP Andrey Stefanov on Porcelain War

A porcelain owl is sitting in a hole in the wall of a partially destroyed building.Still from Porcelain War. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Slava Leontyev and Andrey Stefanov.

Although artists by trade, Ukrainians Slava Leontyev, Anya Stasenko and Andrey Stefanov opted to help their countries fight off the Russian invasion. Their lives, their continued passion for their art and their country are now the subject of Porcelain War, co-directed by Leontyev and Brendan Bellomo, the latter of whom is based in the United States.

Below, Stefanov, who also served as the film’s cinematographer, discusses making a film about war-torn Ukraine and the place of the filmmakers within it and how they managed to do it across two continents.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.

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

Stefanov: My close friend, co-director Slava Leontyev, and I are artists who have stayed in Ukraine to fight against the Russian invasion. Slava asked me to become involved in filming our lives. When we started, I had never filmed any video before, but I am an oil painter by trade and so I adapted my sense of light, color, and composition to storytelling in the medium of cinematography.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Stefanov: For me, the film needed to capture the absolute beauty of Ukraine and the resilience of our people despite the war around us. I draw my inspiration directly from my life here, especially from my life in Crimea—a beautiful southern peninsula in Ukraine—which I was forced to abandon when the war started. It is the landscapes, the light, the animals and plants and our relationship with all of them that has always given me deep motivation to create. Now, seeing the bravery, humanity and kindness of everyone around me, including the soldiers of Slava’s Special Forces unit and the civilians he and I have been training together, I have a new source of creative inspiration. It is my job to authentically capture very intimate scenes with beauty and honesty. And I approach this the same way that I paint the world around me.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Stefanov: I was truly inspired by classical art. Everything stems from painting. Each combination of colors can hold a particular emotion, and in filming Porcelain War we were able to use time of day and the seasons to help people feel what it’s like to be in Ukraine during the war. The color of the film progresses with each passing scene, and this flow follows the emotions of each part of the story. Warmth and coolness and the presence or the absence of the vibrant colors of nature help the audience understand the feelings we are having during this conflict as we try to keep living and keep creating. Slava and I worked very closely with do-director Brendan Bellomo to plan the compositions, natural lighting and camera movement in the film. Because Brendan was working remotely in the USA, we talked daily on Zoom and shared photography references, storyboards and blocking diagrams and looked at dailies together.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Stefanov: We were working in two different countries, speaking two languages, in different time zones, and that posed a huge challenge. And this is the first time making a film for all of us. But we shared the same vision in how the film would be told. We shared the same idea that this story would be authentic and that the audience must be transported here to feel what it’s like a be an artist living in a warzone. Every step of the process was a collaboration, and together we wove the true contrast that the film reflects: This is the true juxtaposition of our lives right now.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Stefanov: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K were used as A and B cameras. We chose this camera due to its small size, ease of use and incredible RAW recording. We found that we could faithfully capture the colors of Ukraine from sunsets to night scenes and create amazing results with careful color grading. We also found the Super 16mm size created the perfect depth of field. We shot mostly wide-open for a consistent depth of the image, with variable ND filters used to maintain exposure. To us, this made the footage feel closer to the how the human eye sees our lives. And we felt it was of paramount importance for audiences to feel as if they were right next to us: not observing, but experiencing intimately. We also used a Sony FX-30 for filming macro backgrounds for our animated scenes due to its incredible autofocus in moving shots. For lenses we used a Leica 12-60mm as our main lens. It had very painterly color rendition and great focus falloff. But most of all, this zoom range allowed us to capture most of the documentary on a single lens. This helped us react to rapidly changing conditions and be ready for anything, especially when our city was under attack, and we had to film and move very quickly.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Stefanov: Only practical lights were used in the film. We had absolutely no film lights and only used some reflectors. We felt the light in Ukraine is part of the spirit of our country and that no artificial light was needed. This helps the film remain absolutely faithful not just to how our lives look, but to how they feel to us.

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

Stefanov: The most difficult scenes to realize were the animated shots in the film. It required weeks of preparation and storyboarding and careful location scouting to find the spot with the best lighting and environment. We conducted tests for nine months to make sure the animations would be absolutely organic and that our footage would seamlessly mesh with animations created by BluBlu in Poland and visual effects created by Brendan and CG supervisor Quade Biddle in Sydney. It was a fascinating experience for me to collaborate with fellow artists around the world in filming the works of my closest friends—the figurines sculpted by Slava and painted by Anya.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Stefanov: The look of the film was planned absolutely from day one of filming. Slava and I worked with Brendan, who shaped the post-production to render the colors and light we filmed in the exact spirit of our artwork. We all felt that a realistic film look was the only way to share with audiences the feeling of our Ukraine. We used Brendan’s software, InviziGrain, to turn our video footage into an organic palette by recreating it out of film grains. He felt my paintings should be used as an inspiration for the colors achieved in the look of the film. We filmed everything looking at those colors of our film LUT in our camera and constantly reviewed dailies so we knew exactly how people and places would be rendered.

It was not just about color, but about texture and shape. The way that colors influence each other in real analog film and in paintings is very different than in video, so we knew we would need this process for the film to feel like our personal story. We would have weekly meetings to discuss everything about the look of the film and constantly experiment. We love trying new things, and so the three of us were constantly dreaming up new ways to film. The color correction was used mainly to gently balance shots. The footage is something we made by hand in real-time as our daily lives were in a constant state of flux. We felt that the flow of scenes should reflect this visual progression very naturalistically and not feel over corrected digitally.


Film Title: Porcelain War

Camera: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, Sony FX-30, DJI Mavic Drones, GoPro Hero 11 Black.

Lenses: Leica/Panasonic 12-60mm, various Canon EOS Lenses, Laowa 24mm Macro Probe Lens.

Lighting: All natural light

Processing: All footage was processed with InviziGrain, which recreated every frame of the film out of real film grains to achieve a true film look.

Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve. Shot and finished in 4K.

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