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“The Rhythms of the Film Mirror Their Artistic Spirit”: Editors Brendan Bellomo & Aniela Sidorska 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.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, artists Anya Stasenko, Slava Leontyev and Andrey Stefanov chose to stay behind and fight. Along with their friends Brendan Bellomo and Aniela Sidorska in the United States, they have made their feature filmmaking debut documenting their lives during wartime and their art.

Below, Bellomo, who served as co-director and editor, and Sidorska, who also produced, explain how they came to shape the film’s narrative and built intimacy with the on-screen subjects while coordinating across three continents.

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor questionnaire 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?

Bellomo: Aniela and I work as a creative duo, As co-director, and with Aniela as the lead writer who first put the project together as a producer, we were discovering the flow of the film’s story together, and it quickly became very clear that for the spirit of the film to reach the screen in a very personal and musical way, we were drawn to edit the film together.

Sidorska: In this documentary, the writing and editing processes truly became one. The tone of the film was very specific and delicate. Brendan and I have an unspoken shorthand that allowed us to sculpt the cut very effectively because we feel stories in the same way.

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

Sidorska: Our goals in advancing the film from rough cut to picture lock were twofold: to create a transparent emotional experience that could bring the audience directly into the lives of our friends, and to do that in a very musical way, where the rhythms of the film would mirror the artistic spirit that they all embodied.

At the beginning of production, we all collectively decided that Andrey and Slava, as well as the members of the Special Forces unit featured in the film, would record their own lives—rather than a film crew going to Ukraine. We felt that a truly subjective recording would allow the footage to be uniquely intimate. So, in the process of editing, it was our job maintain a very strong verité spirit.

It was critical for the audience to feel like they connected to each character in the film as if they knew them personally. It was key to be able to relate empathetically to every one of them, not observationally, but intimately. Preserving this humanity was important to us because that’s what’s missing in the storytelling of this war. The shoot and the edit worked hand-in-hand to capture shots with the camera in the middle of action and then weave together the most vulnerable and emotionally revealing moments.

Bellomo: We fine-cut as we assembled the film maintaining a musicality that allowed us to take the audience through the full range of human emotions that people experience in these extreme circumstances. For example, in one of the opening scenes of the film, Aniela described an accelerating rhythm of shots that got quicker and quicker with each cut. I turned that into a series of rhythms, and then we later edited our final scene that recording.

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

Bellomo & Sidorska: To develop an editing technique for the film, we first sought to deeply understand the lives of everyone in it. As we got to know them, not only as subjects of the documentary but as co-filmmakers and fellow artists, it became clear that this would be a unique edit that required a special approach, unlike anything we had worked on before. As footage came in, we quickly realized humanity, beauty, spontaneity, unvarnished visual truth, and even humor, would all drive the edit. So, our primary driving force in the cut was for audience to not think of people in a war as characters but to feel that they’re right there with them, experiencing their lives.

Test screenings played important role in the film’s editing process. We conducted weekly screenings, giving us real-time feedback to help guide us and hold us accountable to maintaining the authenticity of the film. This helped us sculpt specific aspects of the film to ensure the story was completely clear, especially given that it was translated into another language.

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

Sidorska: Out of everyone on the team, Brendan and I knew Anya, Slava and Andrey the best. They were our friends. They were people we cared about. We felt a huge responsibility to them and an artistic kinship. Despite not having edited a feature film before, we knew these people and how they wanted to tell this story. Furthermore, since Brendan and I work so closely on all aspects of our filmmaking, it became a natural choice to edit the film together.

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

Bellomo: We had three Avids running between Sydney and Los Angeles, where we split post-production. There were 500 hours of footage that needed to be meticulously synced, organized and translated. For us, the Avid’s shared editing capability was the only way to handle this huge challenge. Working in Sydney, editor Kelly Cameron supporting Aniela and I, who were editing in Los Angeles. We edited remotely using ColorFront Streaming Player to show the output of the Avid in real-time.

Sidorska: Our incredible main assistant editors Daniel O’Brien and Liam Riley were able to manage footage from 15 cameras and design ways for us to have instant access to the most powerful, emotional and beautiful moments from 18 months of constant filming. We were supported by our amazing translators, who worked tirelessly for 9 months to translate over 2,000 pages of transcripts that lead us to the heart of the film.

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

Bellomo & Sidorska: It turns out that a seemingly simple opening dialogue scene was actually the most challenging one to cut. Here, the characters tell the story of how they first met as children, and this anecdote sets their whole personal story in motion. Since Porcelain War is entirely subtitled, this was a make-or-break moment for the audience to both fall in love with Anya and Slava, whose dynamic is driven by fast-paced loving banter, and to also understand the roots of their personal and artistic journey. We needed the scene to capture and establish their personalities as the main subjects in the film. While watching their fast-paced banter, the audience would also need to quickly read subtitles. We knew we would have challenges in faster paced dialogue, but we quickly made a decision that our story wasn’t about needing to read every word—it was about being with the people and connecting to them in a way that transcends words. To top it off, the scene was set to music.

So, balancing these three factors was a constant process from when we first cut the scene to nine months later when we picture locked. Our goal was singular: to let the audience feel like they were spending time with Anya and Slava, getting to know them over a cup of tea.

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

Bellomo & Sidorska: Animation and VFX played a significant role in the film. Our film contains three animations where Anya and Slava’s work comes to life to tell the story of their past before the war, their present situation during the invasion and their dreams for a peaceful Ukraine. To bring Anya’s paintings to life on the surface of Slava’s porcelain sculptures, we worked with the fabulous animation company BluBlu, based in Warsaw, and with Sydney-based CG supervisor Quade Biddle, who worked tirelessly for almost a year to bring these scenes to life. Over 7,000 frames of animation were hand drawn and mapped onto photorealistic scans of three remarkable figurines that Anya and Slava created to show the world their lives through the lens of their art.

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?

Bellomo & Sidorska: This film always knew what it needed to be, and the more we listened to that, the easier it was to make it. Anytime anything that was “outside” the film came into the process, the film was almost “allergic” to it, so to speak. It became as much a process of reduction as it was of building up the cut. Whether that was a different approach to cutting a scene, a particular sound, or an image that didn’t fit, these were choices that had to be made throughout the edit. As the process unfolded, we focused on one what the film needed to be at its heart and nothing more. Our final understanding of the film is exactly what we saw in the beauty of their art and their story from the first moments we met Anya and Slava.

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