DP Sviatoslav Bulakovskyi on Klondike |

Oxana Cherkashyna in Klondike

In July 2014, during the Donbass War, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over the Donetsk region of Ukraine, a pair of expectant parents living in the disputed Donetsk region of Ukraine by pro-Russian rebels . This is the backdrop for Maryna Er Gorbach Klondike, which follows a pair of expectant parents to find their hopes of raising a child in a relative chunk shattered by the differing loyalties of his brother and his friends. Cinematographer Sviatoslav Bulakovskyi explained how he scouted locations during a COVID lockdown and how his experience taught him to always prepare for the unexpected.

Director: How and why did you become the director of photography for your film? What factors and attributes led you to be hired for this position?

Boulakovsky: At the start of this project, I was supposed to be a producer only because director Maryna Er Gorbach and I decided to make a film on our own without involving the big film companies. It was my first production experience, and combining film producer duties with camera work seemed impossible. A particular challenge was that the filming had to take place in an expedition, and that involved a number of additional issues that, as a producer, I had to resolve.

When we got funding, there was a lockdown announced around the world. Transport, hotels and cafes ceased to operate during the period. But, in order not to waste time and therefore not to waste the summer for filming, I slept in my car, took canned food and went in search of location scouts. We couldn’t place the board near hostilities that would endanger the lives of our team; that’s why I had to drive through southern Ukraine, as this region was mostly similar in landscapes to the occupied eastern territory where the events of the film take place. I slept in fields, by the sea, in abandoned villages and finally found a perfect place not far from Odessa. I was impressed by the care taken by the director to develop the overall style of the film and to make the sets as convincing as possible.

It was a challenge to build a fully-fledged brick house in order to make everything authentic in the dramaturgy.

The preparation was really difficult, and it became clear that the nuances and visual display of emotions and conditions that sometimes cannot even be expressed in words would be extremely important.

And besides, responsiveness and mutual understanding were integral. Since Maryna and I have been friends since college and have shot a few projects in 16mm and 35mm, [some] experimental films and worked together overseas, we came to the conclusion that I should also be the cameraman.

The qualities most needed were commitment, the ability to react quickly to new inputs and optimism. I never say “No, we can’t do it” to my manager; I ask for time to understand and realize what she has imagined.

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

Boulakovsky: The main graphic task was not only to tell the story of certain characters, but also to tell the story of the author’s feelings in the face of dramatic events. Klondikethe camera of is Maryna’s perspective on her feelings, [which show] exactly the same atmosphere where his characters turned out to be. We’d like audiences to not only watch the movie, but feel as much as possible about what the heroes are feeling.

When a person is in the thick of things, they can’t objectively assess the situation because they don’t see the big picture. And when the war begins, not everyone is able to fully understand the action. And if a house is hit by a shell – destroying not only walls but also part of life – a person feels fear, pain, anger, helplessness. They see irreversible consequences without knowing who fired, where the shot came from, if it was a coincidence or if a sniper targeted the certain house.

Real life is not a movie where events are shown in detail from different angles. It is precisely this perception that we would like to show in the film. The camera of our film seems to be independent of the heroes – it does not look at them, but at the atmosphere in general. For example, during a panoramic shot, the movement is regular, without any acceleration or deceleration, whatever the movements of the actors. The camera does not adapt to it. The camera can get ahead of them or, on the contrary, be left behind by them or even leave the events outside the frame of the shot.

For some images, we set up the camera and actors on the same platform and moved around so that movement was barely seen, but the world behind the actors’ backs seemed to move. So we tried to show that even when something horrible happens and sends a person into a tailspin, the world doesn’t stop. Whatever happens, life goes on. Remembering this is necessary and important.

Director: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether it was from other films, or visual arts, or photography, or whatever?

Boulakovsky: Maryna Er Gorbach and I have been friends and working for a long time, but when we work on Klondike we learned to understand each other perfectly. We were in continuous research, not knowing how to convey to the public what we feel and what we want to share. Of course, we were looking for references, but the most important thing was that we were constantly creating and honestly sharing our thoughts and feelings.

Working with Maryna on our semester project in college, I learned the importance of continuous creative research. Imagine that you have already found some cool decisions, made a storyboard and started the technical development of the task but suddenly in a few days a director says to you: “No, we do this another way”. You completely abandon the approved concept and start developing it again. And once you’re nearing a point of completion, suddenly a director says “no” again and comes up with an absolutely new idea. At some point, after another such drastic turn, I started to think of these situations as mental exercises. The very search for decision variants became interesting to me, and I was curious: what other methods can help accomplish a given task? I stopped getting upset about having to redo everything, and such a style of work turned into a challenge for my imagination and resourcefulness, arousing more interest and excitement.

Today I can say with confidence that my approach to work on set, the ability to think of possible variants and, if necessary, to quickly adapt to unexpected circumstances was formed in my work with Maryna.

Director: What were the biggest challenges in producing these goals?

Boulakovsky: Since I combined two positions on the project, there was a constant struggle within me between operator and producer. I had to find a balance between creative desires and the need to stay within budget. But it was brilliant in its own way because by weighing the pros and cons I could find myself making financial trade-offs in order to make a decision in favor of the artistic aspect.

Director: What camera did you shoot with? Why did you choose the camera you made? What glasses did you use?

Boulakovsky: We decided to film with an Alexa Mini LF. Due to the full matrix, we wanted to achieve more detail and plasticity in the frame. On the optical side, I used a Cooke S7/i. Because of their softness, these lenses were best suited for our task.

In fact, I prefer working with Alexa cameras. They have, in my opinion, a more flexible and cinematic image, as opposed to analogues.

Director: Describe your approach to lighting.

Boulakovsky: It was important to get as natural light as possible in this film. Along with that, we tried to make sure that [the] image and light were soft and non-contrast[-y as a] counterpoint to difficult events. Completing this task became more difficult when a wall was destroyed in the house landscape [that was] built in a real village. The installations were lined up so that the actors of the same frame were both inside and outside the house. On sunny days, the difference between indoors and outdoors reaches 16 f-stops and it was [necessary] to level out this contrast.

For this, we first filmed such scenes while the sun was shining. [in] contrast and arrive at [illuminate the] ground through a huge hole in the wall [that] gave extra filling. Second, to make the light more natural, I put the main [fill light] inside the house to reflect off the floor, channeling large light fixtures into a light linen canvas spread across the floor. Since the landscape walls weren’t slippery, I also laid a flat carpet light on the walls, which [was] allowed not to occupy space with additional devices of generous proportions. Third, seven meters from the house, I placed a huge black trellis frame over the entire hole in the wall, which allowed [me] remove 2 more diaphragms from the background and, due to the distance, [for that] be invisible to the camera.

And the outdoor scenes? Generally, they were filmed at critical times or when the sun was low. On several occasions, the best takes that made it to film were shot almost on the verge of illumination.

Director: What was the most difficult scene to achieve and why? And how did you do?

Boulakovsky: There were no easy scenes, you’ll see. Technically, the hardest part was the opening scene of the film. Maryna said “It will be the dream, it will be the life, it will be the death, it will be the morning (04:35 a.m. exactly, because we need exactly that color) it will be a unique setting with a 360° panoramic view and there will be special effects because visual effects are not a miracle and we need a miracle on set.

How can you answer that? My grandfather was an inventor, and I believe so deeply in the image of the author that you can invent the way to photograph it.

Director: Finally, describe the finish of the film. How much of your look was “prepared” versus done in the DI?

Boulakovsky: I can share my impressions on Klondike when I first watched it. It impressed me how all these parts of scene puzzles worked out in one movie. I hope viewers will be touched by our work.


Movie Title: Klondike
Camera: Alexa Mini LF
Lenses: Cooke S7/i
Lighting: ARRI M-Series, Light Mat
Color gradient: DaVinci Resolution

About Monty S. Maynard

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