I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of Russia's most sought after cinematographers, Egor Povolotskiy. Having received two coveted awards at the Rochester International Film Festival last year for his work on the film We Are Enemies, Povolotskiy's brilliant use of lighting and camera placement in this film and others make it easy to see why he continues to be tapped to use his creative expertise on films across continents. In Ilya Rozhkov's We Are Enemies, Povolotskiy's superior talents shine through on the screen brilliantly.
Not only does the fluidity and precision of each frame allow audiences to embark on this intense war story with the film's main characters, two soldiers from opposites sides, but Povolotskiy's use of dramatic lighting and close-ups infuse the film with an inescapable sense of humanity that drives home the realness of what it is like to murder a stranger who has been labeled an enemy.
The cinematographer's role is one of the most challenging in film because they have to have the technical knowledge of their tools, as well as the creativity necessary in order to bring the director's intangible vision to life—something Egor Povolotskiy has continually executed on every project he has worked on.
To find out more about this incredible cinematographer and his upcoming work, make sure to check out our interview below!
PLM: Where are you from? When and how did you become a cinematographer?
EP: I’m from Moscow, Russia. I got my first masters degree at Moscow Engineering and Physics University as an Artificial Intelligence specialist. I thought that I was going to create robots and terminators, you know, what people think about when they think of AI. But it turned out very boring and in Russia AI is still very weak.
So, in my third year of education I started taking portraits of my friends, and my parents supported me and bought me my first photo camera. In a couple of years I developed my skills and started working as a wedding photographer (which actually helped me in the sense of being able to setup the best frame really fast) with Marriott Hotels in Moscow, and a photojournalist with ITAAR TASS (which helped me learn how to tell stories through my pictures). I also collaborated with the Russian Association of Bikers, who actually brought me on my first movie set.
When I started as a photographer I realized that I wanted something more and I wanted to work in film. So I asked my friend Alexander Kisel, the former president of the Russian Association of Bikers, if it was possible for me to come to the set and take some pictures. I still remember how it was - everything was so magical, it was just incredible. It was a friendly and creative atmosphere—for me, it was pure happiness.
I ended up giving my pictures to the producers and they hired me on their next project and the next one and the next one. I began working with several top Russian directors (Khotinenko, Bondarchuk) and cinematographers; and after a couple of years of working as a set photographer I became a 2nd unit DP and was working on the Russian adaptation of Drop Dead Diva (Sony Pictures).
After that show I got an offer from producer Anna Kouranova about working as the DP on her next film, but I refused because this job not only requires aesthetics, but tons of academic knowledge. So I told her that I would get my degree and come back to shoot her movie. I'm very grateful that she gave me this punch to start my career as a cinematographer. Also, my wife and best friend Arisha has been incredibly valuable in giving me a lot in terms of my sense of art. She is a photographer and she showed me films by Tarkovskiy, Bergman, Jarmush, and Woody Allen.
My parents and my wife gave me huge support and that's how I got to Hollywood. Only later have I realized that the shadow of being a cinematographer has chased me through my entire life. I found pictures when I was around 4 years old with a camera, when I was a little older I was trying to shoot movie with my friends using a very old handy cam.
PLM: What does the work of a cinematographer entail? What are your responsibilities?
EP: A cinematographer is a storyteller. The job of cinematographer is to convey the story to the viewer visually. Sure, it's not only that but it is the most important part in being a cinematographer. What is more, the cinematographer is in charge of the mood of the film, he has to understand not only how the lighting works, but act a bit like a director.
Dramatic art is everything for a cinematographer in my opinion and I’m not talking about genre, because dramatic art is everywhere it doesn’t matter whether you are shooting a comedy or a horror project.
The cinematographer is the bridge between the director and the people in the movie theater; and it is through his eyes that the audience will see the film. Also, a good cinematographer is synchronized with his crew, he has to know exactly how fast his crew will be able to create a lighting setup, and what we can do in order to achieve the best result in time period we have.
As a cinematographer you always have to think in advance - what setup is next, how much time we have and what you can do to make each shot your best. And you have to consider the dramatic aspect of each particular scene.
It is a huge pressure, because on set there are a lot of people who judge your work and so, in these moments it's very important to have a crew whom you can trust. If they fail - it’s your fault. You are only as good as your crew, which means you are responsible for managing your crew. That's why I'm very picky about the people with whom I work, and I gain their respect because I do my best for them and create an environment where they feel comfortable and protected. They are my filmmaking family and I care about them.
That's everything that is really happening behind the shots; but to put it shortly, the role of a cinematographer is to translate the story in peoples' minds without them noticing it. If you turn off the sound, but you still understand and feel the story, that means the cinematographer did his job right.
PLM: What do you think makes good cinema?
EP: Filmmaking is very subjective. Someone can say that this movie is good, and others won't like it-- it's all personal. But in general, it should be a good story. What does it mean to be a good story? It should touch you and it doesn’t matter how. If you feel something – that's the goal because the nightmare for a filmmaker is if you left a movie theater without any thoughts, if you are absolutely neutral to it.
PLM: What has been your favorite camera to use so far and why?
EP: I like film cameras, the Arri Alexa Plus camera, and the Red One MX. I'm used to working mostly with Red cameras, not to say that they are the best, but in the indie world it is the most affordable camera. A lot of cinematographers don’t like Red cameras, but I disagree with them. It is doesn’t matter actually which camera you're going to choose.
As for me, the camera depends on the project-- one may require a 5D while other films might require something else. Since I’ve been working with Red cameras a lot I know some tricks and steps to get the best quality of film out of them. Lighting, the right choice of lens, proper camera settings, converting the footage, color grading and a couple tricks in post can all help to make your picture look more cinematic. I have my own recipe of using a Red. There a lot of wars between cinematographers about cameras, but for me the answer will be - It all depends on the story.
PLM: Can you tell me a little bit about the projects you’ve done?
EP: The first project I want to mention is the feature film Goetia. It is a mystic-horror film that was directed by my great friend and a very talented director named Alexander Babaev. The film was produced by Black Drone Media and Marietta Volynska.
We spent a month in preproduction, planning the shoots. Our references were Evil Dead and Skeleton Key, but in Goetia we decided to go with a different lighting approach opting for soft light. For the horror genre harsh lighting is kind of dogma, but we decided to try something different. Regarding the actual work on set it was great!
We had great synergy on set and every single person was synchronized with each other. Sure, there were some little arguments during production, because there is no production without some fighting, as every person is unique and artsy. But overall we were like one big family. We shot the film in Frazier Park and it was a magical time. We had preplanned a lot of the film with Alexander, but once we were on set we suddenly realized we could step out of the box and shoot the scenes differently. We did the impossible - 38 setups was our record.
I want to mention Alex’s approach to filmmaking because he is a very fun and serious guy at the same time. He is a very hard worker, but at the same time he is very easy going. Everything happening at that time was pure art and creativity, and you will get a chance to see it on the screen very soon. This film is still in post production.
Another project I would like to talk about is Sabre Dance, a biographical comedy directed by Ilya Rozhkov and produced by Radhika Womack and Janek Ambros of Assembly Line Entertainment.
This film was very interesting because the story was a true story about Aram Khachatourian, a famous USSR composer, and Salvador Dali. After giving a performance to the people of Spain, the world-famous composer Aram Khachatourian is showered with praise and is given an opportunity to meet Salvador Dali. Soon, Aram learns that artists can be completely different in their attitude towards life, art and etiquette.
My collaboration with Ilya started a long time ago - we met in film school and shot most of our projects together.
This project was special for me because we had two absolutely different characters and as the cinematographer I had to tell the story from the emotional POVs of both Aram and Salvador in order to express the main idea of the film.
Ilya and I used to live in the same building at Oakwood Toluca Hills; and while we were working on this film we spent every day in Ilyas apartment listening to classical music, watching chronicles, creating storyboards and shooting scenes on an iPhone and editing immediately in order to be sure that the scene would work.
It was a long, but lovely process and a lot of fun. We shot in some absolutely amazing places - Hummingbird ranch, where True Blood was shot and other famous shows, and we used the Los Angeles Theater as the theater in Spain. Also, it was an absolute pleasure working with our talents-- Greg Louganis as Salvador Dali, and Armen Babasoloukian as Khachatourian.
Another film I worked on was Terminal State, which was directed by Artem Miroshin. The film was 80% CGI and it revolved around a girl who manages to survive the apocalypses. I can’t say much more because I don't want to reveal the key moment of the film. I can tell you that the look of this film is unique; it is something on the edge of animation and film.
For me it was a very interesting and challenging project, because we had to shoot 80% of the film on a green screen. I had some experience in shooting for CGI before, but not as much as on this project. Shooting green screen has a lot of rules and restrictions. Everybody on set has to imagine how the picture will look at the very end. What is more it was extremely hard for the lead actress Haley Damian to imagine herself in the circumstances without seeing the actual location surrounding her. But she did a great job!
Artem is also a CGI artist, and her has created the world of Terminal State by himself! Every model, every bush and leaf has been made by him from scratch. Most of the time he does CGI for projects, but Terminal State is his directing debut, and what he's handled is incredible. This film is still in post production because of tons of CGI, but we are planning to shoot a couple more projects together soon.
The film Morning Glory, which was directed by Linxuan Li, is about an autistic boy named Andy who lost his mother and struggles with a world that can’t understand him and won't accept him. This was a very unique story for me with heavy drama, which required me to approach the cinematography in a way that expressed Andy’s emotions.
We shot at a school in Alhambra and a house, and for the school we chose to go with heavy expressionism using dark moody corridors, high contrast and a cold classroom in order to express the way that the boy is afraid of his new school, where his classmates laugh at him, and refuse to accept him. The house was cold and dangerous for him too, because his father can’t get over with death of his wife. The only place where Andy can relax is his room - the chamber, which is a shrine of his mother. We choose to have it warm and soft.
In this project it was pure art for me - as I was able to use lighting to its fullest potential in order to support Andy’s emotional POV. The film is still in post production and will be released in September of this year. Keep an eye out for it-- it's going to do very well at festivals.
I also worked on the film Ocean, a very interesting sci-fi film directed by Cyril Zima that is full of twists. The film involved a lot of CGI and the director had a very unique view and technique.
PLM: What made you choose to participate in these projects?
EP: Stories for sure. Each story is unique, and in each film I had creative input. I can’t just push the button on the camera. For me it is all about "directing" the cameras, that's why a cinematographer is also known as the Director of Photography, or DP.
PLM: What makes you pick one project over another?
EP: Story again; but it also depends on the director. If I feel that the director can let me in and trust me, then I know we are going to have a lot of fun and create something great.
PLM: What has been your favorite project or projects so far and why?
EP: It is very hard to say. Each of them is different. A cinematographer has a lot of instruments in order to tell the story and every film can be shot in a ton of ways. So far, there hasn't been one project that I shot like any of the others, so they are all uniquely different and impossible to choose.
PLM: What has been your most challenging project and why?
EP: Every project is challenging. Most of the time it is in terms of limitations in the budget so you can’t get necessary equipment, or bring more people on board. It’s always challenging, but interesting at the same time. You will be wondering how much can be accomplished with only one 650W lighting kit and a limited grip stuff, but that's why it is a challenge and the reason it feels so great when you've accomplished your goal.
PLM: What separates your overall visual style from other cinematographers?
EP: I can’t compare my style to others because there are tons of cinematographers who might shoot the same way as I do. I can tell you that I like wide lenses, even on close-ups. It's gorgeous how a 25mm lens wraps the face (with no distortion), adding life to a character and making the shot more dynamic; but again, that depends of what kind of feel needs to be represented in the scene. My work mixes a European and Hollywood style of cinematography.
I like to light the set first, not the actor. In this way the actor gets the space to LIVE in it, not just act, that ay he or she can have absolute freedom in their movements. Motivation is everything for me when I'm thinking about how I'm going to light the set.
PLM: What would you say your strongest qualities are as a cinematographer?
EP: I would say that I've never had a problem with a director regarding the result of my work. Every time I work with a director I can feel what they want deep inside for their project. Also, my strongest quality is my understanding of dramatic art, and understanding the story and characters' motivation. It is very easy to create a beautiful picture, but it is hard to convey the story to the minds of an audience.
PLM: What projects do you have coming up?
EP: I have 3 more feature films this year. One is directed by Hans Stjernsward. The movie is very stylized—think Woody Allen meets Ingmar Bergman. Hans is originally from Sweden and that is reflected in his film style—it is very artistic, visual, funny and serious all at the same time. The main idea about this film is that every scene will be executed in one shot. It’s not like Birdman.
The next two projects are going to be with Alex Babaev (psychological thriller-horror) and with Cyril Zima (sci-fi). Unfortunately I can’t say anything more regarding these projects right because of production restrictions. I've also signed on to shoot 5 short films over the next 3 months. Those films are Escape by Ilya Rozhkov, Camila by Carla Roda, as well as three others with directors Fahad Alshareef, Yi Zhang and Nikita Belomestnykh.
PLM: What are your plans for the future?
EP: Keep growing as a cinematographer, working on bigger scale projects.
PLM: What do you hope to achieve in your career?
EP: For sure as every cinematographer does, I want to receive a BAFTA, Oscar and Cannes award for my work.
PLM: What kind of training have you done?
EP: I graduated from New York Film Academy with Master of Fine Art in Cinematography.