Tag Archives: Sputnik Vostok Production

Cold cuts

Sputnik Vostok Production’s general producer Alex Kessel introduces Russian drama The Counted and outlines a scene that pushed the cast to their limits in freezing temperatures.

Alex Kessel

The Counted is a 16-hour television drama for Russian streaming platform start.ru. It tells the story of two former lovers who find themselves trapped in a strange world after catching a deadly virus, and then wake up cured in a new land among weird people who worship an unknown god called Lapsi.

The story is set in a northern part of Russia named Karelia, which is located close to Finland. It’s a unique geographical location that is home to many mystical legends.

Shooting took place in winter because the story is set in a frozen place. But winter in Russia is not an advantage in itself, and the winter in Karelia is the last thing anyone would choose. The crew faced temperatures that reached minus 20-25 degrees celsius, and even colder at night. That’s why one of the most complicated scenes to shoot was one where a naked woman gets punished. The plot dictates that she is stripped naked in full view of the island’s weird community and is turned into slave. They call it ‘turning into morlok’ in the script.

Our viewers have already compared this highly dramatic act with Cersei’s ‘walk of shame’ punishment in Game of Thrones. They are right in that it has nudity in common, but keep in mind we were filming at night in temperatures of minus 30 degrees. We also made a silicone nape, as the punishment involved chaining her up using skin perforation. This was a big issue because we didn’t have time for many takes – otherwise we would literally freeze the actress, Irina Cherihenko.

The scene was extremely well planned and looked very much like a military operation. A few days before filming, Irina was asked to take a vitamin drink to improve her immune system. The shoot consisted of two takes for each shot, with everything drawn up on an elaborate storyboard. We did everything we could to ease the tense working conditions and Irina made the scene great. The whole crew was happy when the scene was shot.

Irina Cherihenko performed the scene in the nude at minus 30 degrees celsius

However, we did face unexpected problems. The camera could not handle the frost, meaning some of the material was taped with mistakes and frames were lost. We didn’t lose the whole scene – thank Lapsi – but after losing some frames in each take, the video could not be played or edited properly. Thus we had to choose one of two options: either repeat the shoot and make Irina go through this extreme experience again, or put additional money into CGI and restore the recording manually. We took the second option, because we care about our cast. Irina suffered sincerely and this is what we needed for the dramatic look of the scene. We call it ‘turn the defect into effect’ in Russia. The cohesiveness of the filming crew made this mission possible – some things could never be repeated.

The whole plot centres on a test: our characters test their ability to be rational when they are asked to believe in the impossible. They face facts that can hardly be explained and are more mysterious than death itself. Irina said her experience was ecstatic, describing it as a quite religious trip — a trip through Russia’s endless miles, plot-wise, and a trip inside herself as an actor.

Many topics are covered in the show – faith and fact, science and religion, freedom and captivity, man and woman, the choices we make. Filming the punishment scene on a dark winter night did much for the storytelling and our producer’s vision. And the viewers got the chance to watch the act, which was directed and shot with maximum naturalness.

The series was highly acclaimed by local and international audiences, and now we think it is the right moment to say many thanks and much respect to Irina for taking on the challenge. The Counted would never have been the same without this scene.

tagged in: , , ,

Steppe change

Writing for DQ, Alexandra Modestova, director general of Russian film and television consultancy Expocontent, explains how series such as The Road to Calvary and An Ordinary Woman are leading the rise in female-led dramas in the country.

Alexandra Modestova

The global market has started to open up to Russian drama. As stories have focused on the domestic market for the past 10 years, Russian series were known to offer traditional values – strong, powerful men who rule the world and drive the story, and women filling mostly secondary roles.

But times are changing. Since top Russian producers now focus on the global market and make series intended for worldwide audiences, they have to adapt the way Russian women are seen and presented by local television.

Female-led shows where women drive the story have begun appearing over the past few years, and that’s quite a step forward for the local industry. Among the most recent examples are Mata Hari, Mathilde, Ekaterina (pictured top), Sophia, The Road to Calvary, Better than Us and An Ordinary Woman.

The latter is a compelling example of another major change for Russian female characters: they can now be complex. Produced by Look Film and 1-2-3 Production for TV3, An Ordinary Woman centres on a married woman with two kids and a small flower shop. It turns out she is secretly running a prostitution network to fully cover her family’s needs, which her husband is incapable of doing. That might seem a radical way to help one’s family, but the story carries a great deal of irony and deep thought, depicting a strong woman in a world of weaker men.

An Ordinary Woman follows a mother who secretly runs a prostitution ring

The heroine is a mother of two daughters and a caring wife, yet she can be cynical, cold-headed, even cruel in her secret (but very real) life. She is a complicated, independently minded woman who has flaws and doesn’t fit into that typical kind of ‘perfect’ female characters who are too good to play by their own rules. So the title is significant – any ‘ordinary’ woman watching the series in any part of the world shares her character and complexities, her flaws and private thoughts. It’s no surprise that the series was immediately picked up by an international distributor, Cineflix Rights.

The series may seem to broadcast a new message for the local audience, but in fact women have always been strong in Russia, so it’s not only down to contemporary stories.

Several period dramas from Russia television and radio revolve around female leads based on real women in different times and circumstances. Ekaterina tells the story of the Russian empress Catherine the Great. She arrives in the country as a young girl and becomes the most powerful woman in Europe. Another drama, Sophia, is dedicated to the first influential woman in Russian history, Sophia Palaiologina, grandmother of Ivan the Terrible, who managed to survive in a harsh world filled with conspiracies. She supported the integration of a divided country and helped to push out invaders and build the Kremlin in Moscow.

These memorable heroines make their own way in a male-dominated world. They are smart and decisive enough to hold power and influence during periods when this was extremely unusual for women. These productions provide accurate historical context but with a modern look, so these women are similar at their core to women today: ambitious, intelligent, independent, passionate and imperfect.

The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy

Other compelling examples of shows where women dare live, feel and make mistakes are The Road to Calvary (NTV Broadcasting Company, distributed internationally by Dori Media) and Mathilde (Rock Films). The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy and follows Russian intellectuals through the revolution of 1917 and the Soviet era, telling the story of two sisters. Here an absolute classic is reinvented by and for a younger generation. The young still read classic literature but nowadays they need to look at the story through a different lens.

Mathilde, presented at Mipcom in Cannes last year with support from Made in Russia, tells a classical love story: the last Russian emperor and his affair with an attractive ballerina. Again, it shows a woman full of passion who follows her desires boldly. The whole world is against her but she is able to stand up to it.

It seems that science fiction is also seen as a place for women. Better Than Us, from Yellow Black and White and Sputnik Vostok Production, centres on an android who seems to have her own thoughts and intentions, and looks at the impact she has on the humans around her. She is perfectly beautiful, yet any evil intentions towards her end badly for any potential offender. The series has just been acquired by Netflix from Start Video, the rights holder, and will become the first Netflix Original from Russia.

Better Than Us will be the first Netflix Original from Russia

The android woman is played by Paulina Andreeva, a rising star of Russian TV and cinema. She also plays the lead female role in Method, a series by Sreda that was among the first Russian projects acquired by Netflix. Andreeva appears as an ambitious young law enforcement graduate who is taken on as a trainee by a famous detective, her idol. But his methods of tracking down dangerous criminals and maniacs aren’t anything like she imagined.

The past few years have seen a range of high-end shows from Russia that are driven by female leads. Although there may not be many of these yet, the Russian TV industry is going international and following global trends. This includes the necessity to let women have a distinct voice and fair representation on the screen. These days fair means complex. Like real women and like the new, younger audience, female characters have to live life on their own terms. The choices they make may be different – they might be married or single, a tender mother or child-free, a successful business woman or a housewife, even a criminal, or a combination of all these.

The main point is it’s their own choice.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,