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An interview with Ukrainian Postmodern Studio that helped create ‘Chernobyl’ and a Chinese blockbuster

Postmodern Studio is part of FILM.UA Group and boasts over 10 years of visual- and audio-post-production experience. The company created a 3D model of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant for miniseries ‘Chernobyl’, worked on special effects for ‘The Stronghold’ movie and major Chinese and Indian movies, and their voice-over team dubs such blockbusters like ‘Aquaman’ for Ukrainian distribution.

AIN.UA visited the studio and talked to Postmodern’s CEOs Egor Borschevsky and Sergey Bondarenko about Ukrainian film market, their major projects and staffing situation. 

Describe your business

(Egor Borschevsky, the CEO of Postmodern Studio, gives the answer)

Postmodern is a visual effect and post-production company. It does all stages of production that occurs after principal shooting is complete.

The post-production period starts when the shooting days are over. But we usually start our work earlier, at the pre-production stage. Oftentimes, we’re invited at the stage of draft discussion.

Egor Borschevsky. Photo hereinafter by Olha Zakrevska

The post-production includes three major phases: video editing, visual effects insertion, audio editing. These processes usually run parallel, but each of them has a much more complex structure that includes other parallel and sequential processes.

Video and audio are interdependent, and everything hinges on actors. There’s a myriad of cross-points and organizational challenges in this industry. The whole structure is very complex and hard to describe.

Postmodern Studio can be roughly divided into two main hubs:

Our company provides a full range of services required for film production. We are involved to a large extent in all three stages of content creation: pre-production, production, and post-production. For example, we start working on visual effects at the stage of script writing, and we also engage in script discussion.

Our supervisors are part of the creative team, interacting with scriptwriters and directors, advising how to make the film more dramatic and esthetic. We are also consulting on production technologies compliance during the shooting. And a good share of our efforts is focused on the post-production.

How did you start the company?

The company has been operating for over 10 years. It was founded in 2001 and was called Pteroduction Sound till 2004. We started out as an audio post-production company.

Later, we also started working on video editing and color correction. But at that time we focused mainly on advertising. There was no such thing as a finely tuned theatrical, film and TV series production in Ukraine yet.

The transition to film market occurred in 2012-2013 with real industrial-scale film production projects. That is, the number of Ukrainian TV series production exceeded 20-30 a year.

Back then Film.ua found itself in an urgent need for a company to handle post-production of TV series and movies.

Egor Borschevsky at Postmodern Studio

At first, we divided into two offices, one of which was still engaged in advertising production. Advertising has gradually fizzled out, and now we take orders like that only from time to time.

We are leaders in the market. We have about 120 employees almost equally divided between the two units – audio mixing and visual effects.

Could you assess the Ukrainian film and TV production market?

Here we had a few game-changing moments. At first, we targeted a Russian-speaking market. It was crucial for us because of the enormous audience. When the common market started to fall apart we focused on the local Ukrainian content.

The problem is that the capacity of the local market is very limited. This can be expressed in precise numbers. An international headliner TV series cost about $300,000 – 400,000 for a single episode. The ceiling price on Ukrainian market would be $50,000.

The quality of the content plunged. Great historical drama, action and other big budget movies disappeared, and we had to look for ways to stay afloat on the local market. Visual effects are expensive, therefore only a handful of movies can afford it. The budget for visual effects creation starts from $1.5M.

Such circumstances pushed Postmodern Digital to explore the global market. Now, we combine participation in co-production with local projects. The local market is important for us because someone has to foster the Ukrainian film industry.

Sometimes we face a situation when foreign companies treat Ukraine with suspicion. That’s why we have to convince them and show everything in detail, but we need a more systematic approach.

You claim to be a market leader. Can you express it in figures? How many completed projects did you have in 2018? How much did you earn? What have you achieved?

This year was pivotal for us. We’ve been trying to enter the global market for three years. And last year we finally did it. How did we manage to do that? First of all, we visited the key industry events.

Such events included: three international film markets: Berlinale, American Film Market, and Beijing Film Market, and two conferences: FMX in Stuttgart and Сgraph in the U.S. and Japan. We have invested a great deal in networking and contact acquisition.  

And it bore fruit. In 2018 we participated in a huge Indian sci-fi blockbuster sequel Robot 2.0. As fun as that sounds, it’s a local headliner with a budget of US$ 80M.

A scene from Robot 2.0

Why they chose us? Because we’ve won 15 international awards and nominations. Furthermore, we provide high-quality service at a favorable price that is 2-3 times lower than the world average.

Ukraine is definitely the cheapest country in the region, but not the cheapest in the world. There are Indian companies that get the upper hand in this race due to low-cost labor. A “small studio” means 300 employees there. However, they seriously lack quality. High quality is not their aim.

We also made some of the visual effects for the major Chinese blockbuster The Wandering Earth. Right now we’re working on two other Chinese movies, and I can say that we got access to China’s local market.

The Wandering Earth movie poster

And on the Ukrainian market, we reign supreme. There is a smaller company called Terminal FX, but we are rather companions and partners than competitors.

There are two main trends in film production: projects are becoming larger, while deadlines shrink. Consequently, minimum 2-3 studios are usually engaged in a project. And you will need up to 40 studios to make movies like Robot. That is why there is no actual competition in this field. It’s more important to have a partner than a competitor.

Ukrainian market is small due to the lack of financial resources. There is not enough money to afford visual effects. As a company, we’ve outgrown the Ukrainian market in its current form.

Are there any tendencies towards change? Do the Ukrainian state film agency’s grants help?

State support – and I know that a lot of people would disagree with me – is both good and bad. It jumpstarted the Ukrainian film industry and gave life to many new projects. But there is a big ‘but’. Most of the projects are not considered as commercial projects, and producers of these projects are not making any provision for commercialization. We are heading toward the European film industry.

The same story I’ve heard from our colleagues at Berlinale. They complained that Germany alone releases a few hundred movies in a single year because they get massive funds infusion from the state. However, 80% of these movies have an audience that doesn’t exceed 100 people. That’s a hardcore arthouse, not a commercial film.   

In my opinion, commercial film making should be the locomotive of the industry pulling the rest of the cars (arthouse among them).

There is little or no movement in this direction in Ukraine yet. In a myriad of Ukrainian movies, only a few are commercially successful.

Which direction are you planning to take your business? Is it going to be an overseas market such as China and India?

We have our eyes on the two key markets: Asian (China and Korea) and TV series market of the U.S. and Canada.

Didn’t expect to find Korea in this list. Please explain.

We’re working with Korea and we really like it. We have a lot in common: their management is clear, and all processes are structured. Koreans are very meticulous about their work, which makes cooperation clear and understandable.

Chinese are more chaotic. Film making there is a huge and overheated industry. It grows exponentially, creating a vortex, in which not only former moviemakers but also simple merchants get sucked. A company was engaged in the construction business, another specialized on retail of jewelry, and now they’ve become part of Shanghai film market. And all of them are making movies in various capacities: investors, directors, production.

We are currently on a ‘recon mission’ in Northern America. For example, we’ve made a piece for HBO series “Chernobyl” [Editor’s note: the studio made a Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant 3D model, you can read more on the site of the online magazine “Mediananny”]. They approached us after they saw our work in “Motylki” TV series about Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which we made for Film.ua.

We are heading towards the North American series market because we have a chance to get there. It’s much harder to enter the market of visual effects for Hollywood blockbusters. The companies engaged in this business have 3-5-8 thousand employees. We are too small.

In addition, there are powerful cartels working in this genre: 2-3 large companies form an alliance to take hold of a big franchise. There’s no chance of squeezing in.

Moreover, big filmmakers have very strict safety requirements in place.

Your company has to be more secure than Pentagon if you want to work with Marvel.

Can you give an example of the requirements?

For example, employees don’t have access to the file system. They can see only a tiny piece that they need to work at the given moment.

By way of illustration, when we were dubbing Nolan’s “Batman”, our specialist was taken to London, where he was frisked for recording devices and shown a movie just once. That’s it.

After that, they sent us a black screen, on which only mouths of actors could be seen. And we had worked on that. And that’s just a tip of the iceberg.

Let’s talk about dubbing and voiceover. How does Postmodern Postproduction work?

(Sergey Bondarenko, the CEO of Postmodern Postproduction, gives the answer)

We usually have around 20-30 major projects that require dubbing. That’s about 60% of all our workload.

We also do audio post-production, i.e. we create sound effects for movies because dubbing means working with a finished sound mix.

Sergey Bondarenko

We are not allowed to interfere with the sound’s structure. Audio post-production is much more complicated – you need to recreate all sounds in the film from scratch. At best, they record only dialogs on the set. Everything else is done later in the studio. It takes a lot of time.

It takes 3 months of audio editing and 10-15 employees to make an average length movie (100 min).

How many releases in Ukraine are your work?

Not many. Competition is intense due to a large number of dubbing studios. Our segment is the highest audio editing quality. Most of the projects don’t need that. You need additional expertise of translators and directors to make high-quality dubbing. Directors ensure that the sound is balanced, synchronized and properly used. Oftentimes, for example, we need to adapt jokes and humor, and it is subject to approval by distributors and clients.

The best dubbing for a full-length movie will cost somewhere between US$15,000 – US$30,000.
We can work on 2-4 dubbing projects simultaneously, with each of them at a different stage: translation, preparation for the dubbing, audio mixing.

Audio mixing equipment

There is competition in Ukraine based on budget and distribution companies. Everyone has its own connections and established workflows. The market is partially fragmented with part of it changing every year. A single company will not be able to pull it off alone. Also, competition does not let quality suffer. 

But we can work with companies from all over the world. Audio effects are the same everywhere. The largest from the latest projects are “The Stronghold” and “Crazy Wedding”. We usually complete 2-4 post-production projects a year, but our total capacity is up to 40 movies. That’s why we are on the lookout for more projects. 

As for foreign markets, it’s not easy to enter some of them as they are tightly sealed to fend off outsiders.

Do you mean state protectionism?

(Egor Borschevsky, the CEO of Postmodern Studio, gives the answer)

Rather the proper conditions for development. In many countries, filmmakers get tax rebates, and Ukraine is way behind in this regard.

It is necessary that the State enacted a Tax refund law. So far, the initiative exists only in a form of draft laws and requires a number of by-laws to function properly.

Intellectual work also suffers from a lack of systematic incentives. For example, there is a 25% tax refund rate for large companies, and three-year ‘tax holidays’ for start-ups in Canada, where most of our specialists venture. There’s nothing like that in Ukraine.

Why is there no effect outsourcing market in Ukraine like the one of IT-services?

This industry is less systemic – a lot of contracts are ‘fixed’, projects are built on relationships, trust, and communication. Directors are afraid to work with outsiders and prefer to work on projects with their own teams.

There are also cultural differences. The concept of beauty is completely different in Ukraine, America, and China. While working on the Indian project, we tried to make some suggestions on the quality of the materials, but they told us that that was the right format for the Indian market.

Sometimes you don’t need to do better, you need to do what you are told. It’s hard to understand what other country’s audience wants.

And what does a Ukrainian viewer want? What kind of audience do we have?

Ukrainian audience is a demanding one. We realized it after the release of “The Stronghold”. We thought that we did a good job, but apparently, our work was measured by Hollywood standards.

There’s no surprise in that. Ukrainian movies don’t have US$50M visual effects budget. But the same audience’s requirements apply to either.

Is there any way to break this vicious circle?

We need to start producing commercial content. It’s important to know how much will the movie gross, and if it’s going to be popular overseas. It is crucial that we strive to bring Ukrainian movies into the international arena.

We need domestic franchises like Polish book “Vedmak”, which then became a popular video game, and now Netflix is shooting a TV series based on it. This is what I call bold, functional material you can work with. It’s a ‘glocal’ content – a local story that is in successful use all over the world.

Should S.T.A.L.K.E.R be cinematized?

It’s one of the best Ukrainian projects! If we would make TV series for Netflix based on S.T.A.L.K.E.R it would be a real success. For now, we focus on very local stories like “Chervonyi” and “Kruty”, which are not very spirit-lifting. Though movies like “Dunkirk” show that even defeatist story can be inspiring if you shoot it right.

I’m not a fan of the current defeatist approach. Ukrainian comedies are much better – we are pretty good at it, and they really serve the purpose. After that, we can proceed to more technologically challenging films. The sci-fi genre is the most expensive and the most sought-after, but it takes time and effort to get there.

What is Postmodern in figures?

Our annual turnover is tens of millions of hryvnias. For the past 3 years, we’ve been showing a 15% annual growth trend, which is low due to the lack of personnel.

There is no proper education in this area in Ukraine. All our employees are self-trained.

Sound engineers with an official degree never work with real equipment at school. There is no consistent education, but we are working on it.

We are not afraid to hire newbies and do on-the-job training. We are also promoting the industry. Everybody knows about IT, while visual effects industry with high salaries (UAH 35,000 – 40,000 per month) and global opportunities remain unnoticed.

Motion capture room

How big you want to grow your company?

We are planning to build a 120-150-strong visual effects team over the next year.

After that, we will be able to compete with major European studios. Our advantage is of high quality and enthusiasm. Employees usually volunteer to work 10-12 hours, which means that they love what they do.

Filmmaking can tell you a lot about the country and its culture. We want to make content that will show our country in a positive light. In order to do that, we need the entire industry to move forward. While they give Oscars for visual effects in the U.S., our National Film Awards “Golden Dzyga” doesn’t even have this category!

Our national filmmaking is in dire need of transition from the artisan phase to industrial.

How much money does a Ukrainian movie have to gross for such a transition to occur?

It’s going to happen after over 50% of a Ukrainian movie’s net profit will come from the international box office. It would be a real accomplishment. I hope that “Zakhar Berkut” is going to do just that.

A scene from “Zakhar Berkut”

What is your key goal, company’s dream?

Our long-cherished goal is to produce our own content. I am totally smitten with “Love, death, and robots” by Netflix. It’s a new sci-fi anthology series made by VFX-studios from all over the world. We would like to create something like that.

After all, Film.ua makes films, and we want to make a purely graphic content. But, similar short graphic films require a team of 100 specialists, time and budget.

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