From Russia with Love: VFX studio CGF
With North American and European studios dominating awards ceremonies and column inches, you’d be forgiven for assuming that’s where our industry begins and ends. But it’s a global affair, and amazing things are being created all around the world.
CGF are one such company, flying the flag for the Russian VFX industry and creating impressive work on a budget. Foundry Trends went East to find out more.
Foundry Trends (FT): Over the past decade CGF has developed into Russia’s largest post-production house. What has driven this?
Alexander Gorokhov, CGF CEO (AG): Our studio was founded a little over 13 years ago. One of first projects was Night Watch, which was an unprecedented success. It broke every possible record at the Russian box office, becoming the highest-grossing Russian release of all time - ahead of foreign releases like The Lord of the Rings. Almost overnight, it led to an increased professional interest in VFX in Russia.
We never set any goals to become the biggest or the best VFX company in the country. We just wanted to work on cool projects with the best directors. Personally, it was interesting to work with Eldar Ryazanov. His work is loved throughout the generations in Russia - he filmed his first picture before my parents had even met! We wanted to make everything: historical movies, adventure movies, blockbusters, dramas - and at some point, without even noticing it, we had grown into the studio that is today known as CGF (formerly CG Factory).
FT: Have there been any major challenges along the way?
AG: At the start of 2012, we knew we had to do something drastic to move forward or we would hit our growth ceiling. We found that we needed a more progressive working approach, so we built our own pipeline similar to those used in far larger, world-class studios.
We really raised the bar on expectations. The outcome of each new project needed to be better than the previous one. Every character should look better; be more complex, able to do more. And by working within these rules, we started to achieve them.
FT: What do you consider your biggest achievements?
AG: Awards are great, especially as we’ve won the “Golden Eagle” (the Russian equivalent of the Oscars, with CGF the only company to ever have been awarded for VFX) twice in a row. However, our greatest achievement is how we saved the studio in 2014.
We were in the midst of crisis: the Ruble was down, and we work completely using foreign hardware and software. Market prices remained the same, but our expenses had abruptly become up to 3 times higher. It was a harsh period, but I’m very proud of how we managed to adapt and survive.
The way we’ve expanded our range of activity is another achievement. Since 2015, CGF has been a co-producer on several projects. One project that’s currently in production is Konyok-gorbunok (The Humpbacked Horse), based on a beloved poem by Pyotr Yershov - we’re very excited about that.
FT: What's the main point of difference for the Russian CG industry?
AG: The industry in Eastern Europe was founded by enthusiasts. We never had foreign specialists come to us to tell us how to do things “properly”, so we became, in effect, a “self-taught industry”. That’s why sometimes we think differently from our colleagues in the West, and why they sometimes think we’re unpredictable.
But, often, the things we do differently will cause amazement - simply because our clients had never even thought in this way. We don’t know how to do things the way everyone else does, which is why we do it our own way. I think that “our way” is often faster and easier compared to everyone else.
FT: How can the VFX industry in Russia be developed?
AG: We know we can compete with western studios from the experience we’ve gained working on cross-border projects movies like Ben-Hur, Hardcore Henry, Apollo 18, Chronicle and others. However, working on a real “A-class” project would be hugely beneficial, and automatically boost the development of the CG industry at home.
But then it develops in the way the global industry develops, too. The symbiosis in this industry between technology, science and art allows the most amazing ideas to be born. Technological advances are pushing the limits of storytelling, but great stories are also pushing the technology to new places.
Look at the unreal stories realised in the likes of Interstellar, Ex Machina, Bladerunner 2049. Or War for the Planet of the Apes - which in my opinion has some of the greatest CG ever put to film.
FT: Is there a challenge to attract young people to the industry?
Tatyana Kirsanova, CGF Camp Producer: There aren’t currently many formal routes of education into the industry. We set up an online school to teach people according to our own high standards, and it’s proven an effective way to help those interested in the industry, and even our own employees, to develop higher skills.
Last summer we launched a new project called the CGF Smart Camp. We took a group of teens aged 10 to 17 to Bulgaria, where teachers from our studio taught them as part of an intensive CG course. Improving the popularity of VFX by inspiring high-schoolers is the best way to seize the interest of the younger generations.
FT: Are there any areas away from traditional VFX that you’re working in?
AG: We are really interested in virtual reality (VR). One of our latest projects, The Spacewalker, was a historical project about the first man to undertake a spacewalk - Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov. We’re really proud of this work, and it’s been successful at many film festivals around the world.
Vyacheslav Tyutyugin, project manager and engineer, CGF-Innovations: We’re also always working on our own product developments. One of our innovations is ViewGA, a hardware-software complex that allows us to add CG and VFX in real time. The Spacewalker was the first project in which we used it, where it allowed the director and the crew to see how the actor was interacting with the spaceship and the Earth. It’s gone on to be used on other films, including Three Seconds
Dmitriy Shurov, CGF-Innovations CEO: Our work on Konyok-gorbunok has challenged us to create complex 3D characters. To do that, we’ll be using "Nimble"- our own motion capture (mocap) system designed to automate the facial expressions of CG characters, talking animals and fictional heroes.
We originally made Nimble for the film Naparnik, because existing mocap systems on the market weren’t good enough for our needs. Most of them are used in the gaming industry or for background characters in films, but we had to animate a CG kid that was the movie’s main character. As the first people in Russia to do this, it’s been a rewarding challenge that we will continue to improve on.
FT: Which foreign studio would you like to work with?
AG: Marvel. That would be really cool. But, really, we want to work with someone who can give us an interesting task that we haven’t encountered before. Right now, we’re doing everything it’s possible to do on the VFX scene - but we want to do it on a higher level.
Unfortunately, the limited budgets in the Russian film industry don’t really give us that opportunity. We were in China recently, where we had a lot of conversations with supervisors from top-class studios. One told me that they were finding things hard: their budget couldn’t be above $30 million, otherwise their film wouldn’t make profit. When I heard this, I was shocked - their budgets are six times the size of ours! And yet it’s still hard for them. Can you imagine how hard it is for us?
FT: Finally, what interesting VFX trends do you see on the horizon?
AG: AI is on the way. In next couple years, we expect to see lots of AI-based content creation products. What kind of boost will this give the industry? That’s an interesting question. We’re witnesses to and partly creators of a very interesting era. Of one thing I’m sure - we’re still yet to see VFX reach its full potential.
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