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Interview with “Kontora’s” cinematographer Max Golomidov

“You have to adapt very fast without losing yourself,” says Estonian cinematographer Max Golomidov, whose work is one of those examples of cinematic creativity that has no boundaries. Also know as a documentary filmmaker and a colorist, he has now captured as a director of photography a pensive Japanese drama “Kontora” that will premiere in PÖFF’s Official Selection.


You were born and raised in Estonia, studied at the Baltic Film and Media School, made multiple outstanding documentaries as a cinematographer in here and now I’m interviewing you as a cinematographer of a Japanese feature film “Kontora” that will premier in PÖFF’s Official Selection. Could you elaborate a bit on your career path that has led you across the world?

Privet, tere, konnichiwa!

I started to focus on cinematography after I graduated from BFM. It’s extremely interesting and a challenging field to work in as one has to constantly keep upgrading one’s skills and provide a unique recipe to your visual style, because nowadays there are plenty of cinematographers to choose from. Why should they hire me? This is a question I always ask myself. I realized that color grading is so tightly linked to cinematography so I decided to dive into it and started to grade my own early works. I found it a very fascinating field that complements cinematography – and vice versa. This is how I ended up eventually doing both: filming and grading, up until today.

Then: a life-changing e-mail from a Japanese post-production house arrived out of nowhere. They were looking for a colorist from abroad and offered me a position. This is how I ended up in Tokyo. Nevertheless, I’m still trying to stay linked with filmmakers from Estonia who I used to work with before and I’m always open to working with others in the future. I don’t want to lose that link.

“Kontora” is your second collaboration with the film’s director Anshul Chauhan who is Indian. How did you meet in Japan and came to realize that you suit together creatively as a right and a left hand?

Again, thanks to color grading and coincidence! I went to a movie night in Tokyo, where lots of different directors were screening their short films. Anshul, who moved to Japan much earlier than me, screened his short as well. On the way home I bumped into him outside looking for the train station [I was cycling back home that time], and while guiding him to the station we talked about films. He mentioned that he was finishing his next short and looking for colorist. I said I’d do it. While grading his short we met several times, talked a lot, and that’s when I mentioned that I was actually also a cinematographer. He said that his next short film would be sort of a semi-rehearsal type of project before he went to his first full length film. A year later we shot “Bad Poetry Tokyo”, a debut for both of us here. Who’s the right and who’s the left hand? I think we still don’t know, but it seems we are somewhere close to a single organism in our thinking.

On the set of “Kontora”

What has been different about working in Japan compared to Estonia?

Honestly, I’m still trying to sense the difference, because to me each project is unique and the approach is always different. There’s more difference from one project to another in terms of its complexity, rather than geographical or cultural aspects. But definitely one thing is noticeable – the production speed in Japan is faster.

Do you rather enjoy the feeling of starting working on a film or finishing it?

I enjoy both – but shooting a film and being a part of color grading on the one project is something I enjoy the most.

What are the differences for you as a cinematographer between making a fictional feature and working on a documentary?

My approach is the same – I try to fit my skills and style to both genres, although I do enjoy documentaries most of all. They’re a good training/school for future jobs in various genres. I really admire unpredictable and non-staged moment in documentaries. You have to adapt very fast without losing yourself. I’m glad there are directors who think the same way and take me on board.

You are also a very talented colorist who has graded numerous music videos and features both in Estonia and Japan. How did that extensive professional knowledge challenge and compliment your work with “Kontora” that was shot in black and white?

Oh yeah, I’ve been in love with black and white since I began photography. It has a very strong impact. On the other hand, each color in a photograph adds an element/meaning to the image which might distract viewers from the subject. The decision to go black and white [cinemascope aspect ratio] was made at the very beginning. We wanted to try to connect the audience to a story without colors and give them room to imagine their own colors, if necessary.

On the set of “Kontora”

In contrast, “Bad Poetry Tokyo” was shot in 4×3 aspect ratio, in color. Although one day when we tried to preview it in b/w we were surprised at how well it might suit our next film, “Kontora”. There is one more documentary project I’m involved in, about a horse race track in Estonia [Hipodroom], which will be released next year – also in b/w.

What kind of a cinematographic space is created in “Kontora”? What were the visual objectives made before the shooting of the feature? Did some of those original objectives transmuted into something else during the shooting?

For Anshul and me, one of the most important factors was location – the space our film takes place in. We did a very intense location scout. We never did any storyboarding. For us it’s crucial to visit the location, spend some time there, feel it ourselves – and make the audience feel it the same way. Then, once we’re in production, we improvised most of the time. All the angles were created on-the-go, and almost the whole film was shot with just one focal length and without additional lights. Anshul focuses on directing actors, by giving them a frame/base to play around and leaving plenty of space for improvisation. He always expects actors to add something that is not in the script. For me, as a cinematographer, it makes my work a bit more complex and unpredictable. I have to catch the vibe on-the-fly, while at the same time showing my best work. Kind of like the documentary approach I mentioned. That’s why I love it.

Working as a cinematographer is a profession of endless decisions that are shaping the audience’s conscious and unconscious experience. So, how do you get along with self-doubt?

Self-doubt takes place for sure, but it helps me to recognize that I’m not always right and makes me challenge and improve myself. We moved on to the next shot or scene very fast, so sometimes I was not sure if the work that I did was satisfying – but I always had the chance to give in the next scene what I couldn’t give in the one before. I hope the audience will have a great chance to experience rural Japan and witness this deep emotional story.

As a cinematographer do you see your work rather as a tool to construct emotions or a device to tell stories?

Frankly, sometimes I think that cinematographer should not be noticeable in the film. The same goes for grading [and sound design]. Both should be blended in very wisely and never distract with fancy unnecessary camera moves or flashy meaningless colors. Watching a film is an experience. Movie-making is a form of art where we try to make a creative difference in the world. Each shot that cinematographer provides should be emotional. Film is a series of shots, each with emotion, that creates a story.

On the set of “Kontora”

Where would you place your approach as a cinematographer on the scale of meticulous planning to just going with the flow of the surrounding synergy? Did it verged towards one end or another while working on “Kontora”?

Working on films with Anshul is like going through a military school. It’s tough for everyone, but by the end you leave it as a stronger graduate. In fact he studied in a military academy in India.

I noticed some actors expected to have very precise and planned direction, like: where to stop at, how to turn your body. Anshul doesn’t like to frame them too much. He expects them to show more than what’s in the script: he expects the unexpected from them. And he comes up with sudden challenges that might reveal what is really deep inside of them and how it might be useful for that film. The same goes for my department: I couldn’t tell him: this is the only angle to shoot from, or that’s the only camera move I can use. There was only one enemy. Time. We couldn’t afford to play around too much. I had to come up with the best approach in a short time and be confident that it was the best way to go. Most of the time he agreed, haha.

What did you learned and gained from being the cinematographer of “Kontora”?

Most important: people. I got a chance to work with people that were new to me. It was a fantastic team and experience. Also, it was a chance to explore Japan. We shot it about 400km away from Tokyo, in Mugegawa village, close to Nagoya – an area famous for its automotive industry [Lexus].

I’ve never been to military school. But “Kontora” made me feel as if I’ve been a soldier. We all survived it.


Kontora

Japan, 2019, 145 Min
Dir: Anshul Chauhan
Prod: Anshul Chauhan
Scr: Anshul Chauhan
Dop: Maxim Golomidov
Muusika/music: Yuma Koda
Cast: Wan Marui,hidemasa Mase, Taichi Yamada, Seira Kojima, Takuzo Shimizu
Production: Kowatanda Films
Language: Japanese

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