Hi guys, how are you doing?
Hi! We’re on fire. An interactive series about the ecological apocalypse is coming soon. We must save both the planet and ourselves from the project deadline. But it is not a big deal.
First of all, tell us a few words about yourselves.
We are young showrunners and co-founders of DIKIDIGITAL studio. We made a studio in 2018 to make up and tell stories to the users in Russia and abroad.
What about Diki Digital? How did it start? What kind of projects have you already completed?
The studio produced several web series and lots of branded content. Our projects participate in and won global web series festivals. Their ratings are pretty good too. For example, Digital Doctor is an award-winning (Bilbao, Rio, NY) interactive series.
At the same time, our studio has to bear the consequences of a pandemic. End of the economy, end of the plans. The fate of the Universe of Hacking, a kind and hilarious tale about hackers, hurts especially. On the other hand, this year taught us a lot. We’ve definitely grown up as a studio.
Let’s go to our main theme of the interview: the film production during the lockdown. What is the title of the project, and how did you get the idea?
In February 2020, we realized what the world’s coming to. COVID-19 started to take off; our partners tensed their faces. Desperate times call for desperate measures. “No time for plans in 2020; we need to survive,” we said to ourselves.
That day we came up with the series “All Together.” It’s a sci-fi dramedy about friends divided in the time of a pandemic. What on earth can happen if you are just staying at home? Well, everything. This series is about inner and outer challenges. The writing process was fast and furious; we had a reference outside the window.
Ok, so you wrote the story and then what? You couldn’t leave the house. How did you sell the project to the VOD platform?
Then we send the concept to Okko (one of the leading streaming services in Russia). They have already known the drill, so they started production. It was pretty clear that the production of all projects would pause. People would be sitting at home eager to watch something. So, negotiations were successful.
How did you choose the cast?
The characters were easy to develop. Basically, those were our friends and relatives. We gave obstacles to the blend of familiar characters.
Surprisingly, the casting process was fast. We’d already had an experienced producer. She knew what we wanted and knew who we needed. All actors were found after 1-2 screen tests.
The funny thing is… we chose not only by type and temper but also by apartments they lived in. First, it was a lockdown, so we could only film at actors’ homes. No one went anywhere. Second, we wanted actors to be on the same page. They had to work hard during the lockdown. We were lucky to get the cast; the guys were really adventures. We wish you’d seen how they set up the lights and decorations! I think they now look at the work of set decorators, cameramen and lighting technicians with new eyes. Such an important and hard work for the success of a film.
How did you choose the crew? And how the crew worked on the project? For example, how the costume designers or set designers did their job?
We went through thick and thin with them. We knew we could rely on them during the lockdown. They were stressed out. Cameraman fixed light for an actor by Zoom… What! That’s it. The decorator told actors to move things from one place to another. So that was why we needed adventurous people on the same page.
Did your actors have the equipment for the shootings? Did they shoot on their phones?
I guess, actors used everything they had to film. We collected data from all types of devices: smartphones, web cameras, private libraries, reflex cameras. We worked with everything. Plus we sent to each actor a package with all the basic equipment: lightning, cameras, recorders. And some buckwheat. Just in case. Boost their energy, so to say)
Did you make any training with the actors before the shootings? How did they learn how to use new cameras, lighting, and sound equipment?
We also had test calls with actors. The cameraman, decorator and actor set things during the Zoom call. We agreed on this. Remotely as well. We had bugs. We had no playback. We started editing with the raw material. Considering the release schedule (once a week), we had neither time nor money to reshoot. There were some overexposed shots, balance and quality problems. One time an actor was even cut off from the Internet. So he did everything himself. We listened on the phone. It was a blindfold.
But the acting experience of our cast is worth mentioning. They could work in such conditions, and they did it brilliantly. They went a hundred.
The actors were not only actors during this project. They were also doing the job of costume designers, make-up artists, sound and light engineers, cinematographers and even prop masters, right? How did they react to this situation?
Sometimes there were breakdowns. One actor got mad at the rearrangement and just shut down the camera! Then he came back after a while… And the whole room was rearranged minding previous suggestions. They obviously had a hard time thinking simultaneously about both a jar on the shelf and a drama to play. After all, things went better than expected. There were not more than 2-3 of such stressful situations. One more thing! At the very end, actors started to suggest their ideas.
How was the production developed? You shot with all actors at the same time or separately? The director was all the time connected via webcam?
We tried to shoot the first episode during one meeting. And that almost drove us insane. It was really hard. Internet speeds are different. Attitudes towards the director’s editing are different too. Well, there is lots of psychology in the work of a director and an actor. So we had the whole crew in touch. It’s difficult to give and receive criticism in a constantly frozen mode.
Later we decided to shoot separately. We devoted the whole day to an actor and recorded 1-2 episodes. At some point, we got an understudy. The girl substituted everyone. That’s actually a success story! She later became a part of the cast and played a supporting character.
What about the editing process?
It was Hell. That’s the only way to describe it. Hell with a capital “H”. One week per episode. Countless graphics, sound design, editing. I won’t lie to say that two days before the release, postproduction stopped sleeping. After the release, everyone slept for 20 hours. It was exhausting.
Plus, some people worked from other cities located in different time zones. So there was a time difference as well.
The hardest part was right before the premiere show. The deadline was April 27. On that day, our cast was to present the project at Evening Urgant. The shooting was set at 2 PM. The time was 8 AM, and we were still mixing the project. But we managed to finish the project on time!
You have a lot of animation in the series. Did you work on it during the shootings, or you did the animation after the editing of each episode was done?
The motion design team worked 24/7. They finished work on one episode and immediately switched to the next one. They had their own scripts with frames, lines, and images. We called up right after the release and discussed the work plan and ideas. They used to take a week off and then started to work again.
We wanted to (a) come up with our own visual ecosystem for the project, (b) stick to it, (c) develop and level up it. This is our inner perfectionism. Our rivals within the genre cut their projects off midstream. We stood for every single shot right up to release.
Why did you choose the hard way? You could have made a simple series shot by phone or by webcam, without animation and all this complicated production.
We are ambitious and hungry in a good way. We founded the studio with our visions. We stick to our visions in all projects we do. Fairy tale, adventures, sci-fi. These, we convey from project to project. Not only do we keep our level, but we also level up. In each new project, we are preparing for something bigger that will happen one day. Some cinematic universe or a universe in the series. We learn from every shot of our projects. We are self-taught in many ways! That’s where the spirit of adventure came from.
We didn’t want to make a screen life. We wanted people to say: “Oh, this is DIKIDIGITAL, their style.” Seems this way.
What was the impact on the audience? How did they react to a series with a theme that they were living in their real lives at that moment?
The audience liked the plot; it got ahead of other popular shows on Okko. Then a part of the audience was cut off as they were tired of a pandemic. But the series aired well and had constant views until the very end. Okko does not publish any numbers. It’s NDA. The rating and reviews were pretty good. We were invited to the international screen life content festival hosted by Timur Bekmambetov (the creator of the format).
Congratulations on your great work. And good luck with your future projects. In the end, can you tell us if our readers can watch some of your work online? And if yes, where can they find you?
Russian Hackers Life, a mockumentary in English, is available on our YouTube channel. We uploaded the pilot episode for the cinematic universe, which will be finally launched (I hope so!) this year.