Sila Sveta [Russian for “the power of light”] is a brilliant young team of professionals who love what they do. It’s also the story of how an interesting artistic idea can turn into something more, something incredible. Cofounder and creative director, Aleksandr Us, and production director, Denis Astakhov, talked to us about their company. Before reading this article, we recommend that you check out at least one of Sila Sveta’s projects, which can be seen in the videos on their website. We recommend their light-projection show dedicated to the seventieth anniversary of the victory at Stalingrad.
– Could you tell us how Sila Sveta got started?
Aleksandr Us (A.U.): In 2007 Aleksey Rozov (the second founder of Sila Sveta) and I bought an enormous slide projector in China. The initial idea was to create a new type of advertisement that didn’t use any sort of structure; we planned to use light to project moving images on buildings. It seemed interesting and commercially viable. But, in the end, the idea fell through – there were a number of factors that we didn’t take into account. First, the projection wasn’t visible from far away due all of the spurious illumination that falls on the image. Second, there were lots of problems with getting permission to use the space for the ad.
We started to look for ways out of our situation and understood that we could organize light shows – it was more interesting doing that, and it could end up being a commercially successful project.
We advertised our services on the internet. A director from St. Petersburg, Lev Levinson, contacted us – a slide projection was exactly what he needed. He was the one who taught us how to do a show and how to combine slides with light so it wowed the viewer. We did a show with him in the Russian Museum, and later did another one at the 2008 Economic Forum in St. Petersburg.
Back then the slide projectors were very temperamental – we irradiated ourselves, burned our corneas with xenon light. We upgraded the Chinese projector on our own, and for that we had to remember all our physics lessons and dig through a ton of books and internet pages. When our slides started to burn up, we went to an arms factory that produces heat-absorbent glass and bought some. We went to China for the film, which could be written on with a solvent. We contacted optics factories and asked them to make high-quality lenses.
Our next project was the re-opening of the Ostankino Tower after the fire. We were able to engage the client with our enthusiasm, but left out the part that we were barely able to keep the wiring together. It was a miracle that we pulled it off – but we managed to set a world record in projection in the process. The projection reached 513 meters. Despite its temperamental nature, the equipment was incredibly powerful, giving out 100,000 lumen. The content was nothing much, but the show impressed with its scale.
People took a look at our work and liked it. For us that was a huge motivation. Aside from that, we really like the idea of transformation. We were born and grew up in commuter regions, and we had always wanted to paint all over these ugly grey housing developments. The walls of apartment houses are enormous canvases waiting to be transformed, to be turned into something else.
That was our start, and we didn’t want to back down from it. We quit our paying jobs. But at first, when the project still wasn’t solvent, we worked second jobs while running back and forth to work on our project.
– What does each show you put on mean to you?
A.U.: A show is like a baby: we come up with it together, we carry it inside us, and, finally, we give birth to it. It’s a little life that we live out from the moment the idea strikes us until we make it happen. A show lasts five or ten minutes, but for that you have bury yourself in work for a few months. A show has a beginning and an end – it’s like birth and death.
Denis Astakhov (D.A.): In a year we carry out an average of 60 to 80 different projects. Over a hundred projects go through development, but due to internal and external factors some of them are never actually turned into a reality.
– What is the path from concept to execution like?
D.A.: The path begins with the creative director – a person who takes the initial task, comes up with an idea for the show, and then takes responsibility for that idea. He says how it will be done and what emotions the viewer should get from it.
The stages can be grouped together this way: pre-production, production, and post-production (which we practically don’t have.) Pre-production includes all of the preparatory work – coming up with the idea, writing the synopsis and – further on – the script, creation of storyboards and conceptual drawings – visual and textual materials that give us and the client an idea of what the show will be like. Production includes the creation of animatics – draft versions of the animations and direct production of the project in its final state. A process like sound production, which in cinematography is done in the post-production stage, is part of our production stage. Since the show often includes some effects or actions, and not only video and audio, then this also includes rehearsal. For example, we recently had a project in which we programmed a robot which had to move in sync with the graphics.
For us a show is work. We don’t like words like “3D” or “4D”, because those are nothing but marketing gimmicks. We try to work with more than video and audio, using as many things as we can, and as organically as we can.
A.U.: The most important things is the understanding of the client. We go through the production process together with him. There are mini-deadlines every week. The closer we are to the deadline, the more often we have checkpoints. At each checkpoint we see where we’re going so that at the end of the project we don’t end up with God-knows-what.
– What happens more often: the client comes to you with an idea he already has, or he asks you to come up with one?
A.U.: The client practically always says “make it look good” or “make them go ‘wow!’”. Take, for example, the project we did for the new Mercedes S-class. The client gave us free rein. We proposed that we do pure emotions, and not put any meaning into it, arguing that by saying that everyone already knows that it’s the best car in its class.
D.A.: In our project for BMW there was the requirement that we have the car driving off-road, on a racetrack, and in the city. Our task was to think of a way to present this visually.
A.U.: We’ve done shows for about ten automobile models – three Mercedes, two Audis, three BMW’s, a Porsche, and even an armored personnel carrier. We use projection mapping, which allows us to put the stationary or moving vehicle in the necessary light, showing its most positive features.
– Have you had potential clients who you’ve turned down?
A.U.: Yes, there have been. Pop singers and Russian chanson musicians. We’re not interested in that, and we don’t want to be associated with what they do. We just don’t care for it. We love club culture, cars, festivals. We also work with interesting brands that, in our opinion, have the right vision.
D.A.: On top of that, we want everyone involved in the project – the artists and the designers – to enjoy working on it. And we know our guys’ tastes.
– With each new show the viewer gets harder to please. The first time he says ‘wow!’, but the tenth time his ‘wow’ isn’t so loud. You have to constantly keep in touch with the times. But how?
A.U.: We’re one of the old companies in this industry in the Russian market, but when it comes to the European market, we’re comparatively young. We’re in touch with many people who began their work in studios that are 25 or 30 years old. We see how the development of the industry has spiraled upwards. As practice shows, when the viewer has seen everything already, you don’t pile on more technology, but the opposite, you make things more simple. With one lamp, darkness, and the right music it’s possible to play on the emotions of the audience in such a way that they leave with a greater sense of satisfaction than if they had seen a feature-length film.
D.A.: We know what technologies there are – we keep constant track of what’s new. There aren’t any revolutionary technologies right now – they’re changing what already exists. For example, there’s one very interesting technology based on pseudo-holograms. The technology of optical illusion is 160 years old, but its quality was transformed by the appearance of the projector. That’s why if we want to do something impressive, our job is to competently combine technologies without sticking to one thing.
Any show has two sides. The audience sees beauty and experiences emotions. Understanding how the show is put on is the lot of professionals.
– Where do you get the resources to work on several projects simultaneously?
A.U.: Our main resource is enjoying our work on the project. If you like working on it, then your eyes will light up. We’re lucky – 80% of the time we get interesting projects. You don’t need other resources when you’re excited about the project.
– What is it that makes light so powerful?
D.A.: People. The backbone of the team, the skeleton, is made up of people who fulfill the managerial and leadership roles on the project. They are the light. The artists, the graphic designers, the engineers – they’re the muscles and the power of the body. And together we’re the power of light.
We consider ourselves professionals in what we do. The level of professionalism of our specialists is rather high. Let’s say we have someone who specializes in creating liquids in computer graphics. There’s no one better than him – neither me nor Sasha will ever do it like he will. At the same time, we always look at everything we do critically.
A.U.: We used to think that the key to success was gathering a team of the best specialists so we can make an incredibly high-quality picture. Now we start from the other end. We take the cost of the project and man-hours. How do you use two artists, for example, to make a show that matches the emotional force of a show that uses twenty people? That’s not an economic question, though. It comes from an understanding that a complication that requires man-hours isn’t always worth the effect it gives.
– When I was asking you questions, I was interested in what you would talk about: about the company or about the power of light as a phenomenon that you work with.
A.U.: A response to light is built into the DNA of living things. Why is it that when you shine a light on an animal fleeing in the dark, it stops dead in its tracks? Light paralyzes the animal. Light has a hypnotic effect. The power of light comes through darkness. Light has the same effect on people.
When we picked the name “the Power of Light”, we liked that it had a subtext that you could look at it from different angles. The name itself draws in bright people. It’s important that a company shine from within.
A project has a life of its own. We’re no longer surprised by coincidences or combinations of circumstances, when people come to us or – the other way around – leave us. When you look back, you realize how much everything is connected. Sometimes it seems that the project is leading us, instead of us leading the project. People who come to work with us for the money leave pretty quickly. It’s not the right motivation. People with bright ideas, on the other hand, do stay.
BMW automobiles are presented on a small stage, but projecting images on the floor and walls creates the illusion of a big space. Everything is very dynamic. Cityscapes give way to rugged terrain, and the stationary cars seem to be moving at high speed the entire time.
– How do you plan to develop further?
A.U.: We’re aiming for first place in our field, and we even see ourselves in the top five teams worldwide. As of October 2013 we were the largest video-mapping studio in the world in terms of staff. We’re proud of that title. It even gave us the desire to expand. We wanted to open an office in America, but due to the instability of the international political situation, we froze that and decided not to take the risk. Everything Russian, even in the business world, has a negative connotation right now. At one point we decided to not translate the name of our company, and for the international market it was something kind of “exotic”, and the market liked it.
We gradually came to realize that by increasing the number of staff it became more difficult to manage them. (There are forty of us now.) We began to miss the time when our art department had ten people, and not twenty or twenty five artists, like we do now. You need to work with each artist and graphic designer individually – get them excited, constantly correct them. You can lose a whole day babysitting each of them. Our thing isn’t selling stocks, where people are motivated by money. A lot of it is built on emotions. People should enjoy what they do, feel that they’re taking part in something. We decided to re-examine the concept of an enormous team. We considered several options where we created small creative groups. For instance, we could divide the artists into teams, or choose team leaders and form groups of three or four people. But if you start splitting up the team and introducing managerial stuff, you lose the communal, family feeling, and people start to feel burned out. We have the desire to preserve our “family.”