Aged just 24, she has already established herself as a cinematographer and photographer and is participating in various independent filmmaking projects as well as international festivals. Her film work has already been recognised across Russia, Germany and Israel. Backstage Tales met up with the cinematographer Masha Biller to discuss her journey through the world of film.
My name is Masha, and I’m a cinematographer and photographer from Saint-Petersburg, Russia. I graduated from St Petersburg State University of Film and Television. Currently, I am freelancing as a cinematographer but occasionally I direct and edit as well. I am keen to get into independent filmmaking.
I’m watching movies whenever I get some free time. When I watch anything, the most impressive aspect for me is always the visual one, I am very interested in the picture. I used to draw and now I’m taking photographs all the time.
FIRST SHOTS COUNT
My very-very first experiences were during the summer holidays in secondary school. I think I must’ve been 12 or 13. My friend and I were making short videos on our phones. But they were not simple actually, but very interesting for that time, for that age.
We invested a lot of time and energy in coming up with the plot, costumes, cinematography ideation, editing. Sometimes I was a cinematographer, sometimes a screenwriter, sometimes an actress, sometimes a director – we liked trying different roles.
Those were just small funny sketches and it was all for fun, of course, but that’s how it started for me and that’s how I learnt the basics.
EXPLORING CINEMATOGRAPHY GENRES
I don’t really like the cinematography of some particular genre; I believe it narrows the plot and sets restrictions on creativity. Art house feature films and some experimental pictures that are not set with specific genre boundaries are much more interesting for me to work with and to watch as well.
My own shooting style evolved over the years. I started with very stable shots, mostly filming with a tripod. Now I’m a big fan of the motion picture, following the objects and characters. I love one-take shots made with a handheld camera as well. I think there is more life in those, and the viewer feels more involved in the picture. I like experimenting with styles.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE SHOOT
Every project is different and it’s quite hard to set a manual on ‘how to prepare for the shoot’. I personally try to meet with the director as much as I can before the shoot, to understand his/her vision, to share my own, to make sure we are on the same page. Storyboard preparation is also key. And then I try to imagine in my head how I want the film to look like, find some references, create mood boards.
Inspiration can come from anywhere really – other films, photography, art, architecture, music. All this preparation is crucial for success, but on the day of the shoot I try to clear my mind and film with my eyes wide open as some ideas may come along as I shoot.
CONQUERING RUSSIA, GERMANY & ISRAEL
Almost two years ago I participated in a filmmaking festival in a small Russian town near Moscow. The festival was international and there were lots of Germans working with us. We made a short film called ‘Hostel’ together. It is 10 minutes long and was made in one shot. There were only 2 actors, who were improvising in front of the camera.
We sent it to many international film festivals, and it got a lot of recognition in Germany and we actually won a German Short Film Award in 2018. We also travelled to Israel with our team last April. I worked with some really talented people on that project and really hope we can collaborate on something again.
The most recent project that I am working on is a series called ’55 seconds’. This winter we released the first season on Instagram. There are 8 episodes, every episode is only 55 seconds and is based on short novels that are 55 words long. There are different stories, different characters, but the cast and the film crew stay the same, we are all from St Petersburg. It is a very interesting experience! We just released a teaser for the second season and gathered some funds to support our work, so keep an eye out for it!
CINEMATOGRAPHER STARTER MANUAL FROM MASHA BILLER
- Don’t even start it if you’re not passionate about cinematography. Only love for what you do can keep you alive after a week of 16 hours shifts in the forest during the winter season!
- Try to see an opportunity in every proposal or new idea, any shoot can be your breakthrough. Even if not, you won’t lose anyway – experience and networking are very important when starting out.
- Don’t be afraid to work for free but know your own worth.
- Just do it. Don’t overthink and don’t plan things for too long, just go with what you have and make something out of it.
Images: Masha Biller
Interviewed by Irina Gorskaia