David France’s Welcome to Chechnya only shows the tip of brutality that faces LGBTQIA people living in Chechnya. It will stop you dead in your tracks. We may never know how many people have been murdered by a government who sees us as subhuman or disposable. A courageous group of activists took it upon themselves to get as many people out of the country as possible, and France’s film documents the shocking scope of their efforts.
In order to shield the faces of the vulnerable while spreading the word of this genocide, visual effects supervisor, Ryan Laney, developed a completely new technology. Laney and France worked together on several methods, but none quite changed a survivor’s face as much as they needed it to. Initial attempts only accentuated a facial feature that drew focus and didn’t need to be zeroed in on. Laney managed to create something new that’s akin to a prosthetic, and instead of creating an entirely new face on top of a survivor’s features, the visual effects use the real emotions. It’s simply now hidden under different features.
That’s what makes this work so remarkable. Laney isn’t fabricating the experience or emotions of the survivors. He’s actually enhancing it in the most honest way possible.
The Academy could honor life-changing work by nominating Welcome to Chechnya for Visual Effects. Maxim Lapunov became the face of a movement that has a lot of fight still to go. So many gay men and women have lost their lives and their livelihood because of the terror they are experiencing in Chechnya and Russia and in other places around the world. The film’s visual effects work is a form of activism.
Awards Daily: The term ‘Deepfake’ is being thrown around a lot when talking about the visual effects for Welcome to Chechnya. I read an article that said the difference with Deepfake is that it’s not consensual. Can you put that confusion to bed?
David France: It’s a serious, philosophical difference. It makes all the difference in the world really. The audience knows that it has happened and they know they are looking at digitally altered faces. The people whose faces are being altered requested and approved their alteration. The person who donated their faces did so knowing they were taking on risk and performing it as an act of activism. It’s all intentional on every level of execution. Deepfake is really the crime and AI is the tool. We stayed away from the crime, obviously, and use it for social justice.
AD: Hiding and protecting identities in documentaries isn’t new, but it’s never been done like this before. Tell me what other methods you explored and on what level they were successful before moving to this new kind of technology.
DF: It’s unlike anything that’s ever been done before. I thought we’d do a rotoscoping filter treatment. Ryan calls is A Scanner Darkly kind of approach. That was the first conversation I had with the survivors of this genocide, and they liked the idea of being made into cartoons. We tried that when we got back with the footage but we found that it did absolutely nothing to disguise them. It just made them cartoons. We tried applying various effects to the simple ronomation that would make their noses much larger–a kind of a Triples of Bellville look–and that only accentuated the nose or the ears or the forehead. It just kept making them more and more obviously caricatures of themselves. Their individuality was never diminished or replaced. It was very frustrating until we ran into Ryan heard about Ryan’s capacity for solving problems.
AD: Ryan, tell me what it was like when David approached you with such a unique challenge. I keep saying that this film needs to get nominated because the visual effects are literally saving people’s lives.
Ryan Laney: I think visual effects supports the story and our efforts were to help David tell this story. Where we start in any visual effects is how we support the story. There were some moments where we said, ‘That’s not good enough. Lives are at stake.’ We tried to go about them in a normal visual effects fashion, but there was this overarching of the importance of the story that we were trying to get to the screen.
DF: It was also something that came in stages. When we first reached out to him, we told him that we were trying to disguise people so that their own mothers wouldn’t recognize him. We didn’t tell him why or what it was about. We showed him some footage but it was with people who didn’t need to be covered and it had no audio track. So he didn’t know it was Russian until we knew we were going to be working with him. That’s when we brought him into out confidence.
RL: The first meeting was a hypothetical bar.
AD: The replacement of the faces is called, forgive me if I’m wrong here, face replacing?
RL: We call it veiling. Face replacement is used a lot in visual effects for stunts and it has a different purpose. With a veil you reveal things and hide others. All of the expressions and the emotions that come through on these veils is from the original person’s and it’s just the eyebrow shapes and the lip shapes and the nose shape that is different. It’s more like applying a prosthetic if you think of it as a moviemaking standpoint. The person David filmed on location is all of them, except the things that would reveal their identity.
AD: I was very curious about consistency with the lighting and making things clear. Because sometimes the survivors are outside smoking in the dark with overhead lighting or sometimes there are photographs of them. There is a shot of Anya when she is being placed into her safehouse and she goes towards the back of the room and her face is really small.
RL: As humans, we read micro expressions or movement in faces to tell us what they are telegraphing. In that scene with Anya, it’s really emotive. She’s struggling with a new place and she has a lot going on. We can see the original in it and it translates very well. In terms of consistency, we did a date capture session in Brooklyn, New York. We shot for a week to try and gather 23 people to mimic all the lighting that you see in the film. We spent a lot of time making sure the data we gave the machine was close already.
DF: With Anya, we see her walking in darkness on the way to the new apartment. We see her inside a Burger King kind of place with fluorescent light and we see her in a car. Each of those lighting situations was recreated and the donor activist would go through the various facial movements–it was just a pattern each actor was asked to do like rotate their heads and smile or frown–to give the algorithm in each situation. That’s why it works. Ryan and his team got that lighting down.
AD: And it’s telegraphed to the audience very openly that we are looking at visual effects. You don’t shy away from that glow around their faces. Or a halo.
RL: The glow was very intentional. The witness testimony has a distinctive and powerful language. You know when you see a blurry oval, you know they are being protected. We added that halo to tie it to that language. There were some technical reasons for it as well but it was important with us to have that conversation with the audience of who is at risk. We needed to see it. I’m glad you weren’t distracted by it.
AD: At the end when Grisha’s façade falls away, I really admired how it wasn’t done with fanfare during this press conference. The visual effects really melt off of his face to reveal a man who has been hiding and endured so much.
DF: The VFX is a character in this film so we knew people would be a part of it. That’s why we knew we could take it away there and make it not feel like some Hollywood magic. We had a lengthy debate about at one point during the press conference to take it away, and we decided to do it at the exact moment he reveals his real name.
DF: He is no longer Grisha. He is Maxim Lapunov. The microphone goes to him and BAM. Having watching it without the effect in the footage, that moment was his moment of vulnerability but also his moment of courage. I think that’s why it’s such an emotional beat. Maxim is taking on the whole weight of this crime. He’s personally throwing his body in front of it. I think it would move you without the VFX–we tried to be delicate there. We didn’t want fanfare. Ryan found a beautiful language on how to do it.
AD: It’s like a layer just peeled off of him.
RL: We originally had that transition in a different place when he goes back out into the real world. Another part of the conversation was if it works emotionally without the visual effects, it will work with them. It does a brilliant job at that and of supporting the story. We did twenty or so layers of softness peppered into that transition, but it’s about revealing to the audience that there is the vulnerability. They have gotten to know this person over the last hour and a half and you start to think about the 22 other people and how they must look.
DF: Ryan’s instinct was to peel back from the eyes. We’ve been on a journey with a brown-eyes, swarthy Grisha and the first thing we see–
AD: Those blue eyes.
RL: The window of the soul.
DF: That’s where you are looking anyway. It pulls you in.
AD: Ryan, how do you see how this technology advancing from this point? I imagine other filmmakers have asked you a lot of questions about this work, especially for documentaries.
RL: There’s been a lot of interest. It premiered at Sundance in January of last year and then a lot more when it debuted on HBO. We’ve had conversations with MIT Documentary Labs, Co-Creation Lab, Witness.org which are all interested in how it can be used in a way that doesn’t make it available for just the larger shows. How do we make it available for everyone. We’ve had a lot of interest from human rights organizations and sign language who have to be on camera. We see it being a valuable tool in documentaries since that’s where it started and there’s been an immense interest there. The real piece of that component that we don’t talk about every day is that it makes the witnesses more comfortable speaking. I think that people being willing to come forward and speak about their particular issue is how these films are made.
AD: David, did you ever think about shying away from showing the brutality of this crisis? Those pieces of footage make your heart stop but I think it’s so essential to show the viewer what is happening.
DF: We worked really hard to find that footage. We were motivated by Ramzan Kadyrov’s constant declaration that this is not happening and there is no evidence and no witnesses. And Putin backs him up on it. What we learned from all the survivors that all the crimes against them, their torture, was all filmed. It was all recorded. This is the way that this genocide is structured. They are taking record of these events and sending them to their supervisors and authorities. This is a government-controlled, top-down crime against humanity. I felt driven to find that evidence and present it. The footage we used, and we didn’t use all of it and used it judicially, was to tell us everybody on that screen knows. They experienced it themselves. This is the hot breath of terror that they felt on their necks that they felt and it so much more powerful to show it and not tell it. It makes it unforgettable.
We had a goal, in our relationship to the audience, that we wanted to implicate everybody with that is happening in Chechnya and empower everyone to do something about it. A young man at the beginning of the film talks about a rat chewing through the back of somebody and that is happening today in Chechnya and it’s being allowed to happen because the United Nations hasn’t moved against it. The US, under President Trump, didn’t do a thing about it. The EU has been pathetically silent on the subject. We wanted to shock the world into action.
Welcome to Chechnya is available on HBOMax. To find more information on how you can donate or take action, please visit the film’s website.