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Ukrainian Photographer and Filmmaker on the Front Lines: The Story of Yevhen Shkolenko

Ukrainian Photographer and Filmmaker on the Front Lines: The Story of Yevhen Shkolenko

Living and working in a city on the frontline of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yevhen Shkolenko and his team are always creating. Surviving is the first priority, but Shkolenko’s team is thriving in creativity, producing beautiful photos and videos.

On February 23, 2022, the filmmaker and photographer Yevhen Shkolenko, who runs Frame Stock Footage, was working in his studio in southeastern Ukraine. That day, he and his team created a series of clips about news anchors covering current events. After wrapping up, the production team and the actors all sat down for a cup of coffee. Nobody could have imagined that the next day Russia would invade their home. 

“The following morning, I woke up from loud explosions and the sound of fighter jets flying over my house,” the filmmaker remembers. “My whole family woke up, and everyone asked the question, What was that?

I have a large window in my bedroom. I looked outside and I understood. I looked at my family and, confusedly, I said the war had begun.”

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, Shkolenko and his family remained at home. They were stunned by fear and despair. As the war raged on and the days turned to weeks, they leapt into action. 

“We began to help the soldiers with food,” he tells me. “We built barricades and checkpoints.” 

Shkolenko’s mind also turned to his studio and his team.

“We continued filming, because I understood that the families of my employees needed salaries and food. I also knew we needed to do it for our general economic resistance.”

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Creating During Wartime

The winter of 2022 was brutal. The Russian army bombed Ukraine’s power grid in a failed attempt to chip away at the people’s will. At times, there was no electricity in the studio and no heat. As the power system was restored, Shkolenko and his team persisted in their work.  

Shkolenko lives in Zaporizhzhya, a frontline city that has been assaulted by Russian missiles. He’s seen multi-story buildings with several floors destroyed by shelling. 

“Very often, rockets arrive near our studio,” the filmmaker says.

At the time of our correspondence, one of those powerful rockets hit just 400 meters from where he works. 

The artist also lives and works about 120 kilometers from the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, which was occupied by Russian forces in 2022. Experts around the world have raised the alarm about the possibility of a nuclear disaster. 

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“We are not really sure what the situation is right now,” the Shkolenko says. “But living next to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe—that can explode at any moment—keeps us all tense. Our cars are always full of gas.”

Friends in the United States have asked Shkolenko why he hasn’t left Ukraine.

“I always tell them that I’m needed here,” he replies. “I asked my children and wife, Do you want to go to Europe? They answered, No, we will not leave you. The children said that if we die, we will be together. I often ask them this question, and they answer the same.”

Many of the actors Shkolenko had collaborated with before the invasion have been separated from their families since the start of the war.

“Can you imagine their psychological state?” the filmmaker asks. “It hurt me to look at their faces and see what they’d endured.”

Still, somewhere along the way, something unexpected happened in the studio. While dreaming up new worlds, the team at Frame Stock Footage found strength and joy in one another.

“During our shoots, I saw how we all could break away and break free from reality,” Shkolenko tells me. “It became easier for us.”

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“Our mood was better. We talked about this and rejoiced in it. We recalled interesting moments from pre-war life at the studio. When we are together, we feel good, and it gives hope and peace.”

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We asked him to tell us more about the Frame Stock Footage studio, the people he employs, and the creative spirit that’s kept them united.   

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Shutterstock: What does a day in the life at your studio look like these days? How are you staying safe?

Yevhen Shkolenko: Our way of thinking and way of life, after the war, changed a lot. Since we live in a frontline city, we have sirens howling every day, all day. When the siren sounds, all shops and shopping centers are closed, and people go to shelters. 

We try not to ignore the air raid alerts. We came up with a unique warning system, and when there is a threat of shelling from ground equipment or fighter jets take off in Russia, we already know about it and hide in bomb shelters. 

Some IT companies have been working in basements since the beginning of the war. But, honestly, it’s hard to be disciplined, especially when you’re filming, so we risk a lot when we don’t go to the shelter. 

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​​​​​​If you take the whole day, it sometimes happens that the shopping center does not operate for 30% to 50% of regular working hours due to the threat of an air attack. Our production is affected since we often build locations for our shoots in the studio, and we buy all the building materials in the construction supermarket. Therefore, we are often delayed. 

Someone who’s not in this situation might think that we are calm and safe and that the situation is under control, but this is not so. We simply do not show our fear. Honestly, we really run the risk of falling under fire, and we really run the risk of being killed.

We just hope it doesn’t happen.

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SSTK: What has motivated you to continue creating during this time? 

Shkolenko: Our families, team, and employees—this is what inspires and motivates us to work hard. We have continued to work to feed our families, support the people around us, support the army in their needs, and support the economy of Ukraine. That is what drives me in my work. 

You know, war is a hell of a thing. If you want to imagine and feel what is happening here, remember September 11, 2001, and now imagine that this happens every day.

It is emotionally and psychologically difficult to combine the creative process in the studio with the realities that are outside of it. It is difficult to work in the creative field in a country at war, when every day death is there, right before your eyes—many deaths, so much destruction. 

To be honest, I want to be an inspiration to people. If I say that I love my country and my people and want them to flourish, then my life should correspond with the way I think. My life lives up to my words. And creativity helps us in this.

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SSTK:  I’d love to hear more about that. How has having that creative outlet helped you to navigate some of what is happening around you?

Shkolenko: Filmmaking is what unites our team. It helps us to not lose heart and stay inspired. I am also inspired by how people from different countries are surviving the war together with the Ukrainians and helping us.

Acts of kindness lead to strength and inspiration.  

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I would like to mention a few people who have helped us throughout the war: Andy LaViolette and Justin Granick from Shutterstock are among them. They are always in touch, checking on us, and this inspires us to continue to work. I don’t think they understand how much they do for us. 

SSTK: What does your team look like? 

Shkolenko: There are currently about 10 people on our team, not counting the actors with whom we constantly work.

We have a producer, a gaffer, 3D designers who create graphics for our videos, people who build locations and then break them down, and a keyword operator who creates metadata for our videos. We also have a person who prepares meals for the team.

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SSTK: What’s the most ambitious set you’ve built so far?

Shkolenko: I can confidently say that our largest and most expensive build to date was for our Martian base project. It took more than half a year to create it.

There were only two of us on the team at the time, and we ordered the space shuttle and various modules where the scientists would grow greens and food from a creative advertising agency. 

We also developed and created space suits and a humanoid robot suit in collaboration with a company that creates a variety of costumes for events, advertising, and cinema.

This project was the longest and most difficult as, at that time, I worked with only one hired employee. We did everything we could with what we had!

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License this video via Frame Stock Footage.

License this video via Frame Stock Footage.

SSTK: Please tell us about some of the most challenging or rewarding projects you’ve worked on since the invasion and during the war. 

Shkolenko: Over the past year, despite the difficulties, we have managed to make about four interesting, large-scale projects in our studio.

One was about neighborhood life. Another was about a video surveillance center. A third was about traders, and another was about a prison. 

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For the traders and video surveillance shoots, we built a non-standard hexagonal room. We also designed and manufactured a large table on which there are six monitors.

But the most memorable for me is probably the construction of a prison location for filming. We built a room within a room. It was an interesting experience and a very cool cinematic location. It still exists in our pavilion.

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SSTK: We love the Neighborhood Life series, which features neighbors of all ages in their apartments, separated by a wall. I find it especially moving that you created this project—which celebrates the small moments of everyday life—during a time of war. It speaks to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of storytelling. How did you come up with this idea? 

Shkolenko: Neighborhood Life was an absolutely spontaneous idea that had been in my head for a long time. We built the rooms initially to be a private house, but before breaking apart the location, I walked from room to room and noticed that there were no barriers preventing me from moving the camera from one room to another.

I took the camera and rode the dolly between the rooms. It looked so cool that we decided to show many different situations.

There were many more ideas, but we did not want to stay on this idea for too long before we understood how successful it would be. We decided to wait and see how buyers respond. If it was successful enough, we wanted to make it much bigger and better.

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License this video via Frame Stock Footage.

SSTK: What has been your favorite project of all time (so far)?

Shkolenko: I do what I love, so they’re all my favorite projects. I often like to look at my portfolio to feel the satisfaction of how much work we have done. Often, I remember that these clips will help people all over the world with their own projects. 

I also really like to see my clips and photos in movies, on the Internet, and in stores. Recently, our photo got into the film Fast X. The actor who was in the photo was very happy. I often see my videos on Netflix, as well.

But there are some shoots that are remembered more than others. My most memorable shoots include the Birth of Jesus Christ in a barn, the prison, and the Martian base. 

Another one of the most memorable series is the military footage that we filmed on territories that are now occupied. We filmed it a year before the war. We often remember it because we simulated explosions.

Exactly one year later, real bombs flew over that place. The house where we worked is most likely in ruins now.

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SSTK: What gear do you use in the studio?

Shkolenko: At this time, my go-to camera is the RED HELIUM EPIC 8K DSMC2 S35. I like RED for its ease of use, the quality of the picture, and the way it encodes color.

I have many different lenses and am always on the lookout for something new to create new lens effects. Also, I have a Zeiss, Cooke, Ironglass, and DZO. 

As for studio lights, I am a big fan of Astera and Arri lighting. Of course, we also have the classic Kinoflo and Dedolight, and these are really good, reliable lighting devices.

But, in recent years, we’ve almost always used Astera and Arri Skypanels because they are very flexible and powerful and have been designed for use in absolutely any environment.

Also, one of my favorite tools is the GFM quad dolly. It is an incredibly convenient and versatile thing that offers so many possibilities.

SSTK: Can you walk us through your creative process? What does it take to bring some of these larger-scale ideas to life, as a team? 

Shkolenko: Everything starts with a brainstorming session amongst our creative core. This team includes four people, including myself. We have coffee and food and begin to analyze, think, invent, and plan. We determine the main direction and make a plan for how we want to do it. 

From there, a narrower circle of people begins to work out any issues that the project might present. This is one of the most difficult parts of the process, as it often involves building a location for the shoot. Even if we are working in an existing location—an office, for example—this process still includes choosing actors and buying the clothes and props we need.

When the project is 90% to 95% ready, we set a shooting date. Shoots usually last at least four to five hours, but we have worked on some for up to ten to twelve hours. I love my team and care about them, so we always have fresh food. During lunch, we have time to take a break, eat, chat, and discuss the news. 

Our team is always together every step of the way, no matter how small or big a shoot is. It also happens that we sometimes dress up our guys on the team so that they participate as actors or as extras. I think everyone does that. 

For me, the most important thing is the people and the atmosphere within the team. I believe that when there is trust and good working conditions, we can be fully dedicated and create at the highest quality. I always take into account the opinion of each person. Everyone has a unique experience and everyone sees the world differently. 

I also want to influence people’s minds and teach them to love their country during such a difficult time. I want to teach people to be strong. And I hope to inspire my team to believe in victory in the war and believe in our achievements and successes.

We can create prospects for development in our country. And then they, charged with this idea, begin to influence the people around them. If you want to change the world, begin with yourself. 

For more from Yevhen Shkolenko’s studio, be sure to check out the Frame Stock Footage collection on Shutterstock. Follow along on Instagram at @framestock.

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