Ukrainian digital artists continue to work in times of war

In Lviv, western Ukraine, VideoGorilla senior developer/science director Andrew Yakovenko is glued to his computer. The company’s lead developer, Anton Linevich, holed up in a small village in the center of the country, is also concentrating on work, chatting with remote teammates via Slack. Senior developer Aleksey Sevruk, who stayed in kyiv, has just joined the army and is fighting for this city.

Ukraine is home to crack coders who partner with American studios, companies, and productions in the Hollywood media and entertainment industry. VideoGorillas, founded in 2009, uses computer vision and artificial intelligence to automate remastering and restoration workflows. The company, which helped restore Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” has hundreds of credits and working relationships with Netflix, Disney and other studios.

Another Ukrainian company, ReSpeecher, has created a voice cloning solution – allowing one voice to sound exactly like another voice – which is now widely used in the entertainment industry. His software was used to clone Vince Lombardi’s voice during the 2021 Super Bowl opener, created Lucas Skywalker’s voice for aged Mark Hamill at the end of Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian,” and won an Emmy for the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality’s interactive documentary “In Event of a Moon Disaster”, for creating the voice of Richard Nixon.

ReSpeecher CEO Alex Serdiuk (center) and his team, who worked on creating the voice of Luke Skywalker in ‘The Mandalorian’
Courtesy speech

ReSpeecher co-founder/co-CEO Alex Serdiuk reports that two of his employees are still in the Kyiv office but that a month ago 10 team members moved to Lviv. He stayed in kyiv until the first Russian bombs fell, and his whole family moved to western Ukraine (his wife and child have since moved to Europe). The upside, he says, is that he’s more focused on the job. “The day the bombs hit kyiv, a Hollywood company received the audio files that we had to deliver,” he says. “We have no disruption to ReSpeecher’s operations.”

Similarly, most of VideoGorilla’s team members are in western Ukraine, although according to VideoGorilla’s US partner Jason Brahms, the company’s current base of operations has moved to Georgia.

They all point out that they have been in a state of preparedness since the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014. “The Russian invasion started eight years ago,” Serdiuk notes. Yakovenko adds that “this is not the first time that Russia has gathered forces on our borders. “They moved a large force for military training there – then dispersed,” he said. “It was Putin’s way of exerting pressure and trying to scare everyone. It’s a political tool for him to get what he wants. Brahms, who has been back and forth in Ukraine since 2010, noted that kyiv’s renaissance came once the country had a democratic election that toppled pro-Putin President Viktor Yanukovych. “But throughout this period there were Russian troop movements,” he says.

Brahms first hired VideoGorillas when he was an executive at Sony Pictures in charge of buying technology services. In 2015 he left Sony and joined the Ukrainian company as a partner and CEO. “When I worked at Sony, in 2014, there was a certain risk, when kyiv was on fire and people were protesting and chasing the president in power,” he says. Upon arrival, the VideoGorillas team “defined a high-level business continuity plan” in the event of war. At ReSpeecher, Serdiuk says his company drew up its contingency plans in November 2021.

Just as many in the West doubted that Russia would invade Ukraine, so did many Ukrainians. Yet VideoGorilla’s Yakovenko moved his 93-year-old mother and grandmother out of Kyiv to stay with relatives in Europe. “Even though I didn’t believe Russia would invade, it turned out to be a good decision,” he says. But VideoGorilla’s Linevich and his family remained in kyiv. “I didn’t think Putin was crazy enough to take over the whole country,” he says.

On February 24, when the first Russian bombs began to fall, both companies executed their contingency plans. They are now on hold. Linevich reports that in its current location, “it’s more or less like village life,” with the addition of checkpoints, nightly curfews and rising prices. Yet he and his 7-year-old son saw cruise missiles moving slowly towards kyiv. “And we couldn’t do anything,” he said. His son draws pictures of military vehicles, and Linevich spends most of his time working. Yakovenko notes that the greatest impact of the invasion is psychological. “Everyone is constantly monitoring the news and at the same time constantly trying to limit our exposure to the news, because it’s unbearable to worry about these things all the time,” he says.

Working on Hollywood TV shows and movies is a welcome distraction — and more. “Ukrainians have three jobs,” says Serdiuk. “The first is to keep our businesses going because we are an important part of the economy. Secondly, to help our loved ones, our team members and others to get to safer places, and thirdly, to help the country as much as possible with donations to the army, by doing whatever we can and by remaining calm and focused. Yakovenko says that “when we found a way to contribute and help with humanitarian aid and voluntary work, it got better.” “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” he said. “If things get worse, I will have to join the army. And that’s most likely what will happen if the war goes on long enough for the army to need me.

Show workers suggest the non-governmental organization, Defending Ukraine Together, for donations.

(Top photo: VideoGorilla’s Andrew Yakovenko works remotely from Lviv, Ukraine.)

Marilyn M. Davis