We have just finished another project with London based production company Pilot. We headed to Saint-Petersburg on Easter Day for the new TV series “Empire Builders” which looks into the achievements of mighty Empires through its iconic buildings.
Not only is this our third project with the same production company, but also with British cameraman Nigel Kinnings. We have already shot Tough Trains and Ottomans Vs Christians together and shared some adventures.
This time in Saint-Petersburg we filmed two of the most magnificent buildings, the Winter Palace and the Catherine Palace. Then we headed to Moscow where we filmed St. Basils Cathedral and The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
In Saint-Petersburg we interviewed art historian and Professor Aleksey Lepork who was a real pleasure to work with. He has so much useful knowledge and a good understating of film processes which is a great help.
We filmed in The Winter Palace on a Monday which is when the museum is closed to the public. This gave us a very unique opportunity to use the space without the rush of tourists. We had this experience last summer when filming “Ottomans Vs Christians”, trying to capture the atmosphere of these majestic rooms with crowds of tourists passing through is hard work. Keeping them back to get a shot is often impossible, so to shoot there when it is just the crew, a few members of staff and some cleaners is a pleasure like no other. It’s a strange feeling to walk through these sumptuous imperial hallways alone, you can almost capture the emotion of what it must have been like when they were the homes of the Russian Emperors.
Our favourite team member in Saint-Petersburg Igor assisted us with moving equipment because in the Hermitage/Winter Palace they don’t let crews use their trolleys. The space is so vast to move from one room to another with a lot of equipment it can be very challenging. So having another good pair of hands made it really quick and convenient.
4 hours by Sapsan train brought us back to Moscow quick and easy to shoot the Cathedrals, then a morning of B Roll of the Kremlin and the cameraman and director were on a flight back to the UK.
Building long term working relationships is at the heart of our business, so when we were contacted by a production company from the UK that we had already filmed an episode of Tough Trains with, we were over the moon.
This shoot would be a historical documentary series that would take us to St Petersburg to look into Tsar Nicholas I and the Russian Orthodox Church in the 19th century.
First day of filming was at the New Jerusalem Monastery, about 60 km from Moscow, also known as the Voskresensky (Resurrection) Monastery and identical to the Cathedral of the same name in Jerusalem. It is one of the most beautiful and unique cathedrals near Moscow and was built at the end of the 17th century.
Some parts of its territory were under reconstruction so we were unable to film the exterior in full. We applied to the Patriarchy and gained their support and permission to film inside the Monastery, which took more than a month but which was worth all the paperwork and waiting. We were guided by one of the monasteries custodians who had a great knowledge of the history of the Monastery and was interviewed by the host of the series – Julian Davison – an architect, writer and tv presenter.
That same day we headed to St Petersburg on the fast train from Leningradsky station. The shoot would then take us to the Hermitage and Winter Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress and Kronstadt. All are places in Saint-Petersburg that need filming permits and as with the Peter and Paul Fortress it was simple and quickly organised, with the Hermitage it took us quite a time to agree all the terms.
Filming in the Winter palace for TV can be challenging. You pay quite a lot of money but this doesn’t include closing the rooms you wish to film in. They are still open for the public and it is a struggle to stop them getting into shot. As this was a documentary shoot it had a small crew of just 4 of us. So knowing the distance through the many lavishly decorated halls and rooms we would have to carry a lot of equipment, we obtained the help of one of our trusted contacts in St Petersburg to be another pair of hands. He also became helpful with shepherding the tourists out of shot. But after three hours of filming in such an extraordinary place leaves you feeling more than a little awestruck.
In the Peter and Paul Fortress we filmed the cannon salute which happens every day in Saint-Petersburg at mid-day. They opened the fence for us so we could get close to the cannons just 15 minutes before it was fired, so it was an absolute shock when we heard the 3-ton cannon fire just 2 meters away.
In Kronstadt, which is about 1 -1,5 hours of drive from the city, we took a boat to the abandoned fort Alexander. They do some excursions inside the fort, but with a filming crew you need to agree with the administration in advance and pay a fee. The easiest way to get to fort Alexander by boat is to drive to Fort Konstantin.
- It is really important to find a hotel in Saint-Petersburg with a central location that have proper breakfast. The city is full of cosy bakeries but most cafes are opened from 10am. For a crew who normally have very early starts, it is almost impossible to find good breakfast en route unless you have it in your hotel.
- If you film the cannon salute at a close distance, make sure you have hearing protection with you.
- If you are going to film in Winter palace, avoid filming on Tuesday as it is considered to be one of the busiest days with tourists and groups. If possible don’t film in summer as this has the most tourists visiting.