A Cinematic Journey: An interview with Van Khokhlov (series in association with PEN ETC)

Culture — 06.05.20

Words by Kerr McIlwraith & Desislava Todorova
Imagery by Van Khoklov

Van Khokhlov is a young half Russian, half-Belarussian creative director with a vast portfolio of fashion clients including hip Milan-based brand Sunnei. His unique vision and cinematic outlook have carved his way through the numerous pages featuring his name and creative touch.

PEN ETC (aka Kerr McIlWraith) & Desislava Todorova sat down and had a quick catch up with Van to understand what he’s up to and his creative process.

Tell me about yourself, Russian filmmaker, director & photographer quarantined in Milan, how did that come about?

Well, I moved to Italy with my mother during my teenage years, learned the language pretty quickly and finished the linguistic high school. In the meantime, I was skateboarding and filming my friends doing tricks and stuff: that was the time when I really put myself into filmmaking and shooting.

Brands started asking me for the footage and would send me around the country to film their ambassadors. In those years I also shot few personal skate projects but at one point I just got enough and wanted something new. Right after high school I moved to Milan and started assisting directors in the commercial and fashion industry.

2019 was a big year for you: winning at the Italian Fashion Film Awards, several international campaigns as well as some great personal projects too. What were your highlights both commercial and personal?

Yeah, 2019 was full of hard work and a lot of big surprises as well. I wasn’t expecting to win anything at the fashion film festival at all. I remember even making a mess for entering the festival like I sent the final render on the last day of the submissions.

The global campaigns for Sunglass Hut and Coca-Cola were crazy too. I’m really thankful to the team of people I’ve been working with. From my personal point of view I learnt a lot on how, with the right team of people, you can turn a “nothing too cool” commercial project into something really nice. Of course, there’s always a huge battle for the vision you have in mind that might not adapt to the clients one and so on but still, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to get it on and give a notch of something different and brilliant or it’s not worth it.

When it comes to personal projects – I see too many people struggling with the fact they don’t get any commercials and with that mindset, they stop creating in general. It’s like a vicious circle. Personal projects are really important, they set your inner vision of things. People just need to go out and shoot no matter what, then things come along.

I love that your photographic style can be transferred from location to location, whilst keeping its originality and integrity intact. For example, your work with Sunnei in Milan, Baracuta in Berlin, and your project with Zofia & Diletta in the Alps.

What’s your work process when planning compositions and edits?

At first, I think of what the location is transmitting me, whether it’s a chaotic city or an “in the middle of nowhere” lake. Then maybe comes the idea, I don’t really know. Sometimes it’s a step by step process but sometimes an idea just clicks in your head. I admit I work a lot with sounds, I think it’s the main thing that conducts the viewer to the story.

People often underestimate the value of what viewers hear in their films. Compositions and the edit come along naturally. I usually have thought about the editing way before I’m actually shooting the scenes.

With that in mind, where has been your favourite location to shoot so far and why? 

I can’t really tell which one has been my favourite, every location you choose has beautiful elements if you think it this way. I think the favourite ones are the ones where the story, the models, their faces, styling and the location itself stick together perfectly on their own.

How’s the situation in Milan currently? Are you finding alternative methods to be creative?

Milan is still in full lockdown although rumours are saying we won’t be waiting too long before things will start to reopen. I think all of this will help our industry in some way. Brands and agencies might start to look around for creative people more locally and this will be a huge opportunity for young photographers and filmmakers. Personally, during the lockdown, I took a pause from all what is creatively connected to my job. You can’t create valuable things every moment, were are not machines, so I thought this would be the right moment to disconnect and do other things and then restart your mind and it will naturally flow with new and fresh ideas.

Being also a jazz piano player and music producer I’ve concentrated on music a lot, found new ways of scoring my future films and edits, drank a lot of wine, watched some good oldies and called friends on FaceTime every hour.

Any interesting stories from the lockdown so far?

Right before the lockdown, I moved into a new apartment in Milan and reached out to a friend of mine to help me re-paint all the walls as I’ve never done it in my life. As the lockdown had started we, of course, couldn’t manage to meet and do it. With our combined boredom we ended up Facetiming for 5 days straight where he was literally telling me what to do with every inch of the wall. I guess this was the biggest achievement during this lockdown so far.

Stay up-to-date with Van Khokhlov’s work via Instagram, Vimeo or his website.