How Ukraine’s Digital Artists Are Grappling With Working Through Wartime

Andrew Yakovenko
Courtesy Andrew Yakovenko

In Lviv, in western Ukraine, VideoGorilla senior developer/chief science officer Andrew Yakovenko is glued to his computer, not doom-scrolling but rather working on an AI-enabled software tool for a Hollywood entertainment company. The company’s senior developer Anton Linevich, holed up in a small village in the center of the country, is likewise focused on work, checking in with remote teammates via Slack. Senior developer Aleksey Sevruk, who stayed in Kyiv, just joined the Army and is fighting for that city.

Ukraine is home to crack coders who partner with U.S. 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, created a voice cloning solution –- allowing one voice sound exactly like another voice – that is now widely used in the entertainment industry. Its software was used to clone Vince Lombardi’s voice in the 2021 Super Bowl opening, created Lucas Skywalker’s voice for the de-aged Mark Hamill at the end of Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian,” and won an Emmy for interactive documentary MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality’s “In Event of a Moon Disaster,” for creating the voice of Richard Nixon.

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ReSpeecher CEO Alex Serdiuk (center) and his team, who worked on creating Luke Skywalker’s voice in “The Mandalorian” Courtesy Respeecher

ReSpeecher co-founder/co-CEO Alex Serdiuk reports that two of his employees are still in the Kyiv office but that, one month ago, 10 team members relocated to Lviv. He stayed in Kyiv until the first Russian bombs fell, and his whole family headed to western Ukraine (his wife and child have since gone on to Europe). The advantage, he says, is that he is more focused on work. “The day that bombs hit Kyiv, a Hollywood company received the audio files we had to deliver,” he says. “We haven’t any disruption with ReSpeecher business at all.”

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

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

Brahms first hired VideoGorillas when he was a Sony Pictures executive in charge of buying technology services. In 2015, he left Sony and threw in his lot with the Ukrainian company as a partner and CEO. “When I was working at Sony, in 2014, there was some risk, when Kyiv was on fire and the people were protesting and ousting the president in power,” he says. As soon as he came on board, the VideoGorillas team “defined a high-level business continuity plan” in case of war. At ReSpeecher, Serdiuk says his company developed its contingency plans in November 2021.

Just as many in the West doubted Russia would invade Ukraine, so did many Ukrainians. Still, VideoGorilla’s Yakovenko moved his mother and 93-year-old 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 stayed in Kyiv. “I didn’t believe Putin was crazy enough to invade the whole country,” he says.

On February 24, when the first Russian bombs began falling, both companies executed their contingency plans. They are now in a holding pattern. Linevich reports that in his current location, “It’s more or less like village life,” with the addition of checkpoints, nighttime curfews and rising prices. Still, he and his 7-year-old son saw Cruise missiles moving slowly towards Kyiv. “And there was nothing we could do,” he says. His son draws pictures of military vehicles and Linevich spends most of his time working. Yakovenko notes that the biggest 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. “One is to keep our businesses up and running because we are a significant part of the economy. Second is to help our relatives and team members and other people to get to safer places, and third, is to help country to the extent we can with donations to the military, doing whatever we can, and keeping calm and focused.” Yakovenko says that, “when we found the way to contribute and help with humanitarian aid and volunteer work, it got better.” “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” he says. “If things get much worse, I will have to join the army. And that’s most likely what will happen if the war continues long enough for the army to need me.”

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

(pictured at top: VideoGorilla’s Andrew Yakovenko works remotely from Lviv, Ukraine.)