“Where eyes won't lead you”: how the first Russian travel-show, featuring visually impaired host, was shot

Audio description: photo in color. Spring evening. Dark-haired young man is sitting on veranda at the set table, near the pond. This is Vladimir Vaskevich. He has a heavy built and well-cut face. He is dressed in dark-green general uniform of XIX century with red cuffs and golden epaulettes. There are several medals on his chest.

In summer 2021 the travel-show production has started, featuring Vladimir Vaskevich, a visually impaired traveler, the author of “Adventure with no borders” book and the reporter of the “Special View” web-portal as its host. In his column for “Special View” he shared how the show was filmed and what difficulties he had to face.

From idea to action

This story has its roots in 2016. Alexander Romanov, a film director and one of the leaders of production studio “Biser”, had an idea to create a show with a host, who would explore the world in an uncommon way. By that time, the studio had gathered some good experience in development and production of travel programs: they produced programs for TV channels and created advertising for big, well-known travel companies. Yet, the “Biser” team realized that they wouldn’t be able to engage anybody with a show copying the format of famous “Orel&Reshka”.

The idea stayed undeveloped, as the members of Alexander’s team knew that many projects just needed time to mature. The studio revived the concept in 2018 and called out for the role of visually impaired show host, but nobody applied.

In the meantime, I as well considered shooting an engaging travel project. I was so much impressed by “Orel&Reshka” and “World inside out” programs, that I dreamed about becoming a host of a real TV-show. However, I didn’t have a professional team, and didn’t want to produce something mediocre.

Audio description: photo is color, with pink background. Gray summer day. There is a blue window frame with white carved plantbands placed in the lawn, and Vladimir is seen through it, smiling. He wears black trousers, yellow hoodie, jeans jacket and cap.

“I saw Volodya speaking in Nizhniy Novgorov, as he hitched from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, and immediately decided this was a chance to get our project moving”, Alexander Romanov, the director of “Biser” studio, told.

That moment I didn’t recognize that the film director got interested in my presentation. I was on my way to Vladivostok when they reached out to me and invited to the casting. But I couldn’t go back to Moscow, and I still had to make more than half of the way to Vladivostok, and the guys suddenly proposed to fly to any of the city along my route to meet me there. I said I would be in Ulan-Ude in 2 days — come if you can. And they came.

My first-ever shooting took full day, and we managed to create a promo reel featuring me travelling in the capital of Buryatia: I participated in national sport — wrestling, played folk music instruments, worked in the yurt workshop and ate lamb guts and giblets with blood. What can I say — this is the national cuisine.

My first experience seemed to me quite successful. Our filming crew was also happy with the result. However, nobody wished to buy our show, since the production of each episode required significant money and efforts and none of the channels was ready to launch a show with visually impaired host and unusual format. We postponed the show production again and again. We met different organizations and companies, I even flew myself to have a conversation with Yandex and abroad, but nothing helped.

Audio description: photo in color. Bright summer day at the apiary. Vladimir accompanied by a stocky man in his 40s are standing by an open beehive. Vladimir is holding a wooden plank with honeycomb, and the man — a wooden brush. Both are wearing white protective suits, gloves and hats with facial grids.

The pandemic

In 2020 due to the pandemic the borders got closed, and travels became either unavailable or involving too many difficulties — additional tests, for example. Tourists started to explore Russia. Traditional resorts soon became overcrowded, and people looked around for exciting new routes. Our country offers a lot of unique beautiful places, the problem is that unfortunately tourists know almost nothing about them.

“In the end of 2020 the pandemic restrictions were loosened, and people could go back to travels around Russia. The state tried to push the domestic tourism forward. Having weighed all pros and cons, we agreed this was the best time to seek for the financial support for the show with Volodya, again”, Alexander Romanov explained.

However, the channels continued to stay silent, so the studio team relied on grant support. They applied for 2 grants, and in March 2021 I got the long-awaited sms: “We won the grant, get ready to shoot 10 episodes”. The project was funded with the grant from Autonomous Non-commercial Organization (ANO) “Institute of Internet Development”. “Biser” studio and our show became the winner in the “Domestic tourism development via video-content” nomination.

"I can’t find the right words to describe how happy I was. I was dancing in my flat for several hours, and already in a month flew to Bryansk to shoot the first episode of the show which got the name “Where eyes won’t lead you”.

How the shooting process looks like when you don’t see a thing

Professional filming involves a lot of people. 8 people, not including me, participate in shooting of one single episode: director and his assistant, producer, script writer, 3 DOPs (director of photography, or cameraman) and audio engineer. The scene is shot with 3 cameras simultaneously, and with one additional action camera, which I often hold in my hands. This is a common situation for each program that aims to go on air on TV. Unlike ours — the show format that we worked out thoroughly during shooting in Bryansk.

Audio description: photo in color, with pink background. Vladimir, dressed in dark trousers and blue t-shirt, and a man around 50 years old, dressed in white shirt, are standing at the glass kitchen table and rolling out dough with a rolling pin. Both have skullcaps on their heads. There is also a plate with strawberries and a honey jar on the table.

“The idea of the show is to tell about the cities of Russia, which have few tourists, through Vova’s perception. Through those senses that are available for him — touching, smell, taste and hearing, while people whom he meets become his eyes. These are ordinary passers-by, artists, sportsmen, businessmen, café chefs, plant workers from the places that our host visits, as he gets to know the city better”, Maria Tarasenko, the main script writer of the program, told.

It seems easy — Masha creates the script, Sasha Korchagina, producer, does location scouting, DOPs film the scene, director leads the process, but nothing is as it seems. I can’t see, and this causes a lot of nuances.

“According to the script, each location or activity — be it a horse plant, scuba diving, crystal blowing or sheep shearing — has to rely on some feeling. Here Volodya tastes something, there — smells, the other day — listens to something or touches. Besides, the location has to be exciting not only for Vova, but for a sighted viewer as well, as the show is intended for him. I had to choose each location with maximum attention, so that the picture and the situation are thrilling enough to mesmerize the viewer. Especially when the viewer sees Vova experiencing all this in person, blindly. That is why he does everything himself: gathers honey from the beehive, drives a rover and a locomotive, explores abandoned buildings, shoots a Kalashnikov at the targets, does scuba diving”, Maria Tarasenko explained.

Shooting an episode is indeed a big job. On the very first shooting day we found ourselves in challenging circumstances. The stylist prepared several clothing options for me, from head to toes, but the clothes were intended for summer, while once we went to Bryansk, it was minus 2 outside, with snow and even hail, and severe wind. Never in my life I have felt so freezing, even when I was hitchhiking in the North. Sometimes I noticed my hands and feet refusing to obey me, and my only salvation was in the hot tea, which Sasha Korchagina poured for me.

We had another issue. Each episode had to have a scene where local citizens told me how the monuments looked like. In the final reel this scene occupies less than a minute, while I had to talk to at least 10 people to have it shot. It happened the following way: I walked and just tried to locate the passers-by by hearing, or sometimes the director gave me a hint. Then I had around 10 seconds to explain to a person what I wanted from him, with cameras and strange people flickering around.

Their first intention was to run away, and I often addressed the end of my welcoming phrase into the void. If I managed to explain the meaning in short, they usually agreed to participate. Grandmas, families with kids, youngsters in particular, slightly drunk passers-by and also hobos were the most friendly and open for the interview. Hobos were actually the most cooperative ones and could even give me a real excursion.

“The filming of the first episode seemed more like a lottery for us, as the team met Vova for the very first time. We were very nervous, because we wanted to create a quality product, yes, but above all — to make Vova feel relaxed and excited. To tell the truth, we hit it off quite soon, and he showed us in a second how to interact with him properly. As the filming process moved on, we got used to certain nuances of shooting a blind host. Sometimes we suggested the best way to walk towards the camera, sometimes — gave comments from afar, and in Yaroslavl our crew even had to squeeze into the coal section of the locomotive to get out of the frame, but to let Vova hear us at the same time. After all, he was driving the locomotive on his own, blindly. You can imagine, how we looked when we got out”, Maria Tarasenko shared with a smile.

I have never played the role of a show host. I took a lot of interviews but have never participated so much in video shooting. Pronouncing some prepared texts was particularly difficult — I couldn’t get rid of the desire to start reciting the phrases.

I believe the viewer is crystal clear about whether I am improvising and speaking easily or declaring the memorized text. The first episode had a lot of such moments: we shot each scene 5-6 times, it was minus 2 outside, and it was hell.

“At first, we were not sure how to behave when things just don’t work out — sometimes we wanted to pity him, sometimes — just to shake him a bit, because this is what the host role is about — in the frame you have to stay always positive, speak well and clearly. Our team had some discussions around this topic, while Vova was filmed for the nest scene. In the beginning a lot went wrong, but Vova was persistent, and we saw him becoming better and better every day. Moreover, he asked us not to treat him in that special way and demand same things from him, as we would demand from any other host”, Alexandra Korchagina, the show producer, told.

On the very first shooting day I felt sometimes completely demotivated. Here is an example: in the final scene of the first episode, I am sitting by a beautiful lake, relaxed, drinking berry punch, eating different treats, wearing tsar’s robe. It is peaceful and funny moment, especially when I ask the viewer to enjoy the landscape instead of me, saying “And the nature is wonderful around, come look, since I can’t”. My team knows that this scene wasn’t easy at all for me. It was the end of the day, and I was tired and couldn’t concentrate well already. Every take something went wrong, I was unhappy with myself, and the director didn’t like my performance as well. On the 5thtake — and I had already a full liter of berry punch and a couple of dozens of hash browns inside — I felt so frustrated, that I simply stopped moving. Kudos to my team — they didn’t force me that moment, rather let me have some rest, and the director cheered me up. The next take was successful.

There is always place for some extreme

The shooting day usually started at 6 AM. I woke up, took shower, had breakfast and at 7:30-8 AM we went to the first location. The show producer usually makes agreements with everybody in advance, but something unexpected might happen right on the way. For instance, in Kazan we accidentally saw a village preparing for Sabantui festival. I was quickly placed into the wagon which carried the most honored citizens, and, accompanied by singing and dancing, we went from one house to another to collect towels — this is an ancient Tatar tradition before the Sabantui festival.

Audio description: photo in color, with pink background. Vladimir is sitting cross-legged on a yellow carpet and is playing tank drum with sticks. Tank drum is a round steel slit/tongue drum. Vladimir is wearing dark trousers, orange hoodie and yellow cap. Behind him there is a djembe — an African goblet-shaped drum. A yellow LED string of lights is seen on a white wall.

It took us around 3-6 hours to shoot in each location. First the guys inspected the shooting spot, prepared the equipment and attached a microphone to my chest. Then we shot the main scene — for example, the one where I dived underwater, or practiced tatami fight, or rode a horse at the horse farm. The more actions are planned, the more time is required. Then the script writer and the video engineers chose the best shots, and 6 hours of shooting turned into 2-5 min video.

After the main part was done, we moved on to shoot additional angles. One DOP did the close-ups, another released a quadcopter and shoot from above. As for me, I had to walk few times along local landscapes or perform how I met my companion, or guide, who showed me everything in the location. In Bryansk, for examples, I met Alexey who crafted and sold the tank drums. Tank drums are cool music instruments made of steel, with pretty sound. In Udmurtia it was Viktor Makarovich Vlasov, Master of Sports, who took me on a ride in a 1953’ Izh, and in one of the museums in Udmurtia I enjoyed a tour given by “Buranovskie Babushki” themselves. They also taught me to sing in Udmurt language.

Once we finished with one location, we moved to the next one. It took 3 days to shoot one episode. Sometimes our search for an interesting scene made us drive 600 kilometers a day — thanks God, my crew had their own minivan carrying all the equipment. And it was quite a lot of equipment, by the way. Each camera weights 5 kilos minimum, and you also need all those different types of microphones — a lavalier mic, a “dead cat” mic, or a “shotgun” mic, all kinds of wires and cables, spare batteries, clothes, water, food and props.

“We overcame the challenges of the first episode production, and today each episode comes quite easily — well, if a 12-hours shooting day can be considered easy, of course. But this is our job — the host’s and the team’s. Vova’s sense of humor helps us a lot: he can’t stop making fun of himself, and sometimes — of the members of the team. He nearly killed Zhenya, our DOP, with an ancient Russian sword, and in one of the episodes accidentally jumped on another DOP from a height, dressed in incredibly heavy chainmail. Both Vova and Maxim, the DOP, were shocked. And then Vova said: ‘Apologizes, Max, I didn’t see, it happens’. We nearly died laughing behind the camera”, Maria Tarasenko shared.

During the shooting I was at my very best in extreme scenes. For example, in Bryansk we climbed a steep river bank — it was very slippery because of the clay. I felt I was falling down, and the whole team grabbed me and tried to pull me out, as if I was their last hope. Brave guys, I had never seen my 100 kilograms being lifted up so easily and so fast.

Sometimes it was not that fun at all. On our way to Vologda we had a car accident with our minivan — it was night, and an elk leaped out into the road. No one was injured, but the car had to be evacuated to Moscow. The guys took a taxi, covered 500 kilometers that night, and in the morning started filming, having no sleep at all. I was impressed by their professionalism and endurance.

"Vova constantly inspires us as well, and we learn a lot from him. For instance, he taught me to cross the street with no fear. I recall now, how we walked in Vyatskoe in Yaroslavl Region, and I couldn’t dare to cross the road. I do have this kind of feeling of discomfort when I approach the road. And then Vova asked — why do I stay still, let’s go, the cars are far from here and they will stop anyway. Lifted the cane, grabbed my hand and walked me to the other side of the road. I was shocked a bit in the beginning, but I realized the cars did stop indeed. In a day I myself walked Vova across the road on a red light, without any hesitation. That was wrong, I know, and you shouldn’t behave like this, but that time we laughed together that he taught me to cross the streets “blindly”, Maria Tarasenko, the show script writer, shared.

The “Institute of Internet Development” supported the first season of the travel-show “Where eyes won’t lead you”. It will consist of 10 episodes — the ones from Voronezh, Irkutsk, Tula, Ufa are still to be produced, while those from Bryansk, Yaroslavl, Vologda, Kazan, Gelendzhik and Izhevsk are already available on Youtube-channel “Vova poehal”. Don’t forget to subscribe in order not to miss new episodes.

You can ask your questions to Vladimir Vaskevich in his blog called “Travels in the dark”.