LBB’s Laura Swinton heads to Bulgaria for an eye-opening tour of Nu Boyana Studios
It’s a drizzly afternoon on the outskirts of Sofia. I’m nosing about the operating theatre in a Bulgarian hospital, inspecting some pretty serious-looking brain scans up on a lightbox. Already today I’ve visited an amphitheatre in Rome, an ancient temple in Greece, a subway stop in Manhattan, a market square somewhere in the Middle East, a white picket fence street in Middle America, and the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London – all without adding a single point to my Air Miles account or, indeed, bending the laws of time and space.
No, I’m enjoying a whistlestop tour of Bulgarian studio complex – and film nerd heaven – Nu Boyana. Accompanied by a visiting TV producer and a couple scouting out their debut action flick alongside Paul Carter, who heads up Nu Boyana’s UK operations (NBUK) and Alex Kenanov, who runs the studio’s in-house production company B2Y Productions, I’m currently poking about the set of a long-running Bulgarian medical drama. The 'hospital' used to be the studio's film processing unit back in the 60s.
We’ve been invited to scope out everything that Nu Boyana and its sister companies have to offer producers. I won’t lie, I also had a strong suspicion that it would provide excellent material for the ol’ Instagram.
The studio complex itself is a brain-bending blend of cutting-edge facilities and filmmaking history. Construction on what was then known as 'Boyana' began in 1951 and the studio was completed in 1963. It was a state-owned enterprise, cranking out ideological propaganda films for Soviet audiences. These days the studio is more likely to host American explosion-fests, like Expendables 2 or The Hitman’s Bodyguard, but the austere Communist history has been worn into the original buildings on the lot.
The intrepid tourists find an old logo from the studio's past
To set the scene, in the morning before our motley crew set out from Gatwick on the 6.25am flight, NBUK’s Paul pulls out a yellowed piece of paper covered in faded type. It’s a list of do’s and don’ts for BBC film crews shooting in the Soviet Union – basically, don’t accept any drinks and certainly don’t cavort with and potential soviet agents. Paul reflects that on his first trip beyond the Iron Curtain when he worked for the BBC in the ‘70s his team probably managed to break every single one of those rules. Sounds like they had a good time though. In any case, it’s a historical artefact – in 2018 Bulgaria is a popular ski destination, Sofia has been a European capital of culture and the city has some pretty bling-y hotels.
Around Nu Boyana, though, that history thankfully hasn’t been totally erased. The main building, pastel yellow and rather grand on the outside, while the interior is full of design details that will make fans of mid-century Modern salivate. Corridors that feel straight out of a John le Carre spy thriller, peppered with details like austere rectangular clocks. The studio’s Dolby Atmos-enabled sound mixing suite sits in a grand, oak-lined screening room – it doesn’t take much to imagine cadres of officials taking notes and nodding approval of the latest piece of Socialist Realism.
It would be rude not to try everything on... right?
But where the history really comes to life is in the vast costume department. Legend has it they have enough costumes to clothe every single person in Bulgaria. That’s 7,036,848 people at the latest count. Others at the studio suspect that the number of individual outfits may run to double that – the team has been methodically cataloguing them over the years and although millions have been carefully categorised and assigned a barcode, there’s still an awful lot to get through. The collection dates back to the old days of the studio and has been added to over the years – in fact it’s still being added to. From traditional Bulgarian peasant garb and pagan furs to opulent Roman robes, Samurai armour and swinging ‘60s go-go dresses, you can find pretty much anything. There’s a whole room dedicated to Centurion helmets. And another, eerily, packed with real Nazi and Soviet uniforms.
So. Many. Helmets.
Back to the Future
While it’s easy to get lost in the daydream of Nu Boyana’s history and its rich treasure trove of props and frocks, it’s unfair to overlook the fact that it’s a pretty cutting-edge operation too.
Back in the mid ‘90s, the state-owned studios hit financial difficulties and by 2007 it was privatised and bought by Hollywood prod cos Nu-Image and Millennium Films. It proved to be a savvy move as it’s allowed the companies to produce their own movies in a pretty cost-effective way. Several of The Expendables movies, London Has Fallen, the Hitman’s Bodyguard and more have all been shot here as well as the upcoming Hellboy reboot.
B2Y Productions was set up in 2015 to help the visiting productions. “The company was set up in October 2015, but our tradition for servicing and producing movies dates for more than half a century,” says Alex. “The goal is to cut out all the middle men and to provide higher production value to the clients for the same numbers.”
Water, water everywhere...
In terms of the futuristic side of things, the team is immensely proud of their brand new water tank – 6m deep and with a capacity of 2400 m3 of water this ain’t your local swimming pool. There’s a cutting-edge UV filtration system and a surface skimming, which means they don’t need to use chlorine, and a huge crane capable of shifting props that weight up to ten tonnes. The tank’s empty when we see it; Alex tells us that it will take five days to fill it.
They’ve got a motion capture stage, located in the old orchestral recording studio – another gloriously modernist oak-lined hall. We peek our heads round the corner, but there’s strictly no camera phones allowed. The team are working with actors to record the action and body movements for a hoard of terrifying beasties for an upcoming blockbuster.
Down in the bowels of the main building, we head to the art department, where the team is working on the production design of Hellboy – to the strains of some suitably hardcore heavy metal. The art department have recently started to use VR to help directors build storyboards and plan shots – they recreate sets in CG so that filmmakers can plan their shoots more efficiently.
And the team are also looking to the future. Boyana has a Film School and a Stunt School, to help make sure that future generations a Bulgarian film talent and crew are as full of talent and craft as they are now.
OK, it’s easy to nerd out about the techy toys, but what about the facilities? There are 13 sound studios – we make our way to the biggest of the lot. As we step inside the cavernous, blue-screened studio, we are more or less instantly blinded by thousands of LED lights. A Bollywood crew are setting up for what looks to be a fairly epic Indian fantasy flick.
Nu Boyana have access to talented set designers and builders who create both temporary sets in the studios as well as the standing sets outside – the aforementioned Ancient Rome, New York street and so on. They’re open to building new sets if the budget works out. When the City of London refused permission to film exterior shots of St Paul’s for London Has Fallen, the team simply built their own version of the famous steps and colonnade, as well as the statue of Queen Anne that stands outside it. The rest of the street and mammoth cathedral was simply (I mean, probably not that simply, right?) recreated in CG by Nu Boyana’s sister company Worldwide VFX.
The team are also pretty thrifty and nifty when it comes to redressing their sets. Their various Ancient Roman amphitheatres, temple squares and slave markets have popped up in the likes of Conan the Barbarian, The Legend of Hercules and… ITV2 comedy Plebs.
In terms of equipment, the studio tends to buy new cameras, lenses and lights in. For both visiting productions as well as Millennium and Nu-Image flicks, they reckon it makes things work out much cheaper.
Oh yeah and there's the small matter of an epic car collection that covers everything from vintage New York taxis to 70s Bulgarian police cars to London busses and bullet-riddled Land Rovers.
From Communism to Commercial Production
High-octane action flicks may be Nu Boyana’s bread and butter, but they also work with all sorts of other productions, including commercials and music videos. Currently it’s proving particularly popular with the German advertising market, attracting shoots for Lidl and Mercedes Benz. But it’s growing with UK productions too – MPC recently shot a Cushelle ad there.
Curiously enough, commercial productions can benefit from the Nu Boyana/B2Y Productions/ Millennium Films set up. Because the brands all fall under the same umbrella, it makes negotiating quick access a bit easier. It also means that visiting productions are also able to use props or costumes or CG models developed for previous films. For example, the Hitman’s Bodyguard has an extensive sequence in Amsterdam – and the team were able to help a Heineken production looking to use that Amsterdam set.
Beyond Nu Boyana
With all of the sets and tech and facilities in the complex, you might not want to leave Nu Boyana, but the team also service production in Sofia and at locations across the country. The day after our tour of the studio, we head into the centre of Sofia. Paul points out the fancy big buildings that appeared in The Hitman’s Bodyguard and we soak in the blend of architecture. Sofia, it seems, is a city that loves archaeology – exposed Roman and Thracian ruins run alongside busy pavements and sit, protected in underpasses.
We’re all feeling a little delicate. The night before, the Nu Boyana team has taken us out for a night of hearty Bulgarian food… and even heartier Bulgarian drink. Joined by a couple of South African filmmakers and an American writer, we headed out to a quaint and homely yet totally eccentric restaurant known as ‘the Monastery’. I can’t slight the local hospitality, though this morning, my poor head wishes I hadn’t taken advantage of it quite so enthusiastically.
Outside of Sofia, the country has all sorts of landscapes. Lakes, coastal beaches, mountains, fields and forest. We’re freezing in February, but summers are gloriously hot, assures Paul, while spring and autumn are warm.
We rush to the airport to catch the 11.25am flight back to boring old London, but I’m pretty sure every one of our part will be back soon. There’s so much more to explore.