Award Winning Actor Missy Malek’s Midas Touch

British actor Missy Malek is a remarkably self-possessed artist, one who takes her craft so seriously that even as a teenager she aggressively pursued a life in acting. Becoming a member of the renowned National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Malek’s dedication and natural skill allowed her to reach an elevated level of creative theatrical expression starting when she was just 14. Adept at manifesting vivid, wholly identifiable characterizations, the multi-faceted Malek is so driven that after completing the script for her award–winning 2017 short Laughing Branches, she felt compelled to personally oversee almost every aspect of the production.

“I didn’t actually intend to write, direct and produce it, but that’s exactly what I ended up doing,” Malek said. “I had a clear image in my head of what I wanted it to be like and didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t go ahead and direct it myself.”

The offbeat project, starring Tom Hanson, Leo Suter and Malek, is an engaging, philosophical comedy-drama with a fantasy/sci-fi twist, and relates the stories of two struggling actors who contemplate—and live out—alternative futures both together and apart.

“It was obviously really challenging—I had no directing experience whatsoever,” Malek said. “But my cinematographer, David Raedeker, and my co-producer, Oliver Page, really guided me. Tom is also a really amazing actor, so he made the acting side of directing much easier. It was a very collaborative process.”

Malek’s sure-footed ambition and audacity gave Laughing Branches a unique depth, one rooted in a very personal experience.

“I came up with the idea at a time in my life where everything seemed to become a lot more ‘real,’” Malek said. “I was barely out of my teenage years and I, along with all my friends, suddenly realized that the choices we were making were very important and would have an impact on the rest of our lives. As a result, I found myself panicking, questioning every choice I was making and tried to control my future as much as I could by not allowing myself room to make mistakes.”

By the time she completed the script, written at Oxford University where she was studying philosophy, the unusual concept had grown into a thoroughly engrossing premise.

“’Laughing Branches’ is primarily about the anxiety of being young and ambitious, incorporated with a philosophical theory about infinite universes that have always fascinated me,” Malek said. “I’ve always been attracted to mind-game films that have an element of groundlessness and irresolution, yet still maintain a sense of heart and lightness.”

That twist of cosmic fantasy enabled Malek, who divides her time between hometown London and Hollywood, to really challenge herself as an actor.

“Out of all my film work, my character in Laughing Branches probably had the most range,” she said. “The element of parallel universes in the film means she goes through so many vastly different outcomes and we get peaks into the most dramatic and intense moments in those universes, so there was quite a lot to do.”

Malek’s training and experience provided an ideal context for such far reaching perspective, particularly her rich resume of live theater— at the Chelsea Theatre, she played Beatrice in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ followed by  Brecht’s ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle,and, at the Burton Taylor Studio, in ‘The Lesson’ and as lead character Myra in ‘Deathtrap,’ along with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at The Simpkins Lee Theatre—affording her the skill to craft a persuasive series of tangible personae imbued with the full spectrum of nuance, traits and emotion as her character caroms through disparate scenarios.

“I wanted to convey the message that if you’re an ungrateful person, you’ll always look at what you don’t have and nothing will ever be enough,” Malek said. “If you’re miserable in one universe, there’s a high chance you’ll be miserable in any universe. On top of that, I wanted to show how as much as we may try to control our future and make the right choices, it really isn’t possible to do that. There’s nothing you can say and no way of intellectualizing things that will make you happy. Happiness is a perspective.”

Reaction to the film brought everyone involved a great deal of happiness—it took multiple awards at festivals around the globe, taking the Best Short awards at the Mexico International Film Festival, Lady Filmmakers Film Festival and Key West Film Festival’ best short awards and the IndieFEST Film Awards Award of Excellence for Malek’s performance as leading actress.

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“The IndieFest award I got for my acting was a huge honor,” Malek said. “Because, at times you really don’t like my character, she can be really vindictive and has a lot of anger and conflict in her. But despite that, at other times you do empathize with her.

Personally, the most rewarding experience of making the film was the confidence it gave me. To receive such a positive response from people high up in the industry meant so much. It’s a big step forward in an artist’s career to get that reassurance, to have people say ‘you’re good, keep going.’ That was the most rewarding thing.”

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Putting the band First: Zhenya Prokopenko, One of Russia’s Most Celebrated Rock Drummers

Drummer Zhenya Prokopenko
Zhenya shot by Hakueizm Photography


Nestled at the very back of a darkened stage, a band’s drummer is probably the most overlooked and least romanticized member in the band, and yet it remains that they are the most integral part of the entire act. Responsible for keeping the beat, a drummer must act as the metronome for the whole band while also generating magnetic charisma and displaying an original and refined technique to excite the audience. World renowned drummer Zhenya Prokopenko does just this – and he makes it all look easy.

Originally from Russia, Zhenya grew up with a deep love for music. As his studies in music became more refined, so did his love for the drums.

He explains, “The first thing you hear when you listen to any modern track is a drum beat. You just can’t miss it. It’s powerful, loud and beautiful to me.”

A student of Belgorod State College of Culture and Arts, Zhenya has studied privately under acclaimed sound producers, but attributes still some of his success to the simple element of rehearsal. “No one can practice instead of you,” Zhenya says. “The most effective training for your growth is daily practice.”

Zhenya Prokopenko
Zhenya playing with his band Drumcast shot by Anna Ulianova

When most people think of Zhenya, they first think of his widespread success in Russia, particularly with his pop-punk band Velvet, which quickly became a household name in 2008 with their unforgettable hit songs ‘Follow You’ and ‘Beat the Drums!’. Velvet gained attention on the airwaves and by the summer of 2009 the band was in frequent rotation on every major radio station. Radioplay soon turned into televised concerts, and the bands popularity grew astronomically.

In fact, since its inception, Velvet has released three chart-topping studio albums, four unforgettable singles, a live concert album, and eight cinematic music videos. Two-time winners of the Golden Gramophone Award, Velvet was also awarded multiple times at the Song of the Year festival, and named as Best Pop Rock Band in Russia at FUZZ Awards in 2008 and again at the RU.TV Awards five years later.

While the success of the band can be deservingly attributed to each member, it is important to look at Zhenya, the backbone of the group, as a critical part of the equation. Not only a session member of the band, he is also is the band’s studio musician and the co-author of the rhythm section of the music. Zhenya brings a fire and energy so radiant that even the most aloof person in the crowd can be caught tapping their foot.  

“The drummer should be the anchor of the band, the reliable reference for others, the most experienced member of the band,” Zhenya maintains. “The rest of the musicians have to depend on you for every aspect of the song– tempo, volume, expression, structure, energy. So, a good drummer is a team drummer who knows that. You need to be professional and willing to work hard. You need to leave your ego and selfishness aside, and put the music first.”

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In Ukraine Zhenya also served as the drummer for singer and actress Valeria Kozlova’s solo project, Lera Lera. Kozlova put herself on the map drumming for the rock band Ranetki, which gained such popularity it became a TV series of the same name. Soon, she and her bandmates became idols to young girls across Russia, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics. In 2008, Kozlova received the People’s Prize of Ukraine, the Telesvezda, in the nomination Opening of the Year. She then went to form her own solo project, where she recruited the talents of Zhenya. With Zhenya on drums, they released their 2010 debut album “Give me a Sign”, which gained such notoriety that it was acknowledged as one of the best albums of the year and took 6th place at the Russian Top Awards and Kozlova was named Singer of the Year by the music TV channel RU.TV. As drummer and rhythm co-writer, Zhenya helped carry the band to remarkable success with his impeccable timing, brilliant technique, and impressive stamina.

Both Velvet and Lera Lera were undoubtedly lucky to have Zhenya backing them on the drums. His signature feel for the music combined with his identifiable groove sets drummer Zhenya aside from the rest. A truly diverse and technically studied professional, Zhenya could surely sit behind any drum set with almost any band of any style and create a memorable, natural and flawless beat.

While Zhenya is an incredibly intelligent and talented musician, his humble heart is quick to remind us that no one can be measured by his or her own talents alone. He offers the kind reminder, “You are not a person, you are part of something bigger, part of the team.”

China’s Jie Meng creates award-winning visual effects for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

Jie Meng is consistently fascinated by his craft. The power of visual effects, to use different algorithms and physics theories to recreate something natural, or even create something that does not exist in the real world, is enchanting to the Chinese native. With a creative imagination and a deep understanding of computer science, an FX artist can create anything, turning fantasy into reality.

“With different algorithms and techniques, FX artists can do a lot of research and develop all different kinds of effects. As an FX artist, I also enjoy coming up with my own algorithms and methods to create new effects elements when I am at home. I feel I can create anything in my mind into the CG world, which is super fun to me,” said Meng.

Meng is an internationally sought-after visual effects artist, having contributed to blockbuster films, iconic video games, and prolific commercials. Earlier this year, audiences were enchanted with his work on the record-breaking film Avengers: Infinity War and the successful TV movie Freaky Friday, just as they were previously with Captain America: Civil War and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. He is also recognized around the world for his work on video games, including Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Quake Champions.

Despite such success, Meng calls the highlight of his career his work on Marvel’s hit Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He worked on countless shots and different kinds of effects elements in several sequences, designed and final locked over a hundred shots in only a couple of months, and finally, saw recognition for his work from the Academy with an Oscar nomination. The moment he saw his name in the movie credits, he knew that all those late nights have paid off.

“This is a milestone film project for me. It was my first time designing a procedurally generated CG environment in the film production, and it was my first time working so closely with other CG departments. I was inspired by all different artists around me, from their hard work and how they think and solve problems. There were a lot of late nights in this film project, but I was fully charged every morning, and just could not wait one second to keep working with my VFX crew members,” said Meng.

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Meng’s vast contributions to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 helped bring the film to critical acclaim around the world. Not only did it take in over $860 million at the worldwide box office, but it was recognized at prestigious award ceremonies around the world. The highpoint for Meng was when the film was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards.

“When the news of the Oscar nomination had spread out, all the team members that worked on this film cheered into tears. We were so proud of ourselves that we achieved a VFX masterpiece. This film motivates and encourages me to keep on going as a VFX artist and also a filmmaker in the future,” said Meng.

Meng worked on many effects shots in several different sequences in the film. His main focus was the “normal” and “angry” Ego planet sequences. Those two sequences have a huge volume of the shots, which required the artists to design and finish the effects elements in a very short amount of time. Meng was not only building effects elements, but also helping in procedural modeling, shading/look-dev, lighting, procedural layout, and digital assets sharing aspects.

He designed and finished every shot containing Ego’s environment, all thruster effects elements for Quadrant Ship and jetpack in the “angry” Ego planet sequence. This included designing and finishing every shot containing aurora effects elements in the “normal” Ego planet sequence, such as the dust and leaves blowing in the Ego ship landing sequence. He also created taser gun lightning effects in a hero shot when Rocket Racoon shoots Gamora and did some early Rocket Racoon fur tests in the Guardians squat night talk scene.

Overall, Meng contributed over 20 different kinds of effects elements and CG contents in a total of four different sequences for the film. He designed and finished over 100 shots and related to 200 shots. The technical solutions that he came up with saved a great amount of time and made sure the entire team finished every shot before the deadline. His visual effects undoubtedly brought a stronger visual impact to the film and made the film a masterpiece of sci-fi fantasy artwork.

“I had the pleasure of working with Jie on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He is absolutely exceptional at what he does and is always striving to better himself and his craft. He is hard working, detail oriented, reliable and goes above and beyond when helping out others. He is always open to collaboration and feedback. I highly think that his skill and expertise would be a great fit for any project he works on. I look forward to working with him again on future projects,” said Dennys Herman, Lighting and Look Development Artist at MPC.

Meng had always been a big Marvel fan, and above all else, creating such a timeless film meant more to him than anything. He was determined to achieve greatness with every effect he created as he knew Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was more than just a visual spectacle.

“I like the story of this film, as the core it is about family. The plot twists when Starlord (Peter) met his father Ego, and finally found out his father is an evil creature who killed his mother. The family theme is also relevant when Gamora and Nebula fight against Ego together, and Yondu sacrifices himself to save Peter. It’s a comedy sci-fi fantasy movie, but this core is very deep. The film is not some regular comedy where people laughed and forgot about it, but something that will be remembered,” he concluded.