Why producers choose to film in the United Arab Emirates
TLG talks to Lyall Gardiner, location manager and founder of FStop Location Services, about what makes the Middle East, and particularly the UAE, an increasingly attractive filming destination.
How did you become involved in the film business?
I’ve always been drawn to stories and cinema. I started working in the South African film industry in Cape Town in 2000 as a production assistant.
What did that entail?
My job was to meet everyone’s on-set needs. It allowed me to shadow the entire crew and to adapt to the unpredictable conditions and irregular hours synonymous with the industry. Also, I learned the professionalism and flexibility that has made me the hopefully humble craftsman I am today.
Tell us about your career journey to your role as location manager.
In 2001 I was fortunate to get a break on Ali which was shooting in Mozambique in Africa. Directed by Michael Mann, it was my first feature film and I never looked back. During the early years, I worked in Southern Africa mainly on feature films. Then, in 2006 I got the opportunity to travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to work on Peter Berg’s film The Kingdom which kick started my long-term love for the region.
So how long have you been in this role and what does it involve?
Collectively, I’ve been location managing and consulting in the UAE and Mena region for 12 years now. Location management is so varied but, ultimately, it’s all about helping to enhance on-screen believability by seeking out and managing locations that meet the director’s vision and help to tell the story. Having lived and worked in the UAE for some time, it became apparent that the region needed a responsible location management company and so I established FStop Location Services in 2015. Our primary role is to provide clear, concise and accurate information that allows the producer to make informed decisions and to help guide productions and producers through the intricacies associated with filming in foreign countries.
You said that location management is so varied. What does that mean?
Essentially, we’re ambassadors for producers and the studios. The first and obvious aspect is finding incredible locations to compliment the script, for the story, and to manage them. My role is a vast and complex highway of communication, negotiation and responsibility.
In the early stages of production, I work closely with the producer, the director, and more importantly the production designer to establish the first visual creative for the film: the first colourful canvas of the movie if you like.
Secondly, I represent the studio. Thirdly, I also represent myself as location manager and the location on which we want to shoot the film. So, it’s a collaborative role that requires orchestration between all three entities. This is what makes it exciting, equally challenging and varied.
In addition to requiring considerable communication between the entities of the film production, I also interact with various government departments, public entities and businesses within the immediate filming environment. It’s a huge level of responsibility that puts us as location managers at the forefront of the production from an operational and logistical perspective.
You spoke about representing the studio. What are the studio facilities like in the UAE?
Dubai Studio City is the largest studio complex in the Middle East and North Africa and home to the most advanced sound stages in the region. Specialised facilities are geared to meet the increasingly sophisticated needs of the high growth entertainment industry. The complex is impressive. It encompasses more than 65,000 square feet (6,038 square metres) of stage area and includes offices, boutique studios for TV production, sound stage configuration with workshops, warehouses and a back lot.
What are the standout features of the sound stages?
One of the sound stages is 15,000 square feet (1,395 square metres) with another 15,000 square feet of office space for make-up, dressing rooms and production support. The other two stages, each of which is 25,000 square feet (2,322 square metres) are co-joined by a 30 metre elephant door, which is an acoustical sliding sound door. So, the two together can be used as a 50,000 square foot (4,645 square metres) space. Each stage has a water tank for underwater shoots plus production office space of 25,000 square feet (2,322 square metres) each.
Any recent productions that were filmed at Dubai Studio City?
Star Trek Beyond (2016) made full use of the studio.
You also mentioned communication as part of your role. Can you give us a specific example of communicating with government or public entities relating to productions you’ve worked on?
On Mission Impossible VI: Fallout (2018) Tom Cruise undertook more than 100 jumps from two different types of aircraft, which required a grueling schedule of eight to 10 jumps a day over a six-week period. As location manager, I communicated with the base commanders, the UAE pilots of both a C17 – one of the biggest military aircraft in the world – a Twin Otter airplane to ensure we achieved the required jumps by the end of each day. All of this was to achieve a spectacular sunset halo jump, which is a high altitude jump with the parachute opening at an extremely low level that allows an operative to enter a country without being detected. There’s huge risk involved when jumping at 25,000 feet from plane travelling at 165 miles per hour in poor light. We could not have achieved the incredibly realistic stunts we did without the trust, cooperation and support of the UAE Armed Forces.
What other productions have you worked on in the UAE?
I’ve been lucky to work on the largest productions ever to take place in the UAE. In addition to Mission Impossible VI: Fallout and The Kingdom (2007), I’ve worked on Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol (2011) and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) to Star Trek Beyond among others.
All of these films prove that, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi mostly, the UAE has spectacular locale diversity, from modern urban landscapes with the tallest skyscraper in the world in Dubai for instance to ocean beaches, rugged mountains and miles of undulating desert. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have a proven track record with regard to large-scale international film productions.
What filming incentives are offered to attract foreign producers to come and shoot in the UAE?
The Abu Dhabi Film Commission provides access to a generous 30% cash-back rebate on productions for feature films, television dramas, television series and commercials. This together with the support of government has played a major role in the success of recent production within Abu Dhabi.
Are there other advantages to filming in the UAE?
The UAE has an advanced IT set up and exceptional internet connection, a predictably sunny climate, and a production-friendly set up with experienced local crews, world-class production and post-production facilities, green screen requirements, and the availability of specialised quality gear.
Recognising the need for film and related infrastructure growth, the government is also incredibly supportive with companies like TwoFour54 in Abu Dhabi supporting the development and growth of the film, television and media industry and Dubai being the leading production epicentre. It’s also accessible in terms of its geographic position with direct flights from Asia, Europe, the USA and Australia. In my opinion the UAE is the best filming destination in the Middle East with some of the most magnificent locations in the world.
What do you personally enjoy most about working in the UAE?
That’s a difficult one to answer because there’s so much to recommend working here although, the UAE Government and its various departments is at the top of my list. When a project is green lit to be shot in the UAE, the shared vision, excitement, collaboration, support and responsibility to ensure the project’s success is invigorating.
Can you give me location examples from productions you’ve worked on?
In Fast and Furious 7 (2015), Vin Diesel drives a Lykan Hyper Sport supercar - which incidentally is the first supercar to come from the Middle East - out of the 45th floor of one of the Etihad Towers through plate glass and into another Etihad Tower. The Kingdom is set in Saudi Arabia but it features Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace.
Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Desert was used extensively as the frontier desert world of Jakku in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The crashed Star Destroyer, the TIE Fighter chase scene, the marketplace and Rey’s AT-AT hideaway all used this location.
Dubai features as York Town, a Federation Star Base, which the crew of the Starship Enterprise encounters in an introductory sequence on their intergalactic mission in Star Trek Beyond. Also, there’s the famous scene where Tom Cruise himself, as Ethan Hunt, dangles from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol. I’m not sure if you’re aware but it took more than three weeks and hundreds of crew to execute the stunt safely.
Of the location assignment requests you’ve had to date, which was your most challenging and why?
There are so many ripple-effect things to consider when seeking out and securing a location. In particular, I recall that during the filming of Star Trek Beyond, we had an aerial VFX team that was responsible for capturing the photogrammetry of the city and the footage was used to create the York Town Star Base seen in the film.
One of the challenges was a two-week helicopter flying schedule throughout the city of Dubai for which we had to obtain special low flying waiver permissions to fly at that altitude. We also had to obtain permission from 48 building owners and managers to enable close proximity flying to the various high-rise towers. All of this in turn impacted the streets and public areas below the buildings and our locations crew had to create safe zones with the help of a specialised events security team from Dubai. During two of the filming days we also had to intermittently close access to Sheikh Zayed Road, a busy six-lane highway that runs in both directions through the middle of Dubai’s skyscraper canyon.
Dubai’s skyscraper canyon is architectural recognisable internationally, but what are the more unusual UAE locations our readers might not know about?
The one that comes to mind in particular is the exclusive Zaya Nurai Island Resort in Abu Dhabi. It’s one of my favourite filming locations. I got permission to use it as a location for two commercials. With only a handful of private residences and a boutique hotel, it’s relatively untouched and perfect for shoots. One of the most alluring characteristics is that it’s not besieged by tourists. In other words, in addition to being a unique location for film makers, it offers privacy for high-profile business or leisure travellers.
Which are the most film-friendly hotels for crews in the UAE and why?
The UAE really goes out of its way to make location shoots hassle-free and comfortable. Dubai is a mega city that’s seriously outfitted to cater for film productions. That said, in my opinion, Jumeriah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi is one of my top choices for producers wanting to experience the best the city has to offer and the exceptional hotel management easily grasp and respond to production crew and cast needs. In addition to serving as a film location in Fast and Furious 7, it was used as a crew hotel for various films including Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Also worth mentioning – the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, Zaya Nurai Island Resort, Emirates Palace and Yas Viceroy, all of which are in Abu Dhabi.
What can cast and crew do to unwind in the UAE?
In spite of hectic schedules, filming is not just about the production itself. People don’t just want to make movies, they want to live in a film-friendly, fun, comfortable, accessible, and progressive environment. The UAE really is a filmmakers playground that offers incredible lifestyle and nightlife opportunities with hotels and facilities geared for film crews.
As a luxury destination there are excellent restaurants for uncomplicated and fussy palates, big brand shopping in upmarket stores or haggling with traders at souk markets, desert safaris by jeep or camel, hot air ballooning, sandboarding, spas, waterparks, theme parks like Ferrari World and Warner Brothers, exceptional golf courses, karting at the Yas Marina Circuit, beaches, jet skiing and cocktail bars.
How do you chill out after a big production?
I like to head to Austria’s cold winter rain and mist where I can retreat to the glacial rivers and mountains and immerse myself in long unscheduled forest wilderness walks with a couple of rolls of Kodak Tri-X Black and White film. Quiet Time.
Is this were you took your last vacation?
No. I went to Trieste in Italy.
Share with us a recent movie you saw and loved, and why?
I’d have to say Mission Impossible VI: Fallout. Yes, it might sound a bit self-serving but honestly Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt has outdone himself, along with the support and creative vision of the director, producers and production team. This film really has set a new standard for the franchise. The fact that I worked on the film in no way detracted from the thrill of seeing the film on the big screen for the first time. Definitely, MI6!
Where do you see the film industry in the UAE in five years from now?
Not just in the UAE but in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as well. I hope to see the transformation of Indie Arab cinema from a festival led to a box office industry. I’d like to see more young filmmakers join the ranks to make quality movies for local audiences and then the rest of the world. With more and more international filmmakers coming to the UAE it creates more opportunities for local talent to interact with some of the world’s best producers and crew. I’d also like to see more private equity firms and individuals supporting local filmmakers by stepping in to help finance movies. Ultimately, I’d like to be sitting in theatres in Saudi Arabia and the UAE where more than 50% of the trailers are for films produced in the Arab world.
What about television?
Right now, the television industry in the MENA region is going through an exciting transformative stage that I hope will reverse the decline in the quality of locally produced television that’s been prevalent in more recent years. Increasingly broadcasters are stepping outside of their old and tired comfort zone and making the effort to improve their viewing product. But there is still an excess of imported or franchised material.
Television in the MENA region, as in the rest of the world, will remain important as no other model connects eyeballs with brand advertising dollars as television does. But of course, the future is on-the-go television – watching your favourite show on your iPhone. That’s the future of television consumption.
What are new filmmakers and writers excited about?
My feeling is that television here will likely go a similar route to that of the US where A-list actors who wouldn’t touch television productions are increasingly taking lucrative parts in television series. I believe talented emerging Indie filmmakers will get contracted to develop original, better quality and much needed television series and dramas.
It varies. Arabic television series are not yet of an international standard. But keep in mind the US for instance, was in the same place decades ago and look how far they’ve come.
Can you tell us about some of the major media events in the region?
MyContent, DICM (Dubai International Content Market) is the leading international trade exhibition for all types of media executives in the MENA region. Attendees get to meet with the key decision makers from the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa. Basically, it’s a marketplace for networking, showcasing, producing, co-producing, selling, buying, financing and distributing entertainment content across all platforms. It provides professionals involved in the film, television, creative art, interactive entertainment, comics, apps and digital media content industry an ideal platform to conduct business.
The MEFCC (Middle East Film and Comic-Con) is the MENA region’s largest pop-culture festival. It brings together comic lovers, movie fans, artists and creators in a fun-frenzied mix of celebrity guests, entertainment, dress-up, shopping and workshops essentially to showcase international popular culture film and television sci-fi, animation, manga, comics and collectables in one space.
There are numerous others relating to travel and creative advertising for example.
Is there a particular tip you can share with our readers about filming in the Middle East?
The biggest thing is to start pre-production as early as possible. Also, keep in mind that the UAE is super film-friendly and they want to help filmmakers. They want to assist with permits and other important requirements before, during and after the production process. There are multiple resources when it comes to studios and professional assistance. However, its key to keep in mind that every country and city has its own unique way of working and the UAE is no different. It’s important to be respectful, patient and to be willing work hard to establish trust and a reputation for reliability.
Tell us about upcoming projects. What can we expect?
Just as the industry is evolving so too is FStop’s role in the UAE. We’ve recruited some eager, smart and capable individuals to join the FStop team. Two of these are exceedingly talented location managers. We’re also looking to the international community to collaborate with us on certain local projects to bolster homegrown cinema.
We are currently developing the locations structure for three feature films and are excited to be working closely with Rami Yasin, a local feature film producer. One of the feature films is an Indian/Bedouin film with a compelling female hero journey by an emerging Indian director. The second is a crime drama with a gifted writer and talented female director. Both are solid commercial art house projects with the right ingredients to appeal to a regional audience and be successful on the international festival circuit. The third is a French feature film that will be shot in Dubai.
Thank you Lyall. It’s been great talking to you and finding out what makes the Middle East and particularly the UAE an increasingly attractive filming destination.
Click here to contact Lyall.
Images courtesy of FStop Location Services, © 2018 Paramount Pictures.
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