With the availability of specialised crew, exotic locales and sophisticated kit, the UAE has become a hotspot for big-budget car commercials, writes Vijaya Cherian
Over the last two years, the number of car commercials shot in the UAE, has gone up substantially.
Besides the beautiful sand dunes and mountainous terrain that this country offers, the availability of skilled technical crew and sophisticated filming equipment locally has made the UAE increasingly appealing to TVC producers.
“In the last couple of years, it has been a lot easier to execute what the director wants mainly because of the type of equipment that is available to us in the region,” confirms cameraman and DoP, Anthony Smythe, who is also MD of the UAE’s largest equipment rental firm, Filmquip Media.
“Years ago, it used to be really difficult to get specific kinds of shots where cameras needed to be mounted on a car and driven through rough terrain. However, with the availability of several sophisticated equipment like the gyro-stabilised remote head, which is mounted on tracking vehicles and keeps the camera absolutely steady, production of car commercials has shot up in this region,” adds Smythe, who was involved in more than 25 car shoots last year.
Ian Ross, executive producer of Central Films, which has facilitated several car shoots in Dubai including recent ones for the Mohave and Toyota, seconds this.
“The local availability of equipment has been crucial to the growth of the car commercials business in the region. The gyro-stabilised head is a good example. Previously, we used to have to bring this in from Europe but now, there’s one here and it has been used on a lot of shoots that we facilitated. You can go on a dirt road at a 100km/h with a camera on a long lens and it looks like you’re standing still. It’s unbelievably sophisticated and is a military technology that was traditionally used to keep guns steady on armoured vehicles irrespective of the terrain in which they drove.”
Likewise, the availability of a Technocrane and the ability to make rigs locally has also helped grow the business.
“For one of our recent car shoots, we used a rig that could be mounted on any part of the car and no matter how fast it moved, the camera was locked in and completely steady. You always get a bit of the steel structure in the foreground of your shot but because it does not move in relation to the camera or the car, you can easily paint it out in post and put the road back in,” says Ross.
Filmquip agrees that developing these rigs used to be a big challenge in the past but now, it claims it is well placed to meet this thanks to the presence of skilled in-house technicians.
“It is the people who are mounting this equipment and working with it that is way more important. We have a very strong crew based here who can literally — with rubber bands and tooth picks — put car mounts together and place a camera anywhere in the car. That kind of expertise has increased greatly in recent years. As a result, we are able to custom-build rigs for each project. Some rigs are standard like door rigs but thereon, because each car is different, the place where we can attach the rigs is different, and because the cast, the storyboard and the directors also differ for each TVC, we have to custom design the rigs,” explains Smythe.
The availability of sophisticated equipment either in-house or through partnerships with international players also gives the production crew in the region more creative options.
For instance, a high-speed 35mm camera was brought in from Germany along with an operator to shoot some of the sequences for a Toyota TVC that was facilitated by Central Films.
“This TVC was very demanding because we were working around the Rubik’s cube concept, where different models of the Toyota were brought together. This obviously demanded very precise shooting,” explains Ross.
Generally speaking, car commercials place a lot of demand on the production crew, and the challenges are many. The good thing, however, according to Ross is that most car commercials have high budgets to execute the project to the satisfaction of the director. “They generally have very good budgets but the clients also, therefore, expect an incredibly high standard of work,” explains Ross.
“This is something that Dubai is now well placed to provide. Morocco and Tunisia were options in the past but increasingly, clients prefer the UAE even if it is a bit more expensive because of the quality of work,” he adds.
Plus, as Smythe points out, there are very dynamic locations for car commercials here in Dubai within close proximity of the city. “We have great sandy roads, rough terrains, mountain roads and rocky roads. This environment is ideal for car commercials.”
Traditionally, car shoots have been completed over a period of two or three days. “We always have to wait to take the beauty shots, which can only be shot before the sun hits the car or after the sun is set off the car,” explains Ross. “So you have a window of about 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening for which you need to be completely prepped and ready because once the sun hits the car, it is finished.
“What we often do, therefore, is rehearse in the dark before the sun rises. We use a programme called sunPath, which essentially tells us exactly where the sun will rise at any time of the day or year in relation to any road or sand. During the day, we do close-ups like spinning wheels, gear sticks, inside panel, steering and so on. In the afternoon, we rehearse for a couple of hours to make sure we are absolutely ready for those 30 minutes of light before it gets dark.”
Ross says this is one reason why areas around the Hatta mountains in the UAE are especially ideal for shooting cars.
“Near the Hatta mountains, where the sun goes behind the mountains, you get a bit more time to shoot,” explains Ross. One reason why the UAE is also perhaps becoming increasingly attractive is because the sand dunes and the mountains are not very far away from the urban centre.
“In places like Australia, you have beautiful landscapes but they are way out and this means enormous travel time for crew and what you pay for in filmmaking is primarily crew and travel time. On a four-day shoot, that can be quite expensive while here, your best sand dunes are 45 minutes from Dubai and the mountains are about an hour-and-a-half away. It’s a lot cheaper to fly in a foreign director, have a Dubai-based cameraman, the ad agency and the crew.”
As a production facilitator, Ross’ biggest challenge is that he has to continuously keep a tab on costs as clients often change their minds.
“If it costs more than you have quoted at the first instance, we have to dip into our own pocket.
Clients often change their minds so you need to keep sitting with them and reminding them what the change will cost them. I sit down with the producers and go through every penny of the budget and if there is something that has gone up or down, I let them know that,” he says.
As a cameraman, Smythe battles with a different set of challenges. For one, it’s always easier to work with two cameras than one, he says.
“On car commercials, I prefer to work with two or three cameras all the time so that while one is being rigged we can shoot with the other. However, we can’t always have two cameras because the more number of cameras you have, the more personnel and crew you need and this can slow you down sometimes.”
Ross puts this down to budget. “Car commercials have to be shot on film just like food and skin care products. They just don’t look good on video. But film cameras cost a fortune to lease. It costs one dollar 12 cents a second to run 35mm film at normal speed. If you wind it up to 30 times speed, at 600 frames a second, it costs nearly $30 a second. That is terrifying for any film producer, which is why most go with one film camera,” he explains.
Smythe also adds that two cars are always preferred on any car shoot. “The biggest challenge in this region is when the client only supplies with you with one car and that happens a lot. If they do supply you with two cars, the interiors are different and this becomes really problematic. If you are working with only one car and you damage that car, what do you do? This is probably the biggest drawback. You just have to work with what you’ve got. Also, if you need to take the back door of one car to put the rig on, ideally, you should be able to shoot with one car while the other is being rigged. On one shoot, we damaged the front of the car in the sand on helicopter day and we had to make do with it because we had only one car to work with.”
Ross agrees. On the Mohave, the crew had three cars to play with and two were damaged on the shoot, he confesses.
“The first one, we jumped off the sand dune too high and bent the chassis. The second one, we mounted the camera on the front and the driver was driving it too fast so he hit a rock. The car flew up, came down bonnet first into the sand. The camera was not broken but the car was. You always have to have spare cars. We don’t drive these cars on the road. On the Toyota shoot, we had 10 cars, five of which were on the recovery vehicle and they just sat there because luckily, we didn’t damage any.”
One car shoot that Smythe remembers fondly is the shoot for the Kia. “We had all of the toys for that shoot including helicopters, tracking cars, car mounts and gyro-stabilised heads plus we shot in the desert, the suburbia and the city. We had a rig that had to do a 360-degree turn with the camera.
Imagine the amount of pressure that may have been applied to this rig. It was a good shoot.”
Smythe adds that Filmquip’s deal with Arri Media to bring specialised equipment and skills to the region two years ago has helped the company do more TVCs on cars as well.
“We struck a deal with Arri Media two years ago, by which they provided their cameras, lenses and other equipment to us on a loan basis. What this partnership essentially did was give us access to a lot more newer and more specialised equipment that is not based in Dubai like the Russian arms. Additionally, the backup support is instantaneous and if you need more equipment, they send it to us. This has helped us bring specialised equipment to the market. We are also looking at bringing some other equipment into the market like the smaller technocrane and a helicopter ball mount. Most are used to the Tyler mount and what it can do. The ball mounts will be more expensive but give exceptional results. Slowly but steadily, this region will have all of the kit that is available internationally,” adds Smythe.
In the meantime, despite news releases that the automobile business has ground to a halt worldwide, Smythe and his team were out in the desert doing two shoots for Nissan.