Eggdancer Productions is not your typical production house in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps its most notable difference is that it is run by two women — producer Danya Alhamrani and director Dania Nassief — who don’t just own the company but are an integral part of the team that cover the action.
Recently, the production house secured the opportunity to create a programme titled Akla wa Hikaya that went on air on Saudi TV Channel 1 during Ramadan.
The 30-part travel, food, and culture series explored the diverse world of Saudi’s most traditional cuisine.
“From Taif’s fragrant rose water to Riyadh’s famous Marqooq, the elements of food and location blend together to reveal the various themes of history, tradition and pride in Saudi’s heritage as we visit each part of the Kingdom. Over the course of 30 episodes, this television series explores a unique, cultural look at Saudi Arabia, with food at the forefront,” explains Alhamrani, who goes by the title of chief creative officer at Eggdancer Productions.
The series was shot on the Sony HVR-Z1U HDV camera with a small crew across different parts of the Kingdom.
“We travelled to a new location every day. We would arrive in the city, meet with the local fixer, and start shooting. More often than not, we would be shooting 18-hour days,” explains Nassief, COO and producer at the company.
“Because of the tight schedule, we were shooting and editing at the same time. As we couldn’t fly directly from some cities to the others, we would stop over at Jeddah. This gave us enough time to deliver our tapes to the editors and download footage from our hard drives. The rough cut would then be sent with time-code to be viewed remotely,” she adds.
Filming food is no easy task, confesses the duo. Although food is traditionally shot on 35mm to make it appealing with excessive lighting and styling, Eggdancer opted for a documentary approach to shooting this project.
“Traditional food photography demands extensive styling, lighting and preparation. So much work goes into preparing food for commercials and they are usually shot in a studio with a production designer, food stylist, and a full lighting crew,” says Alhamrani.
“However, we usually work with existing light and rarely manipulate the location we are shooting in. It’s surprising how frequently you’ll find light coming in from the windows of an industrial kitchen lending a romantic air to the place. We just work with what’s available to give the food an enticing look.
“Many times our subjects are inside restaurants with windows or under awnings outdoors. We expose our subject and often have to deal with blow out in the background. But I actually like it when the picture is somewhat over exposed. Stylistically, it’s what my eye gravitates to,” she adds.
The duo worked with director of photography (DoP) Camilo Moreno on this project.
“He tends to work with us on most of our projects and has become somewhat of a permanent figure at Eggdancer,” explains Nassief.
“We work with freelancers on most of our projects and tend to work with the same people most of the time. When we find people we enjoy working with, we stick with them,” she adds.
For this project, the team used two cameras and employed a very small crew.
“There were usually no more than four of us traveling at a time. We had the producer, the director, the DP and the production manager. A local fixer would also accompany us to each location. More often than not the driver would also double up as a PA,” Nassief adds.
One of the biggest challenges of this project was perhaps the tight time schedules, explains the duo.
“There was often very little time for preparation between the time we arrived on location and had to get the cameras rolling. We had so little time to shoot each episode. As soon as we arrived at any given location, we would have to do a quick scout, make decisions about the light and the angles and start shooting,” explains Alhamrani.
“More often than not, we were shooting in restaurants that were preparing for their lunch run, so if we missed the fish being thrown into the pot to be fried, that was it. There was no retake. We always had to be on the ball, because we had only one chance to get it right and if we missed it, there would be no time to come back and re-shoot on another day.”
The duo reiterates that in keeping with the documentary style, authenticity was key.
“We wanted the food to be as authentic as possible so we went around looking for the best known restaurants, caterers and even homes, where they cooked food that was most representative of the region we were filming in. Sometimes we got lucky and were able to shoot in outdoor locations, on mountaintops or in the desert,” says Alhamrani.
“We also base our cinematography on what’s available. Usually filmmakers try to create light from scratch, but since we were shooting a documentary style TV show, we just had to work with what was out there.
There’s so much beauty in the world as it is. A string of naked bulbs hanging from somebody’s store in a night market or a fluorescent light above a dark alley can be so beautiful,” she adds.
One other challenge was also dealing with the disappointment of coming to a place to shoot something and not being able to get what they wanted.
“Some people assumed we would be filming a typical cooking show. We would always call them and say ‘we will show up before you start’, which was very often before 8 am and sometimes before 4 am depending on what was being cooked and when it was served. We would ask them to do nothing until we got there, not even chop an onion. We wanted the hustle and bustle of the kitchen in the background. But sometimes they thought they were being helpful and would prepare everything for us before we got there and all we would be able to film was them throwing all the ingredients into the pot and it was over. That was very disappointing,” explains Al hamrani.
Besides these, the heat was as much a challenge for the equipment as it was for the crew, explains Nassief.
“We would be shooting outdoors in 55 degrees at noon and would think that was as bad as it could get,” she says.
Alhamrani seconds that.
“We would then go into the kitchen where there were high flames all around, and no fans, and the temperature would jump to 60 degrees. We thought we would faint while the person in the kitchen wouldn’t even break a sweat! The cameras would be so hot that if your arm brushed against the side of the camera it would burn your skin. We were always worried that the heat would cause the cameras to malfunction. The cameras were abused because of the nature of the shooting environment but the Z1U is a workhorse and was able to handle whatever situation it was in,” she says.
For the two women, working with freelancers and traveling around the Kingdom was the least of their troubles. They even deny that the restrictive nature of the Kingdom has ever been a cog in their wheel.
“This is still a young country when it comes to film, and there are so many interesting stories to be told. We are just scratching the surface,” Nassief states.
Working in this field in the Kingdom, however, is not without its challenges.
For one, Alhamrani laments the lack of “working professionals in this field”.
“These days everyone is a filmmaker, which is great. However, it’s difficult to find someone you can rely on to get the job done right. This is why we work with people from abroad to come in and help us train the locals who want to work in this industry,” she explains.
The two women have reason to be proud of their work. It has been four years since they launched Eggdancer Productions and over time, they’ve done several different projects profitably despite the fact that they have not ventured into television commercials.
“To the best of our knowledge, we are the first production company in Saudi Arabia, owned and run exclusively by women. So far, we have produced only TV shows and documentaries. We haven’t ventured into TVCs and have no intention to pursue it at the moment,” explains Alhamrani.
In a country that has often been accused of relegating its womenfolk to the background, Eggdancer Productions is a clear testimony to the silent revolution that is at work in the Kingdom.
Danya Alhamrani, who has a masters degree in TV and Film Production from San Diego State University, has been directing films, TV shows and documentaries for the past seven years. She has worked on a range of projects including PBS’ Emmy-award winning television series The Short List and the IMAX film Journey to Mecca.
Independent producer Dania Nassief comes from an IT background. She has worked on several productions from cooking and culture to social affairs, including Khushu Almatbakh and Jeddah: The Old City.