Director Jacques Mulder and producer Leigh Ferreira are set to launch Muddville Films from Dubai Studio City.
How did you end up working in the Middle East?
JM: I got a call one day from a Saudi prince offering me a job and three days later, I was in Riyadh.
The first month there I was working on the visualisation of a palace which had been waiting for approval for years. We had a team of modellers and animators bringing this to life with animated helicopters flying in, cars passing and camels wandering past.
He loved the animation and he approved it on the spot. It's a powerful tool.
After Saudi I came to Dubai to work with Tim Smythe at Filmworks. I was there for six years as technical director and special effects supervisor.
The industry in Dubai had no infrastructure, no established set up, at this point. I thought it would be a fun challenge to take that on.
How has the animation industry developed since then?
JM: Back then, you had to be able to do everything.
You couldn't just be a character animator or a modeller. It was difficult because some of the staff in the industry at this time couldn't do everything that we wanted them to.
Budgets for TV commercials were tight so if you were on a US $4000 a day shoot, everything had to run smoothly or before you knew it, you would run over budget and lose money.
Over time though, the software has become better and it has made life easier.
What problems does the industry face today?
JM: From the beginning of my time in Dubai, one of the biggest challenges has been convincing the agencies to keep the work local. They would send the work out to Europe, which was frustrating because we had the skills, the people and the equipment right here in Dubai.
As time has gone by, this has improved and it's probably only two out of ten jobs that are leaving the country now. There are some really great concepts out here but there is just not enough of them. There is not always enough creativity here.
Why do you think that is?
Leigh Ferreira : Often this is because they aren't aware of what can be done technically. If people were more aware of what possibilities are available to them then they would have more options and so be more creative.
I think many people have been overworked as well. Staffs have had too many projects to do and there just isn't time to come up with creative, original concepts for every single one.
The sad thing about that is that many creative people who want to do something different or a bit special have missed opportunities to develop their ideas.
There is a very quick turnaround in the work.
JM: And that means even when someone does have a good concept, it isn't always being developed properly. The other thing is this country is very culture specific; your art has to appeal to their cultural sensitivity.
You can't simply bring a brand over from America and tweak it for the region. That doesn't work well.
What other trends do you see in the market today?
JM: Unfortunately, this is still a price driven market; the cheapest quote will get the job. This means people will stretch themselves to do the work cheaply. What was originally a good creative concept gets lost in cost cutting.
I think 90% of TVCs here look like they haven't been finished properly. Even if you don't have a trained eye, you can often see things that don't look right. Maybe the public can't see exactly what it is, but they still know that something is wrong.
It can again come down to cultural issues. Sometimes a Lebanese actor will be employed to play a Saudi Arabian national and he will be made up as such, but viewers can tell and they don't seem to like it.
If you show this to the six million people in Riyadh, they will say 'Wow, that was a great commercial' and it looked good but that man is not a Saudi national.
Small cultural misunderstandings and details can determine the success of an ad.
Are there a lot of foreign production houses coming over here that don't understand these things?
JM: Yes. The agencies need to start employing more local talent and they can have a hand in making sure these sorts of details are addressed.
If you are sitting in a boardroom trying to make a commercial to appeal to an Emirati audience or a Saudi audience and you don't have anyone from the UAE or KSA sitting at that table, then you will struggle.
I have a huge advantage because I speak the language and I can talk to them about the work and they talk to me.
Your new company, Muddville Films, is set to begin operating from Dubai Studio City, what plans do you have?
JM: We have had two screenplays approved by the National Media Council. Both portray Arab society in a more realistic light than some of the American films that are shot here.
It is essentially an $11m advert for the UAE; it will have famous American actors and 35 UAE actors. We have a top line producer, a great DoP and a great story; we just need some more funding to move it into the production stage.
LF: Because it is the first one on this scale to be 100% UAE made, people are reluctant to take a chance.
The industry is almost being built by construction companies at the moment, rather than by people who love films.
I am sure though that once the first film is produced, things will improve. What would one really successful story do for the country compared to simply having some infrastructure?
What have you managed to secure so far?
JM: We have been offered funding but it has always had some political ties attached to it which would be detrimental to the film.
Some big names have offered their services for free and we have been promised the use of a $390,000 motion control system without charge.
This will allow us to film some really innovative scenes. We want to do everything in the UAE; if we need to record an orchestra we will bring one over and record them here. We don't want anything done outside the UAE.
Adel Ibrahim from Studio City has been very helpful and supportive. He has a lot of the same goals as us in terms of producing films domestically in their entirety.
How do you encourage UAE talent to get involved?
LF: We have spoken to several film schools. Once the film is in production, there will be 25-30 students shadowing the crew.
Everyone we have talked to about being involved in the film has been told if you are not happy to have somebody shadow you then don't sign up for the project.
This is an opportunity for students to get experience on set. That is quite rare here. We are going to have three film festivals in the UAE next year but what we really need to see is some investment in the actual process of film making.
Jacques, you have been involved in computer animation and direction for a long time now. What was the industry's initial reaction to advanced software packages like Maya?
Jacques Mulder: I studied in the US, UK, France and South Africa. At that time, I was one of only eight people in the world with these animation qualifications.
Back then, some of the big animation studios like Digital Domain and I would be rounded up to have a look at the new software as it came out.
When we first saw Maya, version 1, we thought it was terrible news. We didn't want to learn a whole new system. For a while I refused to actually use it. I thought it was horrible.
How did that situation develop?
JM: Over time it became almost like an industry standard and it was harder for people to not use it. So we decided to switch over to Maya.
We found that the changeover wasn't actually too challenging although some of the controls seemed to be jumbled up at first. After just a few months, however, we had settled into it nicely.