A lending hand

The region's rental companies discuss the technological trends impacting the production scene.
Analysis, Broadcast Business
Analysis, Broadcast Business
Analysis, Broadcast Business

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With the film versus digital argument raging amidst the added complications of HD and the reported quality of the RED ONE camera, John Parnell spoke to some of the region's rental companies to find out what technological trends, if any, are impacting the Middle East production scene.

In 2006, Egypt alone produced almost 1500 hours of Arabic TV programming, the equivalent of two months of continuous content.

Add to this the production efforts of Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE, across not just TV series but also commercials, feature films, animation and corporate work and the extent of the region's production industry begins to take shape.

Whereas there are no doubts about the growth of the production business, there are currently several disagreements over technology among directors of photography, producers and filmmakers.

Although there are some similarities present among the local rental companies, there is no all encompassing consensus with most having an individual approach and often a unique client base as a consequence.

UAE-based rental company Filmquip sees the majority of its customers opting to shoot in film over digital.

"Most of our customers prefer to shoot on film," says Filmquip's managing director, Anthony Smythe. "The post production demands are ever increasing and film seems to still hold sway in the digital post arena.

A small proportion, maybe 15% of our customers shoot in HD. I think this is typically when they are limited by budget constraints and small crews. These clients are usually shooting corporate pieces or interviews," he adds.

Investment in new equipment is both a reflection of what is happening in the wider industry as well as a trend setter for what will happen in the local industry.

Smythe says that a steady growth of around 20-25% in local and overseas work means it is crucial for companies such as Filmquip to keep up with international trends and standards.

While Filmquip's customers are opting for film, another rental company just down the road in the UAE offers no film products at all.

"We don't do film. Around 75% of our customers want to shoot in HD and there is a lot of demand for all our HD equipment," claims Aaron Hughes, operations manager, Atlas Television.

Hughes also notes a trend for additional services on top of the straightforward provision of equipment.

"We are seeing more clients asking for high-end cameras with film-style accessories but we are also seeing an increasing number of requests for a total production package; pre-production, scripting, shooting, post production and so on."

Whilst investing in new equipment and hoping to match these with a demand in the market has its risks, Hughes believes the regional industry is in a fairly healthy state.

"Competition here is not as intense as in other countries such as the US and UK, so we are usually able to get a faster return on investment (ROI). We tend to invest in new equipment as needs arise, but we are also very conscious of keeping in touch with new technology and trends," explains Hughes.

Filmquip's Smythe points out that some equipment is better placed to offer an ROI than others.

"There are two advantages to lighting and grip equipment for example. Firstly, it tends to have the longest lifespan among production kit and secondly, it is protected from the Film vs HD debate."

RED ONE cam

Cinemagic, owned by Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, is currently the only rental company in the Gulf offering the much-hyped RED ONE camera with two units available presently.

"Cinemagic, like any rental company, must be instrumental in aiding the emergence of new technologies. What attracts people to new technology is the mystery. People want to play with it and see what's possible," says Niblo.

By offering opportunities for potential clients to experiment with the camera and remove some of this mystery, Niblo hopes to convert some of this intrigue into genuine interest and acceptance.

"The RED is a new beginning, an opportunity. Right now it's still a case of getting the word around. The RED camera is still a very new thing, not just in the Middle East but globally. Interest will increase after further tests prove the quality and versatility of the format. It really is unlike anything else we've seen and sometimes, change can be unnerving," he concedes.

Cinemagic is hoping the RED camera will help the region's production industry to carve its own individual aesthetic.

"The market in Kuwait and the Middle East is really gearing itself toward the high-definition generation," says Niblo. "I would imagine it would be a little harder in the US and Europe to convince cinematic purists, those who are comfortable and used to shooting on film, to switch to RED but here in the Middle East, there is a real opportunity to be the pioneers of this technology."
 

Dubai-based director of photography, Joseph Hindy, who also offers his equipment for hire, feels that this dispute is now coming to a head.

"I think within five years, people will shoot in HD. The manufacturers seem to be creating new HD cameras almost every day. In the last three years, less than ten people have asked me to shoot in digital but not HD," he says.

"Speaking as a DoP, film cameras still make me feel a lot more comfortable. You only have to worry about lighting and getting the right exposure.

HD is still less stable for me; there are many other treatments to consider with each shot and even a simple change of angle can produce very different colours on camera," he explains.

Hindy says that while the clients' budget ultimately determines how they choose to shoot, big-budget projects will continue to be shot on film. This sentiment is shared by many in the local industry as well as clients, according to Hindy.

"For now, lots of people still prefer film because it offers the highest quality. Even 10k digital cameras produce a very different result from film. I have seen stills of the RED camera and it looks fine but I have heard that a lot of people are having difficulties in post production. I would like to test it properly myself before I say anything about it."

Several rental houses look to differentiate themselves not simply by the equipment on offer, but through boosting the additional services they can provide.

Kuwait-based rental company Cinemagic claims to have taken a more altruistic approach to equipment hire saying that developing the local film industry artistically and technically is its primary aim.

"Here, the majority of filmmaking equipment could be regarded as new or different and the idea of filmmaking as a career is also a relatively new concept.

The art really isn't regarded yet as anything more than a hobby. Other rental companies might take your money, hand you the camera and tell you to sink or swim.

We realise that you really can't do that here. Not if you want to nurture a new film industry at the same time," says Andrew Niblo, film school instructor at Cinemagic.

As part of this target, Cinemagic has purchased two RED ONE cameras, both available for hire. They are also offering training and support for the new technology.

"What new filmmakers need is confidence so we offer them a course to learn about the equipment. Many of our commercial clients and young filmmakers come to us because they know they will be supported through each stage of their production, even down to their training within a certain field of filmmaking."

As Cinemagic looks to continue boosting the industry, Beirut-based Platform Studios has provided equipment for several of the region's success stories including Nadine Labaki's Caramel, the internationally successful Captain Abu Raed, and US productions Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow and Redacted by Brian De Palma.

"Our clients prefer to shoot in film over digital because film delivers unprecedented performance in shadows and highlights," says Chant Etyemezian executive manager at Platform. "Also, higher resolution offers filmmakers significant flexibility and also saves time."

All of these rental companies tend to cater to a certain type of client with the diversity among these customers making it harder to identify the overwhelming trends in technology.

Film appears to remain the most popular option for those who have big budgets and are focused on cinematic quality. The early appearance of RED in the Middle East looks unlikely to mark the beginning of the end for film.

As productions of all shapes and sizes continue to enjoy growth in the region, the rental market appears equipped to support clients with the latest technology, regardless of their format preferences.

Top picks

Some of the region's rental firms pick out the products their customers keep coming back for.

Atlas Television

Sony HDW-F900R - HD camcorder

Cinemagic

Sony SRW-1 - HD digital film recorder

Filmquip

ARRIFLEX 235 - small, handheld 35mm camera

Platform Studios

ARRIFLEX 435 - versatile, popular choice with film enthusiasts

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