Total Eclipse of film art

Dubai's Eclipse Production was celebrating in December.
The Bastakiya shots made the most of Steadicam.
The Bastakiya shots made the most of Steadicam.

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Dubai’s Eclipse Production was celebrating in December when the score for Definitely Dubai took home a Hollywood Music in Media Award. We hear about the making of the film.

Eclipse Production is no stranger to filming the sights and sounds of Dubai. It has worked over the years with a number of government departments, and its relationship with Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) stretches back over around 10 years.

Eclipse’s client base also includes international giants such as BMW and Microsoft, and the four full time staff at its TECOM base are regularly joined by a select list of regular freelancers, so the company can always call on exactly the right person for the job in hand.

The HQ itself is a veritable film factory – all editing and post takes place in-house on two linked editing stations – one HD/SD and one full HD – and the suites also offer post options including After Effects, 3D Max and Da Vinci.

A full-time editor ensures that Eclipse is almost entirely self reliant. Producer/director Babak Amini adds: “We’re very compact in the sense that we have total control from the outset of a project to delivery.

I’m always closely involved with the post and editing too, and the only time we really need to bring someone in is for 3D modeling or CGI work, which are more specialized and not exactly every day tasks.”

Eclipse also maintains a small equipment bay. Sony HD cams and a Canon 5D are on hand for location scouting, although on actual shoots the company tends to hire cameras in, as Amini explains: “We don’t have big cameras in house.

I stopped purchasing them two or three years ago because technology is just moving so fast. Chips, sizes and prices are constantly changing; new players like Blackmagic are coming in that no one expected a couple of years ago. I felt we needed look at our budget and ask ‘is it worth investing in a system that may be nearly obsolete in 12 months?’

“We came to the conclusion that we’re happy to wait and see what happens, while constantly following the latest developments. This way we can be sure we have the best available equipment for every job, and experiment with new equipment as it becomes available too. Our recent projects have all been shot on Arri Alexa. I love the camera, and the files are great to work with.”

The award-winning Definitely Dubai was the first of the recent batch of films he has shot on Alexa, and the results certainly justify Amini’s faith in the camera.

He describes the genesis of the project thus: “We’ve worked with DTCM for about 10 years and produced a number of destination films and TVCs on their behalf. The last one was Vibrant Dubai a couple of years ago, and we think that really successfully covered everything about Dubai in a very elegant way.

“More recently, DTCM rebranded, and adopted the ‘Definitely Dubai’ theme, and wanted a new film to go with the new branding. We talked with them, and felt we wanted to emphasise the new brand, but without repeating ourselves, especially as Dubai is so popular for filming – we didn’t want to go over old ground.

“I wanted to be bold, and thought ‘Let’s be selective and create a few scenes that are almost like photography or single frames – take it back and forward a little in movement but not too much. Let’s create set piece situations that are very elegant and have depth. Let’s get away from video style and be more cinematic.’”

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DTCM liked the idea, so Amini and his team created mood boards and ideas for art direction and lighting, and ultimately, a story board. DTCM gave the green light, and the team went to work: “Over the course of our relationship, DTCM have developed a real confidence in us, and that’s a great position to be in as they have faith in leaving you to get on with your work.

Of course there may be small changes to bring a piece in line with a client’s ideas, but we’ve never completely missed the target.

That’s important, because when you take a brand like Dubai in your hands you have to be aware of certain parameters and requirements, and you have to be aware that once the message has been put out there it becomes the responsibility of Dubai and its government themselves.”

The shoot took six months, partly because some scenes were of events that the team had to wait for, and Amini says it was a great experience for himself and all of the 17 crew that were involved on the project: “Projects shooting in Dubai are always an amazing experience,” he says.

“There are so many amazing locations, architecture, forms and interiors. You can almost put camera anywhere with the right lens and get a nice frame! It was the first time we’d shot on Alexa too and I loved it. It was so easy to bring back and drop into the workflow, and it needed less lighting than I expected, particularly for interior work.”

Although the crew totalled 17, for the actual nitty gritty of shooting this was about five, another advantage of the Alexa, Amini explains: “I don’t like too many people around me when I’m shooting and Alexa is great for that – it’s compact and lightweight, so once all the tracks are laid you just need a DoP, camera assistant, assistant camera assistant and you’re there.”

Some scenes in the film were also shot with Canon 5D – using the same Zeiss Prime lenses to get the same feel and depth as the Alexa work, while some of the sports shots made use of a GoPro “in places where we couldn’t put another camera.”

A steadicam system was also employed for certain shots, and Amini is clearly impressed with the finished product: “When the shots are all put together and graded properly you really can’t tell – it’s amazing. We’ve come to the point where digital cameras all share inherently the same basic signal. Some DoPs might be horrified by putting a GoPro shot in a film like this, but we’ve kept an open mind.

“The film isn’t designed for theatrical release and on a normal-sized screen you really can’t tell. Plus, so much can be done with accessible post and grading now, and when used intelligently the Steadicam can give you that shot and moment that nothing else can.

Stephen French was the Steadicam operator and he’s done a great job. There’s a depth and breadth that no other camera movement would achieve. Even the shots on a yacht with the ground moving underneath him came out perfectly.”

The finished film was initially shown on screens at DTCM stands at trade shows and events all around the world. DVDs were also given out to tour operators and Emirates installed the film on its ICE in-flight entertainment system, while the likes of Vimeo and YouTube helped create further buzz around the film too.

Then, three or four months after initially handing over the film, the Eclipse team returned to the project to create a series of TVCs. At over 10 minutes long, the original was not ideal for this purpose, but from the outset it was designed so individual set pieces could be cut out and stand alone.

The Eclipse team picked sections out, added extra layers through After Effects and 3D Max and a whole new product was born. In fact, just last month air time was booked on a number of international and local channels to showcase the new ads, which just about brings us up to date.

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There was, however, one more chapter to be written as 2012 drew to a close: “We’d wanted to be more cinematic with the music too and score the piece as a short movie,” Amini explains. “It’s hard with music. With the visual side, you can see straight away if you have a bad frame, but with music it’s abstract. For the composer to understand what I want, there has to be common ground with each other mentally.

“With Vladimir Persan, the composer of the score, I have that common ground. We gave him the first cut and he came back a week later with an amazing score – it was really subtle, simple instruments just picking you up, hardly any electronics.

There was some evolution from the original score – the client asked for it to be a little more dynamic, some parts were recomposed, but there were no drastic changes and everyone, including the client loved the finished version.”

Persan later asked Amini for permission to enter his work in the Best Score in a Commercial Advertisement category at the 2012 Hollywood Music in Film Awards.

Amini agreed, but admits that he had virtually forgotten all about it when Persan mentioned later in the year that he was heading to LA as it had been nominated. Amini takes up the story: “A few days later we were in the middle of a shoot,” he says.

“And we got an SMS from Vladimir saying he was just heading down the steps with the award. It was great for Vladimir, for the film and DTCM.

It was really pleasing too as this wasn’t a big budget production but we tried to create something with more value than just the spend on it, and Vladimir elevated it to a level where he could grab an award among all the biggest soundtrack composers in the world.”

The music’s success seems to have inspired Amini for his future projects. He can’t give too much away, but he does reveal that one will feature closely interlinked music (“almost like a video clip”), a much larger format than anything he’s previously worked on and 7.1 surround sound, as well as a possible link to Dubai’s 2020 World Expo bid. Intrigued? We’ll bring you more details just as soon as we can.

Definitely Dubai Kit List
- Arri Alexa
- Canon 5D
- GoPro Hero
- Steadicam support system
- Final Cut Pro 7
- After Effects
- 3D Max

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