When Aiham Ajib, managing director of Real Image, an animation and post production specialist based in Dubai, was invited to take part in a tender to produce a video to be shown during The Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Business Awards 2013, he knew that it would be a demanding job.
Dubai Chamber of Commerce, the organiser of the annual awards ceremony, invited submissions for the job, with a brief to produce a film of between two to three minutes to act as a showcase of Dubai’s achievements as a hub for business.
“It is not like the 30 second or one minute commercial that goes on airtime. They [Dubai Chamber of Commerce] really needed to start the ceremony with a great impact, especially because most of the people attending were VIPs invited from big companies in the GCC,” Ajib says.
Real Image, which Ajib founded back in Dubai 1997, created a concept for a film and submitted it with a budget along with a number of bids from about three or four rival companies, and won the job.
When viewing the film, it is not surprising that Real Image was awarded the project. While few will know what the other bids offered, it is clear that there is something special about the combination of CGI and more traditional filming that the Real Image went on to produce.
The film manages to say much about the achievements and ambition of Dubai in just a couple of minutes while a dramatic accompanying music score imbues a feeling of inspiration in the viewer.
Meanwhile the style of the film – which features slick, realistic graphics – also appears to match the image that Dubai, as a city, is keen to project about itself.
In the film, a young Emirati man in traditional dress interacts with a graphically rendered 3D model of the city. His interactions with the CGI take the viewer on a virtual tour of Dubai’s key industries, from logistics to construction and white-collar work to reinforce the image of Dubai as a dynamic and thriving hub.
After being awarded the contract, Ajib and his team set to work on the pre-production, a detailed process which entailed making critical decisions about exactly which parts of the concept would be shot “real” or using CGI.
“We had to decide whether to use a real light or CGI for the table,” Ajib says as an example. “For that process we do R&D to see how we can achieve the best results on the final look.”
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In this early phase, the company also cast the model or actor who would play the central character of the Emirati professional who interacts with the cityscape.
At each step, including the casting, the team at Real Image sought approval from the client to ensure the film progressed in the way they wanted.
After approval for the casting selection, Real Image went to a studio and designed the shoot according to the story board. “This included what kind of details, what close ups there are,” Ajib said.
“We do something called the shooting board which is different from the story board that we present to the client. The shooting board goes into every little detail, including the cameras and lenses to be used, everything.”
“Because I directed it, I know exactly what I want, so I say ‘OK this is going to be 20 milimetre lens, this is going to be on a long lens… this is the angle, here we’ll use the crane, dolly or whatever. All the details are there are on the shooting board and that saves a lot of time when we go to production,” he adds.
Following the pre-production, the team moved on to a process known as animatics, which involved creating a 3D simulation of the film. This allowed Ajib and his team to “experiment a little bit” with camera work and various ideas in the concept.
“After we do that we move to the production process. We have to work with a really good DOP (director of photography),” Ajib says, adding that Real Image has access to some high calibre DOPs based in the UAE and beyond.
“We explain to the DOP what we need, what the look is going to be. Then we go to a chroma studio, which is green, and we start shooting by sequence according to the shooting board.”
Ajib adds that he and the director of photographer agreed the sequence, allowing them to minimise the number of times they would have to change the lenses, lights and other pieces of kit, and spend more time actually shooting.
Anyone who has seen the film will be aware of just how precisely the actor’s movements match the action of the CGI. At one point, in a scene reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels, the actor is seen watching a group of miniature people in an office meeting.
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He gently nudges a chair under one of the miniature executives as he sits down. In another scene, he lifts a pallet on to the back of a truck.
So how did Real Image make the real life images match so flawlessly with the CGI? Ajib explains that the actor is filmed making all of the necessary moves in a completely plain studio. Ajib and his team, knowing how the final film should play out, help to ensure the actor does “certain things according to certain marks”.
“It is not easy but we are directing him. We’ll tell him to look like he’s looking at someone in front him. He did everything we asked for and his actions are right. It is also about helping him with some visual aids, for example if you want him to look in one direction. I’ll be watching him on the monitor, and we can use, say, a tennis ball on a stick to get him to look at the precise place or make exact eye contact where you want him to look.”
The film was shot using an Arri Alexa camera. The team shot raw files and then moved on to a 2D process of colour grading before moving on to the offline work according to the story board.
“Offline is when we collect all our material and put the story boards from the original rushes that we shot and put it on a basic timeline. Then we will move to work on the online. Every shot will be labelled. We have a pipeline where it has to move from one specific person to another.
Next up, the team started to bring back the images to the edit line and carried out the work of comparing, fixing, adjusting and tweaking as required. “Then we go the final stage which is compositing, which is like mixing everything together, the live actor with the CGI. We put them all in a timeline as a final stage and we create the music,” Ajib says.
In terms of the main challenges that Real Image faced producing the film, Ajib points to the level of detail required to make the CGI model of Dubai look real. This involved modeling an entire stretch of Dubai, from Trade Centre to the Marina.
“To make it look good it has to be done well. There is no middle solution, in graphics it has to be done well. Even though it is in very small detail we might not see, but it is there. It has to look really good. That is why when he [Emirati lead character] opened up the Dubai map you believe it. You believe this is Dubai. That is the biggest challenge.”