Five of the Middle East's top football players and rivals on the field, known for keeping viewers glued to the screen with their adrenaline-pumping prowess on the pitch, came together this Ramadan to be part of an action-packed commercial produced for Saudi telecoms operator Mobily.
Produced by Dubai-based production house Déjà vu along with New York-based freelance director, Siraj Jhaveri and director of photography (DoP) Bobby Dhillon, this commercial brings to mind a musical symphony, whose tempo gradually rises with each scene and has viewers riveted before it reaches a crescendo and Mobily's All Star campaign is announced.
"Saudi Arabia is all about football and this is one unifying element that the people there can identify with easily," explains Manasvi Gosalia, executive producer and owner of Déjà vu.
"Here were five of the Arab world's most incredible football players coming together under one roof. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so we wanted to do something revolutionary and memorable that no one was going to forget. I believe we have achieved that."
Gosalia has a lot to be proud of. After four years of working at a post-production facility in Dubai Media City, he launched Déjà vu last year.
Today, Déjà vu already has an impressive show reel of 50 commercials that includes work for clients like Al Tayer, Dubai's health authority, Tamweel and more importantly, Mobily for whom the production house has completed 15 commercials.
When Mobily needed more ads for its new All Star campaign, Déjà vu was on the telecom operator's list of potential production houses to help produce the project. But the battle had only just begun.
"Two companies in Dubai and two in Beirut were pitching for this project," explains Gosalia. "But we won it in the end thanks to the treatment Siraj (Jhaveri) put together."
Director Jhaveri, who is also an avid football fan, decided he would come up with a ‘treatment' like none other he'd ever put together. "I started off by seeing every single football commercial that had been made since 1998. There were hundreds of them; I downloaded all of them, cut them and organised them into the pieces I liked the most and wrote my treatment around them - especially the moves I wanted. I highlighted the choreography, every aspect of the production and gave the client a 3D view of how we would put it all together. In short, I gave them a taste of the film," says Jhaveri.
Winning the project was only half the battle won. There were several challenges to deal with. For one, no one knew if the football stars could do these moves within a controlled environment.
"But we worked all of these out," explains Gosalia. "We set out on a mission to find tricksters who could do these moves. Sarah Abdullah, who is a casting agent and runs Take One here, was able to find us two body doubles in Abu Dhabi who could do the football moves perfectly."
One factor in the team's favour was their attempt to try and practice some of their moves prior to D-day. "I like to previsualise the whole thing plus I didn't know what the calibre of the stars was and we didn't want to take a chance," explains Jhaveri.
"So we worked with the tricksters in the studio; we went to the mall and tried out the physics of how it was all going to work. I needed to choreograph seven sections and I need to document, edit and put them together," explains Jhaveri.
The production team needed to show the players in different sections of the mall and how the ball travelled through these areas. "There were different areas and it needed to be seamless from the sports store to the café to the escalator. The ball comes flying at one point and falls onto someone's lap. We don't know who he is until he puts his paper down but without missing a beat, Abdoh Otaif keeps chugging the ball, moves around and does this incredible kick. But at the mall, these stars couldn't do that because it's different from playing on the field so we used the tricksters instead. These guys were phenomenal with their moves and we couldn't have done it without their help," concedes Jhaveri.
Secondly, it was Ramadan and the stars were fasting. They were only available in the evening. "That again worked out eventually for us as the venues for the shoot - Mall of the Emirates and Times Square - were available only after midnight when they were closed to the public. We had a hundred odd extras for the shoot to make each scene look populated," adds Gosalia.
Thirdly, it was important that each scene got better than the previous one to hold the attention of the viewer. "The question was how to make a commercial that looked like a million dollars and entertain your viewer. And also add that element of humour, which we got through Yasser hiding the ball and so on," explains Jhaveri.
The film was shot with three main cameras - the Arri 435, the 235 and a 16 mm Bolex camera. "The Bolex is good for textured images and ideal for capturing the impromptu, hard-to-get shots," explains Déjà vu's Gosalia.
Jhaveri adds that toggling between the two cameras also needed to be addressed. "The question was how to quickly move from one camera to the next and manage your shoot without wasting time. Going back and forth between the two cameras was a challenge. We also had only one camera with a steady cam on it and it usually takes at least half an hour to switch from say, a low mode to a high mode. So, it was essential that we took all the shots that we wanted in one mode before we shifted to the next mode. Otherwise, on a shoot like this, one wrong move could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars."
We also needed to have a contingency plan in place in case something didn't work out. Luckily, everything went well. We were really ambitious and wanted to get all those shots. I didn't want to knock any of them out because I wanted to tell the story with all the magic in it. Kids want to see this kind of stuff and fantasise and I wanted to create that magic," explains Jhaveri.
This commercial also gave each team a chance to bring out their best, says Jhaveri. "Ours was a wonderful marriage because I'm a purist filmmaker and Déjà vu is post heavy. It was a real filmmaker's dream. I brought storytelling and humour to this while they brought the 3D elements and compositing and tracking to the project. We had to track all the characters with an arrow because that's how the kids play the game at the beginning of the commercial. We had a green screen at the mall and got every dimension of the stars as the cameras rotated so that we could then convert them to a 3D game character that could be used as part of the story. So in the game, you see these guys as 3D characters and then you cut to the live action and therein, lies the magic," explains Jhaveri.
As a purist, Jhaveri was determined not to shoot everything on green screen and put everything together in post. "People must connect to the emotions rather than the SFX. I believe that we should start with storytelling and then let post elevate it further. On the one hand, it is indeed staged and rehearsed and yet, there is something random and spontaneous about shooting the action as it is rather than on green screen," he explains.
A big part of the film was also the rhythm. The team wanted the viewer to see the action move forward to an escalating tempo. "You're watching this orchestration of moves that are syncopating to drums. It's like watching a piece of music," explains Jhaveri.
At the end, the team claims it was able to get all the moves it had planned at the beginning. "The director's job is to take a concept and make it into a reality but at some point, reality is going to bite you and you are not going to be able to do everything you hope and dream of. This was a very ambitious project from the beginning but we pulled it off," explains Jhaveri.
Gosalia adds that this was possible because they had a dream team. "Siraj and Bobby understand each other well, and they have worked with me on four other Mobily commercials as well. We had David Murphy, who is a Dubai-based assistant director; we had the best focus puller, gaffer and other crew members. We even brought in a Steadycam operator from India."
Post again was significantly heavy with Déjà vu scanning each of the players' faces and putting them through a 3D application so as to get 3D interpretations of their faces for the initial part of the commercial.
"There is a software that lets us do this. We scanned the face to the camera in a way that it takes a 3D interpretation of the player's face. After this, we finished the product in Maya and did all the tweaking and the toning here. It was a very intensive edit job with 40% of the commercial having a 3D ball in it. But you wouldn't be able to tell them apart in the final version. This was graded on Kodak's Spirit Telecine machine. The commercial has already created a major stir in Saudi Arabia and we expect it to create a big impact here as well," explains Gosalia.
For audio, Gosalia says the team moved away from samba that is traditionally associated with football films and went with a more dramatic track that is usually heard in war movies.
"The client wanted a Gladiator kind of track that changes with each scene. Dubai-based Barry Kirsch Productions did this for us and it was well received," explains Gosalia.
Mobily's All Star commercial is scheduled to run from this month on local TV channels. Once the campaign begins, the telecoms operator plans to bring out a whole range of merchandising to reflect it including All Star sim cards, T-shirts and more.
A look at the 60-second commercial shows that Mobily itself would have scored high in viewers' minds with it. Little would viewers ever know that behind the seemingly effortless kicks and moves of the football players in the commercial lay the unsung heroes who worked to bring this concept to fruition.