Hiayati Walaskariya’, a documentary about the UAE armed forces which aired earlier this year, gave viewers a clear insight into the excitement and rigours of military life. Behind the scenes, the documentary also tested the mettle of the production team that made the programme, with a small crew sent to locations including Afghanistan and Slovenia to bring the show to fruition.
The series was produced by Dubai-based production company The Goldmine Films for Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which was itself commission to oversee the production of the series by the UAE army.
Michael Garin, CEO of Image Nation, part of Abu Dhabi Media, explains how the project came about: “We were approached by the UAE armed forces who wanted a show that would help demystify what it means to be in the armed forces.
Based on this, Image Nation conducted research amongst a diverse group of Emiratis and we found that although they had a great sense of pride in the UAE armed forces, they knew very little about what they do on a day to day basis. For instance, people wanted to know more about the roles of women in the army – how do they juggle work duties and family life? What kind of roles can women take on?
“Together we wanted our show to pull back the curtain and give an intimate, yet entertaining portrayal of these brave men and women who serve their country.”
About 10 production companies were interested in producing the series, and Image Nation narrowed this down to a shortlist of three companies. So what gave The Goldmine Films the edge that landed it the commission?
Danish Mumtaz, executive producer of The Goldmine Films, believes that his company had more experience making longer documentaries. He also made the right sounds about focusing on the people who would be the stars of the show rather than other considerations, such as which cameras to use.
The overall concept of the series also went through various changes from when it was first proposed. Initially, Image Nation had considered making an online series, but chose traditional TV as a more powerful medium.
When The Goldmine Films came on board, its early discussions with Image Nation focused on ways of meeting both the Army’s requirements while also ensuring each episode of the documentary would be entertaining and informative to a broad viewership.
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“In early 2013 we started looking at the different possibilities of how this film could be constructed,” Mumtaz says. “They wanted to show as many different careers within the army that are not necessarily infantry. They wanted to say you can be a great doctor, engineer or IT technician in the army.”
The first stage of the process was a “massive casting process” in which members of The Goldmine Films’ team would meet and interview soldiers at the Armed Forces Officers club in the UAE. The soldiers were asked about their skills as soldiers, their hobbies and education.
“The idea was to get a feel of how they would perform on camera. The director [Jehad Ghader] had an idea that he really wanted them [interviewees] to open up and showcase not just what they do at work but also what type of person they are at home, with their friends. It was tricky trying to figure out whether people would open up or not,” Mumtaz says.
The original plans was to produce 12 episodes, each featuring one character. However, the team quickly realised that the episodes would work better at 22 minutes each with two or more characters linked by a common theme.
“We started combining episodes up. We said ‘let’s put different careers together to kind of juxtapose them’. For example we had an episode with the air force where you had an F16 pilot along with an Apache helicopter pilot and a cadet. The cadet talks about his training, while the Apache pilot talks about what he has already achieved. It made a nice mix having the stories move from one character to another,” Mumtaz says.
Actual filming started in March 2013 and was completed in October. The production presented some interesting challenges, which The Goldmine Films team clearly relished. The team visited and shot in diverse locations including Afghanistan, Slovenia and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst UK, as well as various locations around the UAE.
But one of the main challenges was that the production team had to be small. Mumtaz explains that the army was unable to allow a large production team of 15-20 people wander around the army camps.
“I had to get every member of the crew through security checks, and then once they were checked, over the next eight months whenever a shoot came up I had to make sure that person came up, because nobody else would be able to enter an army facility,” Mumtaz says.
Mumtaz assembled the crew from international talent. “We decided we’d fly the best in – get the best sound recorder, camera assistant, DP, and an assistant, director and producer.”
The team then had to make decisions about what cameras and other equipment to use. The director of photography liked using a Red and used it for the first episode. But with the director, Ghader, keen to do long interviews, the Red gave too much data to handle in post-production. It also took a long time to set up and was heavy for the type of outdoor locations that the team needed to visit.
“We switched to a Canon C300 and ended up buying one ourselves. We bought a set of Canon zooms and some primes for the interviews and realised that this was the best running documentary camera we’d ever seen. They’re perfectly balanced, the low light performance is good. They’re made for the running documentary,” Mumtaz says. “We kept a couple of lights and small sliders and jibs in order to move fast.”
Being able to move fast was often crucial. Indeed, the team had to be agile, especially when filming some of the soldiers’ hobbies, which often involved moving the cameras and equipment to unusual locations at very short notice.
“Many of the stars had interesting hobbies. One was a storm chaser and he would randomly look at the weather maps and then chase storms in Hatta, so we would do that on a separate day. Another soldier would use a paragliding dune buggy,” Mumtaz says.
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The international shoots also proved interesting for the team, and proved the case for the Canon C300s. “At the start Image Nation said they’d like some international content and would like us to go to Afghanistan. Almost everyone was in,” Mumtaz says.
The team was transported in military aircraft, given military IDs and only given instructions on the day. “They [army] were very careful about what they told but did take us to some very interesting zones. They took us to forward operating posts where they were facing military action. We could hear it in the distance.”
At one point in Afghanistan, the Colonel allowed the team to go on a “sweep” of the area. Given the relatively small production team, everybody took a camera. With a combination of 5Ds and 7Ds, and GoPros attached to the helmet and rifle of one of the soldiers, the team was able to capture some amazing footage during the 20 minute operation.
“We travelled on most military vehicles you would imagine. We had Chinook helicopters, and we had Apaches following up wherever we were sent. We drove in an armoured tank from one city to another. There were some very interesting experiences from our shoot.”
After Afghanistan, the team was sent to Sandhurst Military Academy in the UK to document the experiences of Emirati officers training at the elite academy.
“We stayed about six days and had a military liaison from Sandhurst take us around and show us the classes,” Mumtaz says. He adds that the officers gave good interviews and had an interesting take on the training: they often found the cold climate somewhat less brutal than the heat of the UAE in summer. But for Mumtaz and his team, the challenge was access. “We would get limited time with them because they would not allow them to get away from their studies.”
As in Afghanistan, the team also maximised the use of its time by filming as much as useful material as possible. “We knew what we had to do and if it meant the camera assistant picking up a second camera and shooting something else, it was fine. Everyone was filming,” Mumtaz says.
The final place the unit travelled to was Slovenia for a show jumping competition. “That was an interesting episode as well. We saw how these guys got into show jumping and parachuting and the actual competition itself and how they fared. It was something new for viewers to see this, plus Slovenia is really beautiful and we got some gorgeous shots with GoPros along with the C300.”
Once filming was completed the post-production work also proved tough. There was much quality content and condensing it down to 22 minutes episodes was no mean feat.
“The director insisted he would do long interviews and he was correct: sometimes they would last four hours and often in the last hour he’d start getting good content from these guys. The ice would melt, people would become friends. But you’d still have to sift through four hours of interview in the edit. So these guys were pulling an episode out about every seven or eight days.
“The idea is each episode was non-linear, consisting of three stories. We had to look at how to contrast them and keep the viewer engaged throughout,” Mumtaz says.
The post-production team worked 14 hour days and the director also listened to each interview, according to Mumtaz.
Adobe Premier was used to create a rough cut for the interviews, allowing the director to look through the material. The episodes were then edited using Avid.
Mumtaz adds that his team also had “a big emphasis” on sound quality and worked with Mile Studios for the sound recording and sound design. “They did a fantastic job in a short space of time to bring the sound alive. “The director didn’t want music, he wanted people to hear the breathing and the walking and the sound of the environment of all these different places.”