With new buildings springing up all across the UAE all the time, the events industry is no stranger to jaw-dropping spectacles designed to inaugurate these new landmarks in a lavish fashion. However, when dealing with one of the country’s most important heritage sites, brand experience agency, Action Impact, was faced with a whole new range of considerations.
The launch of Al Ain’s Qasr Al Muwaiji took place back in November 2015 on behalf of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (ADTCA). The event saw the official inauguration of the prominent, newly-restored fort complex in Al Ain, which — after several years of restoration — has now reopened to the public as a museum and exhibition.
Home to the Al Nahyan dynasty and birthplace of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, the impressive fort has now opened its doors for the first time in over 60 years, featuring significant moments of the President’s childhood, celebrating his leadership and national achievements, and as a monument to the country’s progress.
Adrian Bell, Action Impact’s co-founder and executive director, explains: “We were approached by ADTCA to launch what is the original birthplace of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan — Qasr al Muwaiji, a historical fort in Al Ain. In November, we launched it to a special VIP inauguration, which was quite a significant moment. ADTCA have invested an awful lot of time and money restoring the fort and have created an adjoining contemporary visitor experience. It’s a beautiful interpretation.”
The production was designed to work in harmony with the fort’s distinctive architecture and deployed a series of advanced projection and video mapping techniques across the expansive architecture. Specially-commissioned content was created by the agency and included unique and delicate combinations of hand sketches, animated illustrations, advanced video and a wealth of impressive photography."
Bell elaborates: “The event itself was a combination of curating existing historical content and combining this with a lot of new contemporary content. We worked in close collaboration with Barker Langham, one of the world’s leading cultural consultants and leaders in historical interpretation for the Middle East region. Considerable work went into researching key elements for the live event experience — not just the video, but also a wide array of graphics and wayfinding elements — all very sensitively composed and delicately placed."
He continues: “This was a deliberately understated and yet exquisitely delivered event experience for an exclusive VIP audience. It was all about beautiful and compelling content, distributed over a very large area, designed to celebrate the original form of the architecture. And the impact of this all coming together achieved a very profound and moving experience."
And it was that cleverly understated style of the event that saw a stunning amount of attention to detail on the video mapping and projection side. Kevin Brown, production director at Action Impact, explains: “The largest and most complicated part of the event was developing and programming content for the fort wall animation sequences."
"There was only a month to deliver the event from the date of award and as such software programmers were engaged in Hong Kong and Australia to keep a virtual 24/7 progression on content in parallel with content developers in Dubai and London."
He continues: "The key objective for the content creation was producing an elegant and sophisticated style that also felt at home in such a beautiful environment, and also had a close synergy with the house style of artwork that had been developed over a period of two years. This involved creating much of the content as sketched drawings that replicated the photography within the exhibition and then bringing it to life with a Parallux technique and the dynamism of the animations. What ensued was a beautiful and highly engaging mix of hand sketched artwork bringing the curatorial story to life and accompanied by a powerful and bespoke traditional sound track using Emirati musicians."
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However, with a short lead time and such a technically demanding project, actually getting this content onto the fort as part of a finished event almost seemed as though it might encounter problems of a more practical nature to begin with.
Bell says: “One of the great challenges was, at that time of year, local equipment availability. There was a significant amount of video projection, staging and lighting and audio. We were keen to keep it local and keep the dirham in the UAE so we worked tirelessly with our core team of top local suppliers to make the scheduling work. And somehow, it all came together — a real tribute to the local can-do/must-do attitude.”
So with a team of local suppliers on board and the content being curated and created by an expert team, there was still another obstacle that Action Impact needed to be extremely wary of throughout.
Brown explains: “Archaeological restoration work had been ongoing at the fort for the last eight years so huge attention had to be paid to building an opening event that was highly protective, both physically and aesthetically, of this jewel in the crown of the Al Ain UNESCO World Heritage site.”
With this in mind, how exactly did the team take into account the building’s history when working on site? After all, a fragile fort is probably not going to cope as well with an onslaught of people and equipment as, say, a specially constructed events stadium. And, as part of the Al Ain UNESCO World Heritage Site, in this instance just one small mistake could have been catastrophic.
Brown reveals: “We were limited to a depth of 150mm for any excavation or foundation works connected to the event and any equipment movement on site had to be carefully planned and risk assessed. The narrow confines of some of the fort rooms also meant that cranes had to be utilised to lift even the most basic piece of equipment into place as access was otherwise impossible through stairways and corridors."
And the historic architecture of the fort was also reflected in the way the event itself was designed, including the lighting elements used both within the event and around the site.
As Brown explains: “Lighting was a key element on the site that needed to be guided by a number of contrasting requirements. We needed to create an environment that was safe for thousands of guests, suitably lit for 19 camera positions provided by Abu Dhabi Television, and completely at one with the very subtle lighting design that had been developed over the last two years for the fort."
"We went through so many different connotations of lighting design," Brown reveals, "and, in the end, the integration of LED baton strips integrated into all the flooring at the event and a variety of subtly disguised features on the exhibition roof combining with projected lighting states enabled the right balance to be achieved. Much attention was given to trying to blend and disguise technical equipment so that it was not observed as part of the site infrastructure. For instance, 18 bespoke hides were produced so that all projection and audio equipment could be concealed in the fort courtyard replicating the existing architectural landscape."
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Luckily, for all those involved, the end result most certainly paid tribute to the historic site. The sensitivity and care taken to reflect its significance in UAE history was paramount to creating an event that felt poignant and auspicious.
And this is a sentiment reflected by Bell, who concludes: “Our team of production specialists were genuinely thrilled to work on such an important project for the UAE — the end result gave us all goosebumps. As the building was inaugurated I think everyone had a bit of a lump in their throats. This whole ‘reveal’ moment coupled with the music and the projection — it really was beautiful.”
Video: Creative Technology
Public Address: Delta Sound
Power/Distribution: Production Science
Lighting: Production Science
Original Music Composition: BKP Media Group/Faisal Al Saari
Set and Structures: Simple Solutions
Content and Animation: The Pulse
Branding: Brand in Style
Site Infrastructure: Mahraj
Bespoke Furniture: Al Manar and IBS
Filmmaking: The Edge Picture Company
Ushers and Staffing: Vibes