On a hot and humid afternoon in Dubai, a few students from Dubai’s Middlesex University are busy filming a short film in the heart of Dubai’s Al Barari master community.
It’s a small window for the team to finish filming and the crew, which is purely made up of students from the university’s film course, is in overdrive. The students are working on a Stephen King book adaptation thanks to its team of astute professors who managed to win the attention of Stephen King’s Dollar Baby initiative.
Afroz Nawaf, a film lecturer at Middlesex University Dubai explains how it came together. “The Dollar Baby (or Dollar Deal) is an arrangement where best-selling author Stephen King grants permission to students and aspiring filmmakers or theatre producers to adapt one of his short stories for $1,” Nawaf tells Digital Studio ME.
The term is used to refer to the film or play itself, or the maker. For instance, ‘The Sun Dog’ was made as a Dollar Baby; writer / director Frank Darabont was a Dollar Baby who then went on to create movies like Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and many more.
“I saw this is as an excellent opportunity for our students to experience a project of this scale,” Nawaf says adding that he found the contact information of the author’s assistant Margaret Morehouse, who gave him the requirements and processes to land a short story.
Dr David Tully, head of the Film and Media Department and Daniela Tully, adjunct faculty, Middlesex University Dubai are working with Nawaf on the project.
Dr Tully emphasises the importance of an opportunity such as this to the students. He says: “With property like this, working with a name like Stephen King in a prestigious Dollar Babies project, you are immediately thrust onto a global platform. Audience interest is immediately triggered due to the subject matter, and you are guaranteed an unbelievable first night audience in Mr. King himself.”
After carefully sifting through scripts the trio agreed on ‘Stationary Bike’ — a short story from one of King’s best-selling book Just After Sunset.
Dr Tully gave an insight into the selection process. “We all read the King story and spent many hours in a large writer’s room, spit balling ideas of how to convert it into a workable screenplay that doesn’t deviate too far from the written short story, but also lives and breathes as a film all its own. Too many prose-to-film adaptations are hamstrung by trying to stay too close to the prose or going too far away in trying to be a film that works as a film; it’s a delicate art finding the balance that keeps it faithful but also effective as film.”
The resulting script was entirely the work of the students and Dr Tully was “amazed” when he read the final script as it achieved that perfect balance.
While Dr Tully, a successful script writer, brought the students up to pre-production finesse, Nawaf brought his expertise in the production and post-production disciplines. He is also the one of the only Blackmagic Design Academic trainers for Middle East and Africa with certification focus on Advanced Edit, colour grading, Fairlight and Fusion.
“All three of us (David, Daniela and myself) have taken the role of executive producer to truly give the students the experience of a production house workflow. David took the lead in the writing department, Daniela on many aspects of producing and my focus overflows across pre-production, production and post-production,” Nawaf says.
A year prior, the students underwent a course on production that would eventually help them in the making of the Stationary Bike. Daniela Tully says: “The detailed course introduced them to the world of film production and helped them acquire all skills necessary to successfully produce a mini feature. I have been a consultant to the students in the months leading up to production, and I’m proud to see how well they are doing on set.”
As part of their three-year course, students at the MDX Studio get a chance to use Blackmagic cameras and advanced rigging systems. Nawaf notes that the department has mapped out a plan to help students progress. “Students begin filming using their smartphones hooked up to a DJI Osmo 2 which them an understanding of movement and various filmmaking aspects possible through smartphones.
Back on set
Abdulla Alomari, who will be starting his final year of the film course at the university, is the co-producer. He explains: “We got the news in December 2018 that we were participating in the Dollar Baby programme. A few weeks later we learnt that we had won the filming rights for Stephen King’s short film and that the author was happy to receive this first of its kind request from aspiring filmmakers in the UAE.”
Aily Prasetyo, Alomari’s batch mate, is the director of the film and sheds light on what the students had to do after winning the rights to participate in the programme.
She says: “We had to pitch what role we wanted to do to our professors as part of the crew since it was open to all the students studying the film course. Once the roles were assigned we began working on the pre-production phase of the project in February.”
Alomari says the equipment at the students’ disposal are some of the most advanced industry standard products. “Due to the University’s existing partnership with Blackmagic Design, we have access to some of the best Blackmagic Cinema cameras. We’re using the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema cameras along with the Blackmagic URSA cameras. We also use the latest sound equipment from Sennheiser and Rode. At Middlesex University Dubai we are well equipped with all the theoretical, technical and practical skills and equipment required to work on a project of this scale,” he adds.
The student crew filmed for 18 days after which they get into the post production phase — with all of the editing and all aspects of post processing done by the students itself. “We are looking into the possibility of a premier once everything is ready from our end given our university has quite a few partnerships in the region,” Prasetyo says.
Warner Bros & Universal Brand Development partnership
In November 2018, MDX Studio signed a partnership with Shooting Stars Middle East to produce local content for Warner Bros and Universal Brand Development. “It has been a great accomplishment for the Film and Media department as the partnership provides our students with invaluable exposure to various other brands including VOX Cinemas, Dubai Parks & Resorts, Ski Dubai and many more,” Nawaf says.
In addition to producing local content, the partnership also provides internship opportunities for the three best-performing students from departments such as marketing, theatrical and licensing, along with opportunities for the students studying Bachelor of Arts Honours Graphic Design.
“Students will be working on key franchise content over the coming years after which they are awarded a certificate of appreciation and will also have the right to include these as content in their portfolios.
“The content produced by our students will also receive exposure through various marketing channels and brand partnerships in the region. It provides students with invaluable exposure to various other brands including VOX Cinemas, Dubai Parks & Resorts, Ski Dubai and many more,” Nawaf says.
According to Dr Tully the state of TV and film industry in every region is precarious these days, thanks almost entirely to the technological revolution of streaming. “Nobody knows how to make money off movies and TV anymore. However that same revolution has led to an explosion of career opportunities for film students that simply weren’t there even a decade ago, ensuring that their career opportunities, with the skills they’ve amassed, are anything but precarious.
“There isn’t an industry in the world that doesn’t need video content in this day and age, and only trained professionals, schooled in the art of visual storytelling, can provide the sort of quality that social media demands in order to be noticed,” Dr Tully concludes.