The United Arab Emirates is growing in popularity as a filming territory thanks to its versatile, striking contemporary and desert locations that are often called on to double for other places, enticing financial incentives, and impressive plans to expand its studio and crew offerings.
Abu Dhabi’s attractiveness as a shooting location has been on display in recent months as the backdrop of Michael Bay’s slick action thriller 6 Underground, which was released worldwide on Netflix in December 2019.
The production touched down in early 2019 and shot in 25 locations across the emirate, which appeared both as itself and stood in for a variety of other places, including California, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The high rises of its Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) financial quarter and Al Reem Island stood in for Hong Kong. The landmark Etihad Towers, which also featured in Fast & Furious 7, doubled for Las Vegas, while an imaginary country called Turgistan was created in the backlot of state-backed media and entertainment hub Twofour54.
Further backdrops included the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum, the luxurious Emirates Palace hotel and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Other high-profile projects to shoot in Abu Dhabi include Denis Villeneuve's Dune, which shot against the backdrop of its desert, the French and English language thriller Mirage, Sonic The Hedgehog, Mission: Impossible - Fallout (where they filmed the famous HALO jump) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Beyond its wealth of locations, other major draws are the emirate’s 30% cashback rebate for all productions and the burgeoning services and facilities offering that Abu Dhabi has worked hard to build over the past decade.
“Creatively, Abu Dhabi offered us what the script called for and the great tax incentives and overall infrastructure was appealing,” said 6 Underground executive producer Garrett Grant. Further international productions shooting in Abu Dhabi over the last 12 months include French and English-language thriller Mirage, a pan-European production backed by France Télévisions, ZDF and Rai.
In further developments, veteran US film and TV executive Michael Garin has been appointed CEO of Abu Dhabi's twofour54, which has provided infrastructure and incentives to more than 500 entertainment companies and drives media and entertainment industry growth in the United Arab Emirates. Garin is also CEO of fellow local major production company Image Nation. The Abu Dhabi Film Commission stems from these big players.
The company plans to build a studio city in the Mina Zayed waterfront area with sound stages, warehouses, a 74-acre backlot, water tanks and production offices. The commission is looking for partners for design, construction and financing. The intention is to get underway this year with the first 20,000 foot stage to be built within a year.
The emirate is just under three hours by air from Mumbai and continues to be a popular destination for Indian filmmakers. The territory played host this year to Bunty Aur Babli 2, a reboot of the Hindi-language crime comedy drama, produced by Aditya Chopra under his Yash Raj Films banner.
More than 350 cast and crew worked on the 10-day shoot in early 2020, which took place against the backdrop of the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club and Emirates Palace. It follows in the wake of other Bollywood productions including Bharat, Saaho, Dishoom, Race 3, Bang Bang and Tiger Zinda Hai.
The territory is also becoming a hub for the wider region, and has welcomed more that 20 Middle East and North African TV and film productions over the last 12 months. These include the Saudi-set soap opera The Inheritance, co-developed by UK TV writer Tony Jordan, for which a bespoke studio was built.
The neighbouring emirate of Dubai is also drawing international productions with its futuristic buildings and luxury hotel complexes, such as the palatial Atlantis, The Palm.
Fewer productions have touched down in the emirate in recent years because it does not provide the same sorts of film and TV incentives as Abu Dhabi. However it does offer discretionary support on flights with Emirates Airlines and hotel accommodation.
Another emirate attracting attention is Ras Al Khaimah. It has not made a concerted effort to welcome in productions but draws shoots for its natural beauty, spanning untouched desert, mangroves and mountains.
“Producers use Dubai and Abu Dhabi to shoot commercials (and features) for fabulous roads and bridges with ultra-modern city backdrops,” enthuses Ian Ross, owner of local production services provider Central Films, to KFTV. “But there are also deserts and sand dunes less than an hour outside the city.”
One of the most stunning locations just outside Dubai is Hatta, which offers massive desert mountains, with turquoise waters calmly resting between them at Hatta Dam. There’s also the Wasit Nature Reserve in Sharjah; the Hajar mountains; and the desolate Snoopy Island in the Emirate of Fujairah, where the mountains meet the sea.
To prove how much can be taken in on a shoot, 6 Underground filmed in 24 locations across Abu Dhabi over the course of a 27-day shoot, as well as the oasis city of Al Ain and the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.
“The region can also double for any modern city in the US, and other parts of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia,” says Gabriel Chamoun, CEO at local outfit The Talkies, to KFTV.
Examples include George Clooney’s Syriana, which doubled Dubai for the Iranian desert, Brad Pitt’s Netflix film, War Machine, used Abu Dhabi to represent Afghanistan, and Bollywood film Baby used the city as a double for Turkey.
“The UAE also has a very cosmopolitan population, so it’s possible to cast for most nationalities,” adds Jana Barnard, a line producer at local production service provider, VIP Films.
Just be aware that a sub-tropical, arid climate dominates the United Arab Emirates. Summers tend to be hot and humid, and there’s only marginal respite in the winter months. Thunderstorms can also strike during the summer and sandstorms are an occasional threat, which can have a dramatic effect on visibility.
In Abu Dhabi, there are two classes of permits for filming: ground permits and aerial permits. While in Dubai, the Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) is the sole entity authorised to issue media shooting permits.
Most locations are easily accessible. Price and permission depend on the location and the type of production. For more details on procedures and costs in Dubai, go to… http://www.dubaifilmcommission.ae/filming-in-dubai/how-to-film-in-dubai/permit-fees
In Abu Dhabi, Twofour54 Film & TV Services, provides studios, production support, post-production and playout and broadcast capabilities. Abu Dhabi’s production infrastructure is set to grow, with Twofour54 in the process of moving to a larger facility on Yas Island, equipped with TV studios and office space for other companies, including Apple and CNN, while its new 300,000 square metre Studio City at Mina Zayed is heading towards construction.
Dubai’s main facility is Dubai Studio City, encompassing production services, three soundstages, backlots, water tanks, production offices and recording studios. In terms of crew, the pool of freelancers with specialist skills, including make-up, visual effects and stunts, continues to grow, particularly in Abu Dhabi.
The crew in UAE are also very experienced and come from many different countries. Most have worked on big movies, including Mission Impossible, Fast and Furious, Star Trek and Star Wars, which have all shot in the country.
Any filming gear can easily be brought into Dubai on a Carnet, but requires permission from the Film Commission for Abu Dhabi.
The largest of the UAE’s seven states, Abu Dhabi covers more than 67,000 square kilometres. It is a two-hour drive to Dubai and a 40-minute drive from Abu Dhabi International Airport to the centre of the city on a modern road system.
Dubai is the second biggest emirate at 3,900 square kilometres. It is an international transport hub and extremely well connected to the rest of the world.
Abu Dhabi: Jassim Al Nowais, manager, Abu Dhabi Film Commission: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dubai: Iman Al Zaabi, assistant manager, Dubai Film and TV Commission: email@example.com