The United Arab Emirates has grown 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.
The emirates is currently going through a massive vaccination drive and testing is readily available. Production has already resumed with safety rules in place and those coming from other countries need a negative PCR test.
"There have been a lot of international productions in both Dubai an Abu Dhabi in the last six months because it is open and managed," insists Shane Martin, chief executive of Boomtown Productions in Dubai to KFTV, who have been busy with ad campaigns for the likes of Mercedes, Geneis and Chevrolet.
Paramount's Mission: Impossible 7 and 8 recently finished shooting in the region with the support of the Abu Dhabi government and local film and TV commission.
"We had started prepping for Mission: Impossible 7, in Spring 2020. They were going to shoot two big scenes with hundreds of crews. So, we put together filming protocols with government and Paramount," explains Hans Fraikin, Abu Dhabi Film Commisioner, to KFTV. "But we were very strict about the bubbles. We had nearly 300 international and 200 local crew. Everyone was put into five different hotels and they could never mix. Same with the extras. It worked really well and we didn’t get one Covid case.
"We had dozens of health and safety advisors to make sure everyone abided by the protocols, testing, social distancing etc. No one could get close to Tom Cruise. The set was like a military drill and they never waivered."
Abu Dhabi’s attractiveness as a shooting location was also on display as the backdrop of Michael Bay’s slick action thriller 6 Underground. The production touched down in 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 the 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, which has provided infrastructure and incentives to more than 500 entertainment companies.
6 Underground via TwoFour54 Abu Dhabi
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.
Dune filming in Abu Dhabi via Warner Bros
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,” says 6 Underground executive producer Garrett Grant.
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. "There are plenty of locations to choose from and the weather is constantly good," says Rafic Tamba, CEO of local production service providers, VIP FIlms. "It is also one of the safest places to shoot these days as it has put very strict rules in place from the start."
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 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 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.
“Producers use Dubai and Abu Dhabi to shoot commercials (and features) for the wide, clean roads and bridges with ultra-modern city backdrops, and police support for road control is always excellent,” enthuses Ian Ross, owner of local production services provider Central Films, to KFTV. “But there are also deserts with various shades of sand and dramatic mountains meet dunes areas 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 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.
"Permits are easy to get provided you have a local based production service provider," insists Tamba.
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
Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have great infrastructure. In Abu Dhabi, Twofour54 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.
Abu Dhabi's vast Yas Creative Hub on Yas Island is also being built with "multiple sound stages, two purpose built virtual sound stages and a dive tank 6 meters deep, which will be ready in 2022," Fraikin tells KFTV. "Producers want to film in a controlled envrionment and do post in the same place, which is what the site will offer."
"There's also a great backlot at KIZAD in Abu Dhabi where there are standing 'war torn' streets and sets. which are always popular," adds Martin from Boomtown Productions.
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 Abu Dhabi Film Commission.
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