United Arab Emirates

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Overview and productions

It has been 10 years since Tom Cruise scaled Dubai’s Burj Khalifa for Paramount’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and put the Gulf states on the map as an international shooting location. Since then, a wealth of features, TV shows and commercials have shot against the futuristic urban backdrops, opulent hotels and spell­binding deserts.

Cruise returned earlier in 2021, this time to Abu Dhabi, to shoot key scenes for Mission: Impossible 7 and 8 in the Empty Quarter desert during the Covid‑19 pandemic.

Abu Dhabi Film Commission devised an intricate bubble system for around 350 international and 200 local crew members, which was further supported by the emirate’s social-distancing rules, effective track and trace and fast rollout vaccination programme.

“Some days we had up to 1,000 crew on set. They were put into five separate hotels and could not mix, even on set. It was the same for the extras. We had scenes with 250 extras, for which we set up five bubbles of 50 extras,” explains Abu Dhabi film commissioner Hans Fraikin to KFTV.

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.

The commission began working on the strategy as early as spring 2020, holding a test run in September 2020 when Abu Dhabi hosted the Ultimate Fighting Championship on its Yas Island sports and entertainment hub.

Upcoming features that touched down in the UAE prior to the pandemic include Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Bollywood comedy-drama Bunty Aur Babli 2.

Looking beyond the pandemic, Abu Dhabi is on the cusp of a step-change as an international shooting location with the phase one opening of the Yas Creative Hub at the end of 2021. Spearheaded by Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 media and entertainment holding and media free zone, the hub will span 70,000 square metres of studio and post-production space, as well as offices, community spaces and accommodation. One of its highlights will be two state-of-the-art virtual production stages, one of which is billed as one of the biggest in the world.

The Yas Island hub is in addition to twofour54’s Studio City complex being built as part of the redevelopment of the Mina Zayed port area and runs to 300,000 square metres.

Mindful of staffing these facilities with skilled film and TV crew, the emirate has launched a creative visa to encourage international talent, especially in the below-the-line crafts, to work in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s a five-year visa allowing professionals to come in and out as the work commands it,” says Fraikin, who says the commission can field enquiries.

Locations and permits

UAE is the filming hub connecting Asia and Europe. Within 300kms radius, you can find everything from modern cities to rocky mountains, and beaches and dunes.

Abu Dhabi’s attractiveness as a shooting location was clearly 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.

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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 deserts, the French and English language thriller Mirage, Sonic The HedgehogMission: Impossible - Fallout (where they filmed the famous HALO jump) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Dubai is rich in its locations as it provides all types of scenery along with the trademarks of Burj Khalifa, The Palm, Burj Al Arab, and Bluewater Islands amongst others. The overall planning of Dubai can cater to scenes of a futuristic nature, urban subcultures, desert landscapes, luxury lifestyles and along with humbly lived areas that are full of stories and texture, says Dania Salha Quaglio from Camouflage Production, who have been servicing a big production from a leading sports brand.

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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 at 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.

One of the most desired locations for filming this year is the World EXPO 2021 site, for which filming permits are managed by the Expo event organizers, says Jax Donaldson, executive producer from local production service providers Filmworks . Plus, there's also Dubai's amazing landmarks, such as the Burj Khlifa, Downtown district, and the world deepest swimming pool at Deep Dive Dubai, say Jay Nehme and Gabriel Chamoun, partner and CEO, respectively, at local production service providers The Talkies, who recently shot a 60” car ad in the city with 20 cars moving in full sync round a hero vehicle using a Russian arm.

“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, who are busy shooting car commercials in these Covid times. “But there are also deserts in Sharjah and Dubai with various shades of sand, and dramatic mountains that meet dunes up to 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.

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Hatta

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,” adds Chamoun at The Talkies.

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

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

Jarvinen from Filmworks also makes the important point that the UAE requires an entire script to be approved by the releveant authorities, not just the segments to be filmed in the UAE.

 

infrastructure and crew

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. 

Virtual production studios are also now found in the UAE, and two new VR studios have opened in Dubai, ushering in more opportunities and solutions to any production, says Quaglio from Camouflage Production.

 And all crew and types of equipment are available, including Bolt, Phantom, Russian Arm, Ultimate Arm, technocranes, drones etc.

The crew in UAE are very experienced. Most have worked on big movies, including Mission Impossible, Fast and Furious, Star Trek and Star Wars, which have all shot in the country.

The cast selection in the UAE is also enormous as it is one of the most diverse countries in the world that holds over 200 nationalities meaning you can find almost all types of ethnicities, adds Tamba from VIP FIlms

 

Size matters

 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. 

First contact:

Abu Dhabi: Jassim Al Nowais, manager, Abu Dhabi Film Commission, jassim.alnowais@film.gov.ae

Dubai: Iman Al Zaabi, assistant manager, Dubai Film and TV Commission, iman.alzaabi@filmdubai.gov.ae

 

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