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.
"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.
Neighbouring Dubai has taken a less strict approach with regards to testing and social-distancing rules as it attempts to keep its tourist industry afloat, but PCR testing, social distancing, sanitisation and onsite nurses are standard on set.
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 opening of the Yas Creative Hub in late 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.
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.
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."
“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, email@example.com
Dubai: Iman Al Zaabi, assistant manager, Dubai Film and TV Commission, firstname.lastname@example.org