Q&A with Robbie McAree, executive producer at UAE-based Epic Films

McAree talks to KFTV about how they assisted with the UAE desert shoot for Denis Villeneuve’s epic Dune, starring Timothee Chalamet, the region’s attractions and the Covid situation

Robbie McAree, executive producer of UAE-based production service providers Epic Films, talks to KFTV about how they assisted with the UAE desert shoot for Denis Villeneuve’s epic Dune, the region’s attractions and the Covid situation...

Can you please provide a bit of background about Epic Films and the services you provide?

We established Epic Films a decade ago back in 2012 when I noticed a bit of a niche in the UAE market. Whilst there were several well-established production companies already set up here, most of them were predominantly producing local work with ad agencies. However, the country was becoming more and more popular with international producers and clients. Naturally they would need local service companies to assist and while most existing UAE production companies would offer facilitation, they didn’t necessarily specialise in it. That's where the idea of Epic Films was born; A UAE-based film production service company that focuses and specialises in servicing alone.

I’ve lived in the UAE since 1993, so I like to think that I have a slight advantage when it comes to knowing how things work here. We have offices in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi and cater to all types of productions from advertising TVCs, music videos and documentaries to TV series and features. We’re licensed in Abu Dhabi and can facilitate the 30% cash rebate that the Abu Dhabi Film Commission offer for qualifying production spend in the capital. 

We know that one of the main deciding factors for internationals choosing to shoot in the UAE is locations, and with the UAE ever expanding we have an in-house scout team that is working non-stop to find the latest hidden gems. That means when a pitch comes along we can present fresh locations from our database. 

What is the latest situation with Covid in the UAE?

Since the beginning of the pandemic the UAE has done a stellar job. The country adapted strict testing and safety measures from the get go, and we had restrictions and guidelines relatively early compared to many other countries. The UAE is a huge tourism destination so it was important for the government to get things back on track without jeopardising safety. We collaborated with other local producers & production companies as well as both film commissions (Dubai Film & TV Commission and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission) to collectively develop comprehensive guidelines. The UAE also developed a COVID mobile application (“ALHOSN”) with a traffic light system. It’s directly linked to your passport and mobile number so contains all vaccination and PCR testing history. This approach has meant that the positive cases have plummeted, and we safely enjoy a life and industry with minimal restrictions.

Can you tell me about your work on Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-winning epic film Dune?

Legendary first approached us a couple of years ago when they were scouting and prepping for Warner Bros.' Dune part 1. They were looking for interesting worlds and we tickled their fancy after sending them an overview locations presentation of the UAE with pictures we had on our database. People think of the UAE as high-rise skyscrapers and pristine beaches, but there’s a lot more to it. A few weeks later one of their producers was on a plane and we arranged a physical scout trip. Originally they were looking for terrain where sandy dunes met rocky mountains, and the Emirate of Sharjah (about 1.5 hours drive from Dubai) offers that, but is unfortunately no match for what Jordan has. As things developed, and after several more recces, we wanted to show Denis our crème de la crème; the majestic and endless dunes of Liwa, Abu Dhabi, in the empty quarter. In my personal opinion, the decision was probably set in stone as soon as they first saw it. It is jaw dropping.

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Denis Villeneuve on the dunes of Liwa for Warner Bros.' Dune

I’m a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve, and it was an absolute pleasure to see him work. He has a meticulous attention to detail for his vision, so much so that he wanted to shoot the Liwa dunes in the middle of our summer, where generally, the skies in the UAE are greyer and have a distinct summer haze. As you can imagine this in itself is a challenge, since temperatures reach above 50°C during the day with the average humidity at 55%. However, we made a plan to adapt, and scheduled to shoot in the cooler hours of the early mornings and later afternoons so that the crew (and equipment) could escape the middle hours of the summer days.

It certainly wasn’t easy, perhaps more so for the international crew, many of whom hadn’t experienced the temperatures we faced, but we adapted. We even erected temporary, air-conditioned mini mobile hangers for our helicopters for when they were parked at base in the desert. There’s a lot to think about when your’e working in conditions like that, most importantly and foremost is the safety of the crew and cast. Heat stroke and dehydration is dangerous, so we had to be cautious and keep everyone well-informed. 

But there’s also challenges that perhaps people wouldn’t know about, like making sure you wore proper heavy-duty shoes that had high ankles so hot sand wouldn’t get into your socks and burn your feet. In fact I remember having to replace my shoes mid-shoot because the glue holding the soles on had melted, causing the soles to fall off. Intense heat, wind and fine sand isn’t welcoming for equipment either so everything needed constant and extra attention. Overall the project was a massive success, and great fun to work on. 

The local industry is still booming so there’s a lot happening at the moment. We recently serviced another studio on a 5-part limited series soon to be released. This was shot during the unfortunate peak of the Omicron variant and was challenging just because of that. We established a shooting bubble for our cast and crew and avoided mixing with anyone outside of that bubble. That coupled with daily PCR testing and other strict measures meant that we were able to finish the project successfully. 

One of our Epic production teams wrapped up a fashion film a few weeks ago for a German brand and jumped straight onto the next project; a TVC for an international travel website showcasing the luxury and tranquility that the UAE has to offer. We’ve been shooting all over the country including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and also the Emirate of Sharjah.

We’re also at the scouting stage of two separate long-form projects, and in initial discussions for a third. 

Why is Dubai (and more broadly the UAE) such a great shooting location?  

How much time do you have? It’s a combination of many things. Firstly, the variety of locations and landscapes available here within a small geographic area… futuristic skyscrapers and architecture, brand new tarmac roads running through glass business districts, modern bridges, untouched sand dunes, urban residential areas, pristine beaches, mountain roads, Arabian cultural sites, the list goes on. Plus, the local crew here are extremely experienced and that’s partly down to a huge variety of international productions coming here; the crew have been exposed to so many different styles and standards, from Hollywood to Bollywood to independent to Netflix and alike.

width=640

width=640

Geographically speaking the UAE is conveniently situated, with two major international airports linking it to the rest of world by award-wining airlines. It’s a tourist hub so most nationalities don’t require visas.

Local gear houses invest heavily to ensure that we have the latest equipment and its extremely rare that we get asked for a specific piece of equipment that we can’t provide.

Then of course there are the incentives. There are two Film Commissions in the UAE and their offerings differ slightly. Whilst the Dubai Film & TV Commission doesn’t offer a hard rebate, they get involved with projects and arrange soft incentives such as the wavering of normally extensive location fees, as well as package deals on their impressive sound stages. The Abu Dhabi Film Commission on the other hand offers a generous hard cash rebate of up to 30% on qualifying local spend. Abu Dhabi is also investing millions into the production industry and is currently in the planning stages of building several massive sound stages, an underwater tank, virtual studios and much more. We also have tremendous support from other local government entities such the police, roads authority and the military.  

I think one of the reasons that the industry is steadily getting busier and busier is the fact that once people shoot here and get a proper sense of what we have to offer they often keep coming back, but more importantly the news travels within the international industry. Word of mouth is hugely important. 

Which are the stand-out locations and why?

This is a tough one. The dunes of Liwa in the empty quarter have to be up there and have been selected for several international films such as Dune part 1, Star Wars: The Force Awakens', Fast & Furious 7 and Sonic The Hedgehog. There is nothing quite like Liwa considering the size/height of the dunes and the expanse of the geographical area. However, I also love the futuristic buildings that Dubai offers such as Meydan, which also happens to be where the Dubai World Cup is held each year. The unusual and modern main building are like nothing I’ve ever seen and producers of Star Trek: Beyond thought the same considering part of the film was shot there. 

How do you see the film, TV and commercials landscape changing over the coming months? Have any lessons been learned from Covid?

Covid has definitely changed the world overall and I think we’ve all surprised ourselves on how much we can get done remotely. We did a remote shoot last year where our clients were sat in their homes in LA watching a live streamed image from our set in Dubai and giving real time feedback. We’re human so it’s our natural instinct to adapt to different situations. Overall, I think we’re all a bit more aware, firstly for safety but also how quickly things can change and suddenly work comes to a sudden halt.

I think one positive that has come out of this horrible situation is that people now appreciate content even more. Now that the world is returning to a sense of normality there is an enthusiastic rush to produce engaging content, which is obviously a huge bonus for the film industry. 

Homepage image: Robbie McAree and Amanda Confavreux (the other Epic Films servicing producer that worked on Dune) scouting the Liwa Dunes

Q&A with Robbie McAree, executive producer at UAE-based Epic Films
Robbie McAree
Q&A with Robbie McAree, executive producer at UAE-based Epic Films
Robbie McAree

Robbie McAree, executive producer of UAE-based production service providers Epic Films, talks to KFTV about how they assisted with the UAE desert shoot for Denis Villeneuve’s epic Dune, the region’s attractions and the Covid situation...

Can you please provide a bit of background about Epic Films and the services you provide?

We established Epic Films a decade ago back in 2012 when I noticed a bit of a niche in the UAE market. Whilst there were several well-established production companies already set up here, most of them were predominantly producing local work with ad agencies. However, the country was becoming more and more popular with international producers and clients. Naturally they would need local service companies to assist and while most existing UAE production companies would offer facilitation, they didn’t necessarily specialise in it. That's where the idea of Epic Films was born; A UAE-based film production service company that focuses and specialises in servicing alone.

I’ve lived in the UAE since 1993, so I like to think that I have a slight advantage when it comes to knowing how things work here. We have offices in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi and cater to all types of productions from advertising TVCs, music videos and documentaries to TV series and features. We’re licensed in Abu Dhabi and can facilitate the 30% cash rebate that the Abu Dhabi Film Commission offer for qualifying production spend in the capital. 

We know that one of the main deciding factors for internationals choosing to shoot in the UAE is locations, and with the UAE ever expanding we have an in-house scout team that is working non-stop to find the latest hidden gems. That means when a pitch comes along we can present fresh locations from our database. 

What is the latest situation with Covid in the UAE?

Since the beginning of the pandemic the UAE has done a stellar job. The country adapted strict testing and safety measures from the get go, and we had restrictions and guidelines relatively early compared to many other countries. The UAE is a huge tourism destination so it was important for the government to get things back on track without jeopardising safety. We collaborated with other local producers & production companies as well as both film commissions (Dubai Film & TV Commission and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission) to collectively develop comprehensive guidelines. The UAE also developed a COVID mobile application (“ALHOSN”) with a traffic light system. It’s directly linked to your passport and mobile number so contains all vaccination and PCR testing history. This approach has meant that the positive cases have plummeted, and we safely enjoy a life and industry with minimal restrictions.

Can you tell me about your work on Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-winning epic film Dune?

Legendary first approached us a couple of years ago when they were scouting and prepping for Warner Bros.' Dune part 1. They were looking for interesting worlds and we tickled their fancy after sending them an overview locations presentation of the UAE with pictures we had on our database. People think of the UAE as high-rise skyscrapers and pristine beaches, but there’s a lot more to it. A few weeks later one of their producers was on a plane and we arranged a physical scout trip. Originally they were looking for terrain where sandy dunes met rocky mountains, and the Emirate of Sharjah (about 1.5 hours drive from Dubai) offers that, but is unfortunately no match for what Jordan has. As things developed, and after several more recces, we wanted to show Denis our crème de la crème; the majestic and endless dunes of Liwa, Abu Dhabi, in the empty quarter. In my personal opinion, the decision was probably set in stone as soon as they first saw it. It is jaw dropping.

width=1000

Denis Villeneuve on the dunes of Liwa for Warner Bros.' Dune

I’m a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve, and it was an absolute pleasure to see him work. He has a meticulous attention to detail for his vision, so much so that he wanted to shoot the Liwa dunes in the middle of our summer, where generally, the skies in the UAE are greyer and have a distinct summer haze. As you can imagine this in itself is a challenge, since temperatures reach above 50°C during the day with the average humidity at 55%. However, we made a plan to adapt, and scheduled to shoot in the cooler hours of the early mornings and later afternoons so that the crew (and equipment) could escape the middle hours of the summer days.

It certainly wasn’t easy, perhaps more so for the international crew, many of whom hadn’t experienced the temperatures we faced, but we adapted. We even erected temporary, air-conditioned mini mobile hangers for our helicopters for when they were parked at base in the desert. There’s a lot to think about when your’e working in conditions like that, most importantly and foremost is the safety of the crew and cast. Heat stroke and dehydration is dangerous, so we had to be cautious and keep everyone well-informed. 

But there’s also challenges that perhaps people wouldn’t know about, like making sure you wore proper heavy-duty shoes that had high ankles so hot sand wouldn’t get into your socks and burn your feet. In fact I remember having to replace my shoes mid-shoot because the glue holding the soles on had melted, causing the soles to fall off. Intense heat, wind and fine sand isn’t welcoming for equipment either so everything needed constant and extra attention. Overall the project was a massive success, and great fun to work on. 

The local industry is still booming so there’s a lot happening at the moment. We recently serviced another studio on a 5-part limited series soon to be released. This was shot during the unfortunate peak of the Omicron variant and was challenging just because of that. We established a shooting bubble for our cast and crew and avoided mixing with anyone outside of that bubble. That coupled with daily PCR testing and other strict measures meant that we were able to finish the project successfully. 

One of our Epic production teams wrapped up a fashion film a few weeks ago for a German brand and jumped straight onto the next project; a TVC for an international travel website showcasing the luxury and tranquility that the UAE has to offer. We’ve been shooting all over the country including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and also the Emirate of Sharjah.

We’re also at the scouting stage of two separate long-form projects, and in initial discussions for a third. 

Why is Dubai (and more broadly the UAE) such a great shooting location?  

How much time do you have? It’s a combination of many things. Firstly, the variety of locations and landscapes available here within a small geographic area… futuristic skyscrapers and architecture, brand new tarmac roads running through glass business districts, modern bridges, untouched sand dunes, urban residential areas, pristine beaches, mountain roads, Arabian cultural sites, the list goes on. Plus, the local crew here are extremely experienced and that’s partly down to a huge variety of international productions coming here; the crew have been exposed to so many different styles and standards, from Hollywood to Bollywood to independent to Netflix and alike.

width=640

width=640

Geographically speaking the UAE is conveniently situated, with two major international airports linking it to the rest of world by award-wining airlines. It’s a tourist hub so most nationalities don’t require visas.

Local gear houses invest heavily to ensure that we have the latest equipment and its extremely rare that we get asked for a specific piece of equipment that we can’t provide.

Then of course there are the incentives. There are two Film Commissions in the UAE and their offerings differ slightly. Whilst the Dubai Film & TV Commission doesn’t offer a hard rebate, they get involved with projects and arrange soft incentives such as the wavering of normally extensive location fees, as well as package deals on their impressive sound stages. The Abu Dhabi Film Commission on the other hand offers a generous hard cash rebate of up to 30% on qualifying local spend. Abu Dhabi is also investing millions into the production industry and is currently in the planning stages of building several massive sound stages, an underwater tank, virtual studios and much more. We also have tremendous support from other local government entities such the police, roads authority and the military.  

I think one of the reasons that the industry is steadily getting busier and busier is the fact that once people shoot here and get a proper sense of what we have to offer they often keep coming back, but more importantly the news travels within the international industry. Word of mouth is hugely important. 

Which are the stand-out locations and why?

This is a tough one. The dunes of Liwa in the empty quarter have to be up there and have been selected for several international films such as Dune part 1, Star Wars: The Force Awakens', Fast & Furious 7 and Sonic The Hedgehog. There is nothing quite like Liwa considering the size/height of the dunes and the expanse of the geographical area. However, I also love the futuristic buildings that Dubai offers such as Meydan, which also happens to be where the Dubai World Cup is held each year. The unusual and modern main building are like nothing I’ve ever seen and producers of Star Trek: Beyond thought the same considering part of the film was shot there. 

How do you see the film, TV and commercials landscape changing over the coming months? Have any lessons been learned from Covid?

Covid has definitely changed the world overall and I think we’ve all surprised ourselves on how much we can get done remotely. We did a remote shoot last year where our clients were sat in their homes in LA watching a live streamed image from our set in Dubai and giving real time feedback. We’re human so it’s our natural instinct to adapt to different situations. Overall, I think we’re all a bit more aware, firstly for safety but also how quickly things can change and suddenly work comes to a sudden halt.

I think one positive that has come out of this horrible situation is that people now appreciate content even more. Now that the world is returning to a sense of normality there is an enthusiastic rush to produce engaging content, which is obviously a huge bonus for the film industry. 

Homepage image: Robbie McAree and Amanda Confavreux (the other Epic Films servicing producer that worked on Dune) scouting the Liwa Dunes

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