Armed with a RED Camera and years of planning the perfect cinema debut, director Yousif Kooheji tells Supriya Srinivas how he ensured Taffash’s box office success was not just a stroke of luck.
In June 2017, when Arabic comedy adventure Taffash and the Forty Thieves was released on Eid Al-Fitr in Bahrain, the Hollywood movies showing were Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Wonder Woman, Despicable Me and Transformers – The Last Knight. According to figures endorsed by Bahrain Cinema Company (Cineco), the second Taffash film topped the box office for two whole weeks, selling more than 140,000 tickets in Bahrain alone. It is reportedly the first Bahraini movie to cover its costs.
“This was a record for any GCC-based film,” asserts Bahraini Director Yousif Kooheji.
“We are extremely proud to have vindicated the trust of the investors and the cinema owners who allowed the screening of the movie during the very busy period of Eid Al-Fitr. Taffash and the Forty Thieves was screened across cinema halls in the GCC during Eid and the movie remained in theatres for more than three months in all.”
In an hour-long conversation with BroadcastPro ME, Kooheji insists that it wasn’t luck that brought about the unprecedented Gulf-wide success of Taffash and its sequel. Armed with a degree in directing from the New York Film Academy in 2007, a young Kooheji had a production company to fall back on. The Hawar Centre, established by his father Ahmed Kooheji in 1993, specialises in Arab film distribution and providing content for inflight entertainment. Kooheji, however, decided not to plunge into filmmaking.
He recalls: “We began with TV episodes initially. The plan was to generate publicity and to create stars who could later market any film that we were planning. At the time, with less than 10 films having been produced in Bahrain, we lacked famous actors who could be considered as stars. After producing three seasons of a popular TV series and having achieved a degree of success with the audiences, we decided we were ready for cinema. We were not depending on luck. We had reached a point where we had confidence in our technical abilities and equipment and we had the stars to market the film.”
Taffash was conceived with wholesome entertainment as its primary driving force.
Kooheji offered a brief synopsis: “While the first movie revolves around the adventures of the male protagonist as he leaves his village to seek a cure for his sick wife, the sequel has the wife being kidnapped by pirates. The male protagonist is caught up in the pirates’ adventures, all in a bid to rescue his wife.
“We are planning a third edition to the franchise, and we are keen not to repeat ourselves. While part one was shot between Bahrain and India, part two was shot between Bahrain and Tunisia. For part three, we want to present something totally new in terms of vision, storyline and overall treatment of the movie.”
Why did audiences endorse the movie in droves, we asked Kooheji.
“The audience feedback was overwhelming. The general feedback we got was that the audience felt that they had watched a film with production values comparable to any A-grade Hollywood film, and not another TV series converted to a film. We, on our part, offered a cinematic experience of international standards in terms of sound, direction, acting and storytelling – in short, the entire package.”
“With the RED EPIC-W with HELIUM 8K sensor camera … we were shooting in pitch darkness and there was absolutely no noise at all” Yousif Kooheji, Director, AK Studios
The camera played a central role in getting the team technically prepared for their first feature film. Kooheji explains that the choice of camera was critical.
For the first Taffash movie, they used a RED EPIC with DRAGON 6K sensor, hired from a company in India. The camera’s capabilities were a revelation for Kooheji and his team.
“We shot the first film on 6K. After viewing the results on the big screen, I was absolutely amazed at the camera’s capabilities from its wide dynamic range to very high colour sensitivity. For the second movie in the Taffash franchise, part two was shot between Bahrain and Tunisia. For part three, we want to present something totally new in terms of vision, storyline and overall treatment of the movie.”
“We started shooting in February 2017, and the camera had just been released a few months prior to that. We were very lucky to be one of the first companies in the region to try the camera.
“There were a lot of reasons why we chose the EPIC-W camera over and above any competitor in the market to tell our story. With the EPIC-W, we were shooting raw, but the file size was compressed. Not only did this allow for efficient storage, but shooting raw gave us a lot of flexibility with colours in post-production without losing any details in the image. That is a big advantage. Moreover, the dynamic range of the camera was impressive. Overall, the results on the big screen were absolutely fabulous.
“When it came to editing, initially we edited raw footage and the system began to lag slightly. We then transcoded it offline and once editing was over, we took the offline to the DaVinci Resolve platform and converted it to the online version to do the colour correction. This was literally a click of a button and there was no complication.
“One of the big reasons why we chose RED was because the technology was brand new, the sensor having been released early in 2017. And with all the upgrade programmes from RED, we are future-proof.
“There was a huge difference between the earlier RED camera and the RED EPIC-W with HELIUM 8K sensor in terms of comparative noise levels. There was noticeable noise with the RED EPIC DRAGON 6K although it could be tackled effectively in post-production. And the result in the cinema was perfect. But with the EPIC-W camera and the OLPF (optical low-pass filter) that we installed, we were shooting in pitch darkness and there was absolutely no noise at all. The OLPF helps provide excellent colour and tone reproduction in dim environments.
“My DOP was amazed at how the camera was dealing with noise in such low-light conditions.”
Apart from the RED cameras, another element in production was customised lighting solutions.
Kooheji elaborates: “For production itself, we used a mixture of lighting, ranging from ARRI HMIs to a new line of LED lights from India-based Canara Lighting. They manufactured the lighting according to our temperature specifications, and it was refreshing working with a company that offered customised solutions. For post, we used solutions from Avid and we did colour correction in Egypt with DaVinci Resolve.
“We were not depending on luck. We had reached a point where we had confidence in our technical abilities and equipment, and we had the stars to market the film” Yousif Kooheji, Director, AK Studios
“For audio, we used Pro Tools. It was the first movie made in Bahrain with surround sound. The mixing was done by us at our own AK Studios facility in Bahrain, a production house we established in 2013 for television and advertising content creation.”
Optimistic about the possibility of Arab content finding a global audience, Kooheji underscores the importance of studying the market before plunging into filmmaking.
“We have the writers and producers, but we need to study the market in terms of what genre will work. The audience does not go to the cinema hall to watch problems, be it political or domestic, that they face anyway in their everyday life. If we deliver entertainment, there is a big market out there. We need to think outside the box to deliver a message while being entertaining.”
Financing future editions of Taffash or other movies is happily not a problem for Kooheji, with the success of the first two movies.
“We have had three offers, from the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, to produce films. The stories from the Gulf are waiting to be told.
“As Arab content creators, we are still at the beginning. Hollywood enjoys more than 70, 80 or even 100 years of experience. With Taffash, we have managed to win over the trust of the audience. Now it is the time to continue and deliver.”