Case Studies Production Features

Bringing Cirque live to TV audiences in Saudi Arabia

Hadi Ghanem, owner of Seven Production.

With an estimated audience of 200 million viewers watching the Saudi National Day celebrations on TV, the event became a global showcase, the biggest yet in MENA. The team at Seven Production was tasked with the coverage of this momentous occasion and the production of the first ever live broadcast of the spectacular Cirque du Soleil on MBC1.

September 23, 2018 saw Saudi Arabia erupt into a hive of activity as people took to the streets to celebrate the country’s 88th National Day. Celebrated singers Dalia Mubrak and Shamma Hamdan regaled audiences at City Walk, an open-air lifestyle destination by Meraas in the Kingdom, with their respective popular hits Qalbat Al Tawela and Mojaba, among others.

The General Authority for Entertainment marked the occasion in Riyadh by presenting Cirque du Soleil, in one of the Canadian entertainment company’s largest shows to date, and its first in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The event, attended by 27,000 guests, was organised by MBC Group and broadcast live on MBC1, a global first for Cirque du Soleil.

“We expanded our services within Saudi Arabia in line with the Crown Prince’s vision, and to be part of this history in the making” Hadi Ghanem, Owner, Seven Production

More than 120 cameras and 10 OB trucks were deployed across different parts of the Kingdom to capture and broadcast the National Day action live – a challenge met successfully by Seven Production, a broadcast services provider and production house based in Dubai with large operational facilities in both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

More than 10km of fibre cable was laid out at the stadium and everything had to be properly covered for safety. Work on the set-up began as early as September 10.

For Saudi Arabia, 2018 marks a watershed moment with several decrees being passed in the last few months to shed its ultra conservative image and open its doors to entertainment and international investment. In a landmark announcement, Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, declared that the Kingdom will spend $64bn over the next ten years to develop its entertainment sector, as part of the country’s Vision 2030. In related efforts, Saudi Arabia also lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas, leading to a raft of international and local partnerships and investments to develop its cinema and media infrastructure.

The country announced that it will host a whopping 5,000 live shows, concerts and festivals across its 56 cities this year to mark the onset of this era of greater cultural and social openness. In parallel, KSA has also witnessed another historic moment with women now being permitted to drive and assume high-profile positions in the corporate sector. With so many milestones and opportunities auguring positive change in the country, Saudi Arabia is poised for a cultural renaissance that was reflected in its National Day celebrations last month.

Cirque du Soleil’s debut in the Kingdom broke the record for the largest number of people attending in a single circus performance. Taking place at the King Fahd International Stadium on a tailormade 100m x 40m theatre designed and constructed especially for the occasion, the audience witnessed a blend of the latest technological innovations in stagecraft, large- scale video projections, special effects and fireworks with Cirque du Soleil’s signature style acrobatics.

Managing Director Pierre Tabet.

Intertwining storytelling with acrobatics, the Canadian company presented a visual masterpiece that included aerial silk, suspended pole, rotating ladder, German wheel, fire manipulation and Trampowall performances, as well as unicycle tricks, contemporary and hip-hop dance, electric motorcycle stunts and even a free-flying hoverboard illusion.

The show revolves around a tribe of nomads gathered on the desert dunes in search of an oasis, when a raging sandstorm sweeps across their encampment. The desert dwellers are whisked off to a surreal world and the wheels of the future begin to revolve. The encampment turns into a magical oasis where waterfalls flow upwards, and when the great falcon spreads its wings a new sun rises over the horizon.

The visual theme of the King Fahd International Stadium’s exterior was reminiscent of Bedouin tents. This design was explored on stage as well, thus creating a ‘theatre within a theatre’ experience. The four elements came into play, with the tent structures and four mashrabiya-inspired lanterns immersing the audience in a surreal realm where tradition inspires the future.

“It took one month to plan the logistics layout with MBC and Cirque du Soleil. We had 28 cameras installed around the venue to capture the show” Pierre Tabet, Managing Director, Seven Production

The set design was accentuated by bold architectural lighting that carved out dynamic visuals with graphic angular lines and geometric patterns. Drawing inspiration from the visual culture of Saudi Arabia and harnessing the power of video mapping, large-scale projections whisked the audience away to a surreal world brimming with historical and geographical references, as seen through the prism of Cirque du Soleil.

The event was watched by more than 200 million viewers worldwide, turning the Saudi National Day celebrations into a global event. Abdulrahman bin Nasser Al Khalifa, General Manager of Communications and official spokesperson of the General Entertainment Authority, commented in a release that the event provided “the Saudi audience with an enthralling international entertainment experience, mixed with locally-relevant content”.

Seven Production had five full days of rehearsal with the Cirque team to ensure a seamless workflow.

“This is part of the Authority’s efforts to attract and welcome the largest and most innovative entertainment and leisure companies to the Kingdom and facilitate business for them. These efforts are in addition to supporting a growing local sector, creating healthy competition between national companies to enrich the local entertainment scene,” he added.

The National Day celebrations last month required Seven to bring together all of its crew and equipment from both Dubai and Saudi to pull off a project of this scale. With a land mass of 2.14 million sq km, Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East with a population of 33 million, of which two-thirds are Saudi nationals. With all the changes this year, the National Day celebrations promised to be bigger, better and radically different from anything witnessed in the last four decades.

“The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia declared that his vision for 2030 for Saudi Arabia is that it becomes the heart of the Arab world, an investment powerhouse and a hub connecting three continents,” Hadi Ghanem, owner of Seven Production, tells BroadcastPro ME.

“We expanded our services within Saudi Arabia in line with the Crown Prince’s vision, and to be part of this history in the making. We opened three offices in the Kingdom across Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, as well as studios and warehouses to store specialist equipment. We even have two outside broadcast (OB) units wired with 12 and 18 cameras respectively, and both are based in Saudi Arabia the whole year round to cover productions.”

Managing Director Pierre Tabet, responsible for overseeing this project from start to finish says, “This was, by far, one of the biggest events in the MENA region in terms of scale and magnitude.”

Seven has built a reputation over the last couple of years for covering National Day events live in the GCC. But this journey required all of the resources and skill the team could muster.

A 100x40m theatre was erected for the occasion at the King Fahd stadium.

“Seven Production was the host broadcaster of the Saudi National Day celebrations last year, due to the level of skill and resources required to produce and broadcast an event of this scale. This year, we were again called to cover the celebrations, which were a combination of many different events taking place across 10 major locations within KSA. Alongside this was the first Cirque du Soleil in the Kingdom. As host broadcaster, we were tasked with filming and broadcasting all these events live on air.”

With the volume and scale of equipment and crew required to cover National Day celebrations, Seven was chosen because of its experience covering similar largescale events in other parts of the region.

Covering Cirque required a lot more planning as it was being hosted at the King Fahd football stadium, explains Tabet. More than 10km of fibre cable was laid out at the stadium and everything had to be properly covered for safety. Work on the set-up began as early as September 10.

Cirque du Soleil alone required one OB unit linked to a combination of 28 specialist ENG cameras. While Cirque and the VIPs attending the event were covered in 4K with special zoom lenses, the rest of the event was primarily covered in HD.

“It took one month to plan the logistics layout with MBC and Cirque du Soleil. We started cabling the venue on September 10. We had to secure all the cables to ensure that they were all covered and did not inconvenience people. Following that, we fixed all the cameras and did a full technical rehearsal for two days,” explains Tabet.

“We had 28 cameras installed around the venue to capture the show. The Cirque team came to the venue five days before the event, so we had five full days of rehearsal with them before the actual day to ensure that everything ran seamlessly. We had a combination of technical crew from Seven with an international creative crew from Cirque. We worked closely with their director and MBC’s director to ensure we were able to keep everybody’s requirements in mind. As we have had operations in Saudi Arabia for the last two years, we had most of the equipment here for this occasion.”

With security high, remote cameras were deployed in all VIP areas as a standard requirement, he adds. “We had eight brand-new Panasonic 4K camera systems deployed in the VIP rooms to ensure that we can capture the footage without inconveniencing the VIPs. This is what we do for all National Day celebrations.”

In addition, Seven ensured that each of the ten locations hosting the celebrations was covered with 12 to 14 cameras.

“We had an OB truck stationed at each location, so essentially we used 10 trucks for this shoot. Besides this, we had ENG cameras to take interviews and make reports. We used a combination of HD and 4K formats for this event, due to different protocol requirements and special filming angles. We also used technocranes and the Furio S2, which we now use extensively for work across the GCC,” explains Tabet.

“The client had their own criteria and specifications to which we needed to adhere. Everything from the type of equipment and the lenses that are being used to the manpower on-site had to be taken into account. We had planned for everything, including hidden cameras and wireless systems, along with the latest in HD and remote cameras in 4K.”

One key-piece of equipment that came in handy was the Ross Furio S2, says Tabet. This lift features a linear rail design for greater linearity, repeatability and reliability. The two-stage S2 lift provides 50cm of extension range, on a par with the original Furio legacy lift. Compatible with both the VR100 and VR600 heads, it can be paired with either the SE dolly or the BlackBird base to provide a much more affordable alternative for installations where the extra height or range of the SE lift is not required. This supports virtual tracking and is therefore ideal for virtual sets or augmented reality. It supports the fast and responsive FXhead and is controlled by the remote panbar or joystick control systems.

Tabet also lauds the company’s new investment – the Canon DIGISUPER 95 (XJ95x8.6B), a super-telephoto lens that provides a range of imaging possibilities that he says conventional field lenses cannot match. The XJ95x combines the widest focal length (8.6mm) of any field lens in the industry with a 95x zoom range that’s longer at the tele end. Through this extensive framing latitude, every dramatic on-site sensation can be captured – from the emotions of a capacity crowd to the triumphant smile of an individual goal scorer. This new-generation super-telephoto field lens is ideal for OB projects. One element Seven Production is particularly proud of is the fact that it pulled off the whole event without having to rely on any other service providers.

“We worked on this project solo, directly with Cirque du Soleil from Canada, and with the support of our broadcasting partner, MBC. We have had operations in Saudi Arabia for two years now, with a 1,500sqm studio facility in Riyadh and more in our other locations. With three office locations in the main cities of Saudi Arabia, two OB vans and technical crew stationed here all the time, we are fully equipped to undertake local projects. Of course, the National Day celebrations is a unique requirement and we needed to pull together all the resources we had.”

One of the biggest challenges Seven faced last year when covering the National Day was the logistics, says Tabet.

“The country is huge and the locations are so far away from each other that it was a logistical challenge. But having done it last year, we knew exactly what the challenges were so we planned way ahead of time to rule out any issues. Of course, every event has its own pace, and each year the concept and the content tend to change and we face new challenges. But technically, we were prepared for everything and it went smoothly,” explains Tabet, adding that Saudi Arabia is a challenge for everyone because nothing of this scale has been undertaken before in the country.

With 25 people stationed at its Saudi office and more than 100 staff in Dubai, Tabet says Seven had enough technical and creative teams to address a project of this scale.

“We did hire additional freelance creative and camera people from Saudi Arabia, but we tend to have all our technical crew internally. This is crucial,” he explains.

The second big challenge was that Cirque du Soleil had never been filmed at an outdoor venue before, or broadcast live on air.

“It is known to be an event that must be watched live, to really have the ‘wow’ experience. Our biggest challenge was to be able to capture the action in ways that will make TV viewers feel as if they were experiencing it live in the venue. This was a huge challenge, but again we pulled it off.”

The project head is proud that Seven has consistently invested in new equipment.

“The constant investment in the latest technology and equipment, such as our 4K system, is something that always enables us to remain ahead of everyone else. With operations in Saudi, UAE and Lebanon, we have been able to remain at the centre of the industry action.”