Case Studies Production Features

Pioneering Reality TV in the MENA region

Samer Arzouni, founder and MD at Spotlife Films Production on the sets of ‘I am a Nat Geo Photographer’.

Reality TV show I am a Nat Geo Photographer returned to National Geographic Abu Dhabi with a mission to nurture young photographers from the Arab world. The producers of the show, Spotlife Films Production, walk us through the nuts, bolts and nervous moments of creating the show.

The team at Spotlife Films Production was revisiting a five-year-old reality show and knew right away that they had to devise a fresh treatment. I am a Nat Geo Photographer is a four-part series produced by Dubai-based Spotlife Films Production for National Geographic Abu Dhabi. Four photographers from the MENA region come to Dubai to participate in different photography challenges until one is crowned the winner

“When we were approached to do the series again, we knew we had to give a completely new and fresh treatment to the production,” says Samer Arzouni, founder and MD at Spotlife Films Production. “We brainstormed ideas and got cracking at developing a format that would be different from anything in the market, a format that would have longevity and appeal in the local market and the potential to be picked up on the international market too.”

“[We aimed for] a format that would have longevity and appeal in the local market, and the potential to be picked up on the international market” Samer Arzouni, Founder and MD, Spotlife Films Production.

Arzouni is reportedly the only Arab director to have led a camera crew to Everest Base Camp, when he filmed 11 Emirati climbers as part of Mission Everest: The UAE Military Team during his seven-year stint with National Geographic channels. While following four photographers in the streets of the UAE is not akin to filming in sub-zero temperatures, reality TV has some exacting demands.

When Survivor and Big Brother premiered in 2000, the competitive reality show was an unknown concept – but by 2003, the Emmys had created an Outstanding Reality-Competition Programme award. In a cluttered field, any new show devised must be engaging, educational and fun to watch. Then the laundry list gets more onerous with the need for genuinely talented contestants, ingenious challenges, impressive guest judges and so on.

Elaborating on the new approach, Arzouni says: “We made sure that everything about the show is new, and that is reflected in the challenges and the shooting locations we chose for each of the challenges. We wanted to create a city-centric show and make it our playground. Dubai was our first choice, for its diversity and richness. The identity of the show made us look at an alternative image of Dubai.”

Sheherzad Kaleem, Producer at Spotlife.

The show is hosted by Saudi media personality Tariq Edrees. Professional photographer and publisher of Photo Egypt Marwa Abu Laila, features as the main judge. They are joined by actors and subject matter experts for each episode, based on the nature of the challenge, including martial arts expert Rio Altaie, fashion designer Faissal El-Malak and Los Angeles-trained actor Deepak Venugopal.

Every reality show must decide if it will be self-contained, with episodes that stand on their own, or if it will be an arced reality show with a storyline that connects every episode. But in this case, the Spotlife team decided to try a middle path.

Sheherzad Kaleem, Producer at Spotlife, explains: “We decided that this show will have no eliminations but be built on a point system. This approach gave all participants an equal shot at winning the series, and also gave them ample opportunities to be mentored by the judges that presided over each of the episodes.

“The photography challenges were built around different genres of photography and included portraits, architecture and fashion, sports and essay. The challenges grew in complexity from one round to the next, and the contestants had to have an in-depth understanding of the technicality of photography, equipment and editing software to retain any chance of winning the final title.” The logistics were taxing, Arzouni admits.

“One of the biggest challenges of producing a show like this, from a technical perspective, is media management. We had four contestants followed by either two or four camera crews, depending on the nature of the challenge. In addition to this was the actual footage that the photographers were capturing on their cameras. With the sheer volume of footage we filmed, we had to find the most efficient system to ensure that media and productivity were not lost, and we did this by setting up a team and a full edit suite in the studio and on set, to make sure we could streamline and organise the media.”

With a dynamic format, shooting required a specific workflow. Reality TV filming is about being in the middle of the action and wasting no time setting up, stresses Sheherzad.

“Flexibility in movement was key for us, and we needed to work with cameras that were of high quality but lightweight. Our cameras gave us that flexibility without compromising on quality. We filmed the entire series in standard 4K and got a fantastic range of footage to play around with. Everything had to be wireless and movable.”

There are inevitable hurdles, and this shoot was no different, Sheherzad reveals. In this case it was classic force majeure. No, it was not the typical sandstorm or fog that would unsettle an otherwise uneventful Dubai day. It was an unexpected rainstorm.

Sheherzad recalls: “A rainstorm came over Dubai unannounced on the day we were supposed to be shooting the fashion and architecture challenge in Dubai Design District. Our models, wearing designer clothing, were supposed to be modelling in an outdoor uncovered space. We had to flip the whole schedule and act fast to manage the situation. On a production such as this, where there are a lot of moving pieces, there was a lot that we had to look after and manage. And this is where a strong team comes to the rescue.”

Summarising the production, she says: “We spent a tough 10 days on set, where we worked almost round the clock to pull in all the elements of the show. Once the production phase was over, we dived right into post-production, which took a few months to complete. Each episode had to have the right amount of energy to keep the viewers’ interest but also be paced in a way that each character could be developed properly. We commissioned an original soundtrack for the series and spent a significant amount of time in colour grading, audio mixing and graphics.”

“This series was targeted at a young Arab audience, and the visual treatment of the show had to keep in line with that” Sheherzad Kaleem, Producer, Spotlife Films Production

A project of this magnitude needed a large, well-trained team, she stresses.

“We built a squad consisting of line producers, assistant directors, production coordinators, stylists, sound recordists, camera operators, DoP and many others to handle the in line with that. We brought in a range of equipment that would enable us to get creative with the angles and movement in the filming, such as jibs, smoke machines – the works. The studio and set were designed to be contemporary and industrial in their aesthetic.”

As for the post-production pipeline, the team decided on a linear workflow that shifted from offline editing on Adobe Premiere Pro on one machine to the online phase on another machine and then the final round without going back to Adobe Premiere.

Sheherzad explains: “This linear workflow allowed us to work independently on the episodes. While the online was finishing an episode, the offline would start cutting the next.

“Our shared storage also allowed for quick turnaround of rushes. The eight-bay RAID 6 was a perfect solution for sharing all the rushes with superb read/ write speed while at the same time creating redundancy.”

One of the unique challenges for the team, Sheherzad explains, was posed by the nature of the competition. “During the studio presentation of the contestants’ photos on screen, the TV display wasn’t giving a fair representation of the actual photos shot, so we tracked the screen and recreated the same camera movement then replaced the photos with the actual photos taken by the contestants.”

Besides the Everest shoot, Arzouni is a 12-year veteran of many iconic shoots in the region – but the Nat Geo reality show is special for him. He explains: “This was the first reality show of its kind in the region that we did as Spotlife Films Production. As a company, our niche is factual entertainment, reality tv and documentary. We believe in pushing the imagination of our clients and are always trying out new ways to do traditional things.”