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Homegrown Aliens

The UAE’s first feature-length sci-fi production was screened in theatres last month. Produced entirely in Dubai, the film is a visual treat and employs some of the latest tools and technology to create a futuristic experience for the audience. BroadcastPro ME speaks to director S.A. Zaidi about the journey of Aerials from concept to completion.

AerialsThe UAE’s first feature-length sci-fi production was screened in theatres last month. Produced entirely in Dubai, the film is a visual treat and employs some of the latest tools and technology to create a futuristic experience for the audience. BroadcastPro ME speaks to director S.A. Zaidi about the journey of Aerials from concept to completion

Produced and shot in Dubai, recently released film Aerials is being called the UAE’s first sci-fi feature. Directed by Dubai-raised S.A. Zaidi and produced by Emirati producer Ghanem Ghubash, the film hit theatres after almost three years in the making. The delay, the director-producer duo confirms, was mainly due to budget constraints. The two independently funded the film and produced it under their company, Fat Brothers Films.

When Zaidi and Ghubash decided to make a feature-length film, the die-hard sci-fi fans naturally chose to centre it on aliens. A massive alien spaceship is seen hovering over the Dubai skyline in the film, but it’s not an alien invasion story. A spaceship hovering over an American city is often seen in Hollywood films, but a spaceship over Burj Khalifa is a first.

The aliens don’t attack or destroy the city; their presence just brings about changes in the lives of the residents. An alien impact is created using a play of light and colour, without the use of violence or excessive action.

It is an experimental film, explains Zaidi, who sees it as part of his learning process. The producer-director duo worked on a short previously. Titled The Sons of Two Suns, it is a post apocalyptic science fiction film.

“I have been doing a lot of music videos previously and slowly moved on to make films. This film is a joint venture with my childhood friend Ghanem Ghubash. Our choice of movies and even music is influenced by science fiction. We bring a lot of surrealism to our work.”

He adds that he draws inspiration from director Roland Emmerich for his work. Slick cinematography and production design are the hallmarks of this film. It was shot in a house for most parts and a rich colour palette of the backdrop enhances the visual impact. The film’s script, however, left a lot to be desired.

The film was shot using four different cameras – the RED Dragon, the RED Epic, the Canon Mark III and the Blackmagic 2.5K Cinema Camera.

“We tried to do low-light shots using the RED Dragon. Its sensor catches the minimum amount of light in the room. The Mark III was used as a back-up camera and was also used on some night scenes. The Blackmagic 2.5K Cinema Camera was also used extensively for its sensor’s ability to shoot in low-light conditions,” Zaidi points out.

At any given time during the filming, two to three cameras were placed in specific positions on the set. In cinema, because of the wider screen, there are not too many options for camera placement.

“As far as the camera angles are concerned, usually, while framing a shot for cinema from top and bottom, there will be a cut. In TV, however, because of the constant ratio 16:9, you don’t worry about the cut. Keeping the cinemascope in mind, we are left with a very tight space from top to bottom to place the shot and can’t afford to go wrong with that if the movie has to go on the big cinema screen. Where you will go wrong is manual judgment, which can be minimised if you follow the conventional photography rules.”

The lenses used were specifically low aperture lenses.

“It was crucial to use the lowest possible aperture in order to control the light, the rest we could fix in post,” Zaidi says.

The Leica Summilux C lenses prime lenses were used to shoot the majority of the scenes, with Zeiss compact primes used for close-ups. The Red Dragon and Leica Summilux C lenses were provided by LFP Limbada Film, Production Equipment Trading & Rental. Cinematographer Asif Limbada of Limbada Film worked as the second unit DoP and provided some of the slow motion shots.

Production designer and editor Nina Sargsyan worked on special effects and colour grading.

“Our film needed a lot of electric colours, which were honed using DaVinci Resolve. If you are a colour grader, you won’t be able to realise the full potential of DaVinci unless you have spent at least five to six years on the software. In order to use DaVinci optimally, you need excellent lighting too. Without lighting, nothing works.

“That’s where we stand out; we have the understanding of how to bring the best colour out on the DaVinci. The right kind of colour and lighting give depth to a scene,” claims Zaidi.

Sargsyan has colour grading knowledge, Ghubash is a lighting expert and Zaidi has a good understanding of processing, he claims. The film does not use any artificial light, with 90% of it shot in natural light.

The use of cameras that ranged from 2K to 4K to 6K posed a challenge that needed to be fixed in post-production to stop the footage looking patchy. The final product, however, does not show any patches or obvious gradation, because of the way the film was processed.

Zaidi explains: “There is no noise in the film, because of the high-tech machines used to process the footage, such as the HP Z640 and the Z820 computers which have dual Intel Xeon processors, 44 cores and 512GB RAM. We used to use Macs before, but soon realised that Macs don’t have the power to support heavy graphics or grading.

“The highest processor a Mac offers is the Intel Core i7, which falls short in doing high production work. Most Macs don’t have an Intel Xeon and the only Mac that does have one has a single Intel Xeon; they don’t come with dual Intel Xeon processors. We worked with two Xeons in one computer, which turned it into a powerhouse and made the processing many times faster than an ordinary machine. This process is so power intensive that HP machines come equipped with liquid cooling to keep the temperature down,” adds Zaidi.

The key was to create a special equipment inventory that took care of all the technical needs of the film.

“If we didn’t have something, we had it custom-built for us. HP supplied us with the two Intel Xeons and 512GB RAM.”

The spaceship seen throughout the film was created using the Cinema 4D R15.

“It’s one of the best 3D software solutions out there. To achieve the best results, we used HP Dream Colour monitors, which show over a billion colours, whereas other cinema monitors are not capable of showing more than 20 million colours. There’s no point shooting your film with the best camera or colour grading it on the DaVinci Resolve unless you can visually or practically see what colours can be achieved from a footage. Dream Colour does just that. A lot of visual effects nominated at the Academy Awards had the advantage of a Dream Colour monitor,” Zaidi comments.

According to him, the Dream Colour monitor delivers eight million pixels and is the only global industry standard requirement out there. The 12GB graphics card used in the film is a NVIDIA Quadro K6000. At the time of procuring the equipment from HP, Fat Brothers Films was the only company in the Gulf Region with such a heavy graphics card requirement.

To make the editing flow easier, an HP Z Turbo Drive G2 was used. It is not provided in the commercial market and not many people are aware of it yet, but it made handling of the 4K files much smoother for the team. This helped the filmmakers process the spaceship in a matter of two to three hours. Zaidi says it would have taken at least three days to process the footage had it not been for the high-end machines and graphics cards.

To make the work more flexible, the team used HP ZBook mobile workstations, the same workstations used by NASA, since they are military and radiation tested and have become an essential part of space technology.

“We invested in mobile workstations because we work from different locations, but our office is at Creative City, Media Free Zone Fujairah. Using mobile workstations gave us the option to work from any location, even while we were on set,” explains Zaidi.

While DaVinci Resolve was used in the entire film’s colour grading, the spaceship scenes used Adobe After Effects CC to colour grade.

Zaidi explains that this is because “the scene required a bleach bypass colour processing to achieve a silver look, which Adobe After Effects CC handles better than DaVinci Resolve. If you are looking for a silver retention for your image, Adobe After Effects CC will give you a stronger bleach bypass process to achieve it, in comparison to DaVinci Resolve.

“We know how Hollywood is achieving their effects so much easier than people here. If we have the right encoder and the right processing power, we can achieve results in a fraction of the time that is spent otherwise on that particular project.”

The sound of the film was designed by Atif Ali at Playback Lounge Studios in JLT, Dubai. Audio was hard, comments Zaidi, and the filmmakers were not quite satisfied with the final sound effects. The main challenge was that the film was shot in a house.

“We had to use the right Sennheiser boom mics and Neumann studio mics, and control the studio environment for specific sound effects. We had limitations. We had the right technical equipment and needed to take our recordings to a facility that used Pro Tools. Playback Lounge Studios provided us with all of that. We used both recorded and dubbed sound as well as Sennheiser’s lapel mics for some scenes,” he says.

Dubai Film and TV Commission fast-tracked the permissions and PR support for the film and also gave social media and advertising support.

What next? The filmmakers are already working on their next

sci-fi project.

“We are trying to achieve a more character-based narrative, diverse storyline and strong character display. Aerials was a learning experience and we have taken some of the reviews and feedback from viewers to make our next film better. We will focus on the narrative more the next time around,” concludes the director.