Delivering the perfect punch

Episode 1 - Still 3White Collar Dxb, an observational documentary, created and produced by Dubai-based Nomad Productions, recently aired its first season on OSN. Producer Phil Griffiths shares more about the making of the show exclusively with Vibhuti Arora

A production house in Dubai recently created a reality series, which received rave reviews for its concept and production value. While tried and tested international reality formats have been adapted with great success, it’s not often that an original format created in the UAE sees the light of day.

Independent production houses in the UAE are heavily driven by corporate productions and not many venture out of their comfort zone – but Dubai-based Nomad Productions did just that, not only attempting something new, but also showing a facet of life in Dubai not witnessed by many before.

The six-part observational documentary series, White Collar Dxb, centres around a group of everyday white-collar workers in Dubai, who make a ife-changing journey to becoming champions of the boxing ring. Nomad Productions had previously worked on commissioned productions for OSN and National Geographic, but this series was produced in-house to be distributed in the MENA region as well as worldwide.

Phil Griffiths, Founder & Creative Director of Nomad Productions, says that creating the concept came quite naturally to him.

“We at Nomad do have corporate clients that we work closely with, but our core background is predominantly based within UK TV broadcast production. Therefore, it seemed only natural to try and develop homegrown TV broadcast productions in the UAE,” he says.

The idea took root when he and a colleague went to a White Collar Boxing event in Dubai and met with a few of the competitors. White Collar Boxing is a form of boxing where men and women in white collar professions train like professional boxers to fight in a special event.

More than the event itself, it was the various accounts of the fighters’ journeys that attracted the producers.

“The sacrifice, the pride and the pain intrigued us and made us think that it would be good to document that, and so we started developing the show,” Griffiths says.

Season 1 takes 50 white-collar workers from 34 different countries and whittles them down to two teams of eight, who compete against each other on one truly memorable White Collar Dxb Fight Night.

According to Griffiths, the series was a refreshing break from the usual TV content from the region, which centres around wealth and being the biggest, best and fastest.

“As a local production company, we wanted to create a show that showcased a true representation of the people and lives that make up the fabric of Dubai society. From an Emirati national recently returned from national service to a barman from the Philippines, an estate agent from New Zealand to an Uzbek web developer – we wanted to cover a large cross-section of backgrounds and lifestyles. This also made it all the more interesting, as we documented the friendships and rivalries that developed along the way.”

The series was shot on the Sony FS7 camera with Canon cinema lenses.

“We recently traded in all of our in-house cameras for FS7s and have absolutely no regrets. Of course, the RED and ALEXA cameras are wonderful pieces of machinery, but for me they are best suited for corporates and shoots which you have more time to prepare for and carry out.

“The Sony FS7 is, for me, the best camera for documentary filmmaking. It’s a small shoulder camera, perfect for guerilla-type filming. Yet it also has the ability to get those lovely shallow depth interview shots that a lot of shoulder cameras are not very good at. Moreover, it’s comparatively cheap, so if one gets broken, it’s not a complete financial disaster.”

Editing was done on Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects using Apple Mac Pros and MacBook Pros.

“Whilst I feel the Mac has turned its back on the professional media industry of late, FCP X being a pretty good example, MACs are still much more reliable than any PCs I’ve worked on – something that is key for high pressure, quick turnaround content,” explains Griffiths.

White Collar Dxb was mainly shot in gyms – Strength Gym in Al Quoz, KO Gym in Dubai Marina and Round10 in Al Quoz. The contestants were also filmed in their everyday lives, at home and in the workplace.

“The way we wanted to approach the filming was to get as close to the subject matter, and ingrained in the contestants’ experience, as possible. The intent was to create a reality show that looks as gritty and authentic as the content it depicts,” Griffiths says.

Outside the gyms for the individual contestant features, the show has the feel of a modern observational documentary, with crafted shots and slick colour correction. The series is full of de-saturated colours, blue and green tints and high contrast, creating a visual juxtaposition as evident as that between the contestants’ everyday lives and their new lives as boxers.

“Though scripted voice over narration is utilised, the aim was to get the core narrative thread through interviews with gym experts and White Collar Dxb contestants. This was done to give the show a more intimate and personable feel, with events being articulated and accounted by those best placed to tell them,” explains Griffiths.

At the White Collar Dxb trials, 50 male and female contestants were selected from hundreds of applicants and put through an unforgiving introduction to the world of boxing over a two-day period in the two competing gyms, Round 10 and KO. Of the 50 initial contestants, 24 were then selected to take part in the inaugural competition, undergoing an eight-week training period and competing for a chance to take part in one glorious Fight Night at the end of the series.

“With a core production team of only seven people, averaging between 15-20 hours per day, seven days a week, for three months, it was safe to say we were all completely broken and in need of a lengthy holiday from the whole ordeal,” comments Griffiths.

Using boxing as a vehicle, the producers wanted to bring about a genuine change in the lives of the contestants. Whether helping a make-up artist overcome her debilitating anxiety attacks, jolting a father of two into a better work-life balance, instilling confidence in a painfully shy salsa dancer or being the catalyst for a chef to quit the Dubai party scene and work towards being reunited with his seven-year-old son, it is a show made to encourage and enable contestants to literally fight for their lives.

“A production team meant everyone had to be working at their absolute limit at all times.

Any mistakes were magnified considerably,” says Griffiths.

The producers made sure the workflow was slick. Cards from the cameras were downloaded on location and then clipped into various themes. Interviews were logged and transcribed, and then there were three edits, each with different roles and tasks.

“The key for me is always the logging and clipping up. You can have the most creative and capable team of post-production, but if they haven’t been given the best clips and quotes, sorted in a user-friendly way, then you literally have no chance of serving up a good story. The workflow is the most important part of any production,” says Griffiths.

He adds that the team did not foresee the challenges they faced in the production.

“That goes for coaches, contestants and crew. It was brutal, but oddly enough, all of us were united by the difficulty and the subsequent rewarding nature of the whole ordeal. I’ve seen some of the contestants since, and it really is striking to hear how much they got out of it and how proud they were of having gone through it. It is genuinely the same emotion for the Nomad crew – though instead of getting more healthy throughout like the contestants, we got way less healthy. High stress, no sleep, copious amounts of coffee and junk food meant we weren’t exactly the picture of health that we were trying to promote through the show. Though in season two, we’re going to nail it!” says Griffiths.

The show will be in its second season soon. Next season, the production will comprise around 20 crew members. Rather than a six-episode format, it will be 12 episodes in the season.

“This will give us the chance to introduce more of Dubai’s colourful characters, delve more deeply into the characters and the back-stories of the coaching staff, and become far more analytical in terms of the White Collar Dxb fighters’ ability and progress. To top all that off, we’re aiming to be far more ambitious, and visual, with the Team Challenges that the show offers. This will more than likely result in more epic shoots, and more exhausted contestants,” Griffiths explains.

He also adds that season two will have a much bigger focus on digital. A production team will focus solely on creating and distributing online content and behind-the-scenes output, aiming to give the audience a more intimate fly-on-the-wall insight into the show and what the coaches and contestants go through over the 12-week period.

“We’re also looking to use season two to further integrate the audience into the show, by making them effectively a part of it, offering up regular tutorials in boxing, conditioning and nutrition via social media platforms, along with competitions for free lessons with the coaches.”

Nomad Productions intends to develop an app that allows the viewer to watch the best bits of the show, behind-the-scenes clips and tutorials, as well as follow the contestants’ vlogs and the specifics of their individual training regimes, along with nutritional intake and sports psychology learnings. It will effectively provide all of the tools for the viewer to go through the training experience themselves.