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Thu 4 Mar 2010 12:00 AM

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Bringing cities to life on screen

Saudi Arabia's Knowledge Economic City was brought to life in Dubai by Real Image Productions in a massive undertaking that included more than 300 people on set and 30 experts in post.

Bringing cities to life on screen
The city of KEC was brought to life at Real Image Productions.
Bringing cities to life on screen
The city of KEC was brought to life at Real Image Productions.
Bringing cities to life on screen
The Real Image team successfully transforms the green backdrop to a dynamic environment.
Bringing cities to life on screen
The Real Image team successfully transforms the green backdrop to a dynamic environment.
Bringing cities to life on screen
This one shot of horses flying in a hologramic style through an interactive museum required the team to model the horses, animate them and make their movement look real.
Bringing cities to life on screen
This one shot of horses flying in a hologramic style through an interactive museum required the team to model the horses, animate them and make their movement look real.
Bringing cities to life on screen
On location with the team at the Proaction studio in International Media Production Zone.
Bringing cities to life on screen
More than 30 people from Real Image Productions including architects, Maya specialists and special effects experts worked on the KEC project exclusively for two months.

Saudi Arabia's Knowledge Economic City was brought to life in Dubai by Real Image Productions in a massive undertaking that included more than 300 people on set and 30 experts in post.Most production houses would lug their crew and kit to Manhattan if they wanted to show the city - albeit briefly - in a TVC and a client's budget would immediately shoot through the roof. Dubai-based Real Image Productions, however, claims to do things differently as it has done all too often in the past.

Housed in a building in BurDubai, the Real Image Productions team is well known for creating whole cities at its desktop with the viewer not knowing the difference. It is this unique ability that helped the company win an unusually high-budget project recently to design and create a ten-minute video for Saudi Arabia's Knowledge Economic City (KEC).

KEC is a futuristic undertaking by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that will include a smart city unlike any in the Middle East. Designs are in place to build an entire ecosystem that will include academic organisations, residential and commercial centres, shopping malls as well as parks, roads and the infrastructure necessary to sustain a ‘futuristic' city.

However, this vision needed to be translated onto the screen so that Saudi Arabia could share its concept with others and it's Dubai-based agency Saracen chose Real Image Productions for the job.

Although the company has previously been associated strongly with post production, Real Image has worked hard in recent times with a re-branding exercise as well as several projects to shake off that perception by insisting that it also excels in production. However, it also concedes that the main reason for winning this job is the magic its team of architects, special effects staff and Maya specialists often recreate at their tables in Dubai. Interestingly, the entire footage was shot in the emirate of Dubai.

Aiham Ajib, creative director and managing partner of Real Image Productions justifies the choice of locale.

"We didn't shoot in Saudi Arabia because we were trying to recreate a city that does not exist at the moment. It would have been a logistical nightmare as the Kingdom does not have the right shopping centres or related infrastructure to match the concept. Dubai, by comparison, has it all whether it's a modern-looking shopping mall, supermarkets, an ultra urban landscape... you name it, Dubai has it," he explains.

Besides the main cast, handling 160 extras and the crew for eight days of the shoot also was much easier in Dubai, says Ajib.

The project itself made huge demands both from the production and post production teams, according to Ajib.

For one, as the project was for a client in Saudi Arabia, it was important that they found cast who had the "right look".

Besides this, dressing up more than 160 extras for eight days of the shoot and securing permissions to shoot in shopping malls, hypermarkets and hotels turned out to be both challenging and expensive.

"Most shopping malls and hypermarkets seem to be increasingly uncomfortable about crew shooting inside their facilities. One hypermarket gave us only half an hour to shoot in their premise as they did not want their shoppers to be disturbed. In one case, a hotel charged an unbelievably huge fee for shooting at its locale. But we needed a place that people could not easily recognise and this hotel fit the bill. We also shot in Zayed University, in a school and a hospital besides other places. It's easier to do all of this in Dubai," explains Ajib.

Real Image's specialty has often been filming people against a green screen and recreating the rest of it in post. This project again saw the company do this on a much larger scale.

"On an average day, we'd have around 300 people on set. We required a huge chroma studio to shoot. Proaction Media Services has a studio in International Media Production Zone (IMPZ) that we used," explains Ajib.

Real Image has a smaller studio at its facility in Dubai, where close-ups and smaller shots were filmed. While the company has its own in-house production crew including producers, assistant producers, cameramen and so on, this project also demanded other specialised skills. As a result, a DoP and director from Australia joined the project.

"We have our own production crew. However, the nature of the job demanded certain special skills and our director Kent Allen was someone who had also worked as a technical director on films like Lord of the Rings and King Kong. He was perfect for the job," says Ajib.

Real Image also boasts its own Sony HD 900 and the Panasonic HD Varicam cameras although other specialised production equipment such as the Technocrane, Steadicam and so on were mainly rented from Proaction.

One hundred and ten rolls of 35 mm film were used in the course of this project, and processed at the Kodak Cinelabs in Dubai.

Once the production was complete, Real Image's team of architects, special effects experts, Maya specialists and compositors came together to bring the whole city to life.

"We spent two months in post and our entire post production team, which is a 30-man army, worked on this project alone," explains Ajib.

While the whole city is based on CAD drawings and designs from KEC, the gaps were filled in by Real Image's architects in close collaboration with the developer.

"We had to create the whole city and two teams worked on this - the architectural team and the special effects team. Four of our architects handled the master plan and the camera overview of the city and the buildings. They did everything from designing to modelling to texture lighting and creating the final output. The special effects team, on the other hand, worked closely with our Maya experts to handle other parts of the project including the close-ups and the interior shots.There was one instance where horses were flying in a hologramic style through an interactive museum. It's only one shot but you have to model horses, animate them and make their movement look real. Likewise, there were several other shots of the cards and the museum that required equal attention to detail. Once each shot was complete, the compositors would then work on them. With only three months to do this job, it was clearly a race against time," explains Ajib.

While this project was hugely demanding, it quickly elevated Real Image's status in the industry as an even better post production house than before. More importantly, it also gave greater credibility to the company as a production house.

"This project was literally 10 jobs in one but it was very unique in that it pushed our own capabilities. Everyone who has seen the project so far has asked exactly the same question - ‘this was done in Dubai'? That is a matter of pride not just for us but for the emirate as a whole," explains Ajib.

Although Real Image is specialised in post, Ajib has several valid points on why a post house could also make good productions.

"When we are offered a post production job from a production house, we spend half the time correcting their mistakes," he explains.

"However, knowing what works and what does not in post, we are easily able to avoid these mistakes in production. Sometimes, a director will say, ‘It's not working, let them sort it out in post'. But there are some things you just cannot do in post.

"For instance, we had a job recently where we had to replace a blue man with a monster. We spent half the time erasing the blue person. In some cases, the blue man was interacting with other characters and it was impossible to erase him and we couldn't use that shot. It would have been better not to have the blue man in the first place.

"We could have just created the monster in post and let it interact with the other characters. This knowledge and experience makes us a much better production company as we don't waste time making those mistakes. You need to know how to do each shot and what can be corrected in post," he says.

Another constant challenge is light matching, according to Ajib.

"Of course, this is often resolved if the director is well versed with the post production side or has someone from post who can tell him what works or what does not," he adds.

Having said that Real Image's tools of the trade are mainly Maya, 3ds Max, Fusion, After Effects and the Quantel EQ.

"We are often asked why we don't use Flame. But if you have only one Flame and one Flame artist and 80 shots to work on, I don't think it's an efficient way to get the whole job done. We prefer to composite on Fusion and After Effects, and finalise everything on the EQ. It's more time efficient and on projects like this one, time was of essence," Ajib says.

According to the creative director, time management has been one key reason Real Image has always met its deadlines.

"We break down the shots, and then further break it down to each frame. I assign each job to each person and decide which shot must be done on which software. I do this purely based on experience and knowing each person's capacity," he explains.

"Each job goes into the pipeline. We make sure that when one job is completed and goes to the next person, the latter is not stuck doing something else. Sometimes we err but by and large, we have an effective mechanism in place. We are also careful to ensure that people invest their time well in the company and that they can also maintain their personal lives. This is often a concern in this job so we have tried to address this," adds Ajib.

With a team of more than 42 people, of which 30 work in post production, it would not be inaccurate to call Real Image Productions one of the largest production and post facilities in Dubai. Although the company began work in animation several years ago, it has relegated it to the background because of its inability to compete with Egypt, Syria or India on cost grounds.

"We also don't have a market here that appreciates high-quality animation," explains Ajib.

In the meantime, the KEC project has already won Real Image several accolades and jobs are pouring in from international clients.

"It's not easy to sit at your desktop and create Manhattan," Ajib is quick to add.

"The video looks right because it has been done right. The flexibility we offer, the amount of working hours we can put on a job at a time because of the number of people we have and the know-how, knowledge and experience we have in post production gives us a huge advantage and that, has reflected in this production. Although this project itself had a remarkable budget, we were able to do this work to the budget only because it was executed in Dubai. If you had to outsource even a portion of this work to international companies or shoot outside, the client's budget would have tripled instantly," explains the creative director.

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