By Vijaya Cherian
While the whole of the ad industry swears by film, there is one director that has confidently shot on tape and produced award-winning commercials since 1994. Digital Studio speaks to director Arshad Yusuf Pathan about his winning formula and his readiness to now venture into motion pictures.
I|~|cover1.jpg|~|The production team at the poplar Tube Station, Uk for the Khaleej Times shoot|~|If you have been to the theatres in Dubai any time in the last five years, you are likely to have seen the Khaleej Times commercial at least once. It’s ‘as good as being there’, runs the advertisement for the Dubai-run newspaper. Anyone who has seen this commercial even once is not likely to forget it. Although some may argue that the concept itself does not add much value to the newspaper, the audio-visual effects in this commercial have had a very high recall value.
The advertisement shows a man in a bathrobe, sitting in his yacht and reading or rather ‘interacting’ with his newspaper, where each picture in the paper seems to come alive as if it is happening right in front of the reader. There is, for instance, the picture of a cup of coffee in the paper — an advertisement for Nescafé perhaps — in the next cut, the cup seems to come right out of the paper and the actor tries to make a grab for it. In the next cut, the cup is back on the paper again.
Today, such advertisements are common but back in 1994, when this commercial was first made, this was a fairly new concept. “This is precisely what we set out to do with this advertisement,” says Arshad Yusuf Pathan. “We just wanted to give Khaleej Times visibility. Up until then, the ad film world was all about selling things — whether it was a biscuit, a chocolate or an ice cream. But how do you sell a newspaper here, where no investigative reporting was being done at that time. Most stories were syndicated. I realised my commercial would have to be gimmicky so the idea was to just catch the attention of the viewer, and that, I have achieved.”
The achievement was certainly no mean feat. For the first time in the region, somebody had attempted an ‘interactive’ commercial, in this case, where the actor interacts with the newspaper. This was also perhaps the first time somebody had dared to go with tape instead of 35 mm. More importantly, Pathan was pretty much the cameraman, director, lighting director and editor on this commercial.
“I was up against 15 ad agencies for this project,” he says. “I co-wrote the concept with a friend of mine. Khaleej Times liked the idea and then, they let me do it my way.”
With a degree in motion picture direction from Columbia College in Hollywood, and having trained under Vilmos Zigmond of The River and Sliver fame, and Alan Daveau, Steven Spielberg’s former cinematographer, Pathan was confident that he would make a successful commercial. ||**||II|~|cover2.jpg|~|Pathan briefs actor Junaid Jamshed before a shoot.|~|Location scouting for the film took the team to the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club. “There was a yacht parked next to the Boardwalk. It belonged to a Dubai-based industrialist, who wanted to sell the yacht. He thought if it was featured in a commercial, it would probably be easier for him to sell it so he allowed us to shoot on it,” says Pathan.
The filming itself was smooth sailing and was completed in a day owing to extensive preparations prior to the shoot. “The whole thing was shot on the yacht from 4 am to 5 pm one day. As the whole story was supposed to happen within the duration of 15 minutes to half an hour — the time you spend with a newspaper — I spend a few days prior to the shoot on the yacht, studying the direction of the sun so that I could calculate which shot to take first, second and so on, so that it could look like it was all happening together,” explains Pathan.
What has been most significant, however, is that Pathan deviated from the norm by using Beta SP tape instead of film for shooting the commercial. When he got the green light, he rented a Betacam SP for the shoot. “A lot of people told me that advertisements here are shot on 35 mm and they discouraged me from using it. But it’s not just the medium that counts but how you use it as well,” he says.
To ensure, however, that he could approximate to the film look, Pathan used, what he calls, a ‘three-pronged approach’. For one, he says it is important to understand lighting while shooting a film. “When people shoot for a feature film, they apply the film techniques of lighting. ||**||III|~||~||~|However, most cinematographers, who shoot for video come from a TV background and don’t necessarily understanding lighting. As a result, they don’t know how to create depth in a scene through lighting,” he says. Secondly, he says it is important to understand ‘what electronics can do to an image and try to cheat it’.
“It’s almost like you are trying to bluff the camera into giving you the film look,” he says, adding that his training under Daveau and Zigmond helped him understand these techniques better. Thirdly, Pathan opted for a 4000 line resolution where most people would opt for an 800 line resolution. “It’s more expensive but it works well.”
However, as the solutions for tape to film transfer were not available in Dubai back then, Pathan took the tape to VTR London to do the transfer. “That was the start of a long term friendship between VTR and me,” Pathan explains. He says that gradually more film makers in the UK were beginning to explore the possibility of doing tape to film transfers. “When the results of the transfer were viewed at VTR, it decided to make the footage a part of its show reel so that it could demonstrate to clients how tape could also possibly give the celluloid flavour,” he says.
The advertisement won the award for best commercial at the Hollywood Radio & TV Society Awards in 1995. “The reason why this advertisement was lauded at that time was because it was ahead of its time,” explains Pathan. “The interactive technique was new. We used tape, which was more cost-effective. More importantly, composite images were becoming important at this time with the advent of digital technology and we found that we could easily create multi-generation images without any loss in quality for this commercial,” he adds. For Pathan, the award was a big victory after the disappointment of working in the Middle East, where, according to him, the only directors were the ex-creatives of ad agencies or the ex-cameramen of TV stations.” ||**||IV|~||~||~|When he came to Dubai, armed with a degree in motion picture direction, Pathan had expected a warm welcome. Instead, people asked for ‘local experience’ before they trusted him with a project. “It was like saying ‘we don’t care if you have been trained in NASA but if you haven’t launched a rocket from here, you can’t be good enough’,” says Pathan. After being relegated initially to working on foreign-imported commercials and making audio-visual changes to them to adapt them to the UAE market, Pathan moved ahead to full time ad making. “I don’t regret that period, although I was just doing a lot of patchwork. It was a great learning process, and it taught me some of the dos and don’ts of ad making,” he adds.
All of the commercials that Pathan has worked on since 1994 have been experiments in technique and with new technology — whether at the production or post phase. “I have never shied away from using new techniques,” says Pathan. “If you know your basics well, you can use different combinations of technology and ultimately arrive at your own style,” he explains.
With the first Khaleej Times commercial, Pathan was dabbling in compositing, graphic illusions and other techniques in post. When in 1998, he was asked to do a commercial for the Dubai-based jewellery group, Al Haseena, he opted for a cleaner approach. “There were lot of love stories being made internationally at that time and I also wanted to do a love story but with a twist. The Al Haseena ad shows no physical contact between the lovers and barely any visual contact either. Still, it creates a romantic feeling while simultaneously preserving the values of the East,” says Pathan.
The whole commercial, which centred on a Bedouin family, was shot at a farm in Al Awir, Dubai — this time, on a digi-beta camera. “We brought in a Sony camera from London to shoot this commercial,” says Pathan. Colour correction was done at VTR again and for post, a Quantel edit box was used. However, boxed solutions were becoming available for editing in Dubai as well at that time. As a result, the final editing for Al Haseena and the second Khaleej Times commercial, an extension of the first theme, were done at Mumtaz Vision, Pathan’s production house in Dubai Media City.
“Al Haseena was significant because it was the first 16:9 commercial, which was transferred to film whereas the first Khaleej Times ad was done on 4:3. True anamorphic 16:9 adds that resolution to film. If you see this commercial in cinema houses, you will be able to appreciate its quality,” he says. At the same time, he denies that the average theatre goer will be able to tell the difference between a commercial shot on film or tape. In fact, he is confident that even a trained eye may not be able to say for certain if his commercial was shot on tape. ||**||V|~||~||~|“But that depends also on the bulbs used in the projector to show these commercials,” he defends. “In theatres, there is a tendency to use a second projector to show commercials and those usually have older bulbs. But if you see it in a proper theatre, you’d probably not be able to tell the difference,” he claims.In November 2000, Pathan worked on an extension of the Khaleej Times commercial as the previous one had run for five years. Only this time, instead of interacting with the newspaper, he got the actor involved in the stories themselves. “In the first commercial, we had reached out to audiences between the ages of six and 60. In the second, we had a much younger audience in mind ... the guy who watches these big tricks on his DVD and has a surround sound system.”
Again, while the marketing strategy merits no discussion, from a production point of view, this is a film worth looking at. Shot in the United Kingdom at the London Eye, the Poplar Tube Station and the Battersea Power Station, this film was different from its predecessor in that all the tricks were staged during production. In the post phase, only basic editing was required.
Given that each trip around the London Eye would cost the film crew US $1,500, every shot was planned in advance. “I went on a ride round the Eye like any other tourist would and worked out each angle that I would need to take before we started filming,” says Pathan. The Battersea Power Station was insured for US $12,347,527 for one day, when the team was using ammunition at the site. “We had also booked the Poplar Tube Station for a whole day, during which we had to manage the crowds, the SWAT (Special weapons and tactics) teams and it all went without a hitch,” says Pathan.
Apart from winning the silver from the International Advertising Association in 2001, this commercial also won recognition from the BBC. The British broadcaster aired the Khaleej Times commercial worldwide and translated it into 150 different languages for a programme called The World’s Best — London’s Top Ten. According to the BBC, the London Eye was rendered most beautifully in this commercial.
Three years later, Pathan is bracing himself for another king of journey — his long awaited move into the bigger arena of film making, for which he has silently schooled and disciplined himself for the last decade. It will be the culmination of all his learning and training at Hollywood, and the experiments he’s conducted at the production and post phase during the last many years.
“The time is now ripe and I am ready. The reason I have experimented for so long is so that I could carry these experiences towards my bigger goal of making feature films,” he says.
The script for the film is ready, the funds have almost been gathered and by winter, Pathan is sure he will be on location to direct his first motion picture. When asked whether he will still stand by his claims about the capabilities of tape and use it for his new project, Pathan says he would, if he got an appropriate sponsor to loan him the right equipment. For now, however, he is budgeting to go with film.||**||