x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Stargate’s new soundstage studio helps MBC to become a leader in regional content production

We checked out Stargate Middle East’s huge soundstage studio in Dubai Studio City to find out about two major productions that are currently filming. One has seen a multi-room set constructed in the Dubai soundstage. The other? It’s in Cairo.

Filming the TV series Matrimonio at Dubai Studio City. Pawan Singh / The National
Filming the TV series Matrimonio at Dubai Studio City. Pawan Singh / The National

Put very simply, Stargate offers the latest in green-screen technology, where actors perform in front of an old-fashioned green screen, onto which sets and new environments are placed in post-production. In one sense, it’s a new twist on an age-old filmmaking trick, but the sheer now-ness of the Stargate technology has placed Dubai at the forefront of the production world.

“MBC has huge plans to become a leader in drama productions and things are moving fast. This studio is pioneering industrial green screen output and getting it to the same speed as if you were doing it on set,” explains Rehan Malik, the chief of Stargate Middle East, whose studios are based in Dubai Studio City.

“We’re currently filming the 120-episode telenovela Matrimonio here in the studio and turning around one 40-minute episode every day. That’s impressive by any standards – a typical day’s turn-around in the Middle East is five to 10 minutes, so we really are talking about a huge, industrial output.”

The set for Matrimonio is a mix of a traditional, physical set which has been constructed in the studio featuring all the living rooms, bedrooms, courtyards and, of course, the quintessential beauty salon that you’d expect from the telenovela/soap format. It also utilises the Middle East’s biggest green screen, overlooked by several of the sets, which becomes home to scenery such as The Palm, passers-by, clouds and traffic.

Cairo productions

Even more futuristically, MBC and O3 productions are currently filming in Cairo what is set to be this year’s must-see Ramadan historical epic: Saraya Abdeen (The Palace) – largely in an empty studio, with the footage beamed back to Stargate’s Dubai HQ. The lush, palatial sets are then added by the Stargate team, even in real time, if needed.

“It’s a very new process we’re using,” says Malik. “If you look at the ceiling, it’s covered in bar-coded targets. There’s a camera attached to the main camera that’s shooting, looking up at these targets, and it tracks the camera’s position and feeds it to computers. So the cameraman can actually sees everything he’s shooting with what’s on the green screen in his monitor – as if he was shooting the scene for real.”

Although Dubai is pioneering the use of the Stargate technology on this scale, it has already been tried and tested on the sets of global hits such as The Walking Dead and Pan Am.

“Going through the morning dailies for Walking Dead was surreal. Everyone was sat eating their breakfast going: ‘We need more blood and guts there.’ It was like one of those movie moments where you look around and realise everyone’s a vampire,” Malik recalls.

Large-scale

The sheer scale of the production of both Matrimonio and The Palace has the whole TV and movie world watching, says Malik.

“I really think this technology will be a real future feature of TV. It speeds things up so much because you don’t have to go on location anymore. You can film everything on set and it just requires a bit of clean-up at the end. The whole set is built by artists, off set. It’s a real paradigm shift in the industry as you can now go to 10 countries on the budget of one.”

Of course, VFX is not new, but Stargate’s other key feature is its affordability: “This is about industrial workflow, not big, expensive, detailed 3-D one-offs such as in a Pixar film,” Malik says. “Part of the trick is once you’ve done something once, you keep it and automate it, so 90 per cent of shots can be pulled from the archive, passed through someone for rubber stamping and wrapped. We already have a huge library of both 3-D-generated and live sets, and it’s growing all the time, so the difference between this and feature film VFX is that this is more automated, efficient and affordable.”

He adds: “The Palace production is being watched worldwide to see how it works. It’s by far the biggest production in the world ever to be done like this. The recent Beauty and the Beast pilot in Hollywood used this system for around 800 shots. With The Palace we’re talking 2,500 shots. That’s hours of filming done with this system and all with a Stargate team of just five or six people on the ground out of a crew of around 120.”

MBC has already completed filming a show titled The Cactus Alliance using the Stargate technology. With The Palace set to screen during Ramadan and Matrimonio straight after, audiences will soon be able to make up their own minds about whether Dubai is shining a light the global industry will soon follow.

cnewbould@thenational.ae