Uncovering Al-Ula - a mega project
Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia: an approx. 2,600 square kilometre desert area full of culture and history, UNESCO World Heritage Site and yet almost unknown. A dream for archaeologists and adventurers. And for the crew of VOLLBILD.
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Daniel, tell us a little about the project and its content.
Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only nobody knows it. Until now this place was closed to the international public, no tourism, hardly any infrastructure, practically a rough diamond. The country is now opening up and developing its tourist resources. Therefore, Al-Ula is to be opened up for tourism and infrastructural development with the help of a specially commissioned commission, the Royal Commission of Al-Ula. A mega project which will change a lot and definitely material for a documentary.
And this is where VOLLBILD comes into play - and you as director?
Exactly. We had two big tasks:
First, to document the first project steps of the Royal Commission of Al-Ula on film. We conducted over 30 interviews with all specialists involved (an international team of archaeologists, tourism experts, management consultants, artists, government employees and the locals of Al-Ula). We left practically no stone on the other.
The second film, which we have now released, aimed at a high-quality staging of Al-Ula's treasures to give future visitors a foretaste of the region's incredible cultural wealth.
What were the production challenges?
Definitely the light and temperatures in Saudi Arabia were among the greatest challenges. We had a total of 10 shooting days in Al-Ula to shoot as many sites as possible. But the sun was already so steep a few hours after sunrise that we decided for splitdays in our production planning. That meant getting up at 4 o'clock, drive to the location, setup and start shooting at sunrise. In the morning we went back to camp for offloads and prepping for the evening shoot. And in the afternoon we went to the next shooting location. The whole time it was sunny and over 40 degrees.
A farmer in Al-Ula.
In addition, many film locations still do not have any infrastructure at all. This makes them difficult to locate and difficult to reach, even for our local guides. This created a lot of time pressure as we wanted to shoot the locations in perfect light.
A few times the desert with its sandstorms prevented us from filming. The drone was blown back and forth. A change of optics or the use of the gimbal were impossible.
What did your crew look like?
For the main shoot we brought producer, DOP, 1st AC, and gaffer from Germany. The remaining crew members came from a service production in Riyadh. The cooperation was super pleasant. Lost-in-translation problems were few, only sometimes there were time bottlenecks. Of course, when German punctuality meets Saudi sociability, confusion can arise. Our guide Abdulassis took the time to serve Arabic coffee from the thermos jug and specially cultivated dates when, according to the shooting schedule, we should have been on the road long ago. Getting used to this deceleration and not being able to control everything was one of the biggest learnings for me.
By helicopter to remote places.
What equipment did you shoot with?
After our location scouting in January, Jean-Marc Junge (DoP) and I realized that we wanted to capture the vastness of the place with anamorphic optics. We had recommended an organic cinematic impression to the client in order to stand out from the reportage style of the existing news articles about the region.
The film was shot on URSA Mini Pro 4.6 K and Hawk V-Lite Anamorphics. The Gimbal was mostly the tool of choice as it brought more flexibility than dolly rails in the middle of the desert.
Experiences you won't forget?
On the first evening in camp, we sat in front of the tent when suddenly a scorpion approached over the warm stones of the path. Then I realized how far away I was from home and what an adventure this production would be.
What did your post workflow look like?
At home we were confronted with a flood of footage, which we had to systematize via select timelines. Above all, bringing the many good statements into a dramaturgically meaningful sequence was an enormous effort. The performance of the editor (Waref Abu Quba), who also took on the role of the director at this stage of the project because he is fluent in Arabic, is particularly noteworthy here. He created a 25-minute film, a 15-minute film and some other versions, as well as the Directors Cut.
What's your favorite shot in the movie?
The production was big and we brought a lot of footage back to Germany. It's really hard to commit to one shot. I love the rising drone topshot of the date palms with the crossing bird and the lateral evening sun. One of the few green motives in the middle of the sandstone desert.
One of Daniel's favorite shots from Al-Ula.