In the summer of 2009 I started writing my first screenplay, a fusion of scientific, environmental & philosophical ideas that I wanted to turn into a feature film for several years. The story would take place in a future devastated by an alien invasion and follow a group of survivors trying to stop the destruction of the planet’s ecosystem.
When I finished the script in 2010, I knew that bringing it to life would be complex, even with a decade of advertising and production experience under my belt. Wanting to prove that I could do it, as much to myself as to potential audiences, I set out to build a team of industry colleagues and friends from across the world to produce a teaser short film that would provide a glimpse into the futuristic world of EKON / ايكون.
By the summer of 2010, we were ready to shoot.
Central to the world of EKON / ايكون is a radioactive storm that devours all biological organisms upon contact, — this was what I wanted to show the most, as well as the various means humans beings learnt to adapt to the harsh new environment of the planet. The best way to do that was to capture an episode in the life of a resource scout, someone who regularly ventures into the storm in search of remaining biological life, helping pinpoint remaining reservoirs of water underneath the soil.
First, I started sketching basic concepts for protective gear and clothing, a mix of hi-tech gadgetry and traditional bedouin attire that I would later show to my production designer Hans Karlhuber, who would go on to build them. That gear would later be combined with a custom designed kandoora to complete the futuristic bedouin look.
The first shots of the storyboard expressed the idea of human adaptation to the crisis through images of a man with a falcon modified with cybernetics enhancements for terrain analysis and bio scanning abilities, fighting his way through the heavy plasma storm.
A vista of the devastated world shows the audiences the full extend of the environmental catastrophe that humans have to deal with.
The first we needed to bring this concept to life was do our own desert scouting for the right location for a shoot, looking for the tallest dunes we could find that would give us that elevated wide view of the desert.
After a long weekend slogging through sand dunes we settled on an area between Dubai and Abu Dhabi called Sweihan, close to Al Ain, which offered enough elevation for a very scenic shot of the desert. I took a bunch of reference photographs, later stitching them into an HDR panorama for use in post production.
With the costume built and location scouted, our last prop was a live falcon which was graciously provided by David Stead from Al Hurr Falcony.
Locked & ready, our crew set out as a small caravan of SUV's into the Arabian desert during the hottest season of the year when temperatures reaching 50 C / 122 F. Unfortunately, that’s the only period our collective schedule openings coincided.
After reaching the area early in the morning & stopping briefly to coordinate the route, we set out into the high dunes. The clock was ticking, — we had to climb the dunes, get the shots and wrap production before noon to escape the baking heat.
The first issue we encountered after reaching the high dunes was a quickly approaching storm. While it matched the mood of the material I was aiming for, it affected our falcon, — the bird got very excited and David advised that if we were to release it into flight on-camera as planned, it might literally not return for hours for a second take, being too distracted by the thrill of flying in the stormy wind.
I wanted the shot of the bird being released, but keeping the production cohesive and on schedule was more important, — I decided to compromise with a static shot instead. Sometimes the producer in your mind has to overrule the director.
The stormy weather gave the shot an authentic look & a good base plate for visual effects. The shoot continued smoothly and we ended up getting all our shots on time, right as the camera began to get uncomfortably hot. I was glad we had the 5D on this shoot, —most other cinema tools would simply not cope with these extreme conditions.
Here Dan Rimes is performing in one of the last shots we took, when the heat was reaching its zenith. We managed to wrap the shoot and get back into the SUVs right before noon, — exhausted, sunburnt but happy.
Our DP Ibrahim’s weather-sealed lens got too much sand during the storm in-between its fine elements and died, — the only casualty the desert claimed during production. It was time to head back to the cool air-conditioned city, rest and start the post production process.
First, I always felt the term post production was not entirely accurate…much of the work considered to be post is in fact started early on during pre-production and often continues in parallel to shooting, making the line between production & post rather blurry.
Having shot our base visuals of the cast and environment, we needed visual effects to further manipulate the imagery & add elements that would push the look of the film into a more surreal territory, something required for the almost otherworldly look of EKON / ايكون that I originally envisioned.
We needed dense, cloud-like plasma hurricanes, and simulated these effects digitally.
Experimenting with the look further, here is a rough combination of video stock clouds, a CGI hurricane and sample footage from the scouting session composited together with base color correction.
To simulate the falcon’s terrain scanning abilities we turned to motion graphics overlayed on top of a CGI desert terrain modelled to resemble the physical location that we shot in. Adding a bit of camera shake to the smooth CGI camera gave the abstract shot a small touch of realism.
To show the falcon itself, we tried several approaches, including some video shots Ibrahim had in his archive from a documentary with a sports cam mounted on an actual falcon. However, it was too shaky and in SD resolution ( remember that? ) and alternative option was needed.
After several tests we went with an all-CGI route for the falcon shot, modeling & animating in Softimage XSI. I typically prefer to avoid using all-CGI shots due to how time consuming it is to achieve realistic motion without a motion capture or rotoscopy reference as well as their common plastic aesthetic.
Throughout the project I was often thanking myself for the work done in pre-production for a clear & concise direction it provided.
The preparation & planning done in the early stages will function as a compass throughout the whole process and carry the team through from storyboard to final imagery without getting lost in the in-the-moment chaos that often arises during production due to natural & unexpected events.
As I said earlier, there is no such thing as pre or post production, so if you treat your planning stage as seriously as you do your shooting stage, you can tackle a project no matter how complex it is.
Upon completion of the screenplay and the short film, I started doing meetings to promote the project, pitching it to several Hollywood producers like Jason Blum ( Paranormal Activity ) and Edward Pressman ( The Crow ) as well as executives from Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox.
A feature film version of the film based on the screenplay is currently doing pitching rounds at regional film funds, while the short premiered at the Abu Dhabi International Environmental Film Festival 2013 and was received well by the public & press.
The film industry in Middle East is still in its early stages, and building it will require continuous effort, patience and perseverance, one film at a time. I am already in production on a second project and will release a public preview soon.