If you can’t stand the heat

Andrew Davis, on his time working on “The World’s Most Incredible Hotel’s” a series traveling around the world to find and explore the best of the best.

21st September 2018

It was 11pm on a Thursday evening at Abu Dhabi customs. After a full day’s travel we were dog tired after our flight from Udaipur via New Delhi, we waited with some degree of uncertainty.

We were a three-person unit, a small Ob doc team consisting of a director and two camera operators. Being such a small team we each of us had to take on extra responsibilities so I was also responsible for sound, lighting and publicity stills. Our director had the weight of the series on her shoulders.

We were a tight nit team having arrived directly from a two week shoot in India, we had bonded quickly through our passion for the project. We were filming the World’s most incredible hotels and despite our slim resources we all had an energy and drive to make the series live up to its title.

After landing in Abu Dhabi we had been held at customs for two hours with three trolley loads of kit. As DoP for the series I was armed with the Sony F55 with Canon CN7x17 EF and the second camera op was armed with the trusty Sony FS7 with metabones and Canon EF lenses.

With our luggage trolley overflowing, duplicate list in hand and an envelope bulging with Dirhams waiting to pay our deposit which would allow us to take our kit into the country.

There was a sense of bewilderment from the customs officials then they asked:

"Where is your filming permit
from Abu Dhabi Media?"

They wouldn’t allow us to take our cameras through customs...

Our destination was two hours out of Abu Dhabi at Anantara Qasr Al Sarab & the filming permit we had was not the one they wanted to see. Checkmate (or so we thought). We were stuck & they wouldn’t allow us to take our cameras through customs; the doors were closed to the UAE unless we surrendered our cameras or got the permit they requested. It was midnight we were now into Friday, the weekend in UAE.

Reluctantly we surrendered our cameras though crucially I was allowed to strip them & I could keep my Canon 7D DSLR which was there for time-lapse & production stills. I took everything of value from each camera, metabones adaptors, viewfinder dioptre from the FS7, straps, bars, media. I stripped the cameras to the bare minimum leaving just the camera bodies of the F55 and FS7.

We cleared customs at 1am with only a digital SLR and a few GoPros pros; but we had all our peripherals. We were due to start our three day shoot that same morning and now being the weekend getting our cameras, or replacements wasn’t going to be easy.

It was all I could do to hug our director and put a brave face on it. We were facing a 2-hour desert drive and a very awkward arrival at Qasr Al Sarab.

We held a crisis meeting with our hosts at 10am. The bottom line? We could shoot GVs on the DSLR but we had no means of recording sync audio.

In reality we were facing having to abandon the shoot and fly home unless we could salvage anything from this nightmare. We were not going to get the filming permits in time, the fact it was a weekend was not helpful and there wasn’t the budget to hire two additional cameras locally for the three days knowing ours were sat at customs.

Time to rip up our schedule

There was one glimmer of hope however but it would take an enormous effort from all involved to pull it off. Through contacts Maddogs had made over three series of ‘Ultimate airport: Dubai’ we managed to reach a cameraman in nearby Dubai who could arrive for a day with two cameras. This meant that for one day only we could shoot all of our sync, all our actuality and all of our interviews! Three days of schedule compressed into one day!

Time to rip up and rewrite our schedule. All we needed to do was rearrange our hosts staff to be available to us over one day, we would have to break into two units and our second camera operator would have to turn director (his first time of doing so) and direct our local cameraman. To make it all work we also needed to start filming before the dawn and push through to sunset regardless of the desert heat.

The hotel management were amazingly supportive of the plan and swiftly set about corralling all their staff for the following days marathon shoot day. The local cameraman was confirmed and he could arrive the next evening ready for a dawn start. We set off to start GV-ing what we could with my DSLR.

I was grateful I was able to keep all our peripherals; I had a full set of Canon EF lenses 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm as well as screw in ND filters for each as my CN7 and mattebox were surplus to requirement. What became apparent was how impossible it was to view the cameras LCD in the harsh sun. The solution was to hook a camera strap to the FS7 viewfinder which I could then use as a monocular. I carried it around like a director’s viewfinder but it made it crucial for operating the camera.

Progress was slow that day, the heat was punishing on the camera which was working now full time as the main shooting camera in 45-degree heat. The high internal heat warning was permanently flashing and the camera was shutting down whenever pushed to hard.

The day was relentless

When our local cameraman arrived that evening around 10pm we set about preparing our kit and dividing up radio mics and lenses. He had arrived with an FS7 but his second camera was a Canon C200 (not the C300 I had been expecting).

The big problem with this was that the Canon C200 shoots in Cinema RAW light on Cfast cards. Our cameraman had arrived with 2x 128gb Cfast cards, this would only give him 4 hours record time then we would have to wrangle 256gb. I only had XQD, SxS and CF cards for the main cameras so we had no backups. Under the circumstances this would make our schedule impossible to complete.

The other problem was our shoot was an interlaced shoot. We were already having to shoot our GVs in progressive on the DSLR and the C200 only shoots progressive in RAW. There is the option of recording interlaced on C200 in MP4 35mbps 50i but not on the CFast cards. This option was only available on its SD card record slot.

I took the decision to take the Micro SD cards and SD adapters from our go pros. It meant that we were compromising of the cameras quality shooting MP4 35mbps but when we only had one day to get all the sync and I needed to deliver the sync in interlaced and that is what mattered most. I just hoped the cards were fast enough for the camera as this was untested but at least we would have enough media to see us to the finish line.

After a day roasting in the sun we sat down to look at our schedule for the following day. It was looking daunting. We had 16 separate sequences to shoot with 10 different contributors to mic up as well as get as many GVs as we could so we weren’t over reliant on the progressive DSLR. Our schedule included camel riding, dune bashing, horse riding, staff interviews, manager interviews and site tours, engineering sequences, food and beverage sequences, sunrise excursions and sunset picnics.

The pace of the day was relentless for all, temperatures were in the high 40s and we were out in the sun all day from 5am until 7pm. My advice for dealing with these conditions are to have a camelbak full of water (I had a 1.5 litre pack which I emptied twice in the day), go local and wear a shemagh and ideally don’t be out filming between 11am and 3pm… Not unless you have to shoot 22mins of sync in one day!

The cameras held up very well, the cooling fans were roaring away for most of the day but despite the heat and sand we made it through. I think the heat got to me around 5pm in the afternoon when I attempted to do a tracking shot while sat a camel, backwards!

I can convincingly say that idea worked better in my head than in reality.

We wrapped at 7pm after the sun had set, we had managed to record all of our audio sequences and had salvaged the shoot and saved face with our hosts.

I am so glad we could do the shoot justice as the Qasr Al Sarab was a breath-taking location to film in.

We finished the day with a beer overlooking the infinite view of the desert and emptying the sand from our shoes. The next day we scheduled in a 3-hour timelapse at the poolside. We flew back with our cameras, a sense of achievement and an excellent episode in the can.

As for Abu Dhabi Customs…

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