SilverGrey, Documentary, Journey, Space, Film
In June 1985, seven men travelled into space on the Discovery STS-G51 space shuttle with a cargo that included American, Mexican and Arabian domestic communications satellites. While the event saw the deployment of the ARABSAT 1B satellite into space, it also marked a milestone for the Middle East as one of the crew members included an Arab – the first to make the journey into space.
Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was a 28-year-old fighter pilot back then. He represented ARABSAT and joined the crew as a payload specialist.
This month, the seven-member crew is scheduled to congregate at the King Abdullah City for Science and Technology in Riyadh along with the president of NASA and a few thousand dignitaries from across the world to mark the 25th anniversary of that journey.
To commemorate the occasion, Saudi-based production house, SilverGrey – Picture & Sound, was roped in to create two Arabic-language documentaries: an hour-long feature on the journey; and a second 20-minute documentary on the Kingdom, its background and its contribution to science and technology. The hour-long documentary, which will have significant focus on Prince Sultan bin Salman, is expected to feature on National Geographic later this year.
Shot on three RED cameras, the feature-length documentary includes interviews with each of the astronauts and other important figures involved with the trip. This is interspersed with archive material gathered from various sources. Small sequences of animation will be used to fill in the gaps.
Besides this, the production house employed a team in Beirut to undertake the research for the project. A team is Beirut worked on the animation as well.
“This was a big-budget production that included around 60 people,” explains Silvio Saade, executive producer and CEO of SilverGrey – Picture & Sound.
“As it involved extensive research and travel, we split the production crew into two parts. One was a mobile team that had to collect all the archive material and also do some interviews with the astronauts who were part of the trip. They had one RED camera with them, while the second team stayed in Saudi Arabia and shot most of the material for this documentary with two more RED cameras,” explains Saade, adding that SilverGrey is presently the only company in Saudi Arabia that owns three RED cams.
The team travelled to several international cities to interview most of the crew, which mostly included American and French astronauts.
“These astronauts are now retired so we had to travel to their homes to do the interviews. Of course, the production included a trip to NASA itself, which was very exciting. There’s also a lot of focus on Prince Sultan bin Salman himself, who is still a very dynamic figure and involved in several important activities in the Kingdom,” explains Saade.
Although the Prince retired from the Saudi Royal Air Force, he continues to be the chairman of several organisations in the Kingdom including the King Khaled International Airport and the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), The Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities (SCTA), The Saudi Aviation Club and The Prince Salman Science Oasis among others.
One of the biggest challenges of producing this documentary involved integrating old material stored on many different formats including tapes and film with 4K material shot on the RED.
“30 to 40% of the footage involves archives and some of this includes very old film material. Blending the new footage with very old archive material was very tricky in post production as there were huge differences in quality. As a result, we had to de-saturate all the differences in the archive material and re-colour everything we collected. Everything needed to be tweaked properly to ensure that the final feature looked wholesome and not patchy. With systems like Flint at hand, this job was easier to do. It was very interesting to restore all of this archive material, which came from so many different sources. It was a fantastic experience,” adds Saade.
Lighting and grip was provided by Speed Track Productions, a SilverGrey partner.
“Although based in Saudi Arabia, Speed Track organised all the global shoots. They hired the technical freelance crew members in all the cities in which we shot,” explains Saade.
A group of 55 musicians came together to compose the sound track for this feature as well.
“Composer and conductor Firas Shatila from Sonic Fusion, another SilverGrey partner, composed the music in Saudi Arabia, and recorded live instruments in Beirut,” explains Saade.
While this was a large production that involved five months of work, the process was quicker owing to support from the Saudi government, says Saade.
“All the doors opened for us to collect the material we wanted. This made things very easy,” explains Saade.
The project is a huge feather in SilverGrey’s cap, which is one of the largest production houses in the Kingdom. SilverGrey also has other companies that specialise in sound, lighting, equipment rental and still photography so that it can offer a turnkey production package to clients in the Kingdom.
Saade says the company, which was conceived in 2000 along with a producer friend, diversified to be able to offer a full package to its own clients while also making its services available to other local and international productions that wanted to use them. Today, SilverGrey also has offices in Beirut and Jordan.
“After my masters, I worked with Dentsu, a leading advertising agency in Japan. They sent me down to Saudi Arabia for a project in the late 90s. Here, I met an old producer friend of mine and we decided to work together on a project. But we found nothing here – no talent and no equipment. We bought most of our equipment online from a hardware store in Dubai to shoot our documentary. Today, SilverGrey has about US $4 million worth of equipment, and we have diversified the company so that our equipment and services can be rented out and we can service the entire industry rather than be a monopoly player,” explains Saade.
In the meantime, excitement is gradually building up in the Kingdom to celebrate the special occasion. SilverGrey hopes to present the one-hour long documentary on DVDs to attendees while the shorter version is tentatively scheduled to be screened at the event.