Lack of funding from the regions TV industry is curtailing the production of local natural history documentaries but Jonathan Ali Khan of Wild Planet Productions continues to persist with the production of the next series of Sharkquest Arabia Dubai-based production house Wild Planet Productions is struggling to deliver its underwater natural history programmes to the […]
Lack of funding from the regions TV industry is curtailing the production of local natural history documentaries but Jonathan Ali Khan of Wild Planet Productions continues to persist with the production of the next series of Sharkquest Arabia
Dubai-based production house Wild Planet Productions is struggling to deliver its underwater natural history programmes to the region. Capturing breathtaking and ground-breaking shots of underwater marine life is difficult enough without the added pressure of squeezed production budgets, lack of sponsorship and the ongoing effects of the global economic climate. Throw into the mix the meagre financial support from the TV industry for regional content and it is easy to understand the frustration felt by Gulf-based production companies.
Jonathan Ali Khan is managing director of Wild Planet Productions, which launched three years ago with its documentary film for National Geographic channel, Sharkquest Arabia. The project is about to embark on a new season of filming, and getting the Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah-based initiative to its current position has been an arduous task for the dedicated Wild Planet team.
It was not always a case of swimming with sharks however.
Sharkquest Arabia had a promising start. It benefited as a project thanks to a generous grant from the Abu Dhabi Foundation for Philanthropy when it launched in 2009. To date, all funding for this project has come from this grant and from the support of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. This has enabled Wild Planet to invest US$270,000, thus far, into the project.
Today, the commercial company derives most of its revenue from design, website development, photography and corporate videos. Ali Khan, who also operates as the programmes producer, scriptwriter and director, spends much of his time trying to raise the remainder of the required
We should aim for anything from US$150,000 $250,000 per hour for a decent natural history film with good production values, Ali Khan explains. But the reserve by the TV industry about investing in regional content is as alarming today as it was 10 years ago.
There is still a general apathy towards natural history subjects by Arab world broadcasters. Many deem it uninteresting enough to hold an audience and most just do not consider it appealing enough to surround it with advertising and airtime sponsorship.
They need to give it a boost and it would eventually open up a whole new strain of programming that would attract investors, advertisers and sponsors interested in corporate social responsibility and environmentally aware ethics. I also believe there are conservation authorities who are charged with a mandate to provide awareness to their work and the environmental issues faced by society. I am hoping this may eventually become a support-base for educational and mainstream media films.
There are presently three potential sources of funding for natural history projects. Channel commissioning, commercial sponsorship and grants from foundations. Each comes with its own set of challenges, Ali Khan explains.
The first problem with commissioning is that no one is looking for Arab world natural history at the moment. The second problem with channel involvement is they wouldnt pay enough for a finished product to make it viable to produce the film first and sell to them off the shelf. We needed to attract a commercial sponsor to provide us with the production budget and use the channel as a platform to position the branded version of our film through an airtime deal.
The difficulties associated with lack of funding are compounded by the world economic situation.
The economy dropped out from under our feet and sponsorship has never looked the same. It will take a while before that becomes a viable option again.
While Ali Khan acknowledges that some of the slack has been taken up by the development of the regions film industry and support given by grant-giving foundations, Wild Planet Productions has been forced to focus its money-raising efforts on international markets.
By speaking to distributors such as Discovery Channel, National Geographic and independent production companies, Wild Planet Productions has achieved a budget increase of US $450,000 to bring the Sharkquest Arabia films to final fruition.
The rescue package comes, in part, from Artists In Motion (AIM), and Wild Planets relationship with the UK-based production house promises to be very important for
The man behind AIM is Mark Wild. With more than 25 years in the industry, Mark was director of production at Animal Planet Europe before moving to National Geographic International as its international business development manager.
Mark represents the inside track and what he doesnt know about the natural history industry is not worth knowing, Khan explains.
With a global distribution option now in place, I chose to retain the MENA footprint rights so that we can fulfil our education and awareness objectives as well as commitments to sponsors within the region. That means we will soon be looking for a regional broadcast platform for the English and Arabic versions of the blue-chip film. It will also allow us to release a DVD into the market within our own time frame.
The films promise to take viewers on an in-camera adventure and voyage of discovery featuring the main shark stories in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Egypt and Sudan.
The Sharkquest Arabia project has now been developed into two products.
From March, we will be back in production of a 3 x 60 minutes presenter-led mini-series and a single narrative based blue-chip 60-minutes documentary, Ali Khan continues.
The first thing we did in order to render the project more in line with international current programming trends is to make the mini-series presenter-led. We are currently in the process of signing UK presenter Monty Halls.
Halls recently presented the BBC 2 Great Barrier Reef series that is currently airing in the UK, and is recognised as an emerging talent. The three-part mini-series will be renamed Montys Sharkquest Arabia and will feature his personal quest of discovery as an underwater explorer as he sets out to explore regions of the world that have remained largely unknown to viewers from a natural history and conservation perspective in order to assess the overall status of the planets top marine predators sharks.
Filming this highly intelligent and potentially deadly species comes with its risks however.
The main danger when working on and under the sea is dealing with an aquatic environment that can be hostile and unpredictable, Ali Khan points out.
Add to that, the safety risks inherent in diving and the fact that we are working with potentially dangerous marine life and it is fair to say we exercise caution.
Whilst filming a group of grey reef sharks in Sudan, we used a bait box to attract the shark pack of 12 animals to come closer to the camera. The current was so strong that I found myself dragged by the current towards the bait box and literally found myself sitting on top of it whilst the sharks were in a frenzied swirling mass around me.
The risks are not just physiological. Logistical and technical difficulties are compounded by the unpredictable nature of the programmes content.
The boat not being ready on the day it was booked; the filming permit turns out to suddenly cost an extra few thousands; weather conditions and sea state change. All are great challenges, recalls Ali Khan.
In addition, equipment failure always tends to happen when you are 100 miles out at sea even though we always triple check our kit before leaving.
But perhaps the greatest challenge comes when you plan a five-week expedition to somewhere far in order to film a well known manta ray aggregation and travel 200 miles from your previous location by boat to get there only to find the mantas havent shown up yet. This happens a lot as the marine life is even harder to predict than terrestrial life.
Despite the inherent difficulties, international broadcasters have been quick to recognise the merits and potential profitability of televising programmes on Arabias natural world.
Currently, the BBC is in the region shooting Wild Arabia (BroadcastPro ME featured this production a few months ago). Ali Khan recognises that this is a positive step but feels it is a missed opportunity for local producers.
As happy as I am that the BBC will help to open up peoples minds to the potential of Arabian wildlife content, I find it almost shameful that Arabias first big foray into mainstream blue-chip TV will be produced using UK tax payers money. We have persevered and sacrificed on personal levels to keep the project alive, thanks to a determination that natural history in this region needs to be pioneered, Ali Khan adds.
It is this determination that drives Ali Khan to find ways to produce Sharkquest Arabia on a meagre budget.
The key to making your budget go further is to have a small crew. Our core team consists of seven film crew members. In addition, we often use a number of support divers who normally volunteer or even pay their way to dive with us.
We are currently using Sony XDCAM EX3 and EX1 cameras in Gates underwater housings. Our housings have high quality optics on them and we love the compact versatility of a system that yields amazing results. We have also started to use GoPro cameras as remotes and for good effect, add a Canon EOS 5 MkII DSLR for underwater time-lapse sequences and motion control for topside work. Under water, we are using Greenforce Squid 250 underwater lights with FIII battery packs.
Perhaps our biggest technical challenge whilst shooting underwater is lighting and has to date, been our weakest point. You can never have enough light underwater, even though the cameras sensitivity, when using white balances and colour correction filters have come in leaps and bounds over the last few years, Ali Khan explains.
When shooting with the XDCAM system, Wild Planet uses 32GB SxS media storage cards, a process that has huge benefits for the companys workflow.
The routine of watching daily rushes and transferring data, gives us a chance to identify the best sequences and remove the dross, Ali Khan says.
But the most critical technicality when filming underwater is the diving itself. With underwater bottom times physiologically permitting only four to five dives in a day (due to build up of nitrogen in the blood with decompression), cameramen have to co-ordinate relay teams to ensure the cameras remain in the water for as long as possible.
The final cut is posted on two Final Cut Pro HD suites, each linked to a bank of 4 x 2TB Western Digital storage devices.
We have backed up all our rushes on Western Digital external drives for safety, Ali Khan adds.
Reaching the editing stage requires months of pre-production preparation. Researching stories and establishing links to researchers and specialists is just the beginning for Wild Planet Productions.
We correspond our information so that when we are on location, we know everything there is to know about the place, the species, the conditions, the authorities and official requirements. Obviously, budget also defines what our schedule and script can feature. But with wildlife, chances are we have to rethink as we go depending on whether we succeed to shoot what is scheduled.
Successfully shooting underwater marine life reinforces Ali Khans unstinting belief that the TV industrys apathy to the demand for regional wildlife documentaries will, in time, dissipate.
Interest from international markets to film in the region also provides hope for the struggling production company.
If the international markets want to see Arab world content, then eventually our regional broadcasters will have to recognise there are merits in producing wildlife films, concludes Ali Khan.
This sea-change is unlikely to come any time soon however. There is a small pool of viewers that increasingly demand something different from the mainstream programmes currently being distributed a move away from what Ali Khan describes as mindless content but it is this popular content that remains the most profitable genre for networks.
Until the regions TV industry opens up to the demand for wildlife documentaries by Arab broadcasters, investors will prove to be as hard to attract as a manta ray without a bait box.