Back-To-Back In Beirut

Cinematographer Dale Alexander Bremner is invited to the Middle East to shoot music videos for one of the regions biggest stars – by Dale Alexander Bremner

3. A shot from Nancy Ajram's 'W MAAK' music video - DOP Dale Alexander Bremner
A shot from Nancy Ajram’s ‘W MAAK’ music video – DOP Dale Alexander Bremner

Early in the year I was contacted by a director based in the Middle East about shooting back-to-back music clips for a well established and respected pop star named Nancy Ajram. It was the first time I had ever shot or travelled to Lebanon, but I had spent time in the surrounding regions, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The director, Leila Kanaan, had came across my work online whilst researching a fresh approach to the projects.

What caught my attention early on, outside of Kanaan’s previous work, was the polar opposite treatments to the two clips. One was a glamorous, cosmopolitan world filled with fabricated streets, cafes, arcades and night clubs. The other, a nature-inspired journey through the Bekka Valley and Lebanese mountains. One nocturnal, being heavily contrived, controlled and lit and the other all natural and at the mercy of the landscape and elements. Kanaan’s original treatment of the clips was heavily discussed and reworked to ensure it was even possible from a logistics perspective. Having two days to shoot in ten locations across Beirut, with multiple day for nights, redresses, pre-lights and open public spaces, presented a feasible challenge in the first place, without even turning on a camera.

For the first clip, we scouted locations for fourteen hours before locking in any of the key locations, ensuring access for trucks, lights and crew was possible. With so many variables, there gets a point where the creative choices must take a step back for the logical decisions to take place. Once the stage is set, you can re-introduce the creative with a stage to perform on.

“ We also had a neon sign truck, that created neons on the spot. ”

An example of this was the decision to Steadicam the majority of the clip. This influenced more so from a scheduling perspective, than an artistic one, keeping the camera stripped back and balanced ensured faster coverage and set ups from a technical stand point. Being the only non-local of a crew I would estimate exceeded a hundred people at times, was for lack of a better word surreal.

Only a handful of crew spoke fluent English, thankfully my Gaffer George Berkachi, along with Art Director Issa Kandil, Steadicam Operator Christopher Kechichian and Assistant Camera Joseph Kfoury were amongst them. Surprisingly, in some ways, it sped up the communication process as creative conversation was almost eradicated to a more simple and direct instructional dialogue. It certainly allows you to appreciate the collaborative and creative environment we have forged and are used to in Australia.

Thanks to Kanaan’s detailed visual treatment, we were able to quickly arrive on the same page with an aesthetic we both felt married the approach, both on blueprint and on location. We both discussed my chance to look at the city with fresh eyes, having never even researched Lebanese cinema. Kanaan was confident and experienced enough to draw from this, creating not only a style and look foreign to her country, but an energy as well.

2. A shot from Nancy Ajram's 'W MAAK' music video - DOP Dale Alexander Bremner
A shot from Nancy Ajram’s ‘W MAAK’ music video – DOP Dale Alexander Bremner

This was fantastic as my opinion and input really felt valid and respected. In order to stay up with the ambitious schedule, dividing the lighting crew up for piggy back pre-lights was essential. This sounds obvious, but would not have been possible without lighting maps and detailed lighting plans. It definitely reinforced how crucial a solid understanding of the available equipment and decisive lighting choices are, as we did not have time to relight or change strategies on the day. Many of the multiple locations were day for night and required insane amounts of pre-blacking, having only access to these locations through the day.

For the nightclub location, we patched in multiple SkyPanel 120s into the club’s existing mixing board and hit the main mirror ball behind with a 5k that acted as a huge back light. This way I could control the sky panels and direction, replicating a nightclub vibe, without the chaos and spill of the in-house setup. I could also compact my lighting setup and finesse when required, as many of the house lights were rigged high above.

We also had a neon sign truck, that created neons on the spot. This way we could essentially bring up a frame, measure a back wall or fish tank, and create a neon to fit, specifically for that setup. That was insane.

Earning trust from singer Nancy Ajram was another huge learning curve for me. She is a ‘seasoned celebrity’ and had a constant and eagle eye on how I was lighting her. Throughout the Middle East, actors and artists have always been heavily front lit, flattening out the face, removing shadows and generally offering nothing in terms of expression, mood or shape. Full credit to Kanaan who supported our approach to light her in a way a little more frequent to our artists, and break the mould.

1C. A shot from Nancy Ajram's 'Watar' music video - DOP Dale Alexander Bremner
A shot from Nancy Ajram’s ‘Watar’ music video – DOP Dale Alexander Bremner

As part of the gear package, we had to select a combination that would support the look of both treatments, as we would not have time to swing packages and combos. Mini was our obvious choice from our Steadicam Operator’s perspective. Originally, I wanted to push for a vintage set of local LOMO Anamorphics. I had fallen in love with a set used from a previous clip. Having never encountered such a pristine set of those lenses before, it goes to show with vintage glass, the individual sets can vastly vary in quality. Rob Hardy BSC’s use of Cooke Xtals on Ex Machina (2014) is a perfect example. I believed the softer tones and iconic flare would sit nicely in our neon glamour world.

We discussed the treatment of the second video, one of a clean and natural realm and felt the set may lend itself to a more influenced tone. We went for a more neutral middle ground, with ARRI Master Anamorphics, offering cleaner and predictable characteristics in which to manipulate. For the first clip, I knew the masters did not really flare, and wanted to offer something a little more visually stimulating in regards to filtration.

Denson Baker NZCS ACS recommended an illusive set of streak filters released from Vantage which yielded quite an intense result. Vantage, however, were reluctant to ship to that region of the world. In the end I ran combos of smashed filters and glimmer to give the set an edge. For the second video I ran them naked, occasionally bouncing in with 1/4 glimmer for Ajram’s close-ups and hero shots. I was pleased to create a very different look from the same sensor and optic combination.

1D. A shot from Nancy Ajram's 'Watar' music video - DOP Dale Alexander Bremner
A shot from Nancy Ajram’s ‘Watar’ music video – DOP Dale Alexander Bremner

We filmed the second video in the beautiful Bekka Valley. I predominantly lit using two 12×12 ultra bounce frames and the sun. The camera was either on a dolly with straight and circular tracks, or a six foot slider. Hair, wardrobe and make up took five hours that morning, so the sunrise setups were abandoned and we spent the morning light shooting aerial cutaways, while most of the crew stood by.

The artist and label had some challenging requests which the entire crew braced for, including some heavy product placement. Stepping back to take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s all happening within its means, as a collaboration, is a rewarding and satisfying feeling. If you can’t appreciate the fact your getting to travel the world and work on creative projects in the process, you need to consider a career change.

The first clip, W MAAK, has been released with the second clip scheduled to release with the launch of Ajram’s new album later in the year. Credit should be also given to the onset barista, pulling the hours required to archive such an insane schedule, required a lot of delicious Turkish coffee.

Dale Alexander Bremner is an award-winning cinematographer.

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