Behind the scenes

Days In the Desert

“My experiences on set, working as a Data Management Technician and Camera Trainee in Morocco”

In January 2018, I was given the opportunity to work on a short drama being shot within Morocco, specifically Ouarzazate (pronounced War-zaszat) a city buried in the depths of a mountain range, surrounded dry-desert, stone and sand. Accompanied by Ben Hodgson (Director of Photography) I jumped into a minibus and we set off towards the mountains. However, I did not realise we would have to ‘literally’ drive up a mountain to access Ouarzazate.

(Photo Credit: Jenny Batty)

After an hour of twisting and turning roads, we stopped at a small town, surrounded by bright white floodlights (especially blinding at night). I had been told we were going to have something to eat in a local restaurant. On arrival noticed that all the restaurants had the same ‘unique selling point’, every restaurant was ‘accompanied’ with a plethora of ‘strung up’ meat carcass’s in their entrance, on further inspection our chosen restaurant would prepare the meat on the porch, and cook it on a barbeque next to the chopping block “you won’t get fresher than this” I sarcastically thought to myself, slightly anxious to push past half a cow hanging in front of the entrance.

The food was really nice though, and after our meal – I had my first experience of Moroccan tea (a blend of tea leaves, mint and sugar), which would provide me with an adequate supplement for good old British tea. After dinner, we continued to our voyage towards ‘Kenzi Hotel’.

We Arrived.

Tired, and beaten by the rocky road, bed was my first destination, and after sleeping till 9 am, I would meet the team at breakfast, and to my amazement the most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping scenery I had ever seen. Snow covered mountains dotted the distant horizon, complimented by giant rocks and dusty dunes, lakes and towns. This was a special place, with a special history; being the chosen location of such classic movies such as ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

(Mountains and desert – Ouarzazate’s geography was rather unique!)

Filming Day One.

When you think Morocco, the first thing that might come to mind is heat. It was ironic that the first-day filming greeted us with the first snowfall in Morocco for 20 years. A shock to the senses and to the crew, we battled through a sudden blizzard of thick white snow (2-3 foot deep), in completely inappropriate clothing we made a solid start by shooting interior shots. My main job on set was as a ‘Data Technician’ I would be responsible for backing up footage and making sure the footage was usable, by using on-set colour correction. Additionally, I would act as a camera trainee (Third Assistant Camera), an opportunity that would afford me intimate time with the camera team, and a working knowledge of the on-set responsibility.

After the initial teething issues with meeting a new crew, and learning their way of working, I was given my additional on-set duties: charging batteries, setting up ‘video-village’ using wireless transmitters, and most importantly (in my view) watching how the camera team operates and learning as much as I could from the crew.

Personally, this was the most difficult day; as I did not bring appropriate footwear, my feet were FROZEN. This made working quickly almost impossible, but it did allow me to stay on set and watch how the following week would unfold.

Filming Day 2.

Only slightly warmer, the snow had melted but the morning and evening still dipped into negative degrees. Thankfully, the implementation of extra heaters on set made working far easier (extra socks helped too!).

The main set was used to shoot the establishing shots for the film, with the help of (what seemed like hundreds) of extras, brought the town square to life, complete with meat hanging from hooks (a common theme in Morocco) and the musky smell of burning coal.

As we begun filming, surprisingly (or not so surprising considering the day before) it began to rain, which unfortunately would work against the aesthetic of the film, as it was set in ancient Greece.

Under the strict deadline for the film, everything had to continue (so, we’ll fix it in post!).

This was the day I would begin to make friends with the second camera assistant, a somewhat weird situation where mentorship would be forced upon him – I thought “teach me everything!” And well, he tried to teach me as much as he could.

The first question I had was obviously, what is your job? (I admittedly had little knowledge of the workings of the camera team – my experience being solely as a self-shooting director). The second camera assistant is, in essence, the ‘bones’ of the camera team, they are in-charge of making sure the camera is topped up with battery, the lenses are changed, everything needs to be ready for the first assistant camera to do his job (and likewise the director of photography) it is an extremely important job.

My day consisted of setting up the Ronin for the tracking shots and backing up footage, and obviously being the second assistant camera operators – assistant.

The day finished doing a few interior shots that would take place towards the end of the movie, this was a slightly extended shooting day so we could get a slight lie-in the next day.


Filming Day 3.

The third day was again a slightly warmer day and provided the first location change. The scenic backdrop looked remarkably familiar: it was used in Game of Thrones!

My other responsibility was to maintain and calibrate the DJI Ronin (a gimbal Steadicam), that could provide smooth, continuous tracking shots, and (due to the fast turn around) would be used to great extent over the shoot!

The shoot would continue and my responsibilities of keeping track of memory cards and batteries would be tested, as I handle multiple jobs around the set – at one stage I had to go on a quest to find a charging station for the batteries; as there was no power in the desert.
Unfortunately, due to a communication error, the batteries I thought were on charge, had no power running through them – leading to a nerve-shaking half-hour chatting up locals and production members for a power source. Luckily, about 10 minutes from the filming location the electricians for the shoot had begun setting up for a night shoot and were gracious enough to let me use their generator.

The next shots would be some of the most exciting on the shoot – “we were gonna play with fire!” and set a wooden cart a-light.

This shot would have to be completed in one take, so an extended setup time was essential to achieve the perfect one-take-wonder. I believe the shot would be taken in slow motion, to both extend the amount of footage the editor has to work with, but also to add a cinematic quality to the shot.

Though this shot took a while to set up, the payoff was a spectacular sight in the desert.

To complete the shooting schedule, the next scene would take place at night:

(Unrelated image – but cool none-the-less)

A giant 2.5k HMI light would act as a moonlight (backlight), and a real fire (accompanied by some small flickering bulbs) would act as a natural fill light. This was complemented by the use of powder that when thrown onto the fire would create sparks, allowing for some really interesting cinematography.

For this night shoot, I wouldn’t have a major job on set, so I would look after video village and watch Ben work, attempting to understand his creative decisions, and figuring out how I would interpret the scene if I was to shoot it.

Filming Day 4.

The fourth day (and the hottest) took place in a scenic paradise. We would shoot all day next to this tranquil river in the middle of the desert, the water was calm and despite the fact that it was a bit of an issue transporting the kit around this water – the shots (around sunset) looked incredible in real life – let alone on film.

The biggest issue of the day (especially for me) was backing up the footage – as there was no power supply near the lake – I would have to create a set up 10 minutes up the road – which would host the computer and a place to keep the batteries on charge.

(My portable workstation)

This scene required the use of covering two (different) scenes in the same location, so it was decided to utilise one side of the river as the morning, and the other side as the evening (and change the lighting accordingly) this was a great idea but it also included Ben jumping in the river to get some more complicated angles.

Though the day was full of scenic shots, towards the end of the day – as the sun set and the day cooled, we were graced with the most beautiful sunset, that provided the means to some fantastic last minute shots. It was the end to a perfect day.

Filming Day 5.

We were back at the market, to finalise all of the exterior shots without any snow or rain impeding the progress. This also included some of the most complex (organisational) scenes in the film, as over 40 extras were used on set (none of which understood English) making the director’s job extremely awkward – luckily the first assistant director Bandar Atifi was fantastic at organising and keeping the shoot on time.

Again my jobs consisted of keeping the batteries on charge throughout the day (a lot easier now we were near a power source) setting up and maintaining video village and keeping backups of all footage shot – I also set up the DJI Ronin for a multitude of tracking shots that would happen throughout the day. Luckily, the crew were all working well together and delays in filming were infrequent.

I even had a chance at slating a scene in the film:

As the day turned to night, Ben had to implement a series of large HMI lights to create a ‘fake’ daytime look (also you can see the number of extras on set!)

Filming Day 6.

The last filming day was bittersweet, I was craving a good English cup of tea, but I knew I would miss everyone that worked on the film.

It started with one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen and illuminated the snow topped mountains in an amazing red-orange glow. The first shot of the day would use a jib to create a bird’s eye view of the main character that would act as an opening for the film.

This would take some time, and as the shoot progressed I realised that we didn’t bring any spare batteries with us, so I had to dash off in one of the crew trucks to find a suitable place to charge the batteries. Luckily, the base was only ten minutes away so getting replacement equipment was easy.

As the day progressed we ended up on a prison set, that was dressed and lit in a way to make the scene look like it was in the middle of the night. This was done using large HMI lights streaming through the small (open) windows, with blue filters on the lights to create a ‘night time’ look. These would be the last shots of the shoot, and I took it upon myself to begin cleaning and preparing the packing up of the equipment prior to the last shot. This would mean that all of the equipment would be ready to go on the minivan the next day.

As the shoot finished we all went for a wrap party, and reminisced about the shoot, discussed our future plans.

I learned so much on this shoot, not just about filming but my own impressions of the world, and how beautiful it can be. But more importantly, this shoot will prove so helpful in the development of my career going in to film camerawork. All I can say is thank you to Big Book Media for allowing me to help out on the shoot, and a massive thank you to Ben Hodgson who not only provided the opportunity to go but also has been a source of continuing support through my studies and career development.