Journey to Mecca: Logistics
How do you direct an IMAX® film when you're 10 miles away from the location?
"First of all we created a book called the Hajj Filming Plan with maps of all locations and camera positions to show the Saudi officials the exact locations in Mecca for permission for camera placement," says Barker. "Each camera position was pre-established and permits issued for each setup. Getting into camera positions was an amazing challenge because the crews had to fight their way through a crowd of three million people with all their gear to a camera position and basically hope that it was available when they got there. Sometimes a camera position was unavailable because a crowd was jammed up against it or it was roped off and we couldn't get in. In one case an elevator didn't work to a high location. There were so many challenges.
"Once the crews got to the camera position, each of the Cinematographers would get on the phone, when possible, with Bruce and tell him what they were looking at. They would discuss the shots and make decisions as to what looked best through the camera even though the director wasn't able to see through the lens," says Barker.
As he communicated off-site with the three Cinematographers, the director ticked off the daily shot list, prepared from thousands of photographs and videos gathered in advance by the Muslim documentary filmmakers (1st assistant director in Mecca) Ovidio Salzar and Omer Faruk Aksoy, who had scouted specific camera positions in Mecca.
To be as close to Mecca as possible, the production tried to work out of a temporary camp set up in a traffic island nestled in a cloverleaf where the highway curled down into the checkpoint. When caterers would not come and showers could not be set up and toilets would not flush, the site was abandoned for a more reliable sports camp where Neibaur rose at 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m to see his camera crews off each morning.
Three weeks before filming Mecca, the production lost the promised helicopter from an oil company. It was impossible to bring one in given civilian helicopters are not permitted in the country. Cunningham-Reid approached The Royal Saudi Air Force for their vital assistance at the eleventh hour and the production was fortunate that they agreed to provide their exclusive services. Although the pilots were accustomed to documentary crews flying a single orbit or a fly by, it had to be explained that the IMAX® camera had three minutes of film and therefore they had to fly past many many times. A 38-year-old Huey Vietnam era helicopter, given to the production for a week, came flying over the mountains. The pilots were very enthusiastic and willing to learn IMAX® film flying quickly. Every time they were asked to fly a little bit closer to the grand mosque, they went a little bit closer and ended up just beyond the minarets. "They did a wonderful job and were very honoured and proud to serve in this capacity. And again we formed wonderful friendships in the process," says Cunningham-Reid.
"It was the first time ever the Saudi Arabian authorities allowed any camera to be that close to the Ka'bah from the air. We almost touched the minarets when we shot the Tawaf (the circumambulation of the Ka'bah)," says one of the cinematographers, Ghasem Ebrahimian, who directed the pilot to fly counterclockwise to follow the Tawaf. His vision from the helicopter was to see the pilgrims flowing like a poetic river. "Seeing people from some 100 different countries all merge in one spot like a flowing river was quite an event. Some have saved their whole lives to get there," says Ebrahimian, who mounted the IMAX® camera on the side of the craft while inside he used video assist. "Altogether the helicopter made 20 flight paths over Mecca over five days, shooting a total of 60 minutes of film," says Ebrahimian. "As the IMAX® film magazine lasts for a little over two minutes, we had to come back to base and reload. We would change film while the helicopter was still running and then we would take off and do more shots. If the pilots would shut the engine each time we landed, it would be counted as the end of that sortie. For every sortie, there were no more than three reloads while the engine was running."
"That was quite an experience to see people who had clearly saved up their entire life to make that voyage. It was wonderful," echoes the director who, outside Mecca, captured footage of pilgrims coming in from various parts of the world, arriving by plane, in addition to a shipload of pilgrims from Sudan. "Traffic in Mecca during the Hajj was so congested, it took seven to eight hours to drive what normally took 15 minutes. Ultimately, everyone just walked."
"The more you get to know it and understand the Hajj, the more you recognize its simple beauty and its contribution to human civilization," says Cunningham-Reid.