The Dubai International Film Festival: Take nine

The Dubai International Film Festival: Take nine

Published: MEA

The Dubai International Film Festival recently celebrated its 9th year. Dan Butkovich talks to Alice Gustafson about those all-important technical requirements.

When you open a film festival at one of the biggest cinemas in the Middle East with a movie that went on to receive a total of 11 Oscar nominations, you know the standards for the technical equipment need to be high. Indeed, the 9th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) opened with Ang Lee’s latest 3D offering: Life of Pi, which at the time of writing, is up for a prestigious gong in the technical categories of best picture, cinematography, visual effects, sound editing, sound mixing and film editing.

Naturally, the A/V requirements needed to show this film in all its technical glory must be top of the line; something that is not lost on DIFF’s director of festival development, Dan Butkovich. ‘We’ve got an 18.8 by 9m screen and 1, 836 seats, and I’m pretty sure that this cinema is probably the biggest one in the Middle East,’ he says whilst giving Pro Audio Middle East a tour of the Madinat Jumeirah Theatre. ‘All the gear shows up in six days and gets taken down in two. For this, we rely on a small army of people.’

DIFF 2012 was its biggest yet, screening 260 films in just seven days. Opting to source local resources and expertise, the festival once again put its faith in Gearhouse Staging Connections. ‘We have been working with them since we started nine years ago and they’ve been unbelievably supportive of us – including when we ask for those last minute special requests that film festivals always do,’ he laughs. ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it! They are almost always able to help us out. They know this market very well, and this venue.’

As with any other film festival in the world, DIFF has a strict budget. ‘As much as people would like to believe that Dubai has this unlimited pool of cash at the ready, it’s not true,’ he insists. ‘Gearhouse has worked with us really well over the years to support our requests and work within these budgets.’

Local firm Al Laith was also called upon for scaffolding duties and for the steel decking grandstand, which had to be altered to accommodate the theatre’s growth from 1,338 to 1,836 seats.

‘Gearhouse come in first and start the rigging and trussing while the grandstand is being built,’ he explains. ‘It’s all orchestrated so that we can work simultaneously without stepping on top of each other. As soon as the grandstand is built and the carpet comes in, the couches come in and the chandeliers go up. Meanwhile the sound is being tweaked up until about two days before. So it’s about four and a half days from an empty venue to what you see now.

‘Then the audio guys come in and Dolby-certify the venue, which this theatre is,’ he adds. ‘Dolby have been fantastically supportive to us, and they send in a technician. We are helped out locally, but a lot of the stuff comes in internationally as well – as there aren’t 2,000 pairs of Dolby 3D glasses in the market! We source that and they bring in their processors.’

These took the form of CP750 cinema sound processors, which the festival started using in 2011. The venue has also benefitted from a pair of Christie’s new CP4230 4K DLP cinema projectors, which proved especially useful for DIFF’s two 3D offerings.

‘Two days after Life of Pi we had Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, and the latter’s producer said of the 30 screenings he’d been to, he had never seen it look as good as it did here,’ beams Mr Butkovich. ‘I can only assume that no one else threw as much light at the screen as we did with those two 4K projectors. We had to run 68,000 lumens as we have a white screen.’

An extensive and reliable sound reinforcement solution was required to provide the 7.1 system required for the larger theatre, which was provided for in the way of an L-Acoustics V-Dosc system supported by SB28 subwoofers for low end. More than 50 cabinets were used in total, 27 of which were hung behind the large screen. ‘Sixteen are used for the surround sound with six at the back, and we’ve got a couple hanging above for any speeches – we crank these up rather than getting the feedback from behind the screen and the centres from behind,’ he explains.

The main theatre wasn’t the only part of the venue that needed reliable A/V, as the building also houses press conference rooms and a film forum area. ‘Our film forum room is set up with a high-end projection system so we can screen digital films a little bit closer to how they are supposed to be seen – as much as you can outside of a purpose built cinema – and then of course our Cinetech and film library has been running nonstop all week where all of the films that we have in the Dubai film market are up for sale.’

Here he points out 28 touchscreens that are running off of media servers. ‘400 different films are on here and agents and distributors can come in and take a look at the films that are in the festival as well as any that are in the Gulf Film Festival and our “DIFF-selects”. These are the films that didn’t quite make it into the programme that we felt needed an opportunity to be seen in this region.’

Indeed, not limited to blockbusters, DIFF works each year to reinforce its motto of ‘bridging cultures; meeting minds’ by offering a diverse range of films from around the world whilst serving as a showcase event for Arab filmmakers. ‘Hollywood and mainstream dominates the market throughout the other 358 days of the year, so for these few days we like to bring the best of international cinema.’

As the oldest film festival in the Gulf region, DIFF has had to adapt to the changing requirements necessary to negotiate the shift to digital, but Mr Butkovich insists that the recent festival ‘wasn’t really a challenge. We prepare for the worst as equipment-wise, we’ve got three of everything – the show must go on! We can’t let a piece of gear stop us from doing what we need to do. We’ve been fortunate this year and we haven’t had any equipment failures. When you use the high-end, you expect to have that up-time and not to be suffering with any issues.’

December 2013 will mark DIFF’s 10th edition, and Mr Butkovich is already looking ahead to what that will bring: ‘I’m hoping that you’ll be sitting inside of a Dolby Atmos theatre – if we’ve got the products for it,’ he grins. ‘I’m hoping we’ll have a new sound system and that this venue will look much different than it does.’

Perhaps most importantly for a film festival, Mr Butkovich strives to show a movie the way the director intended. ‘If representatives come in for a tech check and they want to see some tweaking, then we’ll happily do that for them,’ he concludes. ‘At the end of the day, we want it to be the director’s vision up there on screen.’

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