David Zennie is a Lebanese-American director working out of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He specializes in music videos for pan-Arab and international artists, and has been a highly influential figure in the rise of hip hop music in the Middle East, amassing more than 40 million YouTube hits for his work. Recently he has been shooting almost exclusively with the ARRI ALEXA, using it on music videos for an eclectic mix of artists including the Egyptian singer Sandy; Moroccan singer Sofia Marikh; Punjabi superstar Yo Yo Honey Singh; Lebanese singer Joe Ashkar; Emirati performer DJ Bliss; and Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall. David recently spoke with ARRI about why ALEXA has become his camera of choice.
ARRI: How did you first come to use ALEXA on one of your shoots?
David Zennie: The DP that I work with is Samir Karam, who is one of the top DPs in the region; he came to me and told me about the camera. I think the first project we used it on was a music video for Sandy and her song AYZA A'OLAK. As soon as we got the ALEXA on set I could just feel the production value increase, and for me that's a big win; it brings a cinematic quality to the picture that I've yet to find in another camera. A lot of our music videos are very storyline based, so having that cinematic quality to the images really helps with what we're trying to accomplish.
ARRI: Does this idea of trying to tell stories in your videos set you apart in the region?
DZ: It does seem that a lot of videos in the region struggle to tell a story from beginning to end; a lot of projects just seem to come out as a series of beauty shots with stereotypical art direction, so by bringing a story in we do set ourselves apart and it's been a consistent feature of our work. For me, as a director, incorporating a story gives an added element to what we do. The feature film business is on the horizon for us, so telling stories in our music videos and corporate films can only help with that, and adds a personal touch to the productions.
ARRI: Your clients and the artists obviously seem to like it.
DZ: They definitely do, and the public responds to it as well. A storyline makes them engage more with the work and we see an increase in views online, with numbers in the millions, which the artists often aren't used to. The success of each production is seen through the quality of the work, on an overall level, but by getting more views you're reaching out to a wider audience, so for me that is a success factor as well. The song, the artist and the video have to work together in combination, and when you see the high numbers you know that the work has paid off.
ARRI: What are the benefits of the ALEXA for you as a director?
DZ: There are a number of technical benefits with the ALEXA that I'm very conscious of as a director. The first thing is the cinematic quality I mentioned, which is a major plus. Then there's the ability to shoot in low light, which makes night scenes look fantastic, especially when we're shooting in the city -- the image really pops and the buildings and the skyline are so well defined. Also the high dynamic range allows you to capture a lot of detail and gives you real flexibility in post and the grade, with complete control over the colors. Our colorist is always happy when we shoot with the ALEXA! And then when the 120 fps feature came along it made the ALEXA an even better option for the work we do. I've just shot a video where we pretty much did the whole thing at 120 fps and it really allowed us to capture a different mood.
ARRI: Can you give an example of a night scene from one of your videos?
DZ: There was the MTV Award-winning singer Joe Ashkar's music video called TA'Y, which means COME TO ME, where the whole beginning was at night, with him on top of a building and the Dubai skyline in the background. The image quality is fantastic and all the details are there in the buildings, even in the distance; that simply wouldn't have been possible with another camera. I'm also about to do a video for one of the top Punjabi singers in the Asian market, and that's going to be all night shoots with the ALEXA.
ARRI: Have you sometimes shot in hot or dusty locations where you need to rely on the hardiness and durability of the ALEXA?
DZ: It does sometimes get hot over here and the ALEXA handles that very well. We've yet to see a situation where the camera overheats, so that's a plus in this region. The environment in Dubai does get dusty at times, but the ALEXA still produces beautiful images in those situations, whereas with other cameras the footage might be unusable.
We've used it in other environments as well; we recently took the camera to India, to do a shoot in Goa, where the landscape was incredibly detailed and some of the shots we got just look like paintings, they're incredible images. We also just finished a corporate film for Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZA), which houses over 6,700 international and local companies, and that was all on ALEXA. On that shoot we used the ALEXA in a Tyler Nose Mount for some aerial shots, and also did some high speed work.
ARRI: Do you tend to record ProRes to the ALEXA's on-board SxS PRO cards?
DZ: Yes, we always record to the memory cards because it allows us to work very quickly. We can just swap out the cards and keep shooting -- the production is never slowed down because of the camera, which is a big factor for me, because we always shoot a lot of content in a very short period of time, so we need the production to move as quickly as possible. Having a camera that can keep up with our working speed is just essential.