How dreams came true for the lads who started up Dubai’s production company 815 Studios

We go behind the scenes with successful start-up Studio 815, who have filmed some of the biggest music events in the UAE.

Tom Mitchell, left, and Guy Mannion at their 815 Studions in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
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It was the moment the genie came out of the lamp. A 20-year-old film student was introduced to a friend of a friend at a party.

“What’s your dream?” the stranger asked. “To open a film-production company,” the student replied. “Let’s do it,” his new friend said.

The student was Guy Mannion who, three years later, is the chief executive of 815 Studios, a thriving Dubai-based film-production business that has shot some of the biggest gigs and musical acts passing through the region.

Of course, getting to this point was not as simple as it sounds. When he met the genie who could make his wish come true, Guy was a first-year student at London’s University for the Creative Arts, who was on holiday in the UAE visiting his brother, a DJ.

“[The investor] said: ‘Go back, get a business plan together, and get packed,’” says Mannion, 23. “I’d just finished the first year of university and it was a big decision.”

Faced with such a dilemma, he chose the game-show route – and phoned a friend. Tom Mitchell, also 23, was a fellow student on the same course and a long-time creative foil. The pair had been making amateur movies together since they were 12 – and were eager to continue. Despite the fact that Mitchell had never set foot in the UAE before, the pair flew out to set up 815 Studios together.

Three years later, they have more than 100 professional projects under their belts in the UAE and abroad, for some of the biggest names and brands in the business. How did they do it?

They started small. An early break came shooting local acts at Virgin Megastores for a "Behind the Scenes" series. One of the interviewees was a newly formed UAE electro-house duo called Hollaphonic. That turned out to be a fortuitous encounter – 815 subsequently landed the gig to direct two music videos for Hollaphonic – the hits Found You (Stay Alive) and Fabric – which helped turn the duo into arguably the UAE's biggest act.

“After that, a lot of people starting asking about our work,” says ­Mannion.

The most challenging, but exciting jobs are shooting live concerts. And among the biggest in the country are Done Events’ RedFestDXB and Blended weekenders – 815 Studios produced the official “after-videos” for the 2014 and 2015 editions of both events.

Other big gigs they've filmed include Creamfields Abu Dhabi at du Arena, the recent three-day Meet d3 festival that launched Dubai Design District, and the world record-breaking New Year's Eve Palm Jumeirah fireworks display in 2013, shot from the Sandance NYE event. Away from the concert stage, the pair have worked extensively with Virgin Radio, filming the music video for Kris Fade's spoof viral hit I'm Famous, and a stunt in which R&B star Jessie J made a surprise appearance at Dubai's Al Diyafah High School.

The pair say their personal highlight, however, was spending four days with Empire of the Sun, extensively documenting the Australian duo’s visit to Dubai last October. The footage was given to the band for use in a future ­project.

“The first time we met [lead singer] Luke [Steele] we just clicked,” says Mitchell, the company’s director of operations. “We just came up with ideas, he liked them and we got on really well – it’s so surreal working with someone like that.”

In addition to music, the company has built up a healthy ­corporate-business portfolio. The pair recently flew to New York to film for US TV network CBS, and other clients on their books include the likes of Porsche, Jumeirah, Ray-Ban, SuperDry and Sony. A promo they made for Vox Cinemas was screened in cinemas nationwide, appearing before more than 20,000 movies.

So the name 815 Studios is clearly out there. If you are wondering why they chose that name, it's a reference to an early influence on their editing – the smash-hit US TV drama Lost. The ill-fated plane that crashed onto the island in the show's fictional universe was Oceanic Flight 815. The numbers 8 and 15 were also part of the recurring sequence featured heavily in the show: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.

Now that a geeky schoolboy sci-fi TV obsession has inspired a fully fledged brand – both of Mannion’s older siblings have also used the 815 name for their own business ventures. Brother Kirk, 30, a long-term resident DJ at DIFC bar Caramel, has launched 815 Entertainment, a DJ agency and equipment supplier. Sister Tara Hembry, 33, is preparing to launch the 815 Arts Training Centre, which will offer dance and drama classes from its base in Dubai Silicon Oasis from August.

“We want to grow this brand as far as we can,” says Mannion. “We really feel the sky’s the limit.”

Not bad for a couple of 23-year-olds, who were on a path to graduate just 12 months ago. Today, their portfolio is light years ahead of their peers who remained in the United Kingdom and completed their studies – and the UAE’s role in that success is clear.

“The UAE is full of opportunity,” says Mannion. “Everything is so new, everything is growing so fast – it’s a beginning. Whenever I talk to friends I tell them this is the place to be, especially in our industry.”

But the pair haven’t forgotten that there was also a healthy stroke of luck in their story. Can they imagine where they’d be today without that mystery ­benefactor?

“If you look at our friends in the UK, a lot of them are working for free,” says Mitchell. “We’re very lucky to be where we are – without that first opportunity, film might just be a hobby to us today.”

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