Even without a pandemic, shooting a soap opera is backbreaking work.
Episodes are often filmed mere days before airing, actors need to learn their lines on the spot and scripts can be rewritten at the drop of a hat based on audience feedback.
So when the coronavirus crisis hit, and social distancing measures were put in place, it's no surprise that shooting on a number of soap operas around the world – including the UK's Coronation Street, which had been running continuously since 1960 – came to a screeching halt for the first time in decades.
The region's first and only soap opera, Inheritance, or Al Mirath – developed by MBC Studios, twofour54 and Image Nation Abu Dhabi – however, is proving to be more resilient.
The show, which launched in March, is set in Saudi Arabia and tells the story of two families, who become embroiled in a battle for inheritance following the death of construction magnate Abdulmohsin Al Behitani.
It is shot entirely in Abu Dhabi, however, and not only has the team continued production during the pandemic, but it also began broadcasting seven episodes a week during the Ramadan season. Previously, it broadcast four times a week, from Sunday to Wednesday.
That’s not to say preparing the soap for the screen has been a straight-forward endeavour, as strict safety procedures have been put in place.
“The rhythm of filming has definitely changed,” Elie Boghos, head of productions at Image Nation Abu Dhabi, says. “That’s mostly due to the measures we had to put in place and the logistics we had to figure out in the wake of the pandemic.”
Boghos says that, normally, there would be a cast and crew of almost 90 people on set at any given time. However, due to social distancing measures, that number has been cut to 25.
“Before the pandemic, filming would take place across three locations, including a hospital, a villa and the studio in Musaffah. Now, more than 95 per cent of the shots are taken in the studio because it’s a much more controlled environment and we can make sure our cast and crew are working in safe conditions.”
The studio in Abu Dhabi doesn't exactly look like your typical television set.
From the outside, it looks like basically any other warehouse in Musaffah, but within its walls of corrugated plastic lie the Baroque-style rooms of the palaces of two warring Saudi families. The hallways inside the warehouse are decked out with crystal chandeliers and grand paintings of horses, there are bedrooms with silk sheets, grand pianos and staircases with gilded banisters that coil up to the ceiling.
Now there are instructional posters hung about everywhere in the studio, educating readers on the coronavirus and underlining the importance of washing their hands.
Boghos says the team is working for 12 hours every day, five days a week, filming an episode a day to ensure that they are ready in time to be released.
“We’re no longer allowing visitors to the set,” Boghos says. “We sterilise the entire set every two weeks, and everyone at the studio has to wear gloves and masks at all times, except when actors need to film.”
Boghos noted that most of the actors were staying at a hotel in Abu Dhabi, so their safety could be ensured even when they weren’t on set.
“We do regular tests to make sure they haven’t contracted the virus. And there are temperature checks for everyone who comes on the set.”
There were also some other hurdles the team needed to overcome. For example, a few of the cast members had travelled to Saudi Arabia days before all flights in and out of the UAE were cancelled, and they couldn’t return in time to resume filming.
“Two of our main actors are in Saudi now,” Boghos says. “So we made some changes to the storyline and decided to incorporate the current situation within the plot.”
One of the actors currently in Saudi Arabia plays a doctor in the show. The writers decided that making her character contract Covid-19 was both an effective way of establishing her absence from the show and made the storyline more topical and true-to-life.
The show’s writers have also been confronted with a number of challenges during the pandemic. Normally, the scriptwriting team would regularly meet for brainstorming sessions before putting their ideas to paper. Boghos says they are now exchanging ideas through online meetings, and scripts are no longer developed and written as quickly as they used to be.
However, with an episode being filmed every day, it’s still very much a breakneck-speed production. And Boghos says it would not have been possible had it not been for the support of the local government and twofour54.
“We are very grateful for the UAE government," Boghos says. "They have been extremely helpful in granting us permits and allowing us to continue productions. It really wouldn’t have been possible without them. Twofour54 has also been extremely helpful, giving us a 50 per cent discount on post-production.”
While the pandemic has put a number of obstacles in their way, Boghos says that the situation has also inspired them to stay on their toes, and confront every issue with creativity and diligence.
“We’re learning something new every day,” he says. “But we’re thankful. All of us are facing new challenges because of this pandemic, but it is also inspiring us to work together and develop a stronger sense of unity.”