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Volume 13, Number 6June/July 1962

In This Issue

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On Location In Saudi Arabia

Long before the cameras roll, months of creative planning go into making an Aramco documentary film.

Scene: Interior of a small wooden building. Offices, hallway, desks, bulletin boards, typewriters, usual office paraphernalia. Large cork panels on walls in several of the rooms. Disarray of artists' materials, semifinished sketches, oil field mock-up. The low building, weathered by the intense desert sun, is like a dozen others nearby. But there is a difference, a temporary distinction. Taped to a pane of glass in the front door is a sheet of theme paper, slightly askew. It bears a hand-lettered, lightly ironic legend— MOVIELAND.

Place: Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Headquarters of Aramco—the Arabian American Oil Company.

Time: Afternoon, late February 1962. Morning, early April 1962. And the present.

Opening shot: Writer at work. Desk covered with research based on location visits and hours of interviews with Aramco experts. Behind the writer a storyboard is tacked to a five-foot-high cork panel.

Close-up: Writer typing. Words form across the page. They look like free verse. Their odd syntax reveals the great difference between written and spoken words.

The writer listens to what he is writing. His trained imagination hears the narrator whose voice, months hence, will be blended into the sound track of the film. Unlike children, a filmscript is to be heard and not seen.

Oil from Safaniya (he writes) is heavier than most—containing a larger proportion of fuel oil—helping the company supply a growing demand.

The writer turns to the storyboard. He checks frames 105, 106, 106a and 107. His lips barely move as he reads the narration he has just completed. A stop watch in his right hand sweeps through a rough time estimate.

The camera closes in on the frames of the storyboard. Each frame is a separate scene. Each shows a simple sketch, a visual shorthand for planning and filming. In scene 105 a man turns a valve on an oil well in the fabulous Safaniya Field. In this case nature, and not Hollywood, provides the adjective. Safaniya may well be the world's largest submarine oil reservoir.

The valve in scene 105 is on a platform above the water of the Persian Gulf. Scene 106 shows only water and bears the terse note "travel." In the next sketch a pipeline heads shoreward under the water. Scene 107 rounds out the sequence with a shot of the Safaniya gas-oil separator plant (a "GOSP" in engineering lingo).

The stop watch indicates that the narration falls within the allotted time. On a pad the writer notes: "February 25, 1962. 107 scenes complete." There are 114 to go.

(TIME LAPSE: A flurry of desk calendar pages, quick blur, then, April 3, 1962.)

Safaniya shot —morning: A silver DC-3 banks low over the shoreside camp. It swings in a wide arc out over the Persian Gulf. The silhouette skims swiftly over the wind-feathered green-blue water.

Inside the plane: Close-up of cockpit. Co-pilot seat is empty. Extended legs of a tripod cover the empty seat.

The cameraman checks the multiple lens settings and scans the tiny platform islands that dot the water. He points to one. The pilot nods. Another hanking arc and the plane is on a direct heading from the well to the onshore GOSP.

The DC-3 streaks low over the well-head platform and follows a hidden pipeline that carries oil from the well to the GOSP. A "travel" shot. The camera eye records the dramatic sense of flow as suddenly the shadow of the plane leaps from the green-white sea edge, swings over the beach and climbs the silver units of the GOSP.

Six times the DC-3 courses over the Persian Gulf at Safaniya to bring to life scenes 106, 106a and 107 of the Aramco storyboard.

Safaniya co-ordinating shot: Meanwhile, another section of the experienced movie crew moves out into the Gulf on a company launch. Theirs is the job of filming scene 105—the man turning the valve on the platform. By day's end the Safaniya sequence is complete.

The foregoing movie-within-a-movie presents only two brief scenes in a long scenario that covers many months—the making of an Aramco documentary film. Planning started long before the advance group—producer-director, artist, writer—arrived in Saudi Arabia. Work on the production continued long after the final aerial pass over the Safaniya GOSP.

Aramco uses film entertainment to teach, thus applying a suggestion made by Lucretius in his masterpiece, De Rerum Natura, about 60 B.C. The Roman poet-philosopher charged science with the responsibility of interpreting its mysteries to the layman and advised scientists that they would do well to use popular techniques—to "put a little honey on the lip of the cup."

After more than a decade of film making in the Middle East, Aramco has evolved an audience target. At the center are the nearly eleven thousand Saudi Arab employees of the company, the teachers and school children of the Kingdom, and the country's officials and merchants.

Beyond the visual pleasures they provide, the films have an important place on the balance sheet of industrial progress in Saudi Arabia. They serve a set of unusual conditions.

In the first place, oil is Saudi Arabia's number one industry. And to all but a few men in the world, oil is a terribly complex industry that is hard to understand.

Consider this fact. The oil industry finds and converts a raw material of growing importance the world over. The world spins around on oil, yet few people ever see it.

Now mix in the mysteries of science. Chemists, physicists and engineers carry out oil's wide-ranging research. Their work is baffling. So are the strange processes they create that change crude oil into fuels for ships, stoves and spacecraft.

The magnitudes of the world petroleum industry are truly overwhelming. Some tanker fleets are larger than merchant fleets. Some vehicle fleets are bigger than those operated by transport companies. And the capital investments of oil companies fatigue the eye with their strings of zeros.

By any standards, oil is indeed a complicated business.

Now add to these complexities the fact that Aramco trains thousands of Saudi Arab employees for increasingly responsible assignments and the fundamental significance of its documentary films becomes clear.

The Aramco films interpret to the Saudi Arab audience the nature of its most important industry. And they provide employees with a framework for understanding how their jobs fit into the free world petroleum industry. All in basic visual terms that entertain while they teach.

Each film is planned in the Aramco public relations department. First a story idea is developed. Then the advance movie crew arrives to research the story, write the scenario and prepare the storyboard.

Aramco experts provide authoritative guidance every step of the way. The problem of creating an interesting, accurate and entertaining film is in the lap of the film crew. They bring to their task considerable experience in the motion picture arts: casting, staging, design, lighting, sound recording, filming, animating and cutting.

During the research phase the producer-director makes frequent use of a Polaroid camera to capture details of actual locations. He also photographs dozens of Aramco people at work. From these pictures the cast of characters is chosen.

When the storyboard is finished, it is presented to Aramco for executive approval. The hundreds of sketch scenes are laid out in sequence and the narration is read aloud.

Once approved, the numbered scenes are then cut apart and reassembled in functional sets. For example, all aerial scenes will be grouped and scheduled so that maximum use can be made of plane and pilots on a given day of flying.

Final production takes place in New York, where all the film shot on location (sometimes as far afield as Norway and Singapore) is assembled along with the sound recordings. Animation sequences based on field sketches are then executed in detail. The film is edited, the sound blended with the narration and musical underscore, and the "green cut" of the new motion picture is readied for executive review.

Distribution is made simultaneously in both 16-mm and 35-mm versions to a number of audiences. Employees get the first look. Then showings start in the schools of the Kingdom. Next, because of the growing interest in oil in the Middle East, the film is shown in motion picture houses in Egypt and Lebanon, usually as part of a double feature. The picture is finally scheduled on television in both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Two Aramco documentary films in the company's present series have been released—two more are well along in production for future release. The first of the new series—"The Science Of Oil"—has been something of a hit for many months both with employees and the general public.

The second film in the series—"The Explorers" (the story of the search for oil)—is currently moving outward from the center of Aramco's distribution target.

Closing shot—night—a desert exploration camp at Haradh : A 16-mm projector whirs. Saudi Arab employees watch the color movie as it tells the story of the science, the technology and the Arab-American teamwork in Aramco's continuous search for oil beneath the desert sands. There is a burst of animated discussion. On screen a sand mountain rises hundreds of feet above the desert floor in the Rub' al-Khali, the world's largest sand desert. Nearby is a cluster of tents and trailers. The scene is familiar to many of these men. They have worked there. Now a sudden peal of laughter. On the screen looms a familiar face.

The film ends, the whirring stops. But another sound replaces it—the sound of many voices urging in Arabic that the film be shown again, immediately. The machine whirs once more and the film is rewound. All sit down. Again the title flashes on the portable screen. The sound fills the night.

All watch with family-album anticipation....

This article appeared on pages 18-21 of the June/July 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for June/July 1962 images.