- - Sunday, February 15, 2015

Karbala, one of the holiest cities to Shia Muslims, has started a technology race in the Middle East, with the use of high powered cinematography drones over its holy shrines. In footage recently released to the public on YouTube by Visual Lion Studios, aerial video of the famous shrine of Imam Husain is seen for the first time in 4K resolution.

Director and Producer Mohamed al-Mawla used Chinese hardware to make it happen, with a video drone called the “DJI Phantom.” According to Mr. al-Mawla “It has within its abilities precision flight and stable hovering … Attached on the drone is a 4K Go pro camera by Gimbal to stabilize the camera to ensure smooth cinematic motion.”

In the video, entitled “Angels over Karbala,” the drone repeatedly sweeps between the seminally important shrines of Imam Husain and al-Abbas, two significant Shiite leaders who were massacred in approximately 680 CE. Imam Husain was the grandson of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The video shows the crowds of the Arabeen commemoration of Imam Husain, which Karbala organizers proudly announce as significantly larger than the annual Hajj ceremonies in nearby Saudi Arabia. According to Mr. al-Mawla, the scenes are intended to convey the view of “angels” as they travel over and through Karbala.

During filming however, many Shiite pilgrims reacted in different ways to the flying machinery. “People were shocked to see something that they have never seen before flying over the skies of Karbala. The norm when the people living there see something out of the ordinary in Iraq is to overreact due to growing security threats in the region. Sad as it may be, they are used to seeing bombs, missiles, or security overhead and people therefore are cautious and rightfully so.”

In an interview, Mr. Al-Mawla praises the advancement of the camera industry.

“There is no way to show the world through media coverage alone the magnitude of this event. With these latest technological advancements, we are now seeing drone technology advancing as quickly as camera technology has. Now we have 4K cameras on our phones. This year at the ‘Sundance film festival’, the film generating the most publicity was shot on an IPhone 5S.

“We now have new revolutionary tools to get ultimate cinematic motion instead of shaky footage because of wind and or other weather conditions that may affect the drone in flight. I also used a ‘3 Axis gimbal’ to attain smoother motion that will ultimately produce easier viewing for those who watch the footage in comparison to unstable camera footage obtained via Helicopter.”

Weeks later, Saudi Arabia released similar drone footage of “Masjid un Nabi” (The Prophet’s Mosque), however many reviewers felt that the video was not as sophisticated. In Saudi Arabia’s released movie, the drone only appears to move vertically, and otherwise stays in place. Accordingly, all of the footage only shows the point of view of a camera ascending into the sky and then descending into the same place, with no other movement.

The company behind the Phantom drone, DJI, is planning to capitalize on the burgeoning market with planned drone videos in other Islamic religious sites. Film makers are reportedly exploring war torn Syria for such a project, desiring to explore the Shrine of Zaynab (the sister of Imam Husain and granddaughter to Prophet Muhammad). Other endeavors include other cities in Iraq, such as Samarrah, Kadhmiyya, Najaf and Baghdad. DJI is also exploring drone cinematography in the holiest city in Islam, Makkah, Saudi Arabia.

This marks one of the first instances such technology has been used outside of Hollywood. The use of video drones to perform high resolution filming was popularized in American cinema in the past one or two years. Drones have also entered the American diaspora for recreational use, although there are many regulatory pitfalls. Last month, a recreational drone was accidentally flown over the White House, triggering a major security alert. The drone operator voluntarily admitted his mistake and turned himself into authorities.

Mr. Al-Mawla defends the use of drones in light of recent headlines, saying “Like most tools they can be used for good or bad purposes. In general when you hear the word drone, some automatically assume warfare, army, and missiles; but that’s not all drones are used for.

“Today you have, for example, fire fighters using drones to get a bird’s eye view of the fire to know whether or not the situation is too dangerous to send their men into a burning building, or a football coach using a drone to record the plays to see and review what his players are doing wrong and/or how they can improve to be a better as a team.

“In my industry this technology adds a wide variety of good uses in capturing amazing footage that, as an independent film maker, I couldn’t have captured before in order to create humanitarian documentaries to educate audiences worldwide”.

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