In order to produce amazing photographic imagery, you physically have to be in front of something that is amazing in itself. Whether it be the Taj Mahal during sunrise, or a majestic creature like the elusive house cat – the more interesting the subject, the better the imagery.
I guess what I am trying to say is, I have been so lucky to be able to capture the antics of Ken Block over the years, as he makes my job as a Speedhunter incredibly easy. It’s hard not to come out with some of the best photos of my career when the most awesome tire-shredding action is happening right in front of me.
I got plenty of that from the ‘Head Hoonigan in Charge’ when I was on the set of Gymkhana Eight, which you can now watch by hitting play above if you haven’t done so already. I was there for one purpose: to capture all the hoonage as it took place in the gem of the Middle East – the city of Dubai.
I’ve visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and experienced a little local car culture before, but I really only skimmed the surface.
One of the things I’ve come away with from traveling to the region is the Dubaians’ absolute love affair with all things on four wheels. From what my friends who live in the city have told me, it stems from the fact that if you don’t have adequate and reliable transportation in the middle of the desert, you could not survive for very long, let alone settle there. This was reinforced when I had a chance to witness a monument dedicated to the Dodge Power Wagon. Of course, the locals have evolved from using vehicles for necessity and survival to all-out pleasure in the form of the some of the most amazing and exotic cars in the world.
So it was only appropriate for Ken to choose Dubai as the location for his next Gymkhana playground. To say that the city opened its arms and fully embraced what he wanted to do would be an understatement.
‘X Dubai’ is special projects group of sorts, focusing on everything and anything cool that involves the city. From viral videos to assisting with large Hollywood productions, they are one of the largest media houses in the region.
For this particular project, X Dubai played a part in securing certain locations for filming as well as providing plenty of on-site support.
Gone are the days of just a few cameras and an open airport runway to shoot a Gymkhana video; now the production is the size of a mayonnaise commercial. Or at least that’s what we told people on the street when they asked us what we were filming…
Once again, Ken teamed up with Hoonigan brand director Brian Scotto to make the eighth film. This viral video duo has been at it since the very first Gymkhana way back in 2008.
And the car that Ken used for Gymkhana Eight? Six hundred and fifty horsepower of all-wheel drive fury from a tiny little rally-bred Ford Fiesta.
With this story, I want to give you guys an insight into what it took to make this video in the Middle East. In total, it was five straight days of non-stop filming, with just a few days beforehand to acclimate to the time zone change. It was a rough week for the film crew and myself, but as you would have already seen by watching the finished product, it was well worth it.Day 1: Jumbo Jet
The call-time for the first day was very early, and for most of the crew that meant setting wake-up alarms for 3:00am. The very first location was the busiest highway in Dubai.
I was told that Sheikh Zayed Road had only ever been shut down once before this, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to shoot a viral video. You can bet the Dubai Police were out in force.
I can’t really imagine that the BMW i8 would make a very good patrol car, but these guys seem to like it.
There were a series of tricks for Ken to perform on the highway, but there was only a very short window of opportunity to get them done. After all, you can only close a main thoroughfare for so long. We may or may not have delayed flights out of Dubai International Airport on this particular morning…
Due to the reflective livery on the RX43 Ford Fiesta, the camera department needed to adopt a few tricks, one of which was mounting a high-powered spotlight right above the lens.
You can barely see the effect of it in this photograph, but I placed my camera right on top of the spotlight. I had to change the way I shoot this livery as well, because in order to get it to pop, I really needed to use my flash. Of course, I did not dare to do that while the cameras were rolling though.
For the main trick, the crew brought out a huge custom-made ramp. Its purpose: getting a car up on two wheels.
It’s pretty much the safest way to get a vehicle into this sketchy position without the risk of it flipping over. When in the Middle East, right?
The day before I had a chance to check out the stunt drivers practicing. The Ford F150 Raptor had to be fitted with special tires, and they also had to do some minor suspension modifications for safety and to improve its two-wheeling abilities.
What better way to start off a long week of shooting, right? The RX43 certainly made all the right noises as the exhaust note resonated off the surrounding skyscrapers. It’s one way to wake up the neighborhood!
And just like that the first shot was in the bag. As I mentioned earlier, the crew had a very limited amount of time to set up and break down camera positions, so we all moved quickly to vacate the eerily empty highway.
Next, we headed to the east coast of Dubai for our second location. We were shooting at Fujairah International Airport, but no one was prepared for what was waiting on the runway for us.
An early production Boeing 747 with a tug – both completely at our disposal. Brian was so excited as it’s always been a dream of his to tow a jumbo jet.
For an airplane that has been decommissioned, it was in fairly good condition. Although, the wind was blowing pretty strong and turning the turbine fans, which made the loudest racket. It even hurt my ears just standing next to it. I’m guessing it hadn’t been lubed for 30-odd years.
But that didn’t stop the boys from getting some shots for their next album cover. To the left is my good friend Will Roegge from Keep Drifting Fun; in the middle is Ron Zaras, also a good buddy of mine and professional arm wrestler (look at those guns). Brian was sad because he’d just found out he was not allowed to tow the jumbo jet.
If it looks like we were having a blast on set, your assumption would be correct. While shooting days are long and always very drawn out – think 15 hours from sunrise to sunset – having fun with it keeps everyone going.
We quickly got some storytelling shots out of the way, including those of Ken entering the airport. Just your everyday Gymkhana course, as you can see…
What would you do if you had a whole airport runway at your disposal? I just know I’d be smiling from ear to ear, too.
The idea was to build up as much speed as possible and pitch it sideways enough so that it became a backwards entry.
A long trail of dust from the runway mixed with the tire smoke created an awesome effect.
‘Killcam’ is the name given to a close-range, perfectly positioned GoPro, and it’s exactly what this one is. In this photo, Ken was sliding backwards at considerable speed.
Considering the size of the Boeing 747, I figured the only way to properly capture the scale of what was happening down on the runaway was to shoot from the sky. It might be surprising for you to hear, but up until this point I had never flown in a helicopter.
Since shooting Gymkhana Eight I’ve flown in choppers two more times, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a bit nerve wracking getting in the air for the first time.
One thing that was tough was getting the timing right. As soon as Ken left the line, our helicopter would have to play catch-up, because the RX43 accelerates much faster.
After a few tries we got the timing down, and it was so cool to watch my friend Eric Everly from Tempt Media shoot with the Shotover F1 camera system. He was so smooth with the sticks, and the resulting shots were just perfect.
While I didn’t have a chance to shoot out the door, I did have a pretty clear window view which allowed me to snap a few shots of Ken doing donuts under the massive 747. You really do get a sense of how big these aircraft are when you see how tiny the Ford Fiesta looks in comparison. See that black dot on the right of the runway? That is a F150 Raptor camera truck.
With that done, the first day of shooting was in the books. It’s amazing how much we actually got done in one day considering the complications you always seem to run into on projects of this nature.
Considering the number of shots that were accomplished, I think day one set a good pace for the rest of the shoot. All of the recon that Brian and the boys did months prior helped out immensely.Day 2: Donut Box
Day two was a bit tough for all, mainly due to everyone being exhausted after such a long first day of shooting. But I couldn’t help but be excited once I saw the Dubai skyline all lit up in the background.
I was a bit more awake by the time the Porsche 918 police car showed up on set. It’s just so amazing to me that this is actually a thing in Dubai.
In fact, these police cars followed us around everywhere we went. Just like the LAPD cars in Gymkhana Seven, they served a double purpose, acting as great background cars as well as actually blocking traffic.
Our first location was another empty highway, and the perfect spot for an epic drag race.
Not just any old drag race though, but a supercar line-up – the stuff that dreams are made of.
Piloting a few of the ‘street cars’ were Roncar (aka Mr. Big Gunz), and grumpy Matt Tuccillo (cool shades dude). I was insanely jealous.
This was a classic case of all the neighbors wondering what the heck were we doing blocking the road for a street race. Mayonnaise, people! No pizza boys were told to find another way home.
What I found interesting from a photography perspective was the perfect fill light being provided by a very shiny skyscraper just across the way. The whole road was bathed in it.
From a physical standpoint though, that only made the heat even more unbearable, and this was only late fall! It was like being on Tatooine with two suns shining on you.
After a few roundy rounds and some drag pulls, we packed up once more and headed to the next spot; one that turned out to be another favorite of mine.
This location was a crazy network of steel and concrete beams that seemingly existed for no reason at all. Whatever it was, I loved the way it looked.
It’s even better when you see it from the sky, as it actually forms a Falcon.
Below, as Ken appropriately pointed out, was the most expensive donut box the world has ever seen.
On top of that, these weren’t only exotic cars – they all belonged to the Dubai Police!
To capture all that donut box jazz, the boys at GoPro came up with this crazy snake-like contraption.
I’m pretty sure there was still room for around 50 more cameras on the windshield though.
As the sun was setting, Ken made clouds with the RX43.
The sunset that night was just perfect, and an amazing way to end day two of shooting.Day 3: Runway Fun
By the time day three began we’d barely had a chance to get our eye crusties out, as my buddy Bryan Moore from Tempt Media demonstrated.
Our first shooting location was on the docks in front of some of the highest apartment buildings in the world.
Kenny from the Block was jumping for joy – this was going to be the most epic day in terms of how many tricks would be attempted.
It started with some trick maneuvering around some posts that were on the dock.
I can’t imagine this surface was ever designed for tire grip, which of course meant it was very slick, not to mention dusty.
There are so many people behind the scenes that make the ship that is the Gymkhana franchise sail smoothly. Brian was on the radio with Ken as he was driving, and you can see the first assistant director yelling at me for being in frame. Sorry!
The next location was very cool indeed – a man-made island built for a small landing strip. It also provided what must be one of the best views of the Dubai cityscape.
At the end of the runway a fine selection of Dubai Police supercars were waiting. High speed runs into the ocean, anyone?
The strip is actually run by Skydive Dubai, the very same company who helped out with that epic #HelloJetman promo clip involving two jetpack-equipped daredevils and an Emirates Airbus A380.
Camera positions were actually on the runway itself, which made it one of the more interesting locations that I’ve had to shoot from.
The second stunt of the day was a mini jump off a little ramp on the driveway leading up to the Skydive Dubai runway.
There was quite a bit of run-up to the jump, and Ken made the most of it by never lifting.
WRC driver Khalid Al Qassimi came on set to check out the action. It’s too bad he didn’t bring his rally car along, as that would have been really cool.
The guys at X Dubai pulled out all the stops for this single scene. We had police boats, flipping jet ski dudes and flipping jet stream guys as well. Basically flipping everything!
But to top it all off, there was a fan man. How cool would it be for him to say that he tandem ‘drifted’ down a runway with Ken Block?
The next stunt was something I was really looking forward to. It seemed that up to this point, the theme of the video was largely about all things that fly in the air.
I am paraphrasing, but Ken told the pilot something along the lines of, ‘Get as close to the roof of my car as you want.’
The Head Hoonigan in Charge seems to go through life by putting himself in dangerous situations for our viewing pleasure. And what a life, eh?
The hardest part of this stunt was to get the timing perfect. The goal was for the RX43 and the airplane to go full-tilt at the same time down the runway, and it definitely made for an awesome shot. Witnessing it in person was so cool too, because I can only imagine seeing this type of thing in James Bond films.
If the airplane buzzing Ken Block’s tower was not cool enough, the next stunt was the cherry on top.
It was getting late in the day by now, and you can see the reflective livery reacting to the sunset. Everything was in position and the crew was all set for an epic tandem donut session.
Doing tandem donuts with a helicopter that is. It’s a scary thought though, and I was half-thinking how cool it looked and half-worried about something going horribly wrong. The dude is genuinely crazy, and all this for a mayonnaise commercial?!
The stunt worked perfectly as planned and Ken produced a cloud of tire smoke large enough to be seen from the International Space Station.
While any sane person would call it a day, we all know that the Monster driver is far from that.
Jumping into the Persian Gulf from a helicopter seems like a bucket list sort of thing for someone like Ken.
I scored it a perfect 10 for rotation. What form! Such Gymkhana! The Dubai Police Search & Rescue team was on hand to pick up the Olympic diver.
Day three had been the toughest of the lot, so what better way than to end it with my interpretation of the new Daft Punk album cover, featuring the crew of Gymkhana Eight.Day 4: Burj Khalifa
Day four started back in the city, because you can’t shoot a Gymkhana video in Dubai and not include the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa.
While this location is normally filled to the brim with tourists from all over the world, it was completely empty on this particular morning.
What an interesting staging area. Although, the surface was incredibly slick, and Ken needed all the run-up he could get to build up speed.
I don’t know about you guys, but I love this one-off livery. The fact that it has a different look depending on what light you throw at it is so cool. Just be prepared for the slew of copycats in the coming months!
My options were to shoot from the ground, or get on the first deck of the Burj Khalifa. I choose to shoot from the ground as Ken navigated some park benches.
I’ve shot Ken at some interesting locations around the world, but I’d have to say that this spot takes the cake.
Next up was a few pick-up and storytelling shots on Palm Island, near the hotel Atlantis.
I’m sure the neighbors didn’t mind us dropping in for a while. Donuts for everybody!
By now, the majority of shooting was done, so we at least had a bit of a chance to relax. The final day would mostly focus on storytelling elements, but from what I could tell at this point, it was going to be a Gymkhana for the record books.Day 5: Dunes
At 3:30am in the morning we hit the road and headed towards the outskirts of the city. The location was a series of abandoned roads that are being swallowed back into the dunes by the sand.
The reason for the early call-time? The crew wanted to catch the sunrise, and we only had one shot at it.
It was such a cool landscape, and the RX43 looked right at home sitting on what little pavement is left.
It makes you wonder what might have been on these roads? A shopping mall? A residential neighborhood? Who’d have known that all these years later it would become part of a Gymkhana set.
When Ken is not behind the wheel of a rally car he races camels and hangs out with his pet falcon.
With all the talent in place and the sun slowly rising, it was the perfect time for the opening shot.
After being on set for these scenes, it really makes me wonder how grueling it must be to shoot a full-length feature film.
But I love how much goes into such a simple thing. Because of this guy’s lead foot, an entire genre of car videos has been created.
And just like for Gymkhana Seven in Los Angeles, there were up to around 80 people on set at any given time.
That includes the talent wranglers, film crew, security detail, all the grip guys and the logistical people, of course. Not to mention, all of the Hoonigan Racing crew and mechanics. It was endless.
While this shot looks super simple, it actually proved to be quite difficult. I think the cheetah just wanted to give Ken a little kiss.
This is a better shot of what the scene actually looked like. As you guys can see, there are many moving parts just for a simple one-second clip.
The cheetah also left quite a bit of hair on the dashboard, which I am sure the RX43 crew really enjoyed cleaning up. At least the other animal talent on set was much friendlier.
Once the intro scenes were shot, Ken jumped back into the driver’s seat to do some sand hooning.
It was awesome to watch the rally car go full off-road, jumping from dune to pavement. I’m sure Ken could have played all day, but we still had one major shot left to finish off, so we yet again packed up and headed back into town.
Although this time it was to the hotel that Mr. Block was staying at. He certainly got some funny looks walking around the lobby in his race suit.
The fact that the hotel allowed him to go ham on the property was just too awesome of an opportunity to pass up.
With traffic at a standstill on the other side of the road, Ken warmed up the tires. As the cameras weren’t rolling for this shot, I fired my flash for the first time during the shoot.
And just like that, the final shot was in the bag and Gymkhana Eight was a wrap. I can’t imagine what the hotel guests were thinking when they looked outside of their rooms and saw what was going on.
After five days of shooting, I ended up with 12,105 shots in total. That equates to an average of one picture every 18 seconds. It was so much work that I don’t think I recovered for another week.
I want to thank Ken Block, creative director Brian Scotto, director Ben Conrad, and the rest of the Hoonigan Racing crew for letting me tag along. My corny jokes can drive anyone mad, and I applaud them all for suffering through them for an entire week.
I can only imagine what sort of trouble Ken and the gang will get into for the next installment in the Gymkhana series. All I know is, I want to be there again shooting one photo every 18 seconds. Enjoy the Bonus Images chapter below, and don’t forget to leave a comment for Ken about what you thought of the video.