The Fight Island Experience
August 2020 -The year 2020, for those of us that can survive it, will go down as one of the most uneasiest, uncertain year of our lives. The threat of a global pandemic is very real and very scary, it has also taken away not only loved ones but some of the life's most simplest pleasures, like sports! COVID-19 has single-handly shut down the entire global sports experience, leaving us with nothing to cheer about. And if you are a professional sports cinematographer, not much to shoot! If there was one sports organization not afraid of a fight, it was the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and it's president, Dana White.
I have had the pleasure of working and traveling with Dana for the past 5 years on his show, "Looking for a Fight" as a cinematographer and editor. seeing firsthand his dedication to the sport, his love for fans and how he finds a way to get things done.
When COVID-19 hit and I heard him say that he would find a way to be the first sport back, I never doubted it for a second. Then in April, when I heard Dana utter the words...Fight Island, a place where they could hold events in a virus free environment, I like everyone else was intrigued. I also texted my friend Rory Karpf, producer/director of "Looking for a Fight" and jokingly asked him if he had signed the deal for the Fight Island series yet?!
Less than 2 months later, Rory calls me and says Fight Island is real and we were going! I was floored. My only goal in the interim, was to not get sick with COVID, spend time with my family and be ready to contribute as much as possible to the project.
The first hurdle was getting to Las Vegas and be tested for the virus. I left Modesto pre dawn on July 5th, people still sleeping off the 4th of July celebrations and I'm creeping out of town! I drove the 7 hrs to Las Vegas, allowing me to avoid a commercial flight as well as bring all my gear along. Upon arrival, we were immediately tested for COVID and began our quarantine in a Holiday Inn Express, well off the Vegas strip. About 24 hrs later, we were cleared to board the chartered Flight that left Vegas bound for Abu Dhabi. Fight Island was real and we were going there!
Upon arrival and before anyone of us could shoot a single frame, we had to be tested 2 more times for COVID and quarantined again for 48 hrs. Throughout our stay, we were tested the day before each event, of which there were 4 total. In all I was test 8 times throughout the entire project.
Fight Island was actually Yas Island, a part of Abu Dhabi that was indeed an island, but not in the tropical sense. It was booming with construction, established hotels, a world famous golf course and a bunch of other cool stuff we never got to see. A 10 sq. mile radius was blocked off and considered the "safe zone", in this bubble was hotels for fighters, production, executives, operations and staff, all being tested regularly and following all COVID safety measures. The arena where the fights took place was also in this safe zone, it was very much well laid out. Once you entered the save zone, there was no leaving it.
Following the quarantine, we were able to start rolling our cameras and capturing the behind the scenes stories. Our cameras were embedded with fighters, coaches, ufc staff and their counterparts from Abu Dhabi. The end result will be a 4 part series about this whole experience and the people who lived it. There were 4 nights of fights over a 3 weeks period, kicking off with UFC 251 and then 3 Fight Nights, all with some of the best mma athletes from all over the world. I have been part of many unique projects over my career, but nothing has even come close to what I experienced here.
The precautions and lengths the UFC and the government of Abu Dhabi went to to ensure the safety of everyone involved was impressive to say the least. In fact, I am certain that if Dana White was put in charge of solving the COVID crisis in America, it would have been solved months ago. We sanitized and masked up at all times, people respected the social distancing rules and everyone did their part to ensure the health and safety of the person next to them. Despite all the rules, never once were we constrained from doing our job.
Lets get one thing straight about Abu Dhabi in July. Its hot, like real hot and not like Central Valley August hot...no, it takes hot to a whole new level! But heat aside, what is taking place in Abu Dhabi is amazing, construction everywhere look with buildings right out of an episode of The Jetsons.
The result was a once in a lifetime experience and it really hasn't ended, after returning home and taking some time off, I began to contribute to the editing of what will eventually be a 4 part series released this fall. I can not wait until this series is comes out and all my friends and family can see what I was a part of. In our business, you never know if a project will be successful or not, but the fact that this whole concept of Fight island was willed into existence to circumvent a deadly pandemic, to bring sports fans something to cheer about in a dire time...well, that's a story worth telling.
Dean Camara, Cineasta Digital - Aug 2020