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May 22, 2018

From reel to real

Watched a movie, was awed by the backdrop and want to see it in person? Chen Jinyao susses out some places that have been featured in many film productions

Chen Jinyao

Various locations in Morocco

Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) director David Lean was the first to recognise Ouarzazate’s potential as a movie backdrop — he was won over by its exotic scenery, dramatic light and clear skies.

Since then, many other films involving ancient, Middle Eastern, desert-based or fantasy storylines — such as Star Wars (1977), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Mummy (1999) — have been shot in the town, a fourhour drive from the city of Marrakech.

A particularly favourite filming spot around Ouarzazate is Aït Benhaddou, a traditional city with buildings made of mud and clay.

Traditionally a pit stop on the old caravan route connecting the Sahara Desert and Marrakech, this Unesco World Heritage Site was most recently seen on the popular HBO television series Game Of Thrones posing as the slave city of Yunkai.

And just 8km away from Ouarzazate is the 20ha Atlas Film Studios (, the largest film studio in Morocco.

The grounds of this popular tourist destination are littered with old movie sets such as the Colosseum where Russell Crowe fought in Gladiator (2000); an enormous Egyptian temple used for the filming of TV mini series Cleopatra (1999); and a Tibetan monastery from Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997). The sets are in disrepair, but may still impress film buffs.

Istanbul, Turkey

Director-actor Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning film Argo (2012) may be set in 1980 Iran, but it was impossible to film on location, so the film-makers substituted the busy streets of Teheran with those of Istanbul in neighbouring Turkey.

The film — about the covert operation to rescue six Americans from Iran during a hostage crisis — had scenes shot at the 18th-century Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and more than 4,000 shops.

Two of the city’s most magnificent landmarks are also featured: the exterior of the Blue Mosque, a majestic historical Ottoman place of worship also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque; and the interior of the Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Christian church, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum.

It is widely regarded as the most important Byzantine structure and one of the world’s great monuments.

The same year, Istanbul was also seen in the opening scenes of Skyfall, in which James Bond chases a villain on a motorcycle across rooftops of the city, crashing through the window of the Grand Bazaar and then continuing the high-octane pursuit through the labyrinthine corridors of the market.

Actor and producer Jackie Chan’s movie The Accidental Spy (2001) was also filmed in Istanbul, in places such as a Turkish bath and back alleys.

Kauai, Hawaii, United States

The Na Pali Coast on the north-western side of Hawaiian island Kauai was made for drama.

Besides the severely fluted, knife-like cliffs starkly rising to 1,200m from the ocean, it also has mysterious caves and hidden beaches that hark at something primitive.

And it is deeply isolated — no roads run to this part of the island and the only way to access it is by hiking an arduous 17km trail.

It would seem only natural then that the producers of Jurassic Park (1993) and Jurassic World (2015) would introduce audiences to the fictional island of Isla Nublar — home of the dinosaurs — with aerial shots of these cliffs, setting the tone for the rest of the movie.

Also seen in the opening sequences is the 122m-high Manawaiopuna Falls at Hanapepe Valley, which was the backdrop for when the film’s stars land via helicopter on the island for the first time.

Since then, this waterfall has been nicknamed Jurassic Falls. Another area in Kauai that appears in the Jurassic Park series is the Jurassic Kahili Ranch (, where the characters get their first glimpse of a towering brachiosaurus grazing on treetops. In real life, the ranch is a working cattle ranch.

Kauai also played host to pirates (Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011), alien life-forms (Avatar, 2009) and other film and television productions.

Parts of Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides were filmed in botanical garden Allerton Garden ( allerton); while the non-CGI scenes of Avatar were shot at Keahua Arboretum (

Glencoe, Scotland

For more than 70 years, film-makers have been drawn to the sweeping majestic vistas of Glencoe and the unspoilt nature of the surrounding Scottish Highlands, setting shows such as Braveheart (1995), Highlander (1986) and Rob Roy (1995) there.

Glencoe, about 150km north-west of Glasgow, has more than just its grandeur going for it.

French director Bernard Tavernier has reportedly remarked that the light in the west of Scotland, combined with the clarity of the unpolluted air, makes for an effect that no amount of studio manipulation can re-create.

Recent shows filmed there include the James Bond movie Skyfall (2012), in which the secret agent played by Daniel Craig drives a sexy Aston Martin DB5 down a startlingly dramatic backdrop of craggy peaks and valleys.

To pay homage to the road travelled by Bond, head for the A82 highway, near the peaks of Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag.

Nearby, Glen Etive provided the stunning location for Bond’s family home, Skyfall Lodge.

Are you a Harry Potter fan?

You might be interested to find out that shooting for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and its subsequent sequels also took place in Glencoe, with sets such as Hagrid’s hut and its smoking chimney and pumpkin patch constructed across from Clachaig Inn ( to take in the view overlooking Torren Lochan.

Provinces in Vietnam

Director of Kong: Skull Island (2017) Jordan Vogt-Roberts wasn’t about to settle for just any backdrop for his film; he had a specific vision of what the mythical beast Kong’s home would look like, and scoured the world for the right location for his production.

He found it in Vietnam.

Won over by the raw, ethereal landscapes, he ended up filming a large part of the movie in various areas such as Tam Coc in the northern province of Ninh Binh.

Also known as the Halong Bay on land, Tam Coc’s landscape consists of the Ngo Dong River weaving through dramatic limestone karsts rising amid paddy fields; a favourite activity among visitors is a boat ride down the river.

Ninh Binh province’s Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve, too, made an appearance.

The wetland nature reserve has been said to be among the country’s most stunning landscapes because its water is as calm as a giant mirror, reflecting mountains and clouds.

Other areas in Vietnam that were featured in Kong are Quang Binh province’s Hang Son Doong, a three million-year-old cave and the largest one in the world. The cave is in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site also known for its ancient limestone karsts, tropical forests and underground rivers.

Vietnam’s biggest tourist attraction, Halong Bay, also makes a cameo with its spectacular seascape of limestone pillars and tiny islets rising from the Gulf of Tonkin.


- For The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) fans, New Zealand is Middle-earth. More than 150 locations in the country were used as filming sites for The LOTR and The Hobbit trilogies.

A popular tourist destination is the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, North Island.

Read about it at BVhobbiton

- The mediaeval Croatian town of Dubrovnik (right) is well known as a filming location for hit television series Game Of Thrones, as well as movies such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Robin Hood: Origins.

Check out more about it at 

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