While football has been popular in Saudi Arabia for a long time, it’s only in the past year that the Saudi Pro League has captured the attention of football fans outside the country, thanks to an unprecedented slew of incoming big-name transfers, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mané, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Jordan Henderson, and many, many others. One of the largest jewels in the league’s newly bedazzled crown is Brazilian superstar Neymar, who left Paris Saint Germain for Riyadh-based Al Hilal for a reported $100m. To mark Neymar’s arrival, SELA produced a spectacular drone and firework show, working in collaboration with Rising Star Co and Groupe F.
Tamim Alduhaish, Events Experience Manager at SELA, explained the creative thinking behind the drone show aspect of the project. “Football and eSports are two of Saudis’ favourite things, thus the idea to start with Neymar’s FIFA card as the first thing Neymar sees when he reaches the pitch came from there,” he revealed. “Following that, the portrait for everyone to view Neymar’s face up in the sky, looking not just at the 67,000 Hilal fans at King Fahd Stadium, but at the entire world, was unveiled.”
Following the portrait, the drones moved into several other striking formations, including spelling out ‘Neymar Is Blue’. “That was the background of most of Neymar’s photos that day, as well as a welcome message to the club and league – RSL, ROSHN SAUDI LEAGUE – for he is now at home,” Alduhaish added.
With 1,700 drones used for the show, Alduhaish looked back on how the production came together. “Our two great pilots – Omar Mandour, Events Experience Senior Manager at SELA and Mohammed Belal, Project Manager at Rising Star – programmed and operated the drones, beginning with a site visit a few days before the show to choose the best take-off area, laying out the pit and our equipment, identifying the viewing angle and parameters, and on the event day making sure the formation of drones and all parameters are met to be ready to take off, perform the show, and finally landing 1,700 drones safely to the pit,” he recalled. “Along with the efforts of an incredible team that assisted in arranging the drones in a 1m by 1m shape on the ground, everyone contributed to this achievement and felt honoured to be a part of such a memorable event.”
Time constraints proved a challenge, with the SELA team also operating another show on the day of rehearsals. “We had to pack everything from another location, go to the site, set everything up, adapt to site conditions, and successfully execute a rehearsal for the client to see the final outcome and provide feedback,” he recalled. “Remember how much the Saudis adore eSports? The show we had on the same day as the rehearsal was for eSports, which inspired the storyboard.”
Another consideration was the element of uncertainty brought by having to time the show to fit in with the requirements of the wider event. “We didn’t know exactly when we would take off because of the many things going on inside the event, which was around 400m away from the drone take-off location, so we had to always have enough power in the batteries to make it on time, perform the show, and return safely,” he revealed.
“This meant that we had to stay in constant contact with our personnel on the inside and the show caller to have a 15-minute window to tweak our settings and make any necessary modifications. Other than waiting for the cue to take off, what truly puts us on edge is synchronising the performance with the audio, lighting, pyrotechnics, and all the aspects of the show to execute a performance where all elements are in harmony.”
The fireworks element of the show was equally challenging, with Groupe F leaving no stone unturned to ensure a spectacular yet safe production. “Displaying fireworks within a stadium field of play, in close proximity of football players, journalists and photographers, technical teams and audience is always a challenge,” commented Groupe F Sales Director and Content Coordinator, Nicolas Chavance. “Safety and coactivity are the most important elements at stake in a proximity environment.”
The Groupe F also had a tight timeframe to contend with, making communication more important than ever. “The key element of success was a strong and solid relationship between Groupe F and SELA,” he reflected. “They understand that sometimes we have to say ‘that’s not possible’, but at the same time, they know we are doing beyond our best to deliver a thrilling experience for the audience and media coverage,” he noted.
According to Chavance, Groupe F always makes sure to keep in mind the overall dynamic and spirit of a show when designing the fireworks element. “The fireworks here are the cherry on the cake of a whole scenography,” he explained. “Our strategy is to illuminate, punctuate or enlighten others rather than trying to design a show as if it was its own star. It would be a huge mistake to come up with something that tries to say, ‘look at me, not Neymar!’”
He added: “The fireworks here are designed to get the perfect TV shot, the perfect photo for the social media, the front page of the newspaper that will last for years, as well as the wow-effect conclusion for the live audience in the stadium, creating smiles and laughs for everyone.”
Looking back on the event, SELA’s Alduhaish was most pleased with the audience reaction. “Nothing beats hearing the reaction of the audience once the fireworks and drones light up the sky,” he concluded. “The best part was Neymar’s reaction and the smile on his face seeing the show at the stadium once he entered the field.”