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Meet Umut Aral: A Pioneering Filmmaker

Behind the lens for Netflix’s The Protector, Love 101, Yakamoz S245, Good Game

Umut Aral is a well known Turkish filmmaker, who has made his mark through several award-winning projects that span short films to feature films to international commercials. To date, he is the most prolific director for Netflix in Turkey, with 21 episodes of assorted series credited to his name. He has already been a part of The Protector, Love 101 and the upcoming series Yakamoz, starring Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ.

We recently had a delightful opportunity to sit down with him and learn more about his career. It is a storied journey of passion, growth and inspiration that paves the path for future filmmakers. We are thrilled to be able to present Umut’s work, insights, and his enthusiasm for his craft, not only for our regular readers but also for young filmmakers who can get encouraged by his career.

Becoming a Filmmaker

I met an inspiring teacher Mithat Alam who deepened my interest in filmmaking. I expanded my knowledge through watching classics, work of auteur directors, European, Japanese, Asian cinema, as well as independent American films that helped me learn a lot about the history of cinema.

When Umut was a child of 4 – 5 years, his young mother would take him along to watch movies at the theater. At the time, there were no children’s TV or cable channels and she would select movies to her interest. And a young mind became intrigued by the classics that were meant for adults. By the time he was 6 or 8 years old, whenever he came upon a film set, either in the neighborhood or elsewhere, he would quietly observe the activities on set.

In high school, he started drawing and making flip animations, in addition to being involved in the theater club and acting in plays. The performing arts remained a big draw, and he continued acting for about 10 years through to university. He also expanded into contributing as a writer for plays and directing them.

He was only 14 when his father brought a camera and that opened an exploration into the idea of film-making. He used his toys and cars as props to model car chases, organized film days with friends from high school to shoot short films based on simple action or detective stories.

In university, he shot his first formal short film, a psychological thriller called Thirtyfour. Fellow filmmakers and the cast were all his friends. It’s a story about Selim, who decides to go to his uncle’s summer house to prepare his term paper based on the subject “death in movies”. While hitching a ride on a deserted highway, a strange man picks him up and they go on a dark journey. The film went on an award-winning tour at some film festivals, which helped open a lot of doors and established lasting professional connections.

Award winning short film ‘thirtyfour’

Even though he was pursuing a degree in management in university, Umut also took a number of cinema courses and met an inspiring teacher, Mithat Alam, who deepened his interest in filmmaking. He says, “I got access to an atypical repertoire of films while the average viewers were limited to the Turkish films or US blockbusters playing in the theaters.”

Entering the industry full time after graduation, the training that started since high school held him in good stead. “I have taken on many roles in the film-making space – as a trainee, gaffer, production manager, production assistant, in many levels as an assistant director, and more. I got connected to filmmakers who were into TV commercials and that’s where I also met Can Ulkay. We worked with the same company, Atlantik Film.”

Together with Can Ulkay

Shooting commercials remains his most prolific space, having worked on more than 300 commercials, both for multinational and national brands.

In 2006, his second short film, Crash, was released. With a great cast and support from the cinema ecosystem that he was now a part of, it was a much more professional and bigger production compared to his film Thirtyfour in 2000. Crash won 13 awards and went to many festivals across several countries.

Behind the scenes from award-winning film, ‘Crash’

Continuing with making commercials for a few more years, in 2017 he finally switched to his first love of fiction. He started with directing one of the seven episodes for the BluTV series 7 Faces, where each episode is a single, contained story. In 2018, he directed the very first movie on e-sports, Good Game: The Beginning. The film traveled all around the world, winning prestigious awards in international festivals and is now available globally on Netflix.

Good Game, starring Mert Yazıcıoğlu, Afra Saraçoğlu, Yiğit Kirazcı, Kerem Bursin

“I always wanted to be a pioneer, tried new styles and genres, worked in many formats and platforms. I always got out of my comfort zone, bringing never-seen-before worlds and stories to the audience. In every new project I’ve learned a lot. This is what I love about being a director; no matter how many films you’ve directed, how many sets you’ve been on, there is always something new to learn in film-making.”

This short compilation of behind the scenes filming of this underwater scene in Love 101 was technically challenging but allowed the team to try some interesting techniques.

Anyone can see Umut’s body of work and experience the chronology of his growth as a filmmaker on his vimeo channel here.

Netflix in Turkey

Since 2017, Umut has worked on multiple top-notch Netflix projects (The Protector, Love 101, Yakamoz – The Submarine Story).  As published by Netflix and other news sources, The Protector became a global success. It was in the top ten in the US and the UK as the ‘most watched non-English series’ on Netflix, and trended in the top 10 in several countries in the first week of its release. His latest release Love 101 is another global success with its second season and trended in the top ten in over 25 countries.

Umut was part of the filming crew of Season 2 episode 6 of Netflix’s Belgian production Into The Night, which is an international phenomenon and is connected to the Yakamoz story, also coming to Netflix. Kivanc Tatlitug has a lead role in Yakamoz, and a cameo in the Belgian production. This is the first time Netflix is trying such a spin off in this manner.

Throughout his illustrious career, Umut has worked across many countries and, as such, has experience with the work pipeline from international crews. He says, “It isn’t much different than the Turkish style but for national productions you have to adapt to the particular style for their country. Netflix came with its own style of how they design the pipeline, which informs us about the American and European style of film-making. There has been a lot of skill transfer through the post-production and production crews, which has been very helpful for the local crew as well. In exchange, the international crews have learnt from Turkey too, as our local crews are some of the most flexible and entrepreneurial in the world.”

There has been a great fusion of knowledge and expertise in film-making over the last three and a half years that Netflix has physically produced shows in Turkey. With a local office in Istanbul, Netflix Turkey now has Turkish executives and local creative, marketing and production teams, who work in collaboration with the international team. Publicly available information suggests that Netflix is considering investing in a studio in Turkey as well.

Both Netflix and local crews have traveled towards each other and this is a good place for our local filmmakers. We are excited to see the number of Netflix productions increase since 2018, when The Protector was the only one.

The Directors Take

We were curious about Umut’s methods for his craft. He says, “the process of filmmaking has some fundamentals. I visualize and start drawing storyboards, and sometimes take pictures. This is a common start across many filmmakers such as James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and more, who use it as a tool to explain the depth and breadth of their ideas.

I start sharing my ideas with the production teams and we go through several iterations of identifying problems and coming up with solutions. If you want to try new things, you have to convince the various stakeholders like the actors and members of your team. Working within time and money constraints makes teamwork essential in coming up with the best way to execute a vision. Different people have insights into different levels of constraints to achieve what I have in mind, and it becomes a negotiation.”

For example, in Love 101, the riot scene at the end of the season is a pivotal scene for Umut. They spent 4 days filming the elaborate scene, which used over 200 extras, stunts, thousands of papers and toilet papers, explosives, torches, smoke machines, fake paints and more. In context, each episode was shot in an average of 7 days, maybe going up to 10 days. Spending half of the time budget on one scene that is about six minutes long seemed like a crazy idea. The production team objected strongly, especially since filming during the pandemic and getting that many interacting extras would be tough.

Recreation of a scene from a famous French Revolution painting by Eugene Delacroix

“I had to create extensive storyboards to explain the idea and over time they were convinced, and added their own inputs into how to make it richer. This is part of my method of working with the broader team. I suggest ideas but it can only work once you have buy in and a sense of ownership from other stakeholders.  

I love the quote by Orson Wells “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.” A film set will have at least a 100 people and we have to work with this broad team everyday, sometimes trying to achieve a single idea. I like to lead with a plan or a kernel of an idea, but I like to enable my team leaders to achieve their parts within this plan. I want for my team to enjoy the journey.”

The camaraderie is evident on set. As actor Kaan Urgançioğlu finishes his last shot for Love 101, the following behind the scenes clip is a testament to the close knit family that forms during the hard days of filming a show.

Behind the scenes with Kaan Urgançioğlu

It is not my style to be an authoritarian boss. This process of collaborating with the team, finding and solving problems, is the part of my job I love the most.

Working on The Protector & Yakamoz

We asked what are some scenes in The Protector that satisfied Umut in how it was envisioned and executed, and what it has been like to work on the highly anticipated Yakamoz – A Submarine Story, which wrapped up filming earlier this year.

“There are many memorable scenes from The Protector but the opening sequence until the title of the third season is one of my favorites. We depicted a viral pandemic, with people in masks, coughing, dying and a year later that became a reality with COVID. It was crazy!

We also showed scenes from the Ottoman times when the Vizir shoots an arrow and it has a symbol. The same symbol can be seen in modern day Istanbul as wall graffiti while the city is erupting in chaos from the virus. It dramatically sets the tone for the season and one immediately wonders how Cagatay as Hakan will overcome these conflicts against the Immortals and make Istanbul beautiful again. Another scene I really like is from the fourth episode of the first season, where Hakan is making love to Leyla and in parallel we see Zeynep being attacked.”

Kivanc cameo in Into The Night

Yakamoz will be a first for all of us, even from Netflix. They have never done a spin-off for another international series. For the audience, it will be a new and adventurous journey as well.

Behind the scenes from Yakamoz; compiled by Kivanc Tatlitug North America

I am involved in a project as soon as a production in green lit. I have a method of preparation with the actors. We sometimes watch films together that show similar roles or similar environments. For Yakamoz, we watched many other submarine classics such as The Hunt For Red October, Das Boot and others, to create an atmosphere for what we will work on, even though none of the characters resemble what Kivanc plays. It helps the actor visualize themselves in those environments and also start to enact the kinds of situations they may face. It helps them come up with their own ideas after reading the script. We are excited about bringing this series to the audience.”

Working with Çağatay & Kıvanç

Since North America TEN helps to promote the works of Çağatay Ulusoy and Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, we wanted to know of Umut’s working experience with them and his perceptions of their work.

“Çağatay is really ambitious and loves film-making. Not just acting but he’s also into writing scripts, shooting short films and involved in the creative process as well when he’s acting in a project.

From his past projects, I already knew he was a great actor but after I started working with him, I got deeper insight into these other qualities, which I think make him special among his peer group. He has good English, which is not common among other Turkish actors, and he’s always following the works of international filmmakers. He’s willing to do more international work which I think will grow in his filmography.

Çağatay becomes the character that he plays. When he did The Protector, for many of the emotional scenes, he pushed for improving upon them as he brought Hakan to life. This is the best possible collaboration between an actor and director, where both are as ambitious as possible. We did a period piece with The Protector and he became Hakan and Harun.  This was a different experience for us to have the same actor playing both the roles, who also came face to face for some of the time. In addition, he became the Vizier in certain scenes when he was in front of a mirror and he really enjoyed those scenes, which was fun for us too.

Hakan meets Vizir
Kivanc as Muzzafer in Butterfly’s Dream

Çağatay and Kıvanç are different in their acting methods. I worked with Kivanc for the first time and I already knew that he’s very ambitious and experienced. He can really change himself for a role and I have seen him lose 15-20 kgs for a feature film (Butterfly’s Dream) or, on the contrary, gain weight for another feature film (Organize Isler 2). For this one as well, he came in great shape, he was well-prepared and he came up with ideas for the role. He was involved in every stage and he’s willing to make big, international projects. He can do action, drama, suspense, comedy. He’s multilayered, an outstanding actor and being extremely good looking is a plus. It makes him someone that any director would love to work with. He’s always well-prepared, researches and thinks about the scenes. I would be very happy if we can work together for any possible continuation of Yakamoz or other projects in the future.”

Memorable Projects

The newest project always seems the most memorable as we are fresh off the experience. On Yakamoz, I really had a great time with Kivanc, Ozge, Ertan, and everyone who are just amazing actors.

I recently got to watch Love 101 again and I really fell in love with the story and everything we did.

The Protector, as the first Netflix project, was a very exciting opportunity for me as it was Netflix’s first project in Turkey. I felt that, as a filmmaker, I have a new responsibility that goes beyond making a great series. I felt that I was a torch bearer for many other filmmakers as we wanted for the show to succeed for Netflix to remain vested in Turkey. It would create great opportunities for our industry peers to showcase their own work to the international audience through Netflix. As such, the success of The Protector made us very happy. It’s the only Turkish series so far that has gone up to four seasons.

Streaming Platforms & the Future

The digital platforms are helping to instrument change in the traditional platforms, where episodes are getting shorter, formats are changing, without necessarily changing the traditional types of stories told. One of the great strengths in the streaming world versus what we see on Turkish public TV, where the shows are reactive to ratings, is that there is a strong story line that does not change drastically and the characters also maintain integrity.

Even though most of the Netflix series use multiple directors throughout the season, the team works hard on maintaining the story line and the characters. They keep the same Director of Photography, Art Director, Costume Designer, Composer and Production Designer to maintain stylistic continuity. Umut joins the project from the first day even if they are episodes being directed by others. It helps to see how the story evolves and be aware of the vision that the others have. “This way I can plan the best product for the sake of the story. The collaboration helps to bring out the best story.”

Season 2 of Love 101 was very challenging as the shooting happened during covid times, through curfews, travel bans and many other constraints. Umut was in charge of episodes 5-8, and had school scenes that had to be pulled forward in the schedule because the government unexpectedly declared an opening date for the schools being used as locations. There were many changes happening almost everyday that the team had to adapt to, including many cast and crew members testing positive for COVID. The team worked hard to adjust to the times and are very happy with the final product, which received positive audience response.

“As a storyteller, I prefer the process of a contained project in the streaming world. The streaming platforms in Turkey are expanding, starting with BluTV, puhutv. As more platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and others come in, it will create opportunities for Turkish filmmakers to be part of this kind of filmmaking.”

Alex Sutherland, who is one of the producers for The Protector, had mentioned in an earlier interview with North America TEN that there is a great need for developing local infrastructure and studios. Umut also agrees that this would be a very useful resource so that investments can be reused for different projects.

In the UK, there’s Pinewood and Hollywood boasts many studios as well. USA already has precedence with investing in studios in Romania and Bulgaria. Investors can take advantage of the cadre of multi-lingual, experienced, A-list filmmakers we have in Turkey by supporting the growth of such infrastructure and it can have a huge impact on the film-making industry in the country.

Advice For Young Filmmakers

A believer in giving back as much as he is able, as the Chairman of the Mithat Alam Film Foundation, established in 2008, Umut and his team are tasked with giving grants to Turkish students who want to study cinema in and outside Turkey. To support young filmmakers, he also conducts various workshops.

He says, “When I got started, money was needed for camera, editing equipment and other hardware. Nowadays, everyone has smartphones in their pockets and these have amazing capabilities. Today’s filmmakers do not have an excuse that can stop them from telling stories.

Not knowing people from the industry or not finding a rental space or a fancy camera are no longer barriers. With a smartphone you can shoot, edit, add or compose music, make color filters, add visual effects, and even submit the work to festivals through that phone. Even my internationally award- winning film on e-sports, Good Game: The Beginning, is a project I submitted to festivals via my laptop or my phone. There are apps and websites which are easily accessible. You can easily share your work with anyone, platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube notwithstanding.

This was not possible even a few years ago, when the only ways to share our work was either through putting it on the silver screen or through sending the projects to festivals and wait to be selected. For short films, putting it on the silver screen was not even an option.

With so much at our fingertips, if one has great content, a great story and you told it in a good way through your camera, editing and everything, there are chances to reach your audience. The Internet allows for people to find your work without real promotion, expanding chances for popular response. These technological developments have made it an equal playing field for everyone and no longer an expensive or esoteric pursuit.

This is not to say that every project will become successful; it has to be the right time, right moment for the audience. As an example, the creator of the hugely successful Squid Game worked for 10 years to sell his idea and it finally found a home with Netflix.”

When asked if there are established methods for finding new jobs or international projects, he says “One can have agents who are able to get a director placed with different projects and commercials in various markets. For example, I have agents in UK – Independent Talent Group, in USA – Artist International Group and in Turkey, who work to find new projects for me. But, sometimes the work speaks for itself and the studios and producers will approach me. I have my entire portfolio of projects available on my channel on Vimeo, and sometimes talent hunters will contact me directly.”

This is all sage advice from a man who has clearly pursued his passions with enthusiasm and somehow always found opportunities to flourish. The world is one’s oyster if anyone is truly committed to their craft and Umut remains a trailblazer for his peers in how he approaches his work in a rapidly evolving industry.

We are thankful to Umut for sharing his insights with so much candor and authenticity. We wish him the best of luck with his upcoming projects and look forward to seeing more of his work on Netflix and elsewhere!

We leave you with the highlights of our engaging discussion, including clips of some of his favorite scenes from The Protector and Love 101.

Article copyright (c) North America TEN & mh musings/ @entrespire, twitter

All video clips and photos belong to their respective owners. No copyright infringement is intended. Please ask for permission before reprints. Please provide proper citations if referencing information in this article. Sources are linked in the article.

For more on Çağatay Ulusoy find our linktree here

For more on Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, find our linktree here

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