- Atlas Film Studios is a 322,000 square-foot studio in southwestern Morocco that is considered to be the largest film studio in the world.
- More than 200 major films and television shows have filmed there, including “Gladiator,” “Ben Hur,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “The Mummy,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and, most recently, “Game of Thrones” and “Aladdin.”
- Located in a stunning red desert landscape, Atlas is often used for its dramatic landscapes, the relative cheap cost of production, and its promixity to the striking medieval ksar of Aït Benhaddou, also a popular filming location.
- I recently visited and it was a strange place strewn with the elaborate replicas of biblical towns, Egyptian temples, Tibetan monasteries, and more. It’s very weird, but definitely worth the visit.
Think about any biblical or historical epic you’ve ever seen. There’s probably a barren landscape of soft golden-red rocks, mud brick buildings, and thatched straw roofs.
From “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Noah,” and “The Passion of the Christ,” to “Ben Hur,” “Gladiator,” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” the landscape is the same. There’s a reason for that.
They were all filmed near Ouarzazate, a desert city in southwestern Morocco, that is known as “the door of the desert.”
Just outside Ouarzazate lies Atlas Film Studios, a 322,000-square-foot property that is considered to be one of, if not, the biggest film studio in the world.
Founded in 1983 by Moroccan entrepreneur Mohamed Belghmi for the filming of the 1985 action-adventure film “The Jewel of the Nile,” Atlas has since become a premier destination to film big budget blockbuster films thanks to the area’s dramatic landscapes, the relative cheap cost of production, and its promixity to the striking medieval ksar of Aït Benhaddou, also a popular filming location.
Most recently, Atlas Film Studios was used for filming scenes in “Game of Thrones” and Disney’s upcoming live-action “Aladdin,” starring Will Smith.
On a recent trip to Morocco, I decided to make a stop in Ouarzazate to check out Atlas Studios. It was about as strange a place as I’ve ever been to.
Here’s what it was like:
Ouarzazate lies about 125 miles or so from Marrakech, where most people start their trip to Morocco. After driving for hours through winding mountain passes, I came upon the desert town. It’s a barren landscape.
A few miles outside of the town lies Atlas Studios, opened in 1983 by Moroccan entrepreneur Mohamed Belghmi. It is now run by Amine Tazi, who owns Atlas Studios and nearby CLA Studios.
When Atlas isn’t being used by crews to film movies, it’s open to visitors for only $US5 a ticket.
After paying for my ticket, a tour guide took me into a large square that serves as a kind of trophy case showing off the movies that have been filmed at Atlas.
This is a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon mockup used in the 1985 movie “The Jewel of the Nile.” The Michael Douglas action-adventure film jumpstarted the trend of using Atlas as a filming location.
Since the 1980s, over 200 films and television shows have been filmed at Atlas Studios and in Ouarzazate. It’s become a huge part of the town’s economy. Tazi estimates that more than 50% of the city relies on the film industry for work.
These are the production offices where Atlas staff work with producers from Hollywood and elsewhere to set up shoots. Film productions often pick Atlas for its dramatic vistas, massive open space, and cheap labour.
I didn’t catch from the tour guide where these vehicles were from, but films like “The Mummy,” “Black Hawk Down,” and other historical movies that featured military jeeps were filmed at Atlas.
It’s a little like a land of oversized misfit toys. While many studios might destroy giant props, sets, and mockups after a movie is finished, Atlas tends to keep them to repurpose them for another shoot or for tourists to ogle at.
There are chariots from the 2016 remake of Ben Hur, starring Morgan Freeman.
One of the biggest sets still standing is this Tibetan house from the 1997 Martin Scorcese film “Kundun,” a biographical epic about the Dalai Lama.
This monument in front of the house is made of styrofoam. It has taken a beating from the desert winds, which have scratched off some of the paint to reveal the material underneath.
Surprisingly, the Tibetan house is a full set on the inside too, rather than just a facade.
There is a huge buddha statue at the back that was used in Scorcese’s film.
The track for the dolly, or wheeled cart that carries the camera during shoots, is still in the place inside the giant set.
The Tibetan House serves as a mini-museum to show off all the movies that have filmed in Atlas. The studio has been used repeatedly by productions from the US and elsewhere to depict the life of Jesus, Moses, and other biblical figures.
In some places, sets from completely different films sit side-by-side. The sets on the right side have been used for multiple movies set in ancient Egypt …
… while this facade on the left was used for 2010 action film “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
This elaborate entrance was used for “Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra,” a highly regarded 2002 French comedy-fantasy film starring Gerard Depardieu and Monica Bellucci. It was the most expensive French film ever made at the time.
Pass through the Egyptian entrance though and you’ll find yourself in biblical Israel. The ramp on the right was used for Mel Gibson’s 2004 biblical film “The Passion of the Christ.” It’s where Jesus carried the cross.
But like everything else at Atlas, what looks real is fake. This giant stone is painted styrofoam. It’s pretty dense and heavy though.
Another look at the Egyptian temple gate. Because so many epic movies have been filmed in Ouarzazate, the population is quite used to serving as extras, actors, or crew members on the films.
Inside one of the biggest sound stages is a painted smaller-scale replica of the Temple of Karnak, which I visited a month earlier in Luxor, Egypt. While about half or a third of the size, Atlas Studios’ temple is a faithful replica. It was used in both “Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra” and in the 2000s-movie series “The Mummy.”
The carvings are very detailed and look very similar to those that I saw in numerous temples in Egypt.
The colours are more vibrant, but seem to be similar to what Egyptian tour guides told me the paint used to look like thousands of years ago.
Outside is another prop graveyard. On the right is a bus used for the 2006 film “Babel,” starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The guide told us that in the center is a Noah’s Ark prop, but I’m not sure which film depiction it was for.
One of the most used sets at Atlas is a full-sized Moroccan-style mud-brick town that has served as a setting for dozens of biblical films and TV shows, like the 2015 National Geographic TV film “Killing Jesus.”
In recent years, Ouarzazate and Atlas Studios have struggled to attract as many major film productions as in years past, according to Tazi, who blamed a lack of the religious, historical, and war film productions that have typically been the area’s bread and butter.
Some Ouarzazate locals have been in hundreds of films over the years as actors or extras, often playing the same parts. Soumia Ben Abdelkader, for example, has played the Virgin Mary in numerous films over the last 20 years and used to be in four or five films a month. But recently, that has tailed off to only a couple a year.
Abderrazzak Zitouni, director of the film commission of Ouarzazate, said in 2017 that he believes the lack of productions is due to increased competition from other countries which offer generous tax incentives. The city is working to implement its own incentive to draw films back to the city.
Some parts of Atlas are iconic without you even knowing it. This square was used for the famous slave market scene in the 2000 Russel Crowe film “Gladiator.” The tour guide said it was most recently used for the upcoming live-action “Aladdin” starring Will Smith, though I haven’t been able to confirm that. Tricks of the camera make the space look much bigger in movies.
This area was used as the holding area before Russell Crowe’s character Maximus goes to fight in the Hispania Coliseum in “Gladiator.”
Because even one major film employs hundreds of crew and extras, Tazi said that when a production is announced, locals change their appearance to look like characters from the prospective film to try to get work. That might mean shaving their head to look Egyptian or dyeing their hair and beard to appear Afghani or Iraqi.
Don’t look behind the walls or you’ll see the seams behind the set. Ouarzazate is full of set builders, craftsmen, and technicians to help films get made with local help.
This recently built house is being used as a set for Jesus’ house and the manger where is born in a foreign TV series depicting Jesus’ life.
The Egyptian sets are by far the most impressive of the sets at Atlas. This was used as Cleopatra’s court in “Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra.”
It was also used in “The Mummy.”
This is a not-quite full-size replica of the Egyptian temples at Abu Simbel. I’ll be honest: This one isn’t particularly accurate.
The tour guide said that this small set was used in the 2016 Michael Fassbender movie “Assassin’s Creed.”
While these catapults were used for the 2005 Crusades epic “Kingdom of Heaven,” directed by Ridley Scott. Scott has been one of the most prolific film directors at Atlas and in Morocco, having filmed “Black Hawk Down,” “Gladiator,” and “Body of Lies” there.
Some of the sets are falling apart. The desert climate is harsh and the sets are mostly made of plaster and wood.
While I didn’t have time to walk the couple of miles over there, Atlas has a full-sized replica of a medieval castle. It played the part of Jerusalem in “Kingdom of Heaven” and Yunkai in “Game of Thrones,” one of the cities conquered by Daenerys Targaryen.
While the whole studio is kitschy and goofy, I enjoyed spending the hour or so to explore the area. So many iconic movies have been filmed at the studios and the fact that they have kept so many of the props and sets as-is makes it a far better tour than any I have done while visiting Los Angeles.
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