Sam Sunderland on location for Yalla, his 2022 film
© Naim Chidiac
Motocross

How Sam Sunderland's fantasy Dubai ride was made a reality

The directors of the Dakar star's latest edit, Yalla, reveal what went into planning the ultimate race from sand to sky...
Written by Joe Caron Dawe
6 min readPublished on
Yalla, Sam Sunderland's epic new film, follows the 2017 Dakar Rally champ on a breath-taking dash across Dubai, riding multiple landmark locations on his way to the very top of the Burj Khalifa.
Here, the film's directors, Dominick Russo and Jason Plough, along with their star, reveal how they planned and shot such a spectacular project.
Rally Raid · 7 min
Sam Sunderland: Yalla
As The MotoCo production house, California-based pair Russo and Plough have earned a stellar reputation for their motorcycle action films. Who better, then, to capture Sam racing over desert, resort locations, a golf course and the Dubai Mall on his way to a finish line 830 meters up in the sky?
Living the high life: Sam and crew celebrate their once-in-a-lifetime climb
Living the high life: Sam and crew celebrate their once-in-a-lifetime climb
01

Step 1: A plan is hatched

In February 2021, the pair flew from LA to Dubai to check out possible locations. Working with the on-site production company Prime Productions, they set about a whistle-stop six-day tour of all the potential places to shoot around the city.
The road-riding segments were captured by a vehicle called the Ultimate Arm
The road-riding segments were captured by a vehicle called the Ultimate Arm
How are we going to shoot it? What kind of equipment do we need?
Dominick Russo
“They [Prime Productions] had everything planned for us to go to each location,” explains Dominick. “We just packed everything we could into each day. We had to sort out the technical side, scoping out what Sam could do in each place. How are we going to shoot it? What kind of equipment do we need? We took a bunch of pictures so that when we got back home, we could start to lay it all out from there. There was so much information!”
Riding tide: how Sam's route was plotted for La Mer beach
Riding tide: how Sam's route was plotted for La Mer beach
Upon their return to the States, Jason and Dominick set about threading together the storyline of the film, taking in all the various sites they’d scouted, which was no small feat.
Dominick says: "We had to scope out what Sam could do in each place"
Dominick says: "We had to scope out what Sam could do in each place"
The Burj Khalifa, a desert road, the Hatta Dam, Al Naseem Beach, Emirates Hills Golf Club, Dubai Mall, Dubai Fountains and Al Qudra Love Lakes were just some of the spots they’d checked out and which were to feature in the shoot.
02

Step 2: Fitting everything in to one short trip

Which way now? Jason directs Sam in the desert
Which way now? Jason directs Sam in the desert
A combination of Sam’s racing commitments, pandemic travel restrictions, and other factors meant that the shoot eventually took place in Dubai in late October. After months of detailed planning, the project was all set for an intense, action-packed eight-day rip around town.
Hit the highway: Sam leaps a dune on an abandoned stretch of desert road
Hit the highway: Sam leaps a dune on an abandoned stretch of desert road
Sam found riding the desert road a real challenge, as it demanded an awkward transition between braking and accelerating.
"Going from concrete to sand was quite technical.
"I was braking on the concrete, but then hitting the throttle because I needed to be accelerating when I took off in the sand, otherwise I'd go over the handlebars. You need the power on to pull you up and take off through the sand.
It's a sign: Sam wheelies in front of the Hatta sign
It's a sign: Sam wheelies in front of the Hatta sign
"It was the same when I had to land again. Timing was critical because if I went too long, I'd flat-land onto the concrete, which would be horrible. And if I came up too short, I'd land into the face of the other dune.”
Capturing it wasn't an easy job, either: “It's crazy when you're working with all these locations and crews, and shooting on such small, tight timeframes,” says Dominick. While he and Jason had been working on the technical aspects of planning Stateside in the previous months, Prime Productions had been securing all the necessary permits and logistical necessities to ensure a smooth ride for Sam on arrival.
Sam Sunderland picks a line through the mountains at Hatta, Dubai, while shooting Yalla
The line king: Sam surveys a route through the mountains at Hatta
“The logistical side of it was a lot,” continues Jason. “We had multiple cameras going at once, and there was a lot to be on top of.
The shopping mall was literally like riding on ice
“For example, on the day we shot inside Dubai Mall, Sam was riding a pretty long stretch and there were lots of entry points for random people to go through, so we needed to [control] every exit. On top of that, you have to direct all the extras, so there was a lot to juggle. And then a lot of times we didn't have a whole lot of time to actually get the shots.
Sam cuts through Love Lakes, Al Qudra
Sam cuts through Love Lakes, Al Qudra
“It was a big challenge but it was really enjoyable.”
Sam also struggled with the mall shoot, which provided another stern test of his technical ability.
Sam rides through the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
Sam rides through the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
“The shopping mall was literally like riding on ice," he says. "When we did the recce I already more or less knew. I was thinking: 'What am I going to do on an off-road bike with marble flooring?!'
Marble madness: the floor at Dubai Mall was difficult for Sam to ride
Marble madness: the floor at Dubai Mall was difficult for Sam to ride
“We were just trying to keep the bike upright. There were also loads of people in there, extras obviously, and I'm like, I don't want to hit anybody. I know they're part of the shoot and they're paid, but they still want to go home with their ankles in one piece!"
03

Step 3: Helping a sick rider to perform

On top of the various demanding production elements that Jason and Dominick had to manage, there were also the considerations around what Sam could do.
Sam takes a break on location
Sam takes a break on location
Sam had just completed the Morocco Rally, contracted food poisoning on the penultimate day which forced his withdrawal, flew home and had one day’s rest before flying out to Dubai. That meant that the crew had a task on their hands to find the delicate balance between health, safety and getting the required footage each day.
A model professional: One of the crew uses toy cars to plan the shoot
A model professional: One of the crew uses toy cars to plan the shoot
“It’s not like Sam came into the shoot fresh,” recounts Jason. “He had a race a week or so before getting there. We got straight into filming and doing 13-14 hour days as soon as he arrived, but Sam’s an awesome guy. He didn’t get hurt, which is always a fear with someone who goes so fast, but it all worked out. We loved every minute of working with him.”
It's next-level to have a guy standing at the pinnacle [of the Burj Khalifa], in full motocross gear with the Red Bull helmet on.
Jason Plough, director
“A big part of it was trying to keep Sam’s best interests in mind,” adds Dominick. “I think it was kind of up to us to watch out for him in that sense, and read his energy levels each day. At the end of the day it's dangerous, some of the stuff we're doing, especially when dehydration comes into play.”
04

Step 4: Reflecting on the ultimate high

The film is packed full of moments that are striking in their visual impact, but what stands out the most for the pair?
Tall order: Sam races round the foot of the Burj Khalifa
Tall order: Sam races round the foot of the Burj Khalifa
“The Burj Khalifa is definitely the most iconic thing in the edit, amongst all the other things that we did, including Sam riding on a golf course,” says Jason, who explains how they managed to get Sam to the very top of the world’s tallest structure.
“The Burj is ever-present in the film, you can kind of always see it in the background. The shots from up there with Sam are unbelievable.
“We went to the top during the recce and were like: 'He obviously needs to use this as an ending'. Marta and Alan, who own Prime Productions, made it happen. Alan's helped rig Tom Cruise to the top of that thing before!
“It's next-level to have a guy standing at the pinnacle, in full motocross gear with the Red Bull helmet on. It's out of this world.”
Jason (left) and Dominick (right) with Sam on location
Jason (left) and Dominick (right) with Sam on location
“The whole project is a high point in so many aspects,” adds Dominick. “The size of the production, having a huge crew and access to pretty much any toy or location that you want… All of that combined, let alone being able to film somebody at the top of the Burj out of a helicopter, so much of it was a dream come true. It was truly amazing.”