Produced by PASSION Pictures in association with Wild Sheep Content and Run-Up Records, this four-part Amazon Original docuseries, AP Dhillon: First of a Kind, delves into the life of Amritpal Singh Dhillon, the self-made superstar known globally as AP Dhillon. Through exclusive access, the series follows his remarkable journey from Gurdaspur, a small village in the Punjab, to the mountains of British Columbia, Canada, where he has become a global music sensation.
Helmed by series director Jay Ahmed, the series takes viewers on a “roller-coaster ride”, as AP and his team undergo a radical transformation “from unknown under-dogs into global icons changing the entire music industry from the inside out.”
Here Executive Producer Amy Foster and Series Director Jay Ahmed discuss the challenges and triumphs of making an access all areas documentary with an elusive star whose whole approach is to operate outside of the system.
The unscripted Amazon Original series will premiere in India and across 240+ countries and territories worldwide on August 18
As is to be expected from an artist that doesn’t play by the rules, this was never going to be an easy or straightforward shoot. Right from the outset we would have to create new ways of approaching things – the first was building the framework of the series. The fact that AP Dhillon was almost invisible on the internet and had never given access to his life other than via his own social media channels, meant our knowledge of him was extremely limited. We couldn’t research him in a traditional way. Next, convincing him to allow a crew to have access all areas was a real challenge. Building trust was the vital first step, but luckily for us, PASSION Pictures had a producer Daniel Wan, in Vancouver, where AP is based, so we were able to set up an in-person meeting between Dan and AP. They went on a hike together and it proved to be the essential first step for the production’s journey. With access granted, the next crucial step was to find the right director, someone we could embed into AP’s life at this very critical point of his career. Director Jay Ahmed proved to be the perfect choice, his patience and original approach to the project were paramount. Jay’s ability to adapt to AP’s unpredictable way of working, his ability to connect with him and build up a connection allowed us to go deeper into his story and uncover the very human narrative against the chaotic backdrop of his ascension into stardom.
Unlike other music docs that chart a person’s success once they have become successful, we were doing this in real-time as it was unfolding. This meant that shaping the narrative had to happen as we went along and Jay did this very well, he told the story in such a nuanced way, bringing to the surface something far more thought provoking. With Ben Jessop, the series producer leading the team in the edit, the series became a moving portrait of someone discovering who they are at a time when the world was discovering them too. AP is an incredibly complex person, in many ways he is a walking contradiction, but by leaning into those contrasting worlds we were able to represent both Amritpal Singh Dhillon the man and AP Dhillon the superstar to show what it takes to be both.
AP is not with a music label, he is not media or camera trained, and he certainly isn’t used to being filmed or asked questions about what he is doing. On the one hand there is a wonderful naivety about that and on the other it means there is no structure around him. For us as a production that meant we had to be ready and prepared to work in a very unstructured way. The challenge with this was the ever-changing schedule. We were constantly rearranging shoots from one side of the globe to the other. It was an extremely difficult shoot for our production management team who did an amazing job in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Flights, accommodation, kit, crew, would have to be organized often with only 24 hours’ notice across different time-zones, and what they managed to do is testament to the incredible skill-set across the whole team.
The results are there to be seen, the energy and excitement is palpable, it is a compelling account of AP’s life, his unique approach to the music industry and how that industry works. It is also a moving account of a young man with dreams, who has overcome huge obstacles to achieve what he has to clear a path for others to follow. It’s truly inspirational.
The series manages to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time, from immigration, ambition and being an outsider to emerging as a global trailblazing talent creating a new way of operating. What could have been chaos became an engaging story of human endeavor against all odds.
Like AP himself, nothing about this project was straightforward or formulaic. He operates outside of the system and I quickly realized that we had to adopt a similar approach. We had to use the many challenges as catalysts to creativity.
When Amy came to me with the project, I had never heard of AP Dhillon but my mum and dad had heard his music and were very keen for me to take the job. The fact I knew nothing about him proved to be a useful starting point because it meant I could genuinely discover him and what he was trying to achieve as we went and was able to take the audience on that journey with me. Amazon India commissioned the project but rolling out in over 200 territories mean it was very much for a global audience and we wanted to make it accessible to everyone. It is the human story that allowed us to do that, and I think really sets this apart from other music docs. This is the story of a boy from a small village in the Punjab, who had big dreams of becoming a music star and we were meeting him just at the moment when those dreams were becoming a reality
With his independent approach he’s genuinely trying to do something to show people that there is a different way to go about things and we shared a common bond in that he’s trying to do something different in an industry that culturally and historically had not been open to him and that was the story I wanted to tell.
Initially, we were flown out to film with him and his crew at their camp in a cabin in Vancouver. The idea was to film for a few days there and then shoot the big set pieces and interviews. However, it quickly became obvious that that wasn’t going to happen. The structure we thought we were going to have wasn’t going to work and we had to adopt a new way of working if we were going to capture the story that was unfolding. I knew at that point that my life was going to be on hold for a while and stayed for four weeks in the first block.
The next major challenge we faced was making AP and his crew feel comfortable with us filming, having not given any access to external media meant that there was a lot of reticence to being filmed all the time. Getting a better understanding of him and the way he thinks and works was key to this but that took time. The breakthrough moment came when I put the camera down and went to play basketball with him, we realised we both had a competitive nature and didn’t like losing. That started the real bond, it was at this point he began to let down his guard. He started wearing a mic and we were able to pick up speed with the shoot. This came just at the moment we discovered he was planning a tour and things just exploded, with the foundations in place we were able to capture that story as it started to evolve.
Avoiding any sense that we were invading his home and his creative space was overcome by keeping our footprint small. We reduced the crew to the bare minimum with two of us shooting and a producer (who remained at arm’s length) and we did the sound ourselves. With no schedule to work to, we had to be mobile and prepared for anything, a key part of that preparation was designing the camera system we were going to use.
We needed a kit that was lightweight, mobile but could also produce quality images. It had to be able to operate in all lighting conditions and locations and ones that we often couldn’t predict. It had to have great dynamic range and I needed to use zoom lenses to be able to get a selection of shots in a very short amount of time given we did not have time to change a lens, to do so would have broken his flow and would have caused friction. I opted for the most compact versatile camera I could, the Sony FS6 with zoom lenses with filters that would give us a premium, cinematic quality.
AP is obsessed with the look of things. He has a very exacting approach to his image and oversees everything. Every decision is made by him, for his tour every crew member they hired, every design idea, every dancer, all of it came down to AP. It was therefore important he knew the look we were going with was going to chime with that as well as provide Amazon and their audience with a premium show. It had to be mainstream. We therefore went for a very cool, almost music video feel for the series, shooting the key set pieces on bigger rigs in order to make it look super glossy. The use of his music was also a major contributing factor and adds to the pace and style of the show.
What we have achieved with the series is remarkable given the challenges we faced, but in that way, it echoes his own journey, what he has achieved is extraordinary. He truly is first of a kind and this shoot was certainly that for me too.
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