Atlas Studios, Ouarzazate, Morocco
Movie magic is made here but there is no Hollywood sign up in the hills. There are hills, though. Well, to be more exact, there are mountains – enormous mountains almost ten times higher than those that support the white letters of the more famous film-making district.
These peaks are called the Atlas Mountains and, snow-capped and foreboding, they line the western horizon of this little African Hollywood in the desert of Morocco.
The mountains have an appropriate name because within the movie sets here at their sandy feet is a journey around the world. It’s no coincidence that the compound I’ve just walked into is called Atlas Studios.
But before I take you inside, let’s just quickly go back in time to explain why I am in the middle of a desolate part of Morocco, far from any major cities and certainly a long way from any major cinema hub you would normally think of.
The year was 1962 and one of the greatest films to ever be made was in production. Lawrence of Arabia would end up winning a Best Picture Oscar – one of seven Academy Awards to its name – and much of that came down to the epic realism of the landscapes.
The producers needed somewhere that captured the Arabian Peninsula but was also friendly for a film crew. Some scenes were filmed in Jordan but it wasn’t appropriate for all the scenes. So they turned to this desert in the middle of Morocco.
The lighting was perfect with a sun strong without too much glare; background noise was almost non-existent with emptiness for kilometres in almost every direction; and local labour and government policies were inviting enough to make the economics work.
Morocco worked for Lawrence of Arabia and Lawrence of Arabia worked for Morocco.
It wasn’t for another twenty years, though, that other productions began to see this same potential on a larger scale. An entrepreneur, Mohamed Belghmi, officially founded this movie studio called Atlas Studios in 1983 and reached out to Hollywood offering his services.
He told them of the eternally sunny land which can, on film, morph into any of many countries. And he told them of the money they would save by working outside the United States or Europe.
The only other thing he had to do was point them towards Lawrence of Arabia and they were sold.
Over the years, some of the biggest names in cinema have stood here where I am now, inside the gates of Atlas Studios. Enormous sets have been built for them representing everything from Tibet to biblical Jerusalem to Egypt. And the greatest thing of all – all of these sets remain.
Atlas Studios is, by landmass, the largest studio in the world. When one film is finished production, the set is left behind and a new plot of land is used to build the next one.
It means that a huge Hollywood film that has the budget can build another world here and, years later, a small television show could come and take advantage of it.
It strikes me instantly as I visit. The studio is open to the public when nothing is being filmed and a guide will lead you through, showing you all the sets and sharing some of the stories of who has worked here.
Movies made at Atlas Studios, Morocco
The first thing you see is a large Tibetan temple, appearing authentic from both the inside and out. This was one of the main stages for Kundun, the 1997 film directed by Martin Scorsese.
You only have to walk a few metres and you are in a set built for Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator. Only a small part was filmed here – the scenes where Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, is sold into slavery. But the set has been used many times since.
Another few metres and you are in an enormous Egyptian temple used for the filming of Cleopatra (the 1999 one with Billy Zane and Timothy Dalton). Funnily enough, it was not Timothy Dalton’s first time to these Moroccan Studios – parts of The Living Daylights were also filmed here.
In the main section of the studios, the largest set by far is another based in Egypt. It was for the French film Asterix and Obelisk: Mission Cleopatra.
When you see the scale of the temple that was built, you can begin to understand why the 2002 movie was the most expensive French film that had ever been made. I walk past two rows of sphinx-like statues, up a large case of stairs and into the cavernous temple.
You could almost be in Egypt itself, it is that realistic. Until you see the plaster falling off and the wooden beams supporting it all, that is.
Away from the main studios, though, is the biggest set of all. It takes me about 30 minutes to walk out there through the sun and I can see it growing larger with each step closer. This is quite literally the Kingdom of Heaven – well, the stage for the movies of that title, at least.
I walk in through the large gateway in one of the walls of the set. This does not feel like a quick plaster job being held up with boards of wood. This feels like a small city.
I’m only guessing here but it must be 200 metres long and 100 metres wide. There are courtyards and small buildings within the four tall walls. I climb up some stairs and walk along one of the walls to a tower in the corner and climb up even further to look out across this mini Jerusalem that was built here for Ridley Scott to create upon.
In fact, that’s what all of this is, this studio. The sets are incredible to walk through – so realistic in parts and then so seemingly fragile in others. But they are all just canvases.
It’s what the actors and directors have done with them over the years that is so fascinating. They create lands of the pasts and countries we may never step foot in… an atlas, you might say.
The Atlas Studios make a great day trip from Marrakech, especially when combined with the nearby Ait Ben Haddou.
It’s much easier to go as part of an organised tour and here are three good options:
How much does it cost to visit Atlas Studios?
It costs 50dh to visit Atlas Studios and an extra 40dh to see the Kingdom of Heaven set and museum.
When is Atlas Studios open?
Atlas Studios is open at the following times:
- October to February: 0815 – 1715
- March to September: 0815 – 1845
How do you get to Atlas Studios?
Atlas studios is about 5km out of Ouarzazate on the road to Marrakech. It is very hard to miss.
It is possible to walk there from the city and will take about an hour. But there are plenty of taxis in town you can hire to drive you and wait for you. You might also want that taxi to take you to the Kingdom of Heaven set or it’s about a 30 minute walk through the desert.
My top tip
Make sure you take plenty of water with you – especially if you’re going to see the Kingdom of Heaven set. There is a lot of sun and very little shade.