Seven pilot projects were originally commissioned under the Broadband Production Initiative (BPI), a partnership between the Australian Film Commission and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Four projects were launched in April 2005 at the Australian National Maritime Museum, highlighting the exciting opportunities broadband technology offers in creating new media experiences with Australian content, and the powerful educational and entertainment market opportunities of the medium.
Sue Maslin regards her project The Life, Times and Travels of the Extraordinary Vice-Admiral William Bligh as a 'major step forward for the screen representation of history'. The other projects are a companion website to the children's animated TV series The Dog and Cat News; acclaimed director David Vadiveloo's interactive drama UsMob, which follows young people's lives in the central deserts of Australia; and Dust on My Shoes, which was co-directed by TV and feature film writer/directors Chris Warner and Steve Thomas. Dust features two young Australian travellers on the road from Greece to Burma following in the footsteps of adventurer Peter Pinney.
AFC Editorial Coordinator Kirsten Krauth spoke to screen producers Alicia Rackett, Heather Croall, Craig Dow Sainter and Sue Maslin about exploring the digital media worlds of broadband and interactive digital television.
GETTING STARTEDKirsten Krauth: What experience did you have using digital media/broadband technologies before this project?
Alicia Rackett: As a digital animation studio we have been involved in producing digital media since 1999 (and multimedia since the mid 1990s). Prior to this project we had produced another kids' broadband site Hoota & Snoz as a companion to our TV series of the same name.
Heather Croall: Our key creative team was a mixture of people with experience in digital media and film. David Vadiveloo's experience was in traditional documentary production. I also came from a documentary background and came onto Usmob.com.au after an 18-month stint as senior project officer at the SAFC, overseeing the Digital Media Fund and working with Chris Joyner, whose background had been solely in online and web production since the early '90s. Chris was the new media producer on Usmob.com.au.
Craig Sainter: Roar has lived in the multimedia space for the last 10 years so we have been constantly looking for the opportunity to mix our traditional television and multimedia skills. Prior to 2000 we had a lot of experience in web and CD technologies but more recently have been far more involved in DVD, broadband and also eLearning, all of which require strong linear filmmaking skills embedded within interactive schematics.
Sue Maslin: I had no previous experience in digital media/broadband technologies. This possibly made me the perfect user tester because I got to ask all the basic questions during the interface design. If it made sense to me, chances were it could work for anyone! It also meant at the earlier stages of development I had no problems asking 'what if?' as I was genuinely curious about what the digital interactive medium could offer a historical documentary subject. I have to admit that I was drawn in with some reluctance to begin with but it has been an incredible learning curve for me and significantly opened up storytelling possibilities in documentary.
Where did the idea spring from?
AR: Dog & Cat News was developed in 1999 as a TV series with an extensive online component. Initially we had trouble convincing broadcasters of the value of an accompanying website so eventually the project was produced as a standalone TV series. Two series were produced in 2002 and 2003 and were broadcast in Germany.
HC: The project had its origins in requests from traditional elders in the Arrernte community in Central Australia who wanted a program that would allow their children to develop computer literacy skills while seeing the stories of their community validated on screen. All the stories came from community members who had shared them with David over the past decade. We researched many broadband projects from around the world. David and I attended different week-long interactive labs at Banff New Media Centre in Canada which informed how the project was shaped.
CS: Dust On My Shoes was a book written by Peter Pinney in the early '50s. Steve Thomas' (the project's co-director and writer) brother gave a copy to Steve as a birthday present years ago and ever since we have been looking at a way to tell the story in a contemporary sense.
SM: Daryl Dellora had for many years wanted to challenge the conventional mythmaking surrounding the largely misunderstood historical figure, William Bligh, and he conducted extensive research including document surveys at the State Library of NSW, which holds one of the world's largest collections of Bligh memorabilia. Rob Wellington came up with the idea of doing the project as an interactive graphic novel.
Who was your audience and how did you research what they would respond to on the internet and digital TV?
AR: The audience was primarily kids aged 6-10 years. We had done a lot of research when we first conceived the idea of the Dog & Cat News in 1999 on how kids were using the internet. We found that kids respond to series companion sites that extend their TV viewing experience, but most of all they just want to be entertained and have fun.
HC: Usmob.com.au is aimed at school programs and kids aged between 8 and 14. The project was designed to be made in the style of Bush Bikes, a short film Vadiveloo had made previously which was very successful in this age group.
CS: Although the BPI is aimed at youth, essentially the audience is anyone who ever dreamed of travelling a bit off the beaten track.
SM: The core audience is secondary school students and for this reason, the visual style of a vibrant and colourful graphic novel was chosen. We tested the site with kids throughout the process as well as teachers and this user group testing was an essential part of the design process. The site is multi-layered and information rich and should also appeal to adults who have an interest in history, navigation or simply experiencing a ripping good yarn.
FILM TO DIGITALHow did you translate your filmmaking skills and knowledge into the digital arena?
HC: We stuck to the idea that the strength of the filmmaking [component] - good storytelling - would remain a major focus of this project, while also taking on board the strengths of digital media. The opportunity for interactivity, audience participation and contribution enhanced the narrative options available but at the core of both the digital and filmmaking elements was the fundamental aim of creating strong narratives.
SM: It was not possible, nor useful, to think in terms of pre-production, production and post-production stages following a script development period, as one would on traditional film and television projects. It is more like managing a series of parallel story development and interface design stages with continuous feedback loops. It was only after 18 months that we could begin to see the 'rushes' but the project had to be completely designed to delivery level before that was possible. This meant that processes of budgeting, scheduling and team management all had to be adapted.
How difficult is it to communicate your imaginative ideas to the technical team? Did you come up with the conceptual framework and then approach them or was it collaborative from the very beginning?
AR: We are fortunate that we have both technical and creative people who work together as an integrated team in the studio. Therefore the process was collaborative from the very beginning. In our case we found that the creative people were often required to think more technically and the technical people were often required to formulate creative solutions. Many of us had worked together on the TV series so we already had a great understanding of the background project and how its potential could be extended online.
HC: The project had a video streaming series that required traditional filmmaking skills on set. One important thing was that the DOP understood how to shoot to optimise quality on broadband - ie minimal tracking, maximum close ups etc. The project has seven weekly episodes and the episodes are made up of the video component as well as the interactive component. The new media crew understood the needs of the new media side of the project and vice versa. The interactive interface on the site required hundreds of images be taken in each location and time would often run out with shooting of the video taking up most of the hours of daylight. It was a constant battle to find time in any day to capture the rushes and assets required for both the traditional and new media elements - but both crews got better at it and we found it easier toward the end of the shoot.
CS: This medium is probably the most difficult to box up and say, 'that's the project. There's the start and there's the end.' The biggest danger with interactive media is scope creep. Luckily we have a fair amount of experience here as do our team members, both creative and technical. Although we are getting better at employing systems to define the project more fully at the outset, the process is still organic. I think if we were to fully lose that organic aspect our projects might not be quite as creative.
SM: One of the best aspects of this project was being able to work collaboratively in a virtual studio over the internet with a small and exceptionally talented team including writer/director Daryl Dellora, multimedia producer/director Rob Wellington, co-producer/researcher Jo Wellington, digital graphic illustrator Kiera Poelsma, her assistant Desiree Cross and composer John Phillips. We had offices between Daylesford in rural Victoria, Lake Como in Italy and Melbourne. We would meet from time to time to celebrate achievements together over sushi or a glass of champagne!
In terms of the writing process, how different is it from working on a film script? Do you have to structure the whole creative process a different way?
AR: Writing for interactivity is different to writing for a linear work as there are so many variables to consider. In our project the key focus during writing was to keep both the characters and the humour consistent with that of the TV series. Our aim was to ensure that our characters and the context were familiar to kids (who had seen the TV show) while encouraging greater interaction and exploration.
HC: The most unique aspect of the writing process was endeavouring to integrate all the elements of the site [and] not just deliver a set of films and interactive content running alongside. As the project was written by me, David and Chris, it meant that at each stage the different components of the site could be discussed and related to other components to ensure, where possible, an integration of content. What results is an online experience where there are multiple reference points back and forth between the films and the games, forums, fact sheets, interactive panoramas, etc. In effect, the deeper you go into the site the richer the web of the creative content becomes.
CS: The process and the writing are totally different. We have worked with some really successful writers (of features, novels etc) that have not been able to make the transition to the small interactive screen. We were lucky in that we have two very accomplished writers in Steve Thomas and Chris Warner.
What was your favourite aspect of doing this project?
AR: The chance to realise the project as it was originally conceived (a TV series with an integrated online component). It was great to have the opportunity to extend the project with interactivity and a direct connection with the viewers.
HC: It was exciting when we realised that what we discussed in development could actually be realised. David Vadiveloo first pitched the project at the Crossover Australia Lab (in 2003) and talked of wanting to create an online community where children and adults from anywhere worldwide could participate in a community of consequence online, to create a dynamic bridge for cultural exchange. As we watched rushes every night and saw the website coming together we realised that at least some of these ambitious goals were going to be met.
SM: Interactivity allows users to develop their own sense of historical 'truths', events and characters as a result of accessing and evaluating primary source materials. This is made possible in the Bligh website via a series of hyperlinks embedded into the narrative storytelling. There is no limit to the depth of the material available.
WHAT'S NEXT?Are you keen to explore digital content further or mingle it with your next film/TV projects?
AR: We have always developed our projects with multiple platform delivery in mind from the outset. We are particularly excited by the potential that mobile technologies offer and have a number of projects in development that integrate broadband, mobile and broadcast components. However the biggest challenge we face in the immediate future is the funding of interactive components of convergent projects and digital content generally.
HC: We are keen to explore further digital content projects but Australian Government funding hasn't continued for further broadbad initiatives, despite the success of the first two rounds. This may force practitioners in the area to look overseas if they want to exploit possibilities in this new sector of the screen industry.
CS: The focus of Roar is convergence or cross-platforming. We are also starting to see the digital aspect as a major positive influence on selling our overall concepts to broadcasters and institutions. Also, we have extensive interests in the Australian and UK eLearning markets, which again can be tied back to our doco productions both here and overseas.
SM: Daryl and I are already actively involved in incorporating digital content into our next documentary film project, Hunt Angels, to be produced with writer/director Alec Morgan. We will engage a full-time digital graphic artist and incorporate extensive CGI effects in rendering the archival material. We intend to combine this with live action which opens up exciting new ways for historical storytelling. It is no longer a hurdle to think in terms of the digital environment. Quite the opposite. It has been extremely liberating to discover that almost anything is now possible on small to medium budgets.
To see these projects visit ABC Online. The three remaining projects, Chiko Space Cadet, A Stowaway's Guide to the Pacific and The Pure Drop, will be online in late 2005.
RECOMMENDED BROADBAND SITESALICIA
The Hoota & Snoz broadband website, which can be accessed via ABC's Rollercoaster. This is a great site for kids and has links to lots of other fun TV series companion sites.
Love in a mental home in Cuba
360degrees: Perspectives on the US Criminal Justice System
Guerilla News Network (GNN)
Seeing is Believing
Can You See Me Now (game archive/documentary)
Commanding Heights Online
CBC Radio 3
We were really impressed by another BPI project UsMob, an incredibly ambitious project that they really pulled off. In a totally different area, but still using broadband, we recently completed a project for Learning@FilmAustralia called From Wireless To Web.
I can wholeheartedly recommend all the sites developed under the AFC/ABC Broadband Production Initiative and available through ABC Online. Each one uses digital interactivity in a completely different way and all reflect strong storytelling skills and exceptionally high production values.