Producing The Wizards of Aus

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So an extremely talented director (Michael Shanks for those playing at home) that you’ve been working with for a very long time comes to you and says:

Screen Australia have approached me to see if I want to do a web series. And I’m thinking we could do this wizard thing I’ve been kicking around for 5 or 6 years.

Your immediate reaction is of course:

Sweet. Sounds like fun. I’m in.

So you spend the next few weeks working on a submission, watching from a distance as the director & his co-writer (Nick Issell) throw ideas around that get bigger, and bigger and bigger. And finally you’re presented with a document that outlines the series and includes the following:

  • a full scale Lord of the Rings Battle
  • around 5-6 fully working puppets which include a half man half shark and a baby made of bones
  • 50+ speaking roles
  • scenes demanding scores of extras
  • talking horses
  • a fire breathing dragon
  • 100’s if not 1000’s of VFX

…and of course a man made entirely of butter, aptly named Butterman.

The reaction in your head is a little different this time around. It’s a little more like this:

So this is where you have a choice.

The choice is you can either turn to the very talented director and his equally talented co-writer and say, sorry lads – there is no fucking way we can do this OR you can listen to the advice of our Series Producer, the Gentleman Workhorse that is Chris Hocking, and you can say the following:

Sweet. Sounds like fun. I’m in.

And so began the journey on The Wizards of Aus, essentially an Australian Lord of the Rings parody made on the coffee budget of Fellowship of the Ring (as someone rightly pointed out during production). So I guess what makes these blogs useful is trying to communicate just how the bloody hell you make a show like this with limited money and resources at your disposal.

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Now before I go any further I should point out that although this was definitely “low budget” we still had a little bit of money to play with. When we say low budget we mean low for what we set out to achieve, not low as in we bought everyone fish and chips as a thank you for volunteering for the month long shoot. But for the sake of getting your heads in the right frame of mind I will tell you that we were quite a way under the half a million mark so hopefully that gives you a bit more of an idea.

So in order to make this an efficient insight into producing on a low budget I’m gonna break this down into 5 simple thoughts, in no particular order of importance…

1. Be resourceful & don’t be afraid to ask!

Since Hocking & I have started working together, we’ve never really had any money to make a project. We’ve never crowd funded, we’ve never had any government funding and we’ve certainly never had any private investment or the like. There are pro’s and con’s with not having money to make a project but the biggest pro for me is that it’s always taught Hocking and I to be resourceful, and if there was a project that ever desperately needed that skill it was this one. A show like this can’t be produced in the same way you’d be taught to produce at film school. It requires you to think outside the box and try and nut out how to get what the director want’s with the money you have. This doesn’t just extend to the producing department however. From the get go we made sure that every department was aware at what we were trying to achieve and we gave everybody an out. We basically said something along the lines of:

We’ll warn you from the get go – the scripts are insane and it’s going to be a difficult shoot BUT what we can promise you is that it will be a hell of a lot of fun and we’ll support you in any way we can. That said don’t feel obliged as we know what we’re asking is huge.

And to the credit of the amazing people that we got on board, they took on the task and were indeed resourceful, stretching their departments funds to the limit but also working with us to help source things / help where required. It also meant when it rained that rather than buy umbrella’s we grabbed whatever was lying around as demonstrated by series producer Chris Hocking below…

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2. Be prepared to make tough decisions.

There are times when things are going to get tough and you’re gonna have to make shit decisions. In pre production, Shanks and Nick Issell had to make sacrifices at script stage in order for us to be able to make the show within budget. We also had to make some hard and fast rules about what we could afford on the budget that we had. Things like using a Gremsy instead of a Steadicam for most of the production as it was always going to be cheaper and meant one less crew member to pay. It also gave us the ability to move quickly which was imperative as Shanks is the kind of director that shoots A LOT of set ups.

When it came to locations it was settling for what we could afford and most of the time it meant going with the location that we had a personal connection to (ie knew someone that worked there). And of course there were the really tough days during production where Shanks had to sacrifice some of his shot list because of time. Every day was a race to the finish line so Shanks, along with our 1st AD Dan had to be on the ball making sure that we were getting the minimum of what we needed before moving onto the “if we have time shots”. It wasn’t always pretty but our ability to make decisions collectively as a team meant we always got it done.

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3. Do as much yourself as humanely possible.

We wanted to make sure that all of the money for Wizards went on screen which meant when it came to selecting our crew, we had to work out the essentials for each department and work out how many jobs we could take on board between the core production crew. This included in post production where Shanks & Hocking almost single handedly tackled the edit, VFX and music composition. Even down to things like making deliverables for SBS, post production scripts etc, etc. Things that you’d normally outsource were taken on board to save money. It was no different in production where myself, Sumah & Chris juggled multiple jobs to make the production work and to save ourselves money. During Pre and Production the three of us juggled the jobs of 10-15 people with us having to look after things like scheduling, accounting, unit base, 2nd & 3rd assistant directing, line producing, driving between Melbourne and Kryal castle to grab catering each day, legals… even down to assisting on set in the camera, lighting, make up, costume and art departments as demonstrated by series producer Chris Hocking below on the smoke machine and me on goat wrangling duty.

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4. Only work with legends.

The number one rule for us as a production company has always been to work with people that are not only insanely talented, but who are also just gosh darn wonderful human beings. Filmmaking is a bloody hard endeavour at the best of times and when you’re taking on a project such as Wizards as your first long form project then you better hope that you’ve got an army of people behind you ready to support you no matter what. And we were lucky enough to have just that.

Every single department went above and beyond to make this show happen and all walked away with smiles on their faces at the end of each day. We were also very lucky to be able to put together a crew that had a mixture of on set experience. We had people like the incredible Marie Kealy who has worked on The Hobbit and then on the flip side of that we had our Production Designer Rennie Watson and Costume Designer Paige Prendergast, who, although having a billion projects under their collective belts, had never tackled a long form project before, and certainly not something of this scale. The other thing that made this work was the sense of family that was created amongst everybody and the idea that this was all a project that we loved so we would band together when the shoot got tough. We honestly couldn’t have done it without every single one of them by our side.

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5. Always look on the bright side!

There are always going to be times when things get shit. Locations will fall out. Cast will become unavailable. Money will become tight. Crew & Cast will get weary due to the long days and having to do the jobs they would normally have 5 more people for. Weather will become shit. Things will be forgotten. I could go on and on. The important thing for us to remember was always that we were turning up on set every day and playing the best kind of make believe. Every day we were doing something different whether it be goblins and knights having a full scale battle, baby bones puppets eating cats before diving into floor boards or filming a 1000 year old mummy speed dating. Couple that with a funny, supportive, caring and all round amazing cast & crew and you really have nothing to complain about.

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I’ve heard a rumour that Robert DeNiro won’t work with a director until he’s had them around for dinner, the thought process behind this being that he wouldn’t work with someone that he couldn’t sit through a meal with. Whether it’s true or not I like the idea behind this. My biggest advice to any producer or director for that matter is to only work with people who are not only talented but who are also great people. We have a silent ‘No Dickhead’ policy in at LateNite and I am 100% sure it’s this little silent rule that has allowed us to make this show exactly the way that Shanks wanted.

So with that I offer you the following advice:

Think big, take risks, do whatever it takes to get it done and always ALWAYS work with legends.

Nothing is impossible.

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