Discovery keeps production rolling through the pandemic

‘Aussie Lobster Men’. 

By virtue of shows set in isolated locations and shot with small crews, Discovery has been able to keep its Australian commissions in production despite the impact of COVID-19.

This has included the third season of Freebird/Winning Post Productions’ Aussie Lobster Men, which premieres tonight on Discovery Channel, season five and six of Electric Pictures’ Aussie Gold Hunters and season five and six of Prospero Productions’ Outback Opal Hunters. 

In fact Discovery reports its production of local content has more than doubled in the last year from around 50 hours to more than 100.

“To be able to keep those productions alive this year during the pandemic has been a huge success,” Discovery director of factual content and channels Darren Chau tells IF.

“And it’s helped with production supply globally. Lobster Men is airing in over 10 markets internationally… Outback Opal Hunters is in over 100 countries worldwide and Aussie Gold Hunter 130 countries.”

As it has found a way to maintain production safely, Discovery has rejigged schedules to allow seasons of Outback Opal Hunters and Aussie Gold Hunters to shoot back-to-back, keeping crew in work.

“Next year’s season of Aussie Gold Hunters we started filming in April – normally we probably wouldn’t have started filming until August, but we were able to find a way to keep them in production.”

Of course, keeping those projects rolling has meant complying with state and federal restrictions, and there has been daily contact with production in order to pivot to shifting circumstances.

An upcoming shoot with Victorian teams on Aussie Gold Hunters is still planned go ahead despite the state’s stage 4 lockdown, with continuous adjustments to schedules and logistics to adhere to updated restrictions and ensure a safe working environment.

“Across our entire slate, we were very quick and agile in deploying our crews into regional locations, quarantining them and then essentially creating a production bubble,” Chau says.

“With something like Aussie Lobster Men… it’ll be the skipper with the deckhand, on a large boat, and then we’ll have a single camera operator, with safe distancing as well. Then in addition to that we’ve applied very strict protocols to ensure that we’ve got safe working environments.”

Production on Aussie Lobster Men, shot this season across Tasmania and Western Australia, had begun before the pandemic hit. How these rock lobster fisherman then dealt with the fallout of the pandemic on their industry became a key component of the storyline.

The seafood industry has grappled with a significant decline in prices and exports due to the virus, and many of the characters have had to get creative about their businesses in order to stay afloat, including selling lobsters direct to the public and even out of food vans.

“We always make shows which are focused on engaging characters doing amazing things in spectacular locations, and fairly often it’s against very difficult circumstances. And certainly you couldn’t find anything bigger than the pandemic in that regard,” Chau says.

“It is fascinating seeing these amazing characters deal with their industry on its knees… it’s tragic what has occurred. But it is truly inspiring seeing what they’re doing, and it makes great, riveting drama and entertainment.”

While Aussie Lobster Men was originally commissioned by the Seven Network, Discovery picked it up from the second season as it looked for a ‘local version’ of highly successful Discovery US show Deadliest Catch.

For Chau, the most powerful aspect of the series is its immersive nature. “There’s already an intimacy that occurs because of the nature of it – it’s two fisherman on a boat with a cameraperson. So because of that, we can get very natural, very real responses as they happen. Our big intention with this series, and certainly a number of our shows, is to really take our audience right into the moment of the action and the drama.”

In terms of future local commissions, Chau says it is important from a financial perspective that projects can resonate both locally and internationally. The huge global success of Outback Opal Hunters and Aussie Gold Hunters, both of which have been picked by Discovery US, has been a “massive breakthrough” for the local team.

On Discovery’s slate are two more shows in the ‘tough job’ space, but it’s also casting the net wider to look at other genres across its entire portfolio. Central to anything it commissions is casting.

“We don’t want these series to be told by someone in voiceover. We want our characters to lead the storytelling. We want them to explain what’s going on as it happens. That’s what makes it way more immersive and allows our viewers to connect with what’s going on and the characters, to connect with what they’re dealing with.”

Of course, coronavirus will impact what Discovery will commission going forward; anything it looks at will be heavily scrutinised in terms of production process.

“If we’re not comfortable that the show can continue to be filmed, or even commence being filmed in our market, then we’re just not going to go there for now and we’ll just park that conversation. Even these two shows we’re about to go into production with, we’ve had to adjust a little bit. They were going to be a lot more national, and we’ve just tweaked it. They’re being filmed out of Queensland [now], so a lot more of the storylines will be Queensland-based, which complements our overall slate anyway because we’re filming in every slate.”

‘Aussie Lobster Men’ S3 airs tonight August 5 8:30pm AEST on Discovery Channel.