Documentary makers keep telling stories through the crisis

‘Australia Come Fly With Me’ (Photo credit: WildBear Entertainment).

Australia’s documentary makers are less affected by production shutdowns than most other sectors of the screen industry – apart from the large cohort of animators who are still working remotely.

While some productions have been delayed or suspended, filming continues on a sizable number of projects and many are in post.

WildBear Entertainment, which has has 85 people working remotely, is delivering five shows including Australia Come Fly With Me for SBS, Demolition Downunder for Network Ten and France’s Mediawan, and Bushfire Animal Rescue for PBS and Arte/ZDF.

“We had five projects that were about to commence shooting and these have been delayed, around 25 hours in total,” WildBear CEO Michael Tear tells IF. We have another 19 projects in post or very close to delivery. On seven we are experiencing interruption or requiring some form of change to production methodology.

“We focus on the heath and safety of our crews but we are looking at ways to keep shooting interviews with smaller crews and separated locations, ie the director phoning in for questions.”

The Demolition Downunder series follows the owners and workers of three Queensland demolition companies and the challenges of deconstruction, while Bushfire Animal Rescue examines the rescue, rehabilitation and recovery of wildlife affected by the Australian bushfires.

Presented by Justine Clark, Australia Come Fly With Me tells the story of the pilots, flight attendants, technology, fashions and destinations that changed Australia in the air and on the ground. The ending has been changed to include the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

Producer Simon Nasht, whose ABC doco Quoll Farm is in post in Tasmania, says: “I would say that, overall, factual producers are less hit by the disruption, but it will be uneven. Any projects requiring significant overseas travel are obviously not going to be able to continue anytime soon.

“For once, we are not regretting the very slow pace of development. For some documentary producers, nothing much will have changed, while for others it is a very nervous time.

“One thing is for sure: this crisis is going to generate a vast number of urgent stories that will need to be told. People will be hungry for explanations. So in one sense you might say chaos is good for the documentary business.”

Freshwater Pictures’ Trish Lake is in post on feature doc Alick and Albert, which follows the campaign by artist/acivist Alick Tipoti and Prince Albert of Monaco to raise awareness about the global tsunami of plastic pollution and rising sea levels facing the Torres Strait. Antidote Films will release theatrically and Stan has the second window.

“It’s about how art, culture, nature and science need to co-exist for the future and how they interact to protect the environment; that is so pertinent for our times,” says Lake.

“Our creative team is working with The Post Lounge and Fifty Fifty Films in post so editors Sue Schweikert and Scott Walton in tandem with assistant Tane Matheson, who is also working on the score. They will be collaborating with Torres Strait musicians remotely by phone and Internet, and with animators at Fifty Fifty Films by Skype and Zoom.”

Stranger than Fiction’s Jen Peedom and Jo-anne McGowan are in post, working remotely, with directors Lisa Matthews and Rose Hesp on the second season of the four-part Australia in Colour for SBS.

McGowan says: “The biggest issues I’m facing is negative currency fluctuations and delays caused by remote working. Our French colourists won’t be able to do their research and post work with us in Sydney, which has a flow on affect with our PDV calculations. Fortunately as an industry we’re used to high levels of change but even so, this has been a challenging adaptation.”

The company has had to postpone River, the Screen Australia-funded feature doc which combines stunning visuals with the Australian Chamber Orchestra to explore the relationship between humans and rivers across six continents.

‘Big Weather’ DOP Peter Coleman, director Nicholas Searle and sound tech Shane Munro.

Northern Pictures’ head of factual Karina Holden is counting her lucky stars that filming of the ABC doc Big Weather (and how to survive it), co-produced with DMA Creative, wrapped on the weekend before the production shutdowns.

Hosted by Craig Reucassel, the four-parter explores the devastating effects of extreme weather on Australia and suggest practical, life-saving ways in which communities can empower themselves to prepare, survive and recover.

“It seems we’re not too big or too small to have been a major casualty of the crisis,” Karina says. “Being flexible and relatively nimble and having good systems in place, a wide client base and a deep archive has certainly helped. We definitely consider ourselves fortunate.”

Work continues on the third season of Northern Pictures’ archive-based natural history series News of the Wild for the Seven Network. However its SBS series See What you Made me Do , in which investigative journalist Jess Hill shines a light on domestic abuse, was halted a third of the way through the shoot and the second series of ABC ME’s Hardball is on hiatus.

In post is A Wild Year on Earth (6 x 60’), which will chronicle some of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring events including migration, rebirth and transformation over the course of one year.

Much of the footage for a film dealing with ecological recovery after the fires for an Australian broadcaster and international markets was shot earlier this year. In the next few months several DOPs will film in different regional areas as single shooters.

‘Quoll Farm.’

Trish Lake and director/DOP Randall Wood are working daily by Skype with overseas partners and Australian investors to complete the financing on Flyways, a feature doc about migratory shorebirds.

Although they had to postpone a research shoot with scientific expeditions in Mauritania and Chile this month the digital satellite tracking of the birds is continuing from space during the pandemic so scientists can hit the ground running when field work resumes.

Backed by Screen Australia, Screen Tasmania, NHK, Smithsonian Network and ZDF, Quoll Farm is directed by Simon Plowright and Nick Hayward. Only a few days of shooting were lost due to the bushfires but there is one glitch: Nasht had booked a recording session with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra later this year.

“It’s going to take a miracle of audio recording in small and well-spaced ensemble groups to make that possible,” he says.

Meanwhile Smith&Nasht is putting together The Science of Success, an official Australia/Canada co-production with Montreal-based Intuitive Pictures, supported by Screen Australia and Screen NSW.

Written and directed by science film specialist Annamaria Talas, the project has been commissioned by global streaming service CuriosityStream and Canadian broadcaster CBC’s The Nature of Things.

The doc aims to reveal new scientific insights into what makes success and failure and how scientists use this data to predict outcomes.

In addition, DNX Media, a joint venture between Nasht and December Media, is contracting feature doc The Children In the Pictures, directed by dual Emmy winner Geoffrey Smith. Shooting may not be delayed as it all takes place inside the Queensland police unit Task Force Argos. Its job is to identify and rescue children trapped inside Dark Web child abuse networks.

“These dedicated men and women have saved hundreds of children from unimaginable abuse. And their undercover infiltrations have brought down some of the biggest of these highly secretive criminal networks that have memberships of 100,000 or more in virtually every country,” he says.

“It’s estimated that at least one in five children will be contacted by these online predators, and as millions of children are locked down at home during the pandemic, the numbers at risk are going to explode.”

Nasht will produce with Tony Wright and Akhim Dev and Screen Impact will distribute theatrically.