Acclaimed Australian producer Jonathan M. Shiff provided insights on making compelling live-action tween content in his TV Kids Festival creative keynote.
Shiff was interviewed by Anna Carugati, group editorial director of World Screen and TV Kids, for a TV Kids Festival session today. He has created and exec produced numerous series, including H2O: Just Add Water, Mako Mermaids and, most recently, The Bureau of Magical Things. Carugati began the session by asking Shiff what attracted him to producing live-action shows for tween and teen audiences.
“The programming I do tends to be stories I’m passionate about and engaged with. I often think the 12-year-old Jonathan might have got the bug and started this process! I relate very much to that preteen age myself, when I had a vivid imagination and was full of stories or engaged with going to the movies. It’s an age of engagement. You’re on the verge of being an adult. For live action, tweens engage because it’s aspirational. We can reach down to 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds. They want to see, what’s it like when I have an argument with one of my girlfriends? What’s it like to face real danger? Teens are watching because they are hopefully engaged in the story and because I think they sometimes relate to the cast. I often think that a lot of the kids watching, particularly the teens, are siblings, co-viewing because it’s kind of cool to watch superhero teenagers battling things.”
As for his creative inspiration, Shiff noted, “It has to come from within, and if you don’t have a connection with your story, it’s very hard to expect the audience to go on that journey. You’ve got to have a personal connection with the story to make it real, make it valid, and bring your passion to the story. There are so many influences. You look at what’s going on with the world we’re in. I look for inspiration in genre, in what sort of show I’d like to make: would it be a period show, would it be a contemporary show, would it be a sci-fi show. Fantasy plays a huge part in what I do.”
There is no formula to the art of storytelling, Shiff added. “Sometimes, you get one piece of the jigsaw, but you can’t just put it on a table and make the rest of the jigsaw work as a straight pattern. Stories evolve and change. I often think that the jigsaw is in the air and I’ve got to build it, but it keeps moving. In other words, the piece that I got the first time might now be behind me and not in front of me. The story keeps moving and evolving and you’ve just got to go with it. You’ve got to let the story take you somewhere, even though it isn’t what you originally intended. Sometimes you get fragmented with character, sometimes you get inspiration from an emotion, you sometimes have a deep resonance for the plot, but then later realize we need to find the story, not just the plot. It’s very organic and a little bit scary at times.”
On the global appeal of his shows—which are distributed by ZDF Enterprises—Shiff noted: “There are nearly 200 countries that watch our stories. You want to reach out to the humanity of the story—the universal picture of the story. At the same time, you’re dealing with high production values, high budgets. You’re going to need an international audience to even bring the story to life. It is very difficult to tell a story for just a handful of people. I want to tell a story that is epic in scale. So epic, it doesn’t matter where you live.”
Production recently wrapped on season two of The Bureau of Magical Things. On managing production amid COVID-19 restrictions, Shiff noted, “We had to, first, revisit all the stories that I’d spent a year and a bit writing and falling in love with. That sort of dynamic is part of normal filmmaking. Being a creator and being a producer sometimes is in conflict. You’ve got to find the synergy and the pathway, and I found I had to approach it the same way. We need to move this forward and do the best story we can do. We had to rewrite scenes, move interiors to exteriors to be safer, strip out cast that were not critical to the scene to be sensible about it. We had to reduce the number of extras. We had to reimagine sets. It’s very counterintuitive to everything I learned in 30 years of filmmaking. We had to take the ceiling off sets. Sets that were designed to be small and intimate had to be opened up a bit. Sets that were very open and expansive had to be made smaller for less cast. There was a lot of work on that.”
Shiff continued, “There was a certain elevation of focus that you get out of working in a pandemic. When you’re at war with a virus that can hurt you and your family, you come in focused on doing the very best you can and more because you’ve given up a lot or you’re risking a lot to be [there]. And I think, possibly, The Bureau of Magical Things season two might be my best work. I, personally, feel it was the most challenging and probably the best job.”
Asked about managing the increased costs around filming during COVID, Shiff said, “Some of it was covered internally. A lot of it was covered by Australian government subsidies, which we were very blessed to receive, and Screen Australia and Screen Queensland elevated their investments. We were very blessed to be working in concert with ZDF and ZDF Enterprises and so on. And Nickelodeon. But largely, it was, frankly, the Australian government assistance that helped us muddle through and without that, I think it would’ve been quite difficult to conquer it.”
Shiff’s productions have served as launch platforms for many local talents, including Phoebe Tonkin, Jeffrey Walker, Liam Hemsworth and Margot Robbie. On the challenges and opportunities involved in working with young actors, Shiff said: “They’re engaged, they’re motivated and they bring a creative energy that’s irreplaceable. There are challenges, too, because sometimes I feel like I’m a high school principal. Cell phones created a whole new challenge, as did social media. Handled right, it’s wonderful and engaging in its connectivity. We’ve got tens of millions of fans, and that connectivity is precious. Doing behind-the-scenes clips and engaging the fans, what I call deconstruct the media. It is very healthy that teens or tweens basically see that it’s a job, and it’s fun and it’s possibly a future career pathway, and so they engage critically with the media. But it also can be distracting from the craft, so finding that balance of when to allow phones on set and engage with social media, that’s a challenge.”
Asked about the opportunities presented by streaming platforms to creators and producers today, Shiff said, “They’ve offered us the world, and that’s our audience. The engagement with the world is direct; it’s immediate. They’ve also completely freed us from the shackles of any form of constraint in storytelling. Your narrative can be sideways, forwards or backwards. Your length of program can be short or long. It’s an explosion of the potential of the business. It’s very exciting and I think it’s just the beginning. This connectivity, this globalization of broadcast directly to a world audience is a wonderful thing when you’re producing for a global audience.”