Back in 1983, when Sunday night came around, you, like me, might well have tuned in to the iconic ABC TV show, Countdown. So ubiquitous was Countdown, that in Jane Campion’s 1982 short film Peel, dramatic tensions rise considerably when her dysfunctional siblings, waylaid on a country by-road, realise they might not get back to the city in time to tune in to the weekly music show.
And if you were watching Countdown you might remember the show’s first ever computer-enhanced-animation opener, made by two students of the Swinburne School of Film and Television, Sally Pryor and Andrew Quinn.
When we watch it now that opener looks so retro, but Pryor and Quinn’s design, targeted to the youth market and the associated music industry, captures the future-facing feel of the early 1980s; referencing both the familiar grid pattern dance floors of 70s disco, as well as the aesthetic of the burgeoning video-games industry.
The Swinburne School started its unique tertiary degree in 1966, transferred to the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in 1992, and this year celebrates its golden anniversary.
Over the decades the school has graduated many Pryors and Quinns – emerging filmmakers hungry to build on the industry they inherited, and talented and motivated enough to create the changes that the next generation would take for granted.
Over the last six weeks we have been publishing a series of articles looking back over the school’s history, its graduates, and the stories of Australian society during those 50 years, as evidenced in the 50 short films by past students being made available to the public for the first time.
In this, the last article of the series, I’d like to focus on what comes next for the school.
A few short years ago, the buzz was all about 3D, but already that has abated and we rarely see 3D versions of films on offer. Today the conversation gravitates to either VR/AR (Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality) or games. Internationally, the screen-based games industry is worth roughly twice as much as feature films’ box office. The feature-film version of a game is even regarded by some as mere marketing for the game’s release.
The school’s first interactive computer game made by a student was Martin Gardiner’s Monkey Antics, in 1989. We probably don’t even have the technology to play it now.
I recently attended a VR/AR presentation at one of the city’s private animation and digital design schools. Sharp young code writers and computer programmers told of their difficulty in leading and influencing their viewers’ attention in a story world that has infinite horizons.
These new program-makers are crawling towards a mastery of storytelling and audience manipulation, at a snail’s pace compared to the dexterity and capability of their coding sophistication.
Sitting among them, I imagined being with cinema’s earliest pioneers and audiences – in one of those auditoriums where the viewers ran for the doors when a locomotive headed for them from out of the screen, as was reputedly the case with the Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1895).
Coincidentally, another of the school’s graduates, Daniel Crooks (Graduate Diploma Animation 1994), has recently exhibited his latest work Phantom Ride, an imaginative and technically complex piece, during this, our anniversary year.
Daniel’s student film Food For Thought (below) has recently been digitised and is being released as one of the 50 films showcasing the range of the school’s work.
So how is the school addressing these newest forms of screen-based storytelling in its curriculum? Well, it might seem strange, but it is principally in the discipline of screenwriting.
Our two newest degrees are a Bachelor of Fine Arts: Screenwriting and a Masters of Screenwriting, degrees that focus on the fundamental skills of good storytelling, of what captures an audience – skills as old as time, certainly from a pre-cinema world – and yet skills that are needed today in an expanding array of mediums.
In this world of virtual reality and multi-stranded games narratives, clever and creative manipulation of the audience’s engagement with the action and story is more important than ever.
It is exciting to consider where and how the mechanics of digital games will enable storytelling to develop, and particularly the audience’s part in that storytelling.
The audience/player now has unprecedented agency, acting as the protagonist, and is able to influence the story’s direction with their choices and reactions. This gives the audience/player a real and visceral feeling of having their own unique part in creating the story, while still sharing the story world with the broader audience and community of players.
As the school’s anniversary year comes to a close, many eyes and ears will tune in with great excitement for one of the major screen releases of the year, Assassin’s Creed: The Movie (2016).
This first installment in a planned trilogy is the highly-anticipated feature film adaptation of the phenomenally successful Assassin’s Creed computer games. Game devotees are already scrutinising whether their beloved games characters will appear in the film version.
With a budget somewhere in the vicinity of US$200 million, the film stars Michael Fassbender, who, as the film’s producer, chose as his director and cinematographer VCA Film and Television alumnus Justin Kurzel (Graduate Diploma Film and Television 2004: Blue Tongue) and Adam Arkapaw (Bachelor of Film and Television 2005: Catch Fish).
The three collaborated on Macbeth (2015), Kurzel’s screen adaptation of the Scottish Story, originally written for the stage over 400 years ago by Shakespeare.
Which all just goes to show that story is possibly still the world’s most fluid and enduring medium. As we, as a screen-based storytelling school, consider our move into the next 50 years, we would be wise to continue to foreground and treasure this ancient instrument, in order to best prepare our students for the yet-to-be-invented storytelling technologies of the future.
Banner image: Still from Blue Tongue. 2004. Justin Kurzel.
This is the seventh article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five and Part Six. Visit theFilm and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.