The opening shots are like something out of a Western. A seemingly endless sky. A row of lopsided power lines. Saltbush. On the soundtrack, the wind whistles across the plain, while a sombre, sonorous voiceover intones:

“My father once told us that water didn’t always burn. That you could drink it as it was falling. But that was long before his time, before the earth took its last breath and, with it, began to die.”

A hand enters the frame, holding a glass bottle, which it fills with dirty water from a pond. Well, not a hand, exactly. A paw. A big, black, furry paw. As the voiceover continues — “They say the sky collapsed not long after, and that is when the chaos began” — we cut to an extreme wide shot. A huge panda, wearing human clothes and walking upright, makes his way across the landscape, his cooking utensils hanging from his knapsack and clanging slightly in the breeze.

“For 15 years, I have concealed myself from the worst of this world. Soon, it will discover me again.”

This is our introduction to Arcayus, the hero of Wastelander Panda (@wastelandrpanda), a post-apocalyptic adventure series that started life as a joke between friends, grew into a three-minute teaser and a trilogy of short films, and has now been picked up by the ABC as a six-part series to be released exclusively on iView later this year. It’s a project that wouldn’t exist without social media, hinting at new and exciting paths for Australian filmmakers — especially emerging ones — to follow.

Wastelander Pandais the story of Arcayus, the last mutant panda in the Wasteland, who is searching for his brother’s killer with the young girl Rose, who his brother raised,” the project’s director, Victoria Cocks (@VictoriaCocks1), told Crikey. “It came out a joke that co-creator Marcus McKenzie and I came up with at uni. At the time I had been playing Fallout 3 for months and wanted to write a story set in a world inspired by the depth, detail and sheer scale of that universe.

“We wrote and joked about it for a while. The concept gradually become more serious — and a lot darker — and we realised that we really loved it and wanted to see it on screen.”

“Vic initially wanted to make a TV series,” the project’s producer, Kirsty Stark (@kirstysan), said. “She approached me with the idea, and I told her I wasn’t the right person. At the time, I was a camera assistant and cinematographer. I had never produced before … But I loved the idea and she had nobody else, so I agreed to help her find the money and make a low-budget pilot. I said that after that I would hand it over to someone who actually knew what they were doing. Almost three years later, I’m still here.”

The low-budget pilot never happened. “We figured out how much it would cost to make it the way we wanted to and changed our minds,” Stark said. “We considered what was achievable on our available budget and with our level of experience and decided to make a three-minute prologue or trailer, which we intended to show to potential investors as an indication of what we were capable.”

The team entered the three-minute trailer in the Optus One80Project, which awards filmmakers $180,000 to produce a one-hour television pilot, but didn’t make the top 10. They decided to release the video online instead.

“We hoped it would spread and that people would see it, but we didn’t have a strategy to make that happen,” Stark said. “We just put it on Facebook and Twitter and hoped for the best.

“Then we happened to go over to our friend Ella Macintyre’s place and she started asking us which blogs we had sent it to and how we were going to get the word out there. We had done none of that. She came up with a list of websites we needed to send it to, and within 24 hours we had 10,000 views. Two days after that, we had 100,000. We were on the front page of BuzzFeed, a Vimeo Staff Pick, and featured on a lot of other websites as well.”

Macintyre, who runs the Wastelander Panda Twitter feed, has been the project’s producer of marketing and distribution ever since. “The entire reason this project has continued is thanks to social media and the internet,” Cocks said. “Without the internet, we would never have found our audience.”

That audience has proved to be fiercely committed. When Cocks and Stark ran a Pozible campaign to finance three new episodes — “Isaac & Rose”, ” Arcayus & Rose” and ” Arcayus & Akira”; all three were released last year — they made more than $25,000. They launched those episodes at the 2013 SXSW Film Conference in Austin, Texas, after fans voted in droves for them to do so. The series’ Twitter feed, Facebook page and blog have been used to cast episodes, find shooting locations and to source props and costumes. “We’re lucky to have a really loyal group of supporters who are keen to see the project get made and to continue further,” Stark said.

The success of the social media campaign also helped to legitimise the project in the eyes of government funding agencies.

“We were able to break down all of our statistics from Vimeo, YouTube, Pozible and Facebook, as well as the advertising demographic stats from the websites we’d been featured on, and come up with a completely accurate picture of our audience,” Stark said. “What age they were, where they were watching from, how much they would be willing to spend on seeing the project or on merchandise.” That analysis gave the South Australian Film Corporation the reassurance it needed to be able to help finance the three short films and the project’s website.

“It’s unlikely we would have been able to continue if we’d had to make it work for a traditional market, especially in Australia, where those niche fans just don’t exist in large numbers,” she said. “Our online, global audience was our ‘market’.”

Whether or not the series will continue beyond its ABC iView incarnation remains to be seen. “I’m not sure what will happen after this new series is out,” Cocks said. “I guess all fingers are crossed that we will get the chance to tell the larger story.”

It is this larger story that Cocks most wants to tell, and she maintains that everything we have seen so far — the prologue, the short films and even the upcoming series — is merely a prelude to the epic she has in mind.

“We have often been told– as a warning — about filmmakers who saved their best ideas for season two only for season two not to happen,” she said. “But I would be wasting Wastelander Panda entirely if I tried to tell the larger story now with the budget and the time limit we have and with the experience as a director that I have. I don’t like writing something that I know isn’t achievable and then having to replace it with something that’s nowhere near as cool. In the back of my mind, I’ll always be thinking, ‘The swamp monster would have been way cooler than this’.

“Which is why we’ve focused on telling stories that are related to the larger one, but that are completely achievable. It’s definitely not the way it works most of the time in the film industry, but it’s how we work because it’s what’s worked for us so far.”

Despite the centrality of Twitter and social media to the project’s success, Cocks says she “doesn’t do much” with her personal account. Stark’s is by far the more active. “One benefit of Twitter for me has been the ability to connect with a lot of filmmakers and industry professionals from interstate,” Stark said. “It allows me to get a better overview of the Australian industry as a whole, as well as to stay on top of all of the related news from both here and overseas.

“As Wastelander Panda is my first project as a producer, Twitter has been really valuable in expanding my own networks, as well as getting the word out about the project, in addition to more traditional forms of networking.”

@kirstysan’s #FF:

  • Ella Macintyre (@Ella_Macintyre): Wastelander Panda‘s producer of marketing and distribution.
  • Mike Jones (@mikejonestv): constantly shares interesting content, and also blogs once a week.
  • Sophie Hyde (@sophhyde): someone who constantly makes magnificent work. Everyone’s been talking about 52 Tuesdays recently, but Life in Movement is my must-watch.
  • Ted Hope (@tedhope): his outlook on producing is relevant to more than just filmmaking. It’s about process, support systems and how to treat people. I find he offers a lot of insight.
  • And Cut! (Katia) (@andcutfilm): an up-and-coming producer who always seems to have several projects on the go.

On the inspiration for Wastelander Panda

Victoria Cocks: Wastelander Panda was inspired by a tonne of my favourite things, but mostly video game worlds: Fallout, Borderlands, Resistance, Red Dead Redemption, even Abe’s Odyssey. I also draw on video games for a lot of visual inspiration. Games are great for this. You’re literally walking around a set. You can take as long as you like studying textures, layers and overall design from any angle, unlike with movies, where you have to pause the frame and get what you can from that one angle.

The Resistance 3 trailer was my inspiration for colour. I tried for ages to communicate what I saw in my head and I just couldn’t do it. When I saw that trailer, I was like, “Yep. This is it.” Of course we’ve change it slightly, to make Wastelander Panda its own, but that was the main reference.

Thematically, the series draws inspiration from books such as The Road and No Country for Old Men. All very serious works. I think what I love about Cormac McCarthy is the huge grey area between good and evil where he situates his characters. Whenever they do something we would classify as bad I ask myself whether I would do the same in their situation. Often the answer is yes. He makes me question the actual definition of good and evil and how easily it can be redefined depending on the world and your place within it, which is something I try to do in Wastelander Panda.

In the series we are developing at the moment, there is a big emphasis on the stronger beings within the wasteland protecting the “weaker” ones, and thematically I have found myself being inspired by The Last of Us, Monsters, The Road (again) and Silent Hill. All of these show the protectors protecting those who are deemed weaker, be it physically or mentally, yet those “weaker” individuals end up teaching them more about the world and themselves then they could ever know. 

When Marcus and I first started joking about the series, it was never a comedy. It had an Escape from L.A. vibe. Ridiculous action—surfing acid waves—and cheesy dialogue played super seriously. It began to become much darker when I started designing the world. The world was dying and people were killing each other on a daily basis to feed and protect their families. People did bad things all the time, but they were not bad people. That’s where the soul of Wastelander Panda came from: it was about an animal whose kind are dying out due to humans destroying the world they both live in together. When everything goes to shit, people fight, destroy, rape, declare war, etc. Animals do none of this. What would they say to us if we gave them the voice to? This is a serious subject to me. It’s not something that can be dealt with in a comedy. 

On crowdfunding … 

Kirsty Stark: I think that as budgets become tighter, a lot of screen agencies will want to use crowdfunding as a way to either supplement their funds or test a project’s likelihood of success. In some ways, this is a great thing, but I’m also worried about the way that it will be managed. I think there’s a lot of room to manipulate the system (as with many systems), one example being the ScreenWest Matched Development Investment Fund, where those selected had to raise their money as quickly as possible, knowing that the first ones over the line would automatically quadruple their funds. The incentive to donate was more about family or friends helping the creators to get the money to make their films, rather than which projects they were necessarily going to want to watch.

As important as it is to open up as many channels as possible for people to make their work, it’s also necessary to have several ways of assessing the work and the team and their ability to pull it off.

VC: At the time that we did our Pozible campaign, I didn’t know anyone else within our circle of friends who had used it. I think that has a lot to do with why it was successful. These days so many people are trying to crowdfund their work and they all tend to get ignored because people are sick of being asked for money to fund their mate’s movies. I also notice a lot more people abusing online fundraising, thinking they’re entitled to people’s money every single time they want to make another film. That’s when it becomes about people investing in someone’s career rather than an idea they’re truly passionate about.

It was frustrating when none of the funding bodies took us seriously or helped us out at first. But then, when you think about it, why should they? Every day people come to them and tell them, “I have a great idea, just give me money,” and these people couldn’t make a descent film if the script to Die Hard landed on their lap. Why should the funding bodies have believed that a first-time director like myself would be any different? But I don’t know how I could have made them see differently without social media, crowdfunding and the internet. And that scares me. Would I still be camera-assisting, looking for any opportunity to direct, if I didn’t have the internet at my disposal? Yes. 

On working in South Australia … 

KS: I think we’re incredibly lucky to live and work here. In fact, I’m 100 per cent certain that Wastelander Panda wouldn’t have been made if we lived in Sydney or Melbourne. The filmmakers I know from those cities always seem to fall into crewing jobs just to survive, whereas we were lucky enough to work part of the week earning money and then dedicating the rest of our time to the series, while still being able to eat and pay rent (barely sometimes, but we did!).

There’s also an awesome film community here, from a funding body willing to take risks to professionals willing to give up their time to help out. Sophie Hyde and Rebecca Summerton from Closer Productions acted as our EPs on the three episodes released last year, and without them we wouldn’t have been able to get across the line and get our funding.  As a producer, it made a huge difference to have them help me take the leap from one unfunded trailer to three SAFC funded shorts, and all of the legal and production requirements that came along with that. 

On the Australian film industry … 

VC: I wish we made more commercial films here. I know a lot of filmmakers and even funding bodies who view “commercial” as a dirty world, like it’s a sell out, like we should be forever making dramas about family values and coming out. Fuck that. I like Jurassic Park, I like Die Hard, I like Breaking Bad. I love movies and TV shows with guns and car chases and people fighting. I watch movies to escape. Life is boring. I don’t want to watch a movie about life. I watch documentaries for a reality check.

We don’t invest enough in these types of movies because I think they are deemed as too expensive or cheesy or unachievable. Because of bullshit incentives that massively contradict what people are actually going to the cinema to watch. I’d like more Australian films to make money so our industry doesn’t die in the arse before I’m 30 and that can only be done when we start making films that that the general public want to go see. Sure, you can’t compete with multimillion-dollar Hollywood films at the box office, but we do make some awesome films and we should be doing more to promote them so that people actually know they’ve been released and they have a chance.

People go see terrible movies all the time. They admit that they wasted their money. You ask them why they saw what they saw and they say, “Because it looked good in the advert,” or, “It was on a billboard,” or, “It was on a poster at the bus stop.” At some point it was somewhere in their face and they remembered it.  People don’t usually take risks when they go to the cinema. They don’t rock up and decide to go see something they have never heard of. Which is why good films, unmarketed, go unseen and Meet the Spartans gets to number one at the box office for an entire week.