Fresh from her appearance at this year’s Sydney Underground Film Festival, the students at Sydney Film School were recently treated to a Masterclass Workshop with the creator/ director of the hit cult web series Wastelander Panda, Victoria Cocks.
Wasterlander Panda started as a joke, then became a viral success and has gone on to become a television series released on VOD platforms, ABC and DVD. Before the series, Cocks worked on an incredible number of films on different sections of the crew which helped her prepare for the challenge of Wastelander Panda and understand her task of turning the idea into a success with the help of marketing and crowd funding along the way.
Sydney Film School is extremely thankful to Victoria Cocks for taking the time out of her busy schedule not only to talk to our students, but also to answer a few questions about her experience making Wastelander Panda and to pass on advice to those looking to follow in her footsteps.
Interview and article by Nicole Newton-Plater
Q: Firstly, can we just get a quick rundown on how you became interested in film and the film industry to begin with?
A: I saw Aliens when I was 8 and decided that if I couldn’t be a space marine for the rest of my life, I would make movies about other worlds for the rest of my life.
Q: Where did the idea for Wastelander Panda initially come from?
A: The inspiration for the project came from a mixture of video games and a joke. Fallout 3 is my favourite video game ever and at the time I was playing it, I was massively inspired to design and create my own world, full of as many characters and environments as possible. I started talking to co-creator Marcus McKenzie about it one day and he came up with the idea of the panda. Together we started writing about this panda walking around a post-apocalyptic world and it had this Escape from LA vibe, just kind of bad ass but cheesy and ridiculous. Yet the more we started working on it the more serious it got and the whole premise and genre of. What went onto become Wastelander Panda, become really dark in tone and drama. We went more down the path of The Road and Fallout in the end which was definitely the way to go.
Q:It’s been said that originally Wastlander Panda started as a joke. What was it like realising how popular it really was and that you would then have to take it seriously?
A: We were definitely taking it seriously before Kirsty, the producer, even came on board. The idea of it being a joke was at the very first conception, then the more we started writing it the more serious it just naturally became. When we first started pitching it to people who could help us make it a reality it was far more dramatic in tone and the joke side of it had been completely removed.
Q:The original trailer for Wastelander Panda received 100 000 views in the first three days. What are some of the marketing techniques you would say helped to get this incredible amount of views?
A: We used a lot of social media to get Wastelander Panda out there in the beginning. We sent our trailer via different people’s emails , so it wouldn’t look like they were all coming from the producer or director. We sent to blogs like Buzzfeed and io9 among many others. Then the blogs started being shared and it began to have a life of its own. We’d also make sure we emailed other blogs it always got to them in the morning, so if it was an American blog it got there early in the day and not just before they went home and forgot about it over night. These guys get hundreds of emails a day so if it arrives during the night it’s at the bottom of their list in the mornings.
Q: Do you think that a viral marketing campaign is the way of the future for film and television/web series?
A: I think it has a large role to play, but it won’t be the way of the future. It will just be another way and mostly for people to get a start.
Q: How is creating and directing a web series different to a traditional television series?
A: Obviously because it’s shorter episodes, it’s harder to write a narrative per episode. You have just two minutes for a beginning, middle and end and sometimes it’s not possible to deliver a proper story because it can come across like there is way too much going on in such a short time. Part of the hassle is realising that and then how to do it. I’m still not sure how to do it (laughs). You can also not showcase your idea so much which is a real bummer, there was so much more I wanted to show people that I just couldn’t. I guess I look at web series like a stepping stone to TV, it helps you understand the way TV is written as well as the fast turn around and broadcaster relationships.
Q: In order to make Wastelander Panda, you started a Pozible campaign. What advice would you give to people who are thinking about starting a crowd funding campaign?
Go out there and do some actual work first before asking people to give you money. Shoot a concept scene or just give them something that they can see and trust you in delivering on a bigger scale when you receive their money. For example, there are lots of people asking for money for a short film and they put up no trailer, no concept of anything or maybe a director’s statement. No one cares if they don’t know who you are as to why you should get to make a film, they have to want to watch your film regardless of whose making it. People wanted to see a walking talking panda kicking ass, they didn’t care, that it was me directing it either. You could see we had worked hard to go out and shoot the trailer, it was obvious that there was a lot of time and effort that had gone into it and we needed their help to go further. We couldn’t do it without them and I believe that made a great difference. People have been making short films long before crowd funding so part of getting your money is convincing people as to why you actually need crowd funding in the first place. Why are other people capable of making a short film for no money and you can’t do the same? That’s part of the success rate, it’s not all about having a great idea. For us we had a concept people wanted to see more of and we proved we had gone out and worked very hard to deliver them a slice of it.
Once the campaign was up it became about politely reminding people we needed their support and not continuously filling their news feeds with donation status’ or look like we were begging. We had also worked for a while in the industry helping a lot of people for free so we were in a good place to ask people to do us a favour back.
Q: In your career you have done an incredible amount of work behind the camera in the camera and electrical department, cinematography, editing, visual effects and animation. Do you think as a director it is important to have experience in as many areas of film making as possible?
A: Yes, absolutely. The best directors in the world understand at least one or two other areas so well that they could shoot their own movies or edit them if they wanted….which is not a great idea, but they could. Knowing other crafts better than most allows you to approach your set with far more expectation and control. You know how to save money more, you know how to ask for what you want and your people trust you far more when you just totally get what it is you are trying to achieve. I’ve seen directors not be able to tell a Director of Photography what they want because they didn’t understand lens terminology. I’ve seen directors get overwhelmed when they are shooting shots that will involve VFX because they just don’t know what the VFX teams need. It seems hard for directors to stand out these days if they don’t know the basics of multiple departs. I’m incredibly blessed to have worked in other mediums before directing. Wastelander Panda wouldn’t have been the same without it.
Q: What advice would you give to people looking to enter the film industry?
A: Work on everything you can in your early days, work for nothing and just get on everything in any department. It will benefit you greatly as on set etiquette and relationships are things you can’t be taught in class. Listen to what people have to say, even if you don’t agree with it and never assume in the first few years of being in the film industry that you know more than others, or you have some natural gift that makes you better than others. This way people are more open to you and it will get you further. There are a lot of people these days that refuse to start at the bottom. They don’t want to camera assist they just want to shoot, they don’t want to work as a runner on a big set, they just want to direct their own stuff straight away. If you want to be the best you can at your job, it’s a long ride. It’s about helping others and doing the bad jobs to gain the respect and experience you need to be better at yours. If I’d just walked straight into directing, then Wastelander Panda wouldn’t have ever happened because I wouldn’t have learned any of the skills I needed from working as a camera assistant, runner and editor that helped me meet the people and gain the knowledge I used in that production.
Q: What is coming up next for you?
A: I have just finished a director’s attachment on the ABC TV series called ‘Jack Irish’, which was the best experience of my life. Having been so inspired by that, it’s great to be home working on my own scripts again. I recently received a writers grant from the SAFC to complete my first feature film script so I’m feeling back in my element again as a writer.
I’m also about to participate in the HIVE LAB at the Adelaide Film Festival which is going to be an awesome experience.