This document is part of the Ocean Girl Archive — Last update: 2009-01-03 — sourcemeta

Source: 1, 2
Author:Mark Lawrence (The Age)

Ocean Girl – vision of the deep

Will Jonathan Shift’s “Ocean Girl” be the first of a New Age genre of children’s TV shows? Mark Lawrence visits the Port Douglas set.

The svelte nymph, spear in hand, moves silently through the rainforest creek cautiously, she approaches the child’s prone body. Wide, alert eyes dart left and right. Satisfied they are alone, she moves closer.

So began the first location shoot for one of Australian television’s most ambitious children’s adventure series. Well off the beaten track in the Mowbray Valley’s rainforest, a 15-minute drive south of Port Douglas, the star of Ocean Girl, 14-year-old Marzena Godecki, the crew, directors and producer were proof that showbiz isn’t necessarily a glamorous way to travel.

Over the 11-week shoot the first 13-part Ocean Girl mini-series – at $3.5million one of the most expensive as well as innovative children’s series ever made here – will take its participants from the lush rainforests and astonishingly beautiful Barrier Reef near Port Douglas, to the Reef Wonderland in Townsville, then on the long trek back to Crawford Productions studios in winter-bound Melbourne. Scenes involving the underwater city of ORCA will be shot at Crawfords.

Ocean Girl – in a sea-shell – is about the meeting of two cultures: ours, complete with scientists equipped with talking computers and underwater technology in search of an understanding of marine creatures’ communications; and Neri’s (the ocean girl of the title), a child of the sea and rainforest, able to swim and breathe underwater and communicate telepathically with a hump-backed whale called Charley, sans the sophisticated hardware at ORCA (the Oceanic Research Centre of Australia).

The series is the fulfilment of a vision nurtured by Jonathan Shiff, the founder/director of Westbridge Productions, who, as creator/producer, has already brought young viewers Kelly I & II and the Secret Animals series.

Ocean Girl continues Shiff’s tradition of working with children and animals, pushing even further into what one of Shiff’s partners, France’s Tele Images, calls “the animal-human frontier”. “I really like working with animals and I really like working with children,” say’s Shiff, content to leave the poolside rehearsal, walk to an area some 500 metres from the location, and prop against the generator truck that powers the lights deep in the rainforest.

“Children like seeing animals on screen; it’s universal,” he says.

“Thematically it will sell to any one of the 60 countries we sell to; children like seeing other children telling stories, and we don’t make television with adults carrying the plot or action. We make it with children carrying the narrative; children like to see that.”

Shiff, a tall, amiable and willing talker, is approaching 40. He left a career in law 10 years ago to apply for a film and television course at Swinburne. When, to his amazement, he was accepted, he says “it really derailed my cosiness and safety and shocked me …” He has never doubted the wisdom of his decision, but says he sometimes doubted he might make the journey successfully. “It’s very much a knife-edge challenge; it’s been very David and Goliath.”

The Goliaths, he says, are people like Warner Brothers, who make Lassie and whom he has had to meet head-to-head in the market place.

“You look at the Warner Brothers booth at Cannes, and there’s serious money behind the marketing power of companies like that.”

Unable to match the big dollars of major US companies – “There are only six or seven producers of children’s television at this level in the world, and we’re not capitalised; you know, it’s a family company, my house is still mortgaged …” – Shiff says he has always premised Westbridge on what he calls boutique positioning. “If you were a really big company you could not make Ocean Girl, or you would need $16million to do what we’re doing now; certainly six for the first series.”

Working out of LA, he says, would require filming in Bermuda and Florida; you would have an industry with few efficiencies built in.

“… There’s often the necessity (in the US) for every cast member to have an entourage and every truck has to be a 16-wheeler. The union drives big-scale shoots.”

Looking around the Ocean Girl camp reveals one trailer for the child stars and their tutor. No room for swollen egos here. Shiff has surrounded himself with a tight, highly professional, talented and committed team and is “using nature as my backlot” to significantly cut overheads.

Told that reaction from my colleagues to Ocean Girl’s concept has included looks of disbelief and quips about a giant-sized version of Flipper, Shiff is unperturbed. Typically, gently, he responds.

“That’s not the right genre at all,” he says. “It’s easy to understand that reaction, but people will realise the error of that after the first five minutes. It (Ocean Girl) springs far more from a film called The Big Blue; this is not about a girl and a whale that does tricks; the whale has a lot more to do with the character of Yoda in Star Wars. He’s a sort of grandparently/nanny-cum-guardian, full of wisdom, lumbering slowly, all-wise, through the oceans.” (Charley will be “played” by a “seaworthy” head section of a humpback whale, piloted by scuba divers, and will be complemented by actual footage of humpback whales.) “Flipper is more like a little puppy. And there is nothing much familiar about the girl in this series. It’s the mystery of her background that forms the basis of the narrative.”

Shiff says he is breaking a lot of rules with Ocean Girl. “We’re filming with lots of different camera styles, we’re using much more evocative storytelling than, for instance, I have been doing in straight narrative children’s television for the past few years. Ocean Girl has quite a lot of B-roll footage – the rainforests, the mood, the ocean, the marine life, general atmospherics. We actually have second-unit camera teams capturing footage just to color the mood and the atmosphere. That’s a common convention in cinema, but not in a lot of television – let alone children’s television.”

Shiff then makes a gentle but none the less remarkable claim. “I guess you could call Ocean Girl our attempt at the world’s first ‘new age’ children’s TV; so it has a lot more in common with films like The Big Blue, or Cocoon, than with Flipper.”

So, is he actually creating a new genre in children’s TV? Shiff is guarded when faced with such an ambitious challenge.

“Well, it’s more evocative. ‘Spiritual’ is maybe too deep a tag. Obviously a spiritual presence runs through it; and that’s a big part of the story line. But if you look to the story itself you have the underwater city of the future; if you like, it’s our sort of Star Trek (Shiff is a self-confessed Trek fan) underwater colony, complete with uniforms, multi-racial families… we have self-opening doors, computers that talk to you – it’s a habitat of the future. And we have the children of that environment coming face-to-face – literally – with a child of the rainforest, a girl who’s grown up in a three-million-year-old primal environment.”

“The story is really about whether she will cross the doorway to them or whether they will cross to her.”

Shiff is cautious about claiming a “message” for Ocean Girl. He never wants people to forget that first and foremost the series is meant to provide really good adventure.

“It’s simplest message is ‘whenever you buy a computer, don’t trust it’,” he appears to quip. But he is serious. “I love new technologies; I’m very excited by new technologies. But I don’t believe new technologies hold any answers.”

“So it’s like the old ‘trust in the force’. If there is a message it’s ‘trust in your instincts’. I suppose it is a spiritual message, without being rammed down your throat, of course.”

“But please, it’s an action/adventure series. It is, hopefully, evocative and full of mystery; but I’m not driving a message; I’m telling a story.”

Westbridge, now firmly ensconced in Port Douglas, has a firm ongoing commitment to children’s television, with a Kelly film and a second 13-part Ocean Girl in the pipeline. But, inevitably, the attraction of trying his hand at adult entertainment is exercising its pull on Shiff.

He openly admits that already the company is looking to adult horizons – and its sights are set on the same quality market it has explored with children’s TV. And the drive is still there. No humble ambition here.

“We’ll probably start with a 26-hour mini-series,” says Shiff.

“We’ve got a concept we’re working on right now and we’ve got several networks interested now.”

The visionary who conceived Ocean Girl is anything but all at sea when it comes to new ideas.

Ocean Girl will be shown on Network Ten next year.