As curator of the YouTube comedy channel Timtimfed, Michael Shanks has amassed millions of views for his gaming and sci-fi parodies. It was that success that attracted the attention of Screen Australia, who asked the 24-year-old to pitch a project, which became The Wizards of Aus.
The new three-part series tells the story of otherworldly wizard Jack (played by Shanks), who emigrates to suburban Melbourne for a quieter life away from dragons and demons.
Here, he tells us about the experience of working on his first TV series…
Where did the idea for The Wizards of Aus come from?
It’s an idea I’ve had since I was 19. It was originally going to be a mockumentary about wizards living in suburbia. I shot some test footage and it was what you’d expect a 19-year-old trying to make a dumb mockumentary comedy with really bad wigs and beards would be. I thought it was quite funny but it wasn’t really working.
Then when Screen Aus got in touch and said, “We’ve got this funding and we’ve been watching what you’ve been doing and like your work. Would you like to pitch us something?” I remembered my wizards idea and thought why not.
The series can be seen as an allegory for the fight over immigration. Is there anything you want people to take away from the series other than pure entertainment?
Not really, no. It’s supposed to be an entertainment show first and foremost. There is an allegory there for hot button issues like migration, and I think both sides of that argument would agree that they really want to see that dissected on a comedy show about a wizard.
We were writing a show about a character who was migrating so we couldn’t ignore that stuff and we were more than happy to explore it, but it’s absolutely not the mission statement of the show. We just wanted to make dumb jokes.
There is an allegory there for hot button issues like migration, and I think both sides of that argument would agree that they really want to see that dissected on a comedy show about a wizard.
You have some big names involved, like Guy Pearce, whose music videos you’ve directed. Was it easy to get them to say yes?
With Guy, we just really got on. When this show was coming, I mentioned the role to him and he read the script, and just came on and did us a solid. He’s really funny. Maybe it was nice to be part of something that’s really low stakes. With Bruce Spence, we just sent his agent an email and we were very surprised when he was interested.
Did you see your YouTube channel as a way to break into the TV industry or were you just mucking around?
I still kind of think of it a little as mucking around. I treasure it and I’m so lucky to have a channel that somehow has managed to get a bit of an audience. It’s an amazing tool as an independent filmmaker to know that even if you make a pile of crap, at least a few tens of thousands of people are going to watch that pile of crap. It helps to justify why you’re putting in all this time and effort. It’s very much a playground – there are no rules to what you can and can’t do on YouTube.
It really is a world unto itself, isn’t it? There are YouTube stars with millions of followers that people who don’t go on the site have never heard of…
YouTube is just this massive thing – so much is made on and for YouTube. Someone like PewDiePie makes millions a year off YouTube and there’s no way that my parents’ generation would have any idea who that guy is. To his audience, he’s like Elvis.
The site certainly encourages a DIY approach. Would it be fair to say that you’ve got where you are by doing it all yourself?
Absolutely. I didn’t go to film school, which is neither a good nor a bad thing. I wanted to make the stuff and the education to learn how to do it is just so accessible. There’s really no reason not to just learn these skills.
The concept of this show would really have been better suited to a budget of $10-20 million, and we had $300,000 which was more money than we’ve ever had to play with. But in order to make the show work for that much money, we had to do the visual effects and, in some cases, the acting ourselves. It was a way of cutting costs, but it’s so much fun. You can learn how to do all these things on a film set.
Apparently you haven’t left the house in months doing all the post-production work yourself…
Yeah, I spent about nine months to get all the visual effects and the music done. It was a big endeavour – it was a lot of fun as well as it was simultaneously not a lot of fun.
I won’t at all be surprised if most of the viewership comes from online platforms. These days, I don’t think you’d develop a show purely for free-to-air TV.
Previously when you got to the end of that process, you would’ve just uploaded the work. It must feel weird to have finished the series and then have to wait for an airdate.
That’s really true. Normally when I finish something, it goes up the next day. We don’t tend to promote stuff other than send out a tweet saying, “Hey, we made a thing, come and have a look.” That’s one of the great things of it being on TV – you’ll be watching SBS2 and there’ll be an ad for it. Even if the show doesn’t get great traction online, we still have this television audience. It really helps to validate the work because it means it’s going to be seen by as many people as possible.
Is free-to-air TV the end game it used to be?
I didn’t think so, but I’ve kind of changed my tune on that a little. We developed the show initially for the web and when SBS got in touch, we thought it was really great because we’re fans of SBS and we’d have something on TV. That feels like something that’s really hard to do – to develop something for television. Anyone can make a vlog and put it online, but it was a nice validation that we’d be on the potentially greener pasture that is free-to-air TV.
That being said, I won’t at all be surprised if most of the viewership comes from online platforms. These days, I don’t think you’d develop a show purely for free-to-air TV.
The Wizards of Aus will air over three nights from Tuesday 19 January – Thursday 21 January 2016 at 8.30pm on SBS 2. The entire series will also be available early on SBS On Demand straight after the first episode airs.