This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #148 (August-September 2012).
For his latest project, director Luke Eve took to the skies – literally. ABC TV’s new documentary series Great Southern Land had him soaring in helicopters and scaling skyscrapers in order to obtain a unique top-down view of the systems and networks that make our society tick.
It was a challenging project for the former Tropfest winner in more ways than one: “Before I shot this I was scared of heights,” he confesses to IF Magazine. “Yet I spent the majority of the shoot either up on tall buildings or hanging out of helicopters. It was a bizarre project for me to take on board, considering that.”
The series concept came from executive producer Steve Bibb of Cordell Jigsaw, who was inspired by international equivalents Britain From Above and America Revealed. “We look at systems we take for granted in everyday life, such as how we get electricity, how the internet works, and traffic management,” explains Eve.
“We use a Cineflex camera mounted on the bottom of a chopper. Practically every story has a ground component as well as an aerial component. So we get an understanding of how something works on the ground, then take to the air to try to gain a more thorough understanding by looking at it from above.”
It was an eye-opening journey for Eve. “I was amazed at how incredible this country is. I’ve always thought Australia was beautiful, but seeing it from the air and discovering so many different sights was amazing.”
The sights and infrastructural wonders that Eve shares with his audience via Great Southern Land include “cloud-seeding”, a process used to enhance rainfall in Tasmania; rice farming in the arid Murrumbidgee region of NSW; and the trucking of fresh prawns from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Sydney fish markets.
Great Southern Land also presents live footage combined with CGI and data visualisation to illustrate flight patterns over Australia, traffic congestion in Sydney, and the movement and volume of text messages and other data sent during halftime of the 2011 AFL Grand Final in Melbourne.
“The series was heavily researched and before we would go out and film we would do a pre-interview with the ‘talent’,” says Eve. “We wrote a script for each segment and tried to stay reasonably close to that script, but as it is ‘documentary’ things pop up all the time and we were definitely open to that as well.”
Eve, who last year directed the six-part SEX: An Unnatural History series for SBS, was determined that Great Southern Land be more than merely a “travel brochure”.
“We focused on people’s jobs, who either work in the air or have a certain element of their job that involves working in the air,” he explains.
People such as a Sydney traffic reporter, or a marine pilot who helps to steer coal ships through narrow passes in the Great Barrier Reef. “We try to experience these stories through their eyes,” says Eve. “It’s a show about unsung heroes who make the things work that we take for granted in everyday life.”
Logistically the series presented a daunting challenge, arguably more so than its international predecessors, given the vast and geographically varied Australian landscape and the need for filming to coincide with events at fixed times.
“The logistics were really tough,” admits Eve. “Physically moving a small film crew from one part of Australia to the next is often a day or more of travel.
Often we would do a remote place that didn’t have a chopper nearby so we would have to freight a helicopter in on a truck to meet us there.
“We were trying to film events that were very time specific, so we couldn’t go to, say, the Northern Territory and stay there and shoot everything we needed; we’d go there for a week, then down to Melbourne to shoot the AFL Grand Final, then to Queensland to film a particular ship, then back to the Northern Territory.”
That’s not to mention the logistics of production itself, which at times required coordinating multiple aircraft. “Often, we were in a helicopter, and our host would be doing a piece to camera from a hot air balloon or a hang-glider. A lot of that air-to-air footage was incredibly difficult to coordinate and storyboard.”
The host in question is University of Sydney biologist Steve Simpson, who narrates the series and provides the thematic thread that binds each of the four episodes. Eve says Simpson possesses a perfect blend of academic gravitas and an “everyday quality that makes him really easy for an audience to connect to”.
“We struck gold,” says Eve. “He was a joy to work with and nailed everything we got him to do. We had him thrown out of an aeroplane, we had him hanging off the back of hang-gliders, hanging off Australia’s tallest building (the Eureka Tower in Melbourne). We put him through the wringer but he was a good sport.”
The same could be said of the acrophobic director himself. “I wasn’t a keen flyer before, but this project has totally cured me of that,” says Eve.
Great Southern Land is currently screening on ABC TV..