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The Sydney Morning Herald

World Vision

Author: Jenny Tabakoff
Date: 31/08/1997
Words: 2167
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: The Guide
Page: 4
It's destined to be one of the most watched televison dramas Australia has ever made.

JENNY TABAKOFF reports on a children's series that is also a triumph of international co-operation.

IF you have left school, chances are you might never think of watching a series which Channel 9 begins broadcasting today at 4pm. But Spellbinder 2: Land of the Dragon Lord is likely to become one of the most watched television shows ever made by Australians. Up to 350 million Chinese children are going to be glued to it, and many more will be watching in Europe - and Australia.

The 26-part series is a children's adventure drama set in three parallel worlds, but its quality, and the story of how it was made, is very grown-up. Like much we see on our screens now (see Counting on co-production, right), it is a foreign co-production - in this case, between Australia, Poland and China.

Spellbinder 2 breaks new ground: its makers say it represents the first time China has been a major partner in a big foreign television drama.

Over the past decade, Australia has increasingly looked overseas to fund television projects. Film Australia used its foreign partners in Spellbinder 2 - Shanghai Film Studios and Polish Television - to great effect to create a series which uses overseas money, talent, crews and locations. All three countries helped develop the scripts.

The lead actors are Australian, but only 25 per cent of the filming took place here. Half of it was filmed in China, and another quarter in Poland, using mostly local crews under an Australian producer/director, Noel Price.

It tells the story of Kathy Morgan, a teenager who is on a camping trip with her family when she stumbles upon a bamboo boat that belongs to Mek, a scientist from the Land of the Dragon Lord. Kathy meddles with the controls on the boat, accidentally sending herself and Mek into another parallel world - that of the Spellbinders. Here they meet a Spellbinder prisoner, Ashka, who tricks the visitors into helping her escape and then launches a bid to take over the Land of the Dragon Lord.

It tells the story of Kathy Morgan, a teenager who is on a camping trip with her family when she stumbles upon a bamboo boat that belongs to Mek, a scientist from the Land of the Dragon Lord. Kathy meddles with the controls on the boat, accidentally sending herself and Mek into another parallel world - that of the Spellbinders. Here they meet a Spellbinder prisoner, Ashka, who tricks the visitors into helping her escape and then launches a bid to take over the Land of the Dragon Lord.

The show's predecessor, Spellbinder, was also a co-production, between Film Australia and Polish Television. It sold to 85 countries, sparked a rash of Internet sites and attracted a huge worldwide audience.

The main people behind both series are executive producer Ron Saunders and Noel Price, both veterans of many foreign co-productions. Children's drama has often led the field in the quest for overseas money because it is expensive to make and difficult to make a profit from.

Saunders says locating overseas partners, negotiating scripts and adapting to foreign work practices can be difficult, but worth it - particularly in the case of Spellbinder 2.

After the success of the first Spellbinder series, Saunders "targeted China as a place that we wanted to try to work with". He spent time in China looking for a partner.

"Finally, the Shanghai Film Studios, who are quite used to commercial deals, recognised the value of it," he says.

China, Poland and Australia all put in money (the Australian Film Finance Corporation and Channel 9 were also investors), with Polish Television and Shanghai Film Studios making substantial contributions of facilities, cast and crew. The result: a show that looks far more sumptuous than its budget.

Saunders says: "This is the most expensive-looking children's series that's ever going to be made, frankly."

The show moves from the Australian countryside to Polish castles to Chinese imperial villages awash with canals. Those locations came free.

"We were lucky that we were able to access all these huge sets the Chinese built for a major mini-series a couple of years earlier," Saunders says. "And, of course, they've got warehouses full of Chinese costumes. So we had all this stuff that we could play with ...

"If we'd set out to build what we've ended up filming, it would have cost a million dollars a half hour."

Spellbinder 2 stars Heather Mitchell as the villainous Ashka, with Anthony Wong as Mek, 16-year-old Lauren Hewett as Kathy and 15-year-old Leonard Fung as Sun.

Wong says the show became "the jealousy gig" for Australian actors and crew, because it involved over three months' filming in China and two months in Poland.

That does not mean, however, that it was easy for everybody. The Polish crew had worked with Australians before and were used to our methods, but China was a different story.

Hewett says: "The Australians went there to film it how we film it and so it took the Chinese crew, I guess, about two weeks to get into it. But once we got to know each other a little bit, it worked out fine."

Call sheets (rundowns of daily shooting agenda) are standard in Australia, but were a very foreign concept in Shanghai.

Says Wong: "We found a lot of Chinese crews were used to an auteur situation where the director would come on to the set and say: 'What do we feel like doing today?' We were being very structured and very disciplined ... so that was difficult."

Noel Price found the experience of filming in China "exhilarating and exhausting". In Chinese film-making, he says, "the director is god and people do what the director wants, which is flattering for the first five minutes".

He encouraged more delegation. "It was difficult for them to come to terms with it, but they did adapt and now they are using that system on another production they're doing now - because it clearly does work more efficiently."

Wong says: "Doing co-productions in countries where English is not the first language is a real test of patience and understanding ... The cultural sensitivities are just so different that you have to negotiate that constantly."

Hewett says that working with interpreters was often a problem. "You'd know when they were offended. You could see it in their faces."

Wong adds: "While it was frustrating at times, it was also tremendously rewarding. Even though we were tearing our hair out sometimes, saying 'God, this is so different from what we're used to', it was an unforgettable time."

WATCHING BRIEF

SHOW: Spellbinder 2: Land of the Dragon Lord

DAY: Weekdays

TIME: 4pm on Nine

Counting on co-production

THESE days, Australia is involved in so many foreign co-productions that Spellbinder 2: Land of the Dragon Lord is the tip of an iceberg.

Paul Barron, managing director of the Perth-based production company Barron Entertainment, says foreign co-production is not the future of Australian television: "It's the present."

Next year we will see a large haul of Australian-foreign co-production dramas. On Nine there will be Moby Dick, a two-part mini-series based on Herman Melville's epic (a co-production with Britain's, Whale Productions), and The Violent Earth, a six-hour mini-series set in colonial New Caledonia (a collaboration with Crawford Productions and France's Gaumont production company).

Ten will screen Tales of the South Seas, a co-production with Gaumont and Village Roadshow. Seven will show Kings in Grass Castles, made by Barron Entertainment and said to be the first formal co-production between Ireland and Australia.

The ABC is no exception. Indeed, in these days of smaller budgets it is likely to make more foreign co-productions.

Next month, Club Buggery heads to Britain for three episodes, to be shown in Australia and the UK, in a co-production with Anglia Television.

Australia has a good reputation overseas for making competitively priced television and has become adept at finding foreign partners. Sometimes this involves mere financial input from overseas - but many formal "treaty" co-productions, with substantial investments from the Australian Film Finance Corporation and equivalent bodies overseas, involve the significant participation of the international partners in the program's development and production.

The ABC is no exception. Indeed, in these days of smaller budgets it is likely to make more foreign co-productions.

Next month, Club Buggery heads to Britain for three episodes, to be shown in Australia and the UK, in a co-production with Anglia Television.

Australia has a good reputation overseas for making competitively priced television and has become adept at finding foreign partners. Sometimes this involves mere financial input from overseas - but many formal "treaty" co-productions, with substantial investments from the Australian Film Finance Corporation and equivalent bodies overseas, involve the significant participation of the international partners in the program's development and production.

The FFC says that today it considers only shows with a majority of Australian creative input.

The big advantage of co-productions is the injection of cash and talent. But there are disadvantages. Europe churns out co-pros, and often the interests of the financial backers are reflected on screen.

Noel Price, producer/director of Spellbinder 2, learnt how not to make a co-production from his experience of working on a "Europudding" drama, originally between France, Germany and Britain.

"The Germans dropped out and it became an English/French/Polish co-production," Price recalls. "Then the English dropped out and it became a French/Polish co-production. Then another English company came back in - and all the time the script was chasing the money. As a result, what was a story about an English girl who went to France and followed her father to Germany became a French girl living in England who went to Poland and ended up back in France."

In any co-production, compromise is inevitable because each party has to ensure the show will appeal to its audience. That is true even with something as seemingly uncontroversial as a science documentary. On Wednesday next week the ABC will screen a one-hour special, Black Holes, which it made in conjunction with Britain's Channel 4 and Pioneer Productions, as well as America's Discovery Channel.

The show's writer/director, Richard Smith of the ABC's science unit, says he consulted his partners on myriad aspects of the production, which added "another level of complexity to program-making".

He made the show in three lengths, one for each country. Finding a narrator acceptable to all three markets was fraught. "There are relatively few UK accents you can use for an American program, and the possibility of getting an Australian person to narrate a program in the UK and US is harder again," says Smith. Eventually they opted for the actor John Hurt.

Also at the ABC, Alison Leigh is finalising scripts for a three-part documentary series, The Future Eaters, based on Tim Flannery's best-selling book. This is a co-pro between the ABC, New Zealand's TVNZ, and Britain's North-South Productions.

Leigh, the executive producer, says that making a program for three markets is problematic: "But the ABC has got the opportunity to make a program that we definitely couldn't have afforded to make otherwise."

The Future Eaters will be made in two versions: one for Australia, in which Flannery will feature prominently as presenter; and another in which he will be "less visible".

Children's programming has long depended heavily on overseas money. Claire Henderson, the ABC's commissioning editor for children's and educational TV, says Australia has such a strong international reputation that she is constantly approached by foreign companies.

The ABC was recently involved with China Central Television on the preschoolers' show Magic Mountain. The initial series of 26 five-minute episodes, all featuring actors in animal costumes, was broadcast here in April and shown in China with great success. A second series is in post-production. (Ron Saunders, executive producer of the Spellbinder series, was also behind Magic Mountain.)

Henderson describes Magic Mountain, which was shot in Beijing with an Australian director, as "an interesting learning experience for both sides". But she deems the result a great success.

ABC children's programs in the pipeline include Minty, a 13-part drama about an Australian soapie star who has an exact double in Britain. (This is being made with the Perth company RT Films and Scottish Television Enterprises.) There is also the animation series L'il Elvis Jones and the Truckstoppers (with the Australian Children's Television Foundation and France Animation); The Adventures of Sam, an animation series (with Southern Star and Disney UK); and a second series of The Genie from Down Under (with the Children's Television Foundation and the BBC). There is also The Gift (being made by Paul Barron in conjunction with the German company Ravensberger and Channel 9).

Henderson laughs: "At the moment we could say we have production partners in Scotland, France, England, Germany and China."

 
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