The geekiest show on Australian television: Michael Shanks as Jack and Mark Bonnano as Skulldrich in The Wizards of Aus. Photo: SBS Wizkid: Michael Shanks writes, directs and stars in The Wizards of Aus. Photo: SBS
It’s safe to say there hasn’t been a geekier show on television this year than The Wizards of Aus. True, we’re barely two weeks in, but it’s doubtful that come December many, if any, contenders will have usurped this three-part VFX-driven sitcom about a wizard called Jack who has renounced his powers to try to live a normal (that is, magic-free) life in suburban Melbourne.
Starring, directed and co-written (with Nicholas Issell) by 24-year-old Michael Shanks, Wizards is full of goblins and flying dragons and battles in castles (the ravers’ fave Kryal Castle, to be exact) and talking sharks and inter-species love affairs between humans and unicorns. It’s the sort of thing that might spring from the mind of a nerdy bloke with a dark sense of humour whose passions include Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and SkyRim if he suddenly found himself with a decent budget and no limitations other than what he could imagine.
And that’s exactly what it is.
“I’m so proud of it; it’s really fun,” says Shanks, who was born in New Zealand (“in the ancient ruined city of Christchurch,” as he puts it) but moved to Newport, in Melbourne’s west, with his family when he was 12.
“A lot of the time I think people in the indie filmmaking world are trying to make content that’s interesting and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t necessarily entertain. I think this does. I think people like me will like it – real nerds, fans of The Young Ones, of The Mighty Boosh, of Rick and Morty, Futurama, Adventure Time.”
Shanks isn’t being idly boastful. He has been making content for the web since he decided, in his last week of VCE, to ditch the books in favour of making a short film for a competition run by a website. He won, and spent the next two years working on his prize – a web series for said site. Millions of views
It was, he says, “pretty terrible”, but he was off and running. Since then, his YouTube channel (TimTimFed) has racked up millions of views, even if the lion’s share – more than 12 million – has been for a single video, his parody trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII, the George Lucas Edition. It’s full of unnecessary VFX shots, in the manner of Lucas’ re-releases of the original trilogy, a joke designed to warm the cockles of every fan boy (and girl)’s heart.
There’s irony in that, though, since special effects is Shanks’ stock-in-trade. “I taught myself when I was still at school by watching how-to videos on the internet,” he says.
These days, there’s very little he can imagine that can’t be built in a computer – though he concedes it does help to operate in the comedy space, where the scrutiny is perhaps a little less exacting than it might be in drama.
Most of the work he’s made before has cost next to nothing, other than his time and bandwidth. Wizards, which was originally conceived as six 12-minute webisodes, cost about $400,000.
“When we were doing stuff for no money we could bring people in to work for no money, but when you’re doing it with award rates, you have to pay people,” he says. “Which is good, but it’s amazing how everything goes up.”
Screen Australia provided the bulk of the funds through its multiplatform investment fund. They’d been watching Shanks’ work on YouTube, saw there was an audience for his stuff, and were blown away by what he was doing in the effects space with next to no money.
“He’s part of this generation of young guys who can do so much of it themselves,” says Screen Australia investment manager Tim Phillips.
SA invited Shanks in to pitch in September 2014, and loved the concept; a little over a year later, the show is done and dusted, a miraculously speedy result for such an effects-heavy program.
“The efficiencies are down to the fact that so much of the production is being done by Michael,” Phillips says. “We’re staggered at the speed at which he’s working, but it’s just one guy.”
Well, two. Shanks says he and his producer, Chris Hocking, have been working 15-hour days for the past year to make Wizards a reality. “His title should be The Guy Who Makes Shit Happen,” he says. “He’s amazing.”
There’s an undercurrent of seriousness to Wizards – it’s an allegory (kind of) about immigration and tolerance, facets that you’d imagine might have been key to its appeal to SBS – but in its gore, absurdity, irreverence and general air of Dungeons and Dragons-ness, it recalls nothing so much as the work of one Peter Jackson.
Surely that’s no accident?
“Is Peter Jackson an influence? Hell yeah,” Shanks says. “I was still in New Zealand when Lord of the Rings was being produced, and every night there was an update on the news.
“He used his parents’ oven to blow up the heads of the aliens in Bad Taste [his first ultra-low-budget film, made on weekends over four years with a cast of mates]. We’ve done it with computers – we’re standing on the shoulders of technological giants – but he’s a complete inspiration.”
What: The Wizards of Aus
When: SBS2, Tuesday, January 19, 8.30pm
Karl Quinn is on Facebook and on twitter @karlkwin
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