Exposed Down Under: Australian Event Filmmaking Arrives
Posted May 23, 2011

Exposed Down UnderSteve wasn't kidding. When he suggested that the Australian filmmakers I would be interviewing for this article would be obliging, that was an understatement. I suspect they would have flown themselves to Madison and jumped in a Union cab to my house to speak with me in my living room if I had asked. Usually when I send out feelers, replies from prospective interviewees mosey on back to my email inbox at their leisure. My questions are answered eventually, in between travel, shooting, and editing. So you can imagine my surprise when in a matter of minutes, email replies from the other side of the world came shooting into my inbox, one right after the other, like slot machine quarters. I had hit the jackpot. There was something so supportive, so responsive, so eager, about this group, and I found myself equally keen on narrowing down what it was and why.

Down Under on the Rise
When you think of robust wedding video industries, the Philippines comes to mind, Canada and the U.S. too. But Australia? Not if this article had appeared in EventDV's early years, say, in 2004 or 2005. Up until then, wedding videographers in the Antipodes had done for their industry's reputation what Darwin had done for creationism. But as our trade magazine was taking shape, so too was the wedding and event video industry Down Under.

The Aussies have scrunched their industry's evolution into the blink of an eye, leaving videographers stateside blushing. Sure, video producers in the U.S. have advanced by leaps and bounds, outgrowing the proverbial sweatsuit in favor of rock-star duds. Wedding videos have gone from totally cheap to totally chic. And they morphed into films along the way.

In an easy parallel (albeit a decade later, and advancing in double-time), the wedding filmmaking industry in Australia is on the fast track to a similar notoriety. Along for the ride-no, in the (right-side) driver's seat-are Aussies Peter Szilveszter of Living Lens, Rochelle Morris of Sauvignon Media Creations, Dave Cowling of D'nM Wedding Films, Susanto (Santo) Widjaja of Paper Cranes Productions, and Abraham Joffe of Untitled Film Works.

But a short five years ago, the same industry would have been unrecognizable. Back then, your average wedding video was dryer than the Simpson Desert in October. This was a problem for Widjaja, and indeed for anyone interested in making a quid as a producer. When he and his wife, Dewi, opened Paper Cranes in 2008, they would have sooner found a Bunyip roaming the outback than a palatable wedding video in their competition's repertoire. In an all too familiar critique, Widjaja confides that "the majority of studios were producing ‘cheesy and boring' wedding videos that under-valued the market as a whole."

And while filmmakers stateside were bonding at Re:Frame, IN[FOCUS], POSH, WEVA, and other conferences and workshops, the relationship among their counterparts Down Under was pricklier than an Australian pear.

One of the first things Cowling noticed when he started filming in Sydney in 2004 was how "cutthroat" the competition was. "People were so scared of others ‘stealing their ideas' and taking their clients that it bred an environment that was very unhealthy for the industry."

Joffe, too, who opened his studio under a different, eponymous name 10 years ago in North Sydney, remembers a time when the industry was "very individual. For the first several years of running my business, I found myself not really knowing others out there. Everyone kept quietly to themselves."

Sharing knowledge with competitors "would have seemed like a crazy idea" back then, he says, recalling a time when studios guarded their sample DVDs or VHS tapes with a vigilance that would make Google's algorithm department look transparent.

A Rising Tide
But leave it to sitting alone at one's computer in the wee hours of the night to bring one together with likeminded artists. Dave Cowling, for one, became a regular on forums and later, social networking sites. It was on a forum that he encountered the adage that "a rising tide raises all ships." It stood to reason: After all, the word "compete" derives from the Latin competere, to "seek together." If he and his competition collectively bettered their reputation, couldn't they all book more clients and command a more dignified fee?

One studio alone jacking up its price would sink for sure. The fact is, Santo Widjaja points out, "There is no use of charging $10K for a wedding film when everyone else is charging $3K, because your clients will not be able to justify your price."

Forming some sort of alliance was worth a shot. Without one, the outlook was grim, and Cowling knew it. His wedding photographer friends reported working alongside videographers in a scant 1 in 10 weddings. He figured, to the collaborators go the spoils. "As long as the overall percentage of couples who add ‘video/cinema/wedding film' to their checklist increases, the better for all of us!"

Soon there was a handful of Aussies on international forums and social networking sites, Melbourne's Rochelle Morris being one of the most avid promoters of "sharing, learning, and encouraging each other."

But even as recently as 2008, when Peter Szilveszter finally made filmmaking his fulltime job by launching Living Lens in Melbourne (he and his wife, Emily, have since relocated the business to the small tropical beach town of Yeppoon), only a few were willing to share their so-called secrets. Most still felt safer "behind closed doors."

It was Morris' leadership with the Australian Video Producers Association Inc. (AVPA) that really nudged the community to peek out their doors, tentatively step out, and shake hands with neighbors. A nonprofit operating in the shadows for two decades, AVPA seeks to encourage excellence, guide the development of standards, provide resources, advocate for members, and serve as a national forum for members (www.avpa.com.au).

AVPA became the industry's watering hole, as videographers congregated virtually and face-to-face with a growing willingness to learn and share. Widjaja credits AVPA with introducing him to his peers. "I went to a member meeting one night and met with some great people who I believe have made the biggest contribution to our industry."

State of the Union
Seeing as AVPA has been around since Pangaea, or at least since linear editing and VHS tapes, you might wonder what took so long for members to join forces and propel the industry to its current prodigiousness. What has AVPA been doing this whole time, anyway? More than you might guess.

About 20 years ago, the Australian government was poised to pass a tax law that would have been financially destructive to the video industry. In response, videographers formed AVPA with the immediate purpose of blocking the passage of the law. They were, as you have probably surmised, successful.

AVPA Awards

The group was, and still is, comprised of such disparate specialties as corporate and documentary video producers, television industry personnel, wedding and special event video producers, and retail and wholesale equipment suppliers. In many ways, explains Morris, who now serves as the group's vice president, AVPA functions similarly to a union.

Case in point: Much to the astonishment of their U.S. colleagues, AVPA has won the right to purchase a license allowing videographers to legally reproduce copyrighted music on their wedding DVDs. "I know many countries don't have this," Morris says proudly.

Videographers soon began joining AVPA in earnest to see what this "working together" thing was all about. AVPA began hosting guest speakers, networking evenings, product launch parties, and awards banquets. The industry was being enriched, and its members invigorated.

"The annual AVPA awards have been a good motivator among studios," suggests Abraham Joffe. Not to mention, "We all enjoy the excuse to go to Melbourne each November!"

While meetings in Melbourne were well-attended, 800 km away in Sydney, it was crickets. So, in 2007, Dave Cowling got some videographers together for a few casual meetings. These get-togethers morphed into AVPA satellite meetings, attracting a greater number of attendees over time.

Right away he encouraged them to work as a team. "Early on at those meetings, I spoke about the concept of a rising tide raising all ships and floated the idea of us collectively needing to raise the profile of wedding videography."

Remember the classic scene toward the end of Finding Nemo where Dory, finally having arrived in Sydney with the orphaned clownfish, holds an uncooperative crab up to a flock of hungry seagulls, who brainlessly chase the crustacean with their shrill chorus of "Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine"?

Well, there were-and unfortunately still are-a few seagulls in Australia's video industry, according to Cowling. "Many of the videographers that I invited to the meetings didn't want any part of it. Some came along and it was obvious that they were not there to share, but only to take away."

Granted, when your livelihood is at stake, divulging trade secrets to your competitors might seem as daft as handing them a signed blank check-and then driving them to the bank. Cowling admits he thought twice about it. "I had some initial reservations about sharing my own ‘secrets' and about educating my competition, but a group of us had faith that it would ultimately work out for us."

Widjaja agrees that the kumbaya vibe wasn't every videographer's bowl of rice. "Everyone had to gradually learn to collaborate and share thoughts with each other," he says. But once they did, a sea change took place. "One of the main reasons that our industry has managed to grow very rapidly is the fact that most of us here started to share thoughts about how we can grow the industry together and how we can educate our fellow industry peers and clients even further."

How indeed. The answer he and his colleagues arrived at was EDU.

Exposed | Down Under
It may sound like a questionable program on late-night cable, but no worries. EDU is a very PG-rated 5-day workshop in Melbourne "designed to inspire, motivate and push the professional and creative limits of our industry to a new and exciting level."

Thus far the only organized event in Australia for the event filmmaking community, EDU was dreamed up by a core group of AVPA members, led by Morris, including Szilveszter, Joffe, Cowling, Widjaja, as well as Edgard Neves, Mark Gibson, and Troy Sheather, who agreed that what AVPA was lacking was a hands-on workshop component, along the lines of Re:Frame, IN[FOCUS], StillMotion Experience, and so on.

Exposed Down Under

Some of them, including Cowling, had already made the trip to Austin, Texas, for Re:Frame in 2009. They had also hosted the StillMotion crew in Melbourne in February 2010.

"Both workshops made significant impact on our businesses." says Cowling. "Knowing how expensive it is for Australians to travel across to the U.S. for similar workshops, we knew that we had to bring the workshops Down Under!"

It happened to be during the StillMotion visit that the tipping point came. Morris learned through Widjaja that the celebrated Jason Magbanua wanted to conduct a workshop in Australia.

With Morris leading the charge, the group hashed out their ideas for EDU when they all gathered in Melbourne for a walkthrough of Xsight, a high-turnover photo/video studio that agreed to open their doors to them and guide them through their processes.

The Xsight fieldtrip made it obvious to Szilveszter, and everyone, that "Yes, people are willing to work together and are thirsty for a workshop." (He made a short video commemorating the day as an exercise in short-form editing, which you can watch here.

In a matter of weeks, Morris had arranged the details and secured sponsorship from AVPA. A date was set.

EDU Debuts
The inaugural EDU took place in Melbourne last July. The all-star speaker lineup included international, award-winning artists and 2010 EventDV 25 all-stars such as Canada's "Krazy with a K" Konrad Czystowski (FreshSox) and the Philippines' Alvin Paver (Mayad Studios), Michael Wong (MYW Films) and, of course, Jason "J-Mag" Magbanua.

Exposed Down Under 2010

The 50 attendees soaked up their advice on contrasting shooting and editing styles, business best practices, search engine optimization and other marketing techniques and equipment.

Representing the host country were speakers Santo Widjaja, Daniel Cartwright (No Limit Pictures), Edgard Neves, and Abraham Joffe, who was pleased to watch attendees open up to the idea that "it can be done. I know that a lot of people (including myself) at one stage or another say things like ‘that can't be done' or ‘people wont pay for that in my city/area/culture.' These thoughts are often the only things holding you back," he suggests, remembering the first wedding he shot on the Canon 5D Mark II. Underestimating its utility, "We produced a highlights only. I thought that it would never be possible to produce an entire wedding film just using these new cameras. But a few months later we were."

DSLR fever spread like a Victorian bushfire at EDU, but both Morris and Cowling quickly point out that the goal has never been to wipe out other technologies or convert anyone. "Diversity in style is important," Morris contends. She hopes EDU helps filmmakers "evolve into the style they choose," whether that means adopting DSLRs and short-form editing techniques or not.

Joffe delights in seeing filmmakers widen their eyes as they are introduced to same-day edits and short-form editing, and he's not immune to the excitement either. "The four-minute mile was at one time thought unbreakable-until Roger Bannister finally ran under that milestone time. The next year several [others] matched the feat."

Even as a presenter, Widjaja arrived home richer from the experience, having learned "different approaches in filming that really helped our productivity. When you have a diverse list of cinematographers with different styles, you can compare the styles and see which elements suit yours and how you can connect them together."

Peter Szilveszter has watched EDU inspire filmmakers to continuously challenge their own styles and evolve. "Although a lot of the concepts have been around before EDU, it has really encouraged people to pick up some of those products like SDEs, pre-wedding films, and shortform stories."

Now that he can pinpoint the best lens or stabilization tool for each job thanks to his own learning experience at EDU, Joffe loves the fact that he has slashed the amount of gear he lugs around at weddings, making him more agile on a shoot. "I am a big fan of clean and simple."

He's also a fan of quality over quantity. Recalling pre-EDU times, he says, "Things are different now. With most studios becoming more boutique, offering higher-quality DSLR productions, the need for volume has decreased. Most studios are charging at least that $4,000," double what they could expect just a few years ago. "With the demand high for quality work, there is more focus on what is being produced, not just the number of bookings."

Collaboration
By far, EDU 2010's most significant contribution has been advancing the concept of collaboration, "both in sharing information and working together," says Peter Szilveszter, who has since worked with studios on the opposite coast of the continent. The physical connection that EDU made possible "really helped break down this very individualistic mentality. I would have never imagined this even 2 years ago, but now we can very much count on each other."

Since the event, Dave Cowling has filmed with studios from Queensland, Melbourne, and Perth, and looks forward to working with his non-Aussie neighbors too. "By bringing people together from across Australia (and Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Indonesia), it has helped to globalize the effects of collaboration that were already taking place on a local level," he says of EDU, pointing to filmmakers like Kee Sitt Lim (Wedding Story) in the Philippines.

While the geographical isolation of Australia means that filmmakers are distanced from the collaborations happening in the U.S. in Canada, Dave Cowling would jump at the opportunity collaborate with his mates in North America. For now, he concedes, "The airfares are a little prohibitive."

Widjaja, too, has been taking part in interstate shoots, and even international shoots, working alongside Alvin Paver on his destination shoot in Oz. "It has always been a humbling experience to learn and share with others while having fun getting to know each other. I totally recommended for those who haven't tried it before."

"Just don't mention help with edits!" Abe Joffe quips. "I think everyone has enough editing on their plates."

EDU 2011
With future EDUs, starting with the imminent EDU 2011 in Melbourne July 4–8, organizers are hoping to draw interest not only from Australia/Oceania/Asia, but from other pockets of the globe as well. "We welcome our European neighbors," announces Morris.

Slated to speak in July are returning presenters Konrad Czystowski, Jason Magbanua, and Abraham Joffe, as well as Joffe's fellow locals Cowling and Szilveszter. Representing the U.S. will be the intrepid Ray Roman (Ray Roman Films), and industry "head coach" Matt Davis (Life Stage Films). (For details on EDU 2011 presenters, go to www.exposeddownunder.com.au. Or watch Ray Roman's epic promo for EDU 2011.)

Organizers and attendees alike are quick to recognize how EDU and AVPA have helped catapult the industry into a new era. "Our services are now more in demand than ever before," says Cowling, "and I can only see that demand growing as video becomes a necessity rather than an option." That's a far cry from a time when a bride would seek out a videographer like a wallaby would a famished dingo.

Learning to collaborate "has changed our industry immensely," believes Morris. "It has allowed more people across our nation and internationally to feel like a community. I don't believe that this has happened in the history of the wedding scene in Australia." The success of EDU 2010 in particular has touched her greatly. "It was only when the event started and for me, when I looked up at the auditorium filled with people who came across the world that I was struck by what we accomplished. I was humbled and almost felt like crying. These people came to be a part of something that we believed in."

Gone are the days when video producers would have sooner given a competitor a thumbs-down than a leg-up. "We don't hesitate to refer our couples to each other," says Santo Widjaja, "hence elevating the whole value of wedding videography." In fact, adds Joffe, it's a videographer's duty to refer clients to an exceptional competitor when unavailable. "Horror stories of bad service or end result does damage the whole industry."

Sure, some naysayers remain, but it's their loss (even though benefiting from the industry's new rep is everyone's gain). "One of the coolest things about a collaborative approach," explains Cowling, "is the friendships that have been formed all over the country-and the world! Ultimately, these are people who share the same passion as you do. It never made sense to me that these people should be enemies! I'm proud to say that my best mates are also my biggest competition. But I owe so much of my business success to them that I never really see them as competition (and hopefully they would agree vice versa!)."

Echoing sage advice given by Jason Magbanua at EDU 2010, Widjaja would remind us all that when you share one thing with one person, you get a tenfold return. Collaboration is a karmic gold mine, as any of EDU's founders will attest.

Liz Merfeld (www.lizmerfeld.com is a writer and editor based in Madison, Wis.