At high school, drama unfolds every single day. So imagine the challenge facing Revolution School series producer Alex West as he tried to fit the ups and downs of an entire school year into just four episodes. By Caris Bizzaca.
In 2015, the centenary of Gallipoli was commemorated, Malcom Turnbull became prime minister, and in Melbourne, a typical high school was trying to lift their bar under the watchful lenses of a group of documentary-makers.
The result is Revolution School: a four-part ABC documentary series that investigates how to improve high school education in Australia by focusing on Melbourne’s Kambrya College over the course of one year.
Alex West was brought on as series producer by production company CJZ – who won the pitching bid from ABC – to bring the project from page to screen.
The first challenge he faced was how.
“How on earth do you begin to capture events in a very dynamic ever-changing school environment where there’s over 1000 people, and you have no idea who will end up being key characters or what might happen to them?” West says.
The second main challenge was finding a way of incorporating the cutting-edge research and work of academics, such as Professor John Hattie from University of Melbourne, into the series.
But having this work cohesively alongside the stories of students, parents and teachers presented an additional problem.
“It’s kind of two genres in a program-making sense, which could fight against each other,” West says.
“Strictly observational documentary making and specialist factual television production had to be somehow aligned into a way that would work.”
To solve these issues, West first needed to capture the stories.
From the outset, he decided two fixed rigs, each with two cameras would need to be installed in the school, so they would never miss an opportunity. They monitored these cameras from an office onsite, so they could selectively record only what was necessary. On top of that were two roving cameras, helmed by shooter-directors Naomi Elkin-Jones and Nick McInerney, and four to six cameras installed on the school’s own CCTV system.
A blanket agreement was made with the school and every child was sent home with a release form. If those weren’t signed, there was an extensive process involved in making sure the filmmakers didn’t include a child who wasn’t cleared.
The amount of footage they accumulated was immense.
“More footage than I’ve ever created and I struggled to think how we could have shot less,” West says.
The management of that was a huge logistical task, involving constant logging and monitoring of storylines, so as to create a kind of map through the mountain of data.
“You’ve got multiple open storylines. And you don’t know how they’re going to resolve, you don’t know how they’re going to fit into the big picture,” he says.
“We knew the story we wanted but to manage that material I think was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done professionally.”
On top of that, they were trying to understand if this was actually even arresting television.
“At that point nobody knew if this was really boring.”
But dramatic storylines began to emerge, and the academics rose to the task of becoming deeply engaged with the teachers and school.
The stories were bundled into a long, unruly timeline, which West and the team began to hammer into shape with the work of “fantastic” editors.
Together they built a super structure across the four episodes, but also individual structures that allowed each episode to essentially stand alone, weaving between the stories of the students, teachers and academics.
“It’s one of the most complex editorial jobs I’ve ever undertaken… It was really challenging and creatively stimulating and I’m really proud of the result,” West says.
“When you watch it as a viewer you’ve got this double layer. You’re learning from the academic side, but also getting attached to characters and following a narrative.”
Revolution School starts on ABC Tuesday 31 May at 8.30pm.