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Electric Pictures: Fossicking for gold

As Electric Pictures brainstormed a way to expand its audience, they unearthed a gem of their own with Aussie Gold Hunters.

Aussie Gold Hunters/David Dare Parker

After more than 22 years producing documentaries largely for public broadcasters both in Australia and around the world, Perth-based Electric Pictures felt they had become “a little bit narrow focused”.

Founder, CEO and producer Andrew Ogilvie said, “We made a very conscious decision: we wanted to diversify.”

Someone came up with gem prospectors, when it struck them… one of the world’s richest gold prospecting areas was right on their doorstep, in WA, and with that, the idea of Aussie Gold Hunters was born.

What they didn’t know is that gold prospecting has been entertaining audiences overseas for years.

“Internationally there’s a Discovery series called Gold Rush that’s filmed in the USA which has been going for possibly seven years and been one of their highest rating shows during that period,” he says.

The series pre-sold to National Geographic, but an internal restructure caused the cable television channel to pull out at the 11th hour – which is when Discovery came on board as the major broadcaster.

“We actually had been successful with Screen Australia, with state funding agency Screen West, we’d done all our preparation, we almost had a crew standing by,” Ogilvie remembers of the timing.

“It affected a number of programs around the world and we were one of the casualties, so we had to turn around and look for new partners. We were very pleased that Discovery thought it made a good show for them.”

Director Roger Power says one of the things Discovery are keen on is the idea of risk vs reward: something they kept in mind while finding the three gold prospecting teams who feature in Aussie Gold Hunters.

“Everyone in this is risking something on the basis of the reward,” he says.

“Some people do it because they’ve spent a lot of money investing a lot of machinery and they’re playing for high stakes.”

That includes Brisbane husband and wife team Greg and Christine Clark, who walked away from their home and career to spend their life savings on their mining operation. Meanwhile best mates Vernon Strange and Leon Marsh sunk a million dollars into building a machine called ‘Goldzilla’ and face pressure to find enough gold to just break even.

“On the other end of the scale you’ve got people who operate on their own, out of the back of a caravan and can survive on less money. But they take their own risks because they go into the middle of nowhere,” Power says, referring to remote prospectors Henri Chassaing and Kellie Carter, who travel deep into the Outback with their high-tech detectors.

To capture the three different stories, Power says crews spent eight to nine weeks with each team on and off over a period of three months. They would spend days or even up to a week with the prospecting teams, before leaving them in peace for a time, then returning again.

Crew at work on <em>Aussie Gold Hunters</em> Crew at work on Aussie Gold Hunters

To maximise coverage, they used a combination of equipment. Besides digital cameras and GoPros, they used an Osmo 4K camera, which Ogilvie describes as “sort of eyes on a stick”.

“(They) have got special gyroscopic parts, so when you use them it looks like you’re shooting on a Steadicam or tracks. So there’s amazing smooth footage in some places where you wouldn’t normally be able to get it – things like running alongside a track when you’re on a motorbike. With an Osmo you get this amazing coverage. It’s quite new to the genre,” he says.

They also used drones, but instead of bringing in a specialist for the occasional drone shot, which Ogilvie says can be at a quite high cost, they simply got their crew licensed.

“We actually trained our crew members and bought drones so they became part of the everyday kit… it was just another camera, another platform, another device to get coverage that you wanted,” he says.

“So if they want to have an aerial shot or a moving shot or a travelling shot they just pull it out of the back of the car and it’s just there all the time.”

But shooting at such a rate on up to five different cameras brought with it the challenges of grappling with a high volume of footage – around 50 terabytes in the end. “I suspect we are talking in the thousands of hours of footage to get the stories,” Ogilvie says.

So they became prospectors themselves in the edit.

Power says: “We were doing the same thing the prospectors were, going through a very, very large amount of raw material to find the gold.”

But find it they did, with the eight episodes now screening on Discovery Channel.

After so many years creating television for public broadcasters in Australia and overseas, Ogilvie has found working for a cable network a refreshing change.

“I think we (Electric Pictures) are one of the oldest production companies in Australia,” he says.

“We haven’t done National Geographic and Discovery shows historically but this is a very deliberate strategy… we really want to expand our slate and make more commercial programming and this is what Aussie Gold Hunters is.”

It appears to already by piquing audience interest.

In The Screen Guide, Screen Australia’s local version of IMDB, Aussie Gold Hunters was in of the top three most searched titles for at seven weeks in a row.

Screen Australia Senior Manager of Documentary Liz Stevens says it was impressive to see this level of audience engagement in the lead-up to the premiere on September 15.

“But it’s also a credit to Electric Pictures and to any filmmaker willing to step outside of their usual remit to try something new and tap into a different kind of audience,” Stevens says. “Even the most experienced filmmakers still have tricks up their sleeve.”

Similarly Ogilvie says, “it’s fantastic that Screen Australia is still trying to find ways to support programs that are about all Australians.”

Aussie Gold Hunters airs on Discovery Channel Thursdays at 7.30pm

Screen Australia recently updated its documentary program guidelines. Find them here