Web Series Wednesday: This is Desmondo Ray!

Article by Writer, Director and Animator Steve Baker

It all started back in 2013 when the production company I started working with – Taxi Film, which mostly specialises in advertising – asked me to make a 30 second spec commercial so they could show ad agencies my style. However, coming from a film background that involved working in both animation and live action, I suggested we make a short film that could still show off my style to agencies, but could also be uploaded online to see if anything exciting happens.

I read that the average attention span of watching an online video is roughly 3 minutes, so I knew it had to be really short, but I wanted to cram as much into it as I could, using both animation and live action. A dating tape was something I thought could naturally exist online, especially in today’s world, as well as containing a lot of character information. And character is what interests me the most as a filmmaker, specifically outsiders trying to find their place in this mixed-up, crazy world. So that’s how ‘The Video Dating Tape of Desmondo Ray, Aged 33 & ¾ was born.

After the film was made and uploaded it was lucky enough to be Staff Picked by Vimeo within a matter of hours, and then started spreading quickly across the Internet. Afterwards came the festivals including SXSW and even an AACTA Nomination. However the most interesting part for me was all the messages Desmondo started receiving from people all over the world, and from all walks of life. Some of these were profoundly personal and incredibly touching. People even started getting tattoos of him! And a lot of people were asking to see more of him, so a web series seemed like the next logical step to expand his universe in the online world.

My producer, Leanne Tonkes and I were fortunate to receive the Multi-Platform Production Funding from Screen Australia, with Screen Queensland also contributing. This was really vital due to my somewhat ambitious ideas for the series. So after a lengthy writing and storyboarding process, we immediately started pre-production. We were lucky to score a sound stage at Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast for very cheap while they were conveniently in between Hollywood blockbusters. Which meant while we were casting, our tireless crew could get stuck into building the few sets we needed, including some miniatures, which were a lot of fun to use because I grew up loving The Thunderbirds.

The live action shoot bounced around from the studios, to cemeteries, to the most incredible derelict rail museum (that resembled something out of Eraserhead), over 6 days, which sounds fairly generous but we had a tremendous amount of shots to get through. I remember the DP, Jason Hargreaves, who is extremely experienced, turned to me at the end of Day 1 with wide eyes saying, This pace is blinding! We also didn’t have time for rehearsals. Some of the actors we flew in from interstate and I met them for the first time only hours before we were shooting them, and when they only had time for 2 or 3 takes, the pressure was on. Luckily we got some great actors, including Shari Sebbens, Romy Poulier, Luisa Prosser and Ruben Francis. It was an interesting experience for me too because I was reading for Desmondo while directing, and sometimes I genuinely forgot about focusing on the actors and would loose myself in being Desmondo. I have a whole new appreciation for actor and directors after making this!

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After the live action elements were shot, I cut it all together very roughly knowing that it would need to be heavily finessed later on once Desmondo was animated. I then worked on it one episode at a time, in order. I animated Desmondo in Flash and used After Effects to composite him into the live action footage. Then it was a matter of going over and over it, back and forth between Flash and After Effects until Desmondo’s performance felt right and he sat nicely within the footage. After I was happy with an episode, I took it into the post-production house (Chop Shop Post) to grade the live action footage and add all the effects that I didn’t know how to do myself – like adding fire and smoke and a million other little things done by the brilliant vfx artist, Joe Lancaster. After an episode was visually locked off I would send it to the composer, Megan Carnes, to begin work on the music, followed by the sound design… Then repeat, 5 more times!

All up the animation and other post elements took a bit less than 1 & ½ years, and most of that time consisted of me animating Desmondo’s performance. He has a very stiff and awkward presence, so I had to really focus on the facial features to bring him to life. I’ve always said if you know how to control the eyes, the eyebrows, and the mouth, then there isn’t a story in the world you can’t tell. And my main aim with Desmondo, or anything I do, is to always make the audience feel something. Whenever I watch a film, or read a book, or look at a painting, I just want to have some kind of emotional reaction to it. Falling under a film’s spell is kind of like a drug, and I love trying to create that feeling for the audience by combining humour, heart, and a little darkness that can hopefully linger long in the mind of the viewer. I also try to make the audience see the world through someone else’s eyes, and in the case of Desmondo, it’s a unique view because he sees the world with child-like innocence, always in awe, and constantly fascinated. This can lead him into a lot of danger, but also a lot of beauty.

We premiered the series online in July of 2017, and have been entering film and web series festivals since late August. The response has been extremely overwhelming from festivals. To date Desmondo has picked up 10 awards, with a whole year of festivals screenings still to come. I can honestly say I didn’t create this series to win awards, but it still feels great for all of us who worked so hard on it to receive some shiny recognition from all over the world.

Finally, I have to add that I was keen to try and create a series that hopefully feels different to a lot of other series. I know that sounds ridiculous, especially considering how much content is already out there. But I haven’t really come across another online series that feels like Desmondo. Specifically how it requires a bit more emotional investment from the audience – a level of investment that’s hopefully rewarded by the time they reach the end.

The full series can be watched here.

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