Last week, a new TV series began, telling the story of John Swift, a security driver on the run from the authorities after being accused of stealing some diamonds and killing his colleague. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d find on a Friday night at 8pm, but this is no ordinary show: Shield 5 is a TV show on Instagram.
Lots of people – crazy, old-fashioned people – would argue that a series could never work on the social media site, but it’s a surprisingly natural platform for storytelling, breaking down a narrative into 15-second chunks.
For director Anthony Wilcox, it was intriguing enough to warrant the experiment.
“I’ve been developing and rewriting what I hope will be my second feature film for a while and was keen to shoot something short and quick during that process,” he tells us. “It felt potentially interesting to explore something non-traditional. Instagram has this huge number of users and very little dramatic content so I wondered if we could exploit that.”
He joins a growing number of people turning to Instagram as a video platform. Last year, we wrote about another series called Artistically Challenged, which distilled its anarchic humour into bitesized pieces for its followers. While that could rely on sketch-style scenarios, though, Shield 5 has to do the same with an action thriller story.
Wilcox worked closely with writer and co-creator Adam Dewar to break it down into shareable posts.
“Much of the credit must go to him,” Wilcox says. “We started with a story that could have been 2 hours or 24 hours of screen time! Then Adam worked tirelessly to condense it into these tiny beats. Once we had that story down and working within this structure, we pushed it a little further, adding characters and layers.”
It works: the show’s cast manage to convey a lot with a little. One flashback introduces us to Michael Crozier, who’s taken over from his father as the boss of Swift’s security firm – a two-second shot of him leaning back in a chair is enough to tell us all we need to know about him.
Episodes are released every day online. With TV viewing rapidly changing from living rooms to mobile devices, though – kids now go on the web more every day than they watch traditional TV – filmmakers are not just competing with other series for attention, but with the web itself. It’s so easy for a viewer to click on something else and never return. Did Wilcox and Dewar try and use cliffhangers to bring people back?
“Cliffhangers may not be the right term but we wanted each episode to intrigue enough – by pushing the story forward, twisting it, adding a new character or location – that people would be keen to come back,” he comments.
The show takes impressive care to jump around its locations, which makes the whole thing seem bigger and more complex, and also keeps your attention.
“There were a huge number of locations and actors for 7 minutes of screen time,” says Wilcox. “We never wanted an 15 second episode to be a direct continuation of the previous one – that felt like we’d be cheating!”
It also gives Shield 5 a scale that seems more expensive than it is.
“It was a no-budget production!” reveals Anthony. “We were able to pay for food, the odd location, insurance – the essentials.”
The other variety comes from the inspired decision to use photos (and sometimes videos) as posts between episodes to provide background exposition that would normally be in dialogue scenes.
They were in the very first draft in the script, says Wilcox.
“We decided on it very early on, partly because we were looking for every possible way to expand and drive the story and also because Instagram is a platform for stills and videos – so Adam wrote them into the very first draft of the script.”
The result is something impressively ambitious, but also excitingly challenging, forcing you to piece together the plot as you go.
The actors all appear up for the challenge. Over the first nine episodes that are available at the time of writing, Christian Cooke as Swift moves from romantic to running scared with a likeable charisma and visible enthusiasm.
“They were all very up for it,” agrees Wilcox. “Everyone loved the script which is always the starting point. The actors who used Instagram also loved the concept and those who didn’t were intrigued enough to buy into it!”
The director confesses that he hasn’t seen many web series, although he does speak highly of High Maintenance.
“The audience seemed to have this feeling of discovering a secret – a sense of ownership even – and couldn’t wait to tell friends about it. That’s how I started watching, on the recommendation of two or three friends. The same thing was true of Serial,” he says, hoping that Shield 5 will have a similar effect.
High Maintenance is an excellent act to follow: the web series was recently picked up by HBO to become one of their own in-house shows. It’s a growing trend among traditional media outlets, as more and more talent rises through the streaming ranks. Last year, Australian YouTube cookery comedy The Katering Show became an ABC original for iView.
What would be Anthony’s dream result for Shield 5?
“We always felt like Shield 5 was a bigger story than we were able to tell in this format,” he says. “It would be great to explore these characters on a bigger canvas.”
Given what he’s managed to achieve with the smallest canvas around, it’s hard not to agree.
Gripping, surprising and never outstaying its welcome, Shield 5 is not only the easiest binge-watch around, it’s also one of the most original.
Episodes of Shield 5 are released every day on Instagram. Tune in here.