Charlotte Nicdao and Gemma Bird Matheson play best friends Lucy and Daisy in ABC comedy series Content. (Supplied: ABC/Mia Forrest)
Do not adjust your phone, the world’s first vertical video comedy series is here: Content.
To set the scene, or rather, the home screen: Lucy (Charlotte Nicdao) is an extrovert chasing internet fame while her more mature best friend Daisy (Gemma Bird Matheson) is focused on her career.
Created by Brisbane’s Ludo Studio (also behind animated series Bluey and SBS series Robbie Hood), Content uses smartphones to tell a story about a friendship caught in the grips of internet narcissism. In a sense, the show is told from the point of view of a smartphone.
The series is so authentic in its depiction of phone usage that a 30-second clip from the first episode, titled Flipgirl, went viral — 2.9 million views — because people thought it was real.
Desktop and phone-set films fall into the genre of ‘Screen life’, so named by Russian production house Bazelevs, who count the Unfriended series and Sundance winner Searching among their best-known work.
Over the past two decades, the genre has morphed from mostly horror and thriller films made for cinema release to television: Broad City did an episode told with Instagram stories, and Modern Family set an episode on a computer desktop.
Screen life is still in an experimental phase but it’s a format that shares a lot in common with mockumentaries (This is Spinal Tap!) and “found footage” films (The Blair Witch Project) because a story is woven into a pre-existing format.
One way to think of Content is on the same terms as found footage, but it’s more like a ‘found phone’ series; you’ve got the password to the lives of Lucy and Daisy.
Pitching a show that has no precedent
Executive producer Que Minh Luu first heard about the show when making small talk with executive producer and director Daley Pearson during a pitch meeting at the ABC.
“Daley was talking about this funny guy he was following — a Brisbane-based motivational person who was living the life of an influencer but without the follower count,” says Luu.
Que Minh Luu is the executive producer of ABC drama series The Heights and smartphone comedy Content. (Supplied: Ben King)
“I could tell Daley had a love for this guy. And I said: that’s the show you should pitch.”
Pearson says initially he thought of pitching a comedy about a 19-year-old life coach. “There were a lot of them that I was watching on YouTube and Instagram. I became obsessed with that concept; it’s quite funny — a 19-year-old is a life coach,” he says.
“We thought the show would be about a big influencer and it was set on their phone, but then I was like, I don’t want to watch a show about a celebrity.”
Charlotte Nicdao as Lucy, a wannabe influencer live-streaming herself singing to A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton before a car accident.
The idea morphed into a series about an ordinary person who is touched by internet fame and thrust into the spotlight.
“We wanted to make sure that they didn’t become unattainable … that was what we always went back to: it was an ordinary person who gets pushed into this and it brings out the worst in them. [It] reminds me of that quote: ‘Success doesn’t change you, it exposes you.'”
For Luu, the first challenge was to sell it to her boss, ABC head of scripted production Sally Riley.
“It was pretty much like: ‘Hey boss, can I make a TV show that you can’t see on TV?’ and her being extremely supportive and saying ‘Yes, I like the sound of it but I need to know more.’
Because the format for the show was unprecedented, Luu’s department teamed up with the ABC’s Content Innovation Lab to develop a prototype.
“We had a couple of dummy versions … scraped off the internet to show how drama could happen on a text message screen and what have you, and we started showing that around. People slowly started getting what it meant, cause when you say it’s a show told from the perspective of a phone and you see the action unfurl through social media posts and texts and stuff happens, it doesn’t sound like anything to anyone, especially when there’s no precursor.
“So it was an incremental process of: here’s a little bit more, do you get it? Here’s a little bit more, do you get it? And once we got proper funding for it we were able to go and do a proof of concept, which we then ran through focus groups just to test the format to see if people understood it.”
Flipping the script
As Content went into development it became clear to the production team that they were — again — in uncharted territory.
When writer Anna Barnes got hired, she had to invent the script template.
“I created a whole new document because we tried so many different ways to write it out — because we didn’t know how. So, lots of numbering like one: open phone. And then, A: what’s on the phone. Because I couldn’t just say, ‘Lucy goes onto Facebook’ — because that would then leave all the writing to everyone else,” says Barnes.
“It was a lot of writing the world: comments, tweets, text messages. A lot of it was writing ancillary content, but that’s what makes the story … what’s on Lucy’s Facebook, what her mum writes. Stuff you wouldn’t think of, like when someone sends a text message, what were the five text messages above it? I’d have to write all that.
“I tried to be as specific as possible because there was so much work to be done on the production end.”
Imitating a phone using animation
The huge task of creating the in-phone experience fell to a Canadian filmmaking collective Shy Kids: Walter Woodman, Matt Hornick, Patrick Cederberg and Greg Francis.
In 2013, Shy Kids made Noah, a screen life film set on a computer desktop that won best Canadian short film at the Toronto International Film Festival. They recently animated elements of the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, and are in development on a series for Quibi, the mobile streaming service founded by former Disney and DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg.
The character of Lucy is inspired by influencers on YouTube and Instagram.
“Daley showed me Noah when it had just come out. And that film has stuck in everyone’s mind since then. The Shy Kids’ whole thing is understanding how stories can be told by using a digital interface,” says Luu.
A high percentage of what you see on screen in Content is animated.
“Before any footage was shot, and in some cases, before scripts were even finalised, we were building out all the different app interfaces in animation software,” says Cederberg.
“Outside of a few key moments where it made more sense to straight-up capture footage and make slight adjustments than build from scratch, all the things you’re seeing on the phone are animated. In another universe, our job might have been done by Apple programmers.”
The animation in Content had to replicate the way a real smartphone behaves, to reflect Lucy and Daisy’s usage.
“It was imperative to us that the show feels like an honest depiction of two 20-somethings on their phones,” says Francis.
“This meant capturing each of our scenes on the appropriate formats (the majority of the footage was shot on iPhone XS) and lighting scenes as naturally as possible. Our wonderfully talented actresses doubled as camera operators for many of our scenes, and I think this made for a more honest portrayal of both characters.”
When watching TV, we’re used to character development in actions and words, but not often from the layout of their phone. Woodman says everything you need to know about Lucy and Daisy is in the minor details.
“We felt that Lucy should be all artifice. This phone is the portal for which she sees the world, it is part of her body. With Daisy, her phone felt much more like a tool, something she uses for work or to stay connected,” says Woodman.
“Since we didn’t see a ton of the characters in real life, we tried to keep them strictly colour coded, Lucy is always millennial pink, Daisy is always soft yellow. Our hope was that you could immediately situate yourself with these subliminal colour cues.”
Best friends forever
There are plenty of jokes about the internet in Content, but Daisy and Lucy’s friendship is truly the heart of the series.
“We knew we wanted one character to want the attention and want to be internet famous … but the idea that they really are friends and that they really do get a lot out of each other was important to me because we needed that to hold us through all the crazy adventures that Lucy goes on,” says writer Anna Barnes.
“Lucy is an intense, extroverted personality whose approach to life is quite exciting for Daisy, who is more introverted, so they both do really complement each other in many ways — even though as it goes on Lucy is not a very good friend. But you can see why Daisy is drawn to her and how they work together, and we wanted to make sure there was a heart there, within all the fun.”
Actress Nicdao (Get Krack!n) heard about the project through EP and director Daley Pearson.
“We played around with the idea that I was going to be playing Daisy … but then I told them that I’d really like to play Lucy, which is very outside of my usual wheelhouse,” says Nicdao.
“I’m much more often cast as the Daisy character than the Lucy character; the sort of sensible, kind person, not the somewhat horrific narcissist.”
For Luu, finding Charlotte was a godsend for a part she knew would be hard to cast.
“There’s an intimacy to having just a mid-shot of someone acting to a phone, but it’s also limiting: it’s not like she can use her body very much, all you have is your face and the dialogue. And so [Charlotte] was a huge part making the story work.”
Comedy with a focus on friendship has been central to shows like PEN15 and Broad City, which was a reference point for Nicdao while working on Content.
“There’s a rule in improv comedy (which is not my world) where it seems funnier to tear your scene partner down but it’s actually a lot funnier to support them, and that’s where more interesting comedy comes from,” says the actor.
“I think we’re used to seeing buddy comedies about men who despite all odds love each other and get through the shit together, but often female relationships on screen are portrayed as vicious or bitchy.
“But there’s this new trend now where people are realising, A: that’s not really an accurate depiction of female relationships, because by and large women are pretty supportive of each other. And B: it’s way more funny to watch women as a team against the world rather than watching women tear each other apart.”
Ahead of the game or right on time?
Content is not only breaking ground on format — it’s also unusual in embracing the relationship we have with our smartphones.
“You’d think the lesson you’d learn from a story like Content would be to live in the real world, value the actual people who are in your life and not the followers you have in Argentina. But I actually think the thing I came out of the show having learnt was there are some really valuable communities online. It’s a bit of a sanctuary for a lot of people,” says Nicdao.
“That’s part the story we’re telling in the show, Lucy begins as a lonely woman who is trying to find connections, she finds it online, and she comes out the other side and feels even more lonely.
“That’s the big question: what kind of connection really matters?”
This idea that smartphones are an inevitable factor of life is one that Pearson also feels applies to screen culture.
“I know that this kind of storytelling just has to happen. When I saw any screen life film, I may not have loved the films but they blew my mind. I felt like what people must have felt like hearing rock ‘n’ roll for the first time,” says Pearson.
“I don’t know if we’re too early or just at the right time but I do think that it’s so reflective of our lives that to not do it, I don’t think I’d be telling real stories properly.
“I’ve opened a door I can’t seem to shut.”