Published on: 01 February 2016 in Longform

Shield 5: storytelling in seconds

Reading time: 4 minutes and 25 seconds

Today sees the launch of Shield 5, a TV thriller told in 15-second episodes released via photo-sharing social media platform Instagram. Director Anthony Wilcox has written for us about the project, explaining where the idea came from and how he adapted to this unusual medium and distribution model.

For the last 18 months or so I’ve been writing and developing what I hope will be my second feature film. During that time I’ve directed a couple of short, online items – a Steve Coogan election broadcast for the Labour Party and a mini-episode of The Trip for Children in Need – both of which had an extremely fast turnaround from shooting to delivery. The process was refreshing and invigorating, so I started to think of ways I could make something of my own at a similarly intense pace. That was just over a year ago… Now Shield 5, a 28 x 15-second episode crime-drama, made exclusively for Instagram, will air its first episode today.

Instagram is the world’s fastest growing social media platform, with monthly active users currently estimated at 400 million. Around 80 million photos and videos (with a 15 second limit) are shared every day. It felt like an exciting platform to explore, with an opportunity to find a much wider audience than a regular short film. Although there have been a couple of series already made for Instagram, none have embraced cinematic production values or style. So the goal became, not without a sense of mischief, to make something BIG for the smallest screen imaginable: a thriller, containing plot-twists, VFX and stunts.

Around the time I was wrestling with the validity of the concept, the first Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer was released. And, coincidentally, the opening shot – a panicked John Boyega rising into the frame in his Stormtrooper outfit – was 15-seconds long. When I broke down the elements – score, voice-over, landscape, how the character enters frame, the expression on his face, costume, what he may be running from (or to) – it amazed me how much story, impact and intrigue these few seconds delivered.

Adam Dewar, the writer and co-creator of Shield 5, was immediately intrigued by the concept when I pitched it to him. We shared some ideas and references – The Fugitive, Three Days of The Condor – and he came up with the story: a London security guard is framed for a crime he didn’t commit and must go on the run, in an attempt to prove his innocence. Other than – or maybe because of – each episode’s 15-second limit, I was keen not to restrict anything else Adam wrote, in terms of scale and ambition. We wanted the characters and storytelling to be surprising and defy the time constraints under which we were working.

We shot for four days in London, in about ten locations, with eleven actors. For just seven minutes of screen time it was, logistically, absurdly tough. It’s to Adam’s credit that the shoot was much less preoccupied by timing worries than it could have been. He’d very carefully measured the length of episodes whilst writing, meaning that whilst on set I was, for the most part, able to concentrate on all the things I needed to.

During the writing process, Adam and I decided to post a still alongside each episode. As well as serving as another nod to the platform hosting the series, it more importantly gave us an opportunity to expand and drive the story, to introduce characters, or to offer a close-up of a prop that time hadn’t allowed for in the episode itself.

When it came to editing, Instagram rules threw up another interesting quirk to contend with. Videos play on Instagram in a continual loop, with no option to pause, rewind or fast-forward during playback. I quickly realised this could work to our advantage; without even thinking about it, anyone watching is almost certainly going to see the episode two or three times. Also, if the final frame of each episode could cut with the first, the ending would be disguised, maybe creating the illusion of something longer.

Shield 5 has been a fun experiment and everyone involved of course hopes that an audience will enjoy experiencing a story in this new way. My other hope is that it may encourage filmmakers, especially new ones, or those with limited budgets, to discover innovative and exciting places to show their work.

You can watch the first episode at the Shield 5 Instagram page. Each subsequent episode will be released daily at 5pm.

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