DOCS BY THE SEA. LAB: JULY 11–21, FORUM: AUGUST 18–26
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Masterclass Series Highlights: Commission & Acquisition Model for Documentaries with Lyfta

Masterclass Series Highlights: Commission & Acquisition Model for Documentaries with Lyfta

July, 20 - 2022

Lyfta is an award-winning digital learning platform that centres on immersive 360° environments and short documentary films, or what they call ‘storyworlds’. Lyfta’s platform is used and loved in hundreds of schools throughout the UK and Finland, enabling students and teachers to experience many different cultures and perspectives. Lyfta commissions and distributes work from filmmakers and content producers all around the world, some of which have come from Docs by the Sea projects. 

Charlie Phillips is the Head of Stories at Lyfta, and Nick Calpakdjian is the Producer of a feature-length documentary Ta-thung, which he adapted into a 360 short film format titled The Spirit Medium. In this webinar, we explore the storyworld production of The Spirit Medium and find out about Lyfta’s documentary distribution model.

Watch the record here.

How is your approach in taking a film that is supposed to be a feature and compressing it to a short form? What is your decision-making process in deciding what to focus on, what to keep, and what not to keep?

(Nick) We never intended it to be a shortened version of the feature. They’re two very different films, very different styles of filmmaking. When we were talking about the short film and who the audience was, we really wanted to focus on what a ta-thung is; their life, this title, rather than going really deep into the history of the culture. We want to focus on what role they play in our society. We want to capture the idea that they consult with people who have health issues, and other things that we were able to film for more than 12 months.

We then reviewed various scenes that we’ve captured, looked at the materials from a different perspective, and thought about how it can be used in a more simplistic way. The other thing we had to consider is the young audience—what we could and couldn’t show. So we steered away from the more extreme part of their ritual and the activities that they go into. We had to be very careful with what we’re showing. 

Is that an interesting challenge, to find a way for the film to be more adaptive towards children?

(Nick) It’s good actually. It makes you think carefully about the film, about the character, and what the story is. Breaking it down into what your audience already knows—in this case very little. What do we have to give them so that they can enjoy this story? That was the good part of that, looking at your film from a fresh angle.

What makes a story good for 360?

(Charlie) There’s no hard rules. We’re interested in the visual environment. What do you see in that environment? What kind of mood are we creating? How do you feel in it, what’s the soundscape? What do you hear? What would children like to zoom in? It is good to see action, people, details. In The Spirit Medium there’s so much detail, colour, things to discover. It’s an amazing learning material.

Are the 360 materials mandatory if we want to work with Lyfta? Or are they optional? 

(Charlie) It is mandatory. As you saw in the interface, if we don’t have 360 then there’s no way to access anything. The film is an important storytelling tool, but we need the 360 to be in the actual interface of the project. You probably don’t have experience with it so we don’t expect you to come to us knowing what you want to do in 360. We will help and train you in making the 360, and you’ll also work to decide what you should get in the 360. It will be a collaborative process.

(Nick) What we found to be really good about the 360 experience, even though we had never done any before, is that we presented some ideas on what we thought would make for good photographs. Then we went up for shooting and we did some tests, on the first day, then we had an online session with the Lyfta team. We went through what we’re trying to shoot, what was working and what’s not working, and in that one-hour session, all of the problems were solved. We shot the following days with all of that in mind. Then it was a breeze.

When is the best time to reach out to Lyfta? 

(Charlie) In terms of the time of year it could be any time, we’re always open for pitches. In terms of stages of the project, it can be at any stage, although ideas that are too early probably won’t work. You need to be able to demonstrate that you got access, got a sense of what story you’re telling, what’s going to happen to your character. You need to be sufficiently into development so that you can tell us what the film is going to be.

Are you open to films that will also be distributed somewhere else, or are you looking for exclusivity?

(Charlie) We’re looking for exclusivity. We need educational exclusivity. We need for it to be used for educational purposes only on Lyfta. Outside of that, however, we don’t mind what happens with it. Another version of the film can be distributed elsewhere, although it depends on whether you come to us with original project, or if you come to us with a project that’s already finished, it will slightly affect the rights. The baseline is that we need worldwide educational rights.   

Is there any platform or medium to facilitate students to ask questions, engage in a discussion, or find out more about the topics from the filmmakers or the key subjects?

(Charlie) We have talked about doing video interviews with filmmakers, to really help with that aspect of digital literacy and media studies. We haven’t gotten around to it yet, but it would be very helpful for students to understand how a project is being put together. So maybe at some point in the future.

In terms of engaging directly with filmmakers or subjects, it’s an interesting idea to facilitate that, considering we’re working with a lot of different schools. It’s something that can be interesting to do in the future.

For discussions, that’s what the schools are doing. They’ve held discussions with students about issues that we’ve brought up. That’s kind of the whole point of the platform. 

Are you glad you did it? Was it a good experience?

(Nick) It’s not a small amount of work to make a short film. This is not an easy way to raise money for your feature film, but it’s a good way to stay connected to your story. 

Like I was saying, we have been working on this film for years. Sometimes you just need a reason to go back again or keep the momentum going. So, creating a short film, or seeing it actually released in September, which is 6-7 months before we hopefully release our feature film, is just giving you that little bit of momentum going. It’s been a fun process.

Send your ideas to Lyfta at lyfta.com/filmmakers or get in touch with Charlie Phillips at charlie@lyfta.com.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.