Reservoir Hill (NZ, 2009)

Locally-made digital Emmy-winning web series Reservoir Hill had an old media screening in omnibus form over the weekend, and I ended up watching much of the broadcast.

It’s about a girl named Beth who arrives in a new subdivision and finds everyone reacts to her in an unusual way. Very soon she finds out why, and that stakes out territory for the show somewhere between Twin Peaks and Shutter Island. The rest of the show follows her investigations into the mystery, shot through with moments of teen drama.

It’s a fascinating production, very well-made, making much of its anonymous suburban setting (it was shot out Porirua way). The colour palette is very Twilight, all washed-out colours and muted tones, stylistic and moody but not as over-the-top as Twilight seemed to be from the few minutes of that I watched.

Most fascinating was the interactive elements. After each episode, with Beth facing a decision, online viewers were encouraged to text her advice. These text messages were referenced by Beth in video blogs she made, and also seemed to affect the direction of the show: the character’s phone would beep, we’d see a close-up of her phone displaying a text message giving her advice, and then she’d follow the advice.

I’d love to know more about the logistics of this. Co-Director David Stubbs was interviewed by the Herald at the start of the project and said that they would actually let the text messages drive the production:

Each week scriptwriters will be responding to Beth’s texts and Bebo messages and deciding which suggestions, if any, will form the rest of the plot.

They will film episodes two days before screening. “It’s an amazing and quite frightening logistical effort,” Stubbs says.

A Good Morning interview elaborates – the episode goes live Monday evening, and they accept input until Weds evening, write script for the next instalment Thurs morning, prep Friday, shoot over the weekend, and cut it for release on Monday day.

This sounds crazy, but they’re all sticking to the story. They must have a pretty tight structure in place already, with locations and cast members lined up, so the script isn’t written from nothing and production can be developed based on that. It’s an incredible logistical mission even with the most minimal interactive elements.

And it clearly worked – the Bebo page and the message boards testify to the fact that they had viewers enthusiastically giving advice to Beth, and winning the Emmy is huge. There’s some elements I can quibble with, like the interactive audience not quite making sense within the fiction, but that’s small stuff. Overall the show is a great achievement, and it’s nice to see some pitch-black local drama for a teen audience.

It’s worth a look, I reckon. First episode is here – it’s six minutes long. Check it out.

6 thoughts on “Reservoir Hill (NZ, 2009)”

  1. We did the text-messaging for this; happy to talk about it off-line or in email.

  2. I will chase you up about this, definitely. I did think while I was watching of some of your previous texty magic. Nice one.

  3. Heh. Yup, the colour scheme again.

    I loved the sound design on this thing; I’ve watched every episode and, honestly, would often not be that enthralled by the story being told. But I’d carry on viewing because the sound design and Rhian Sheenan soundtrack was so well paced, well, placed and engaging.

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