Coming to a screen near you
‘Part community facility, part television studio and entirely futuristic,’ is how Rangai founder Shannon Dowsing describes the commercial studio space and education facility he has created, with partners, to deliver a Diploma in Screen Production — as he explains to the Business Quarterly . . .
Enter Rangai's studio from Gladstone Road and the impact is striking — a vibrant green screen that fills the space, a control room full of screens . . . and those are just the obvious elements of the state-of-the-art virtual studio that has opened in the centre of Gisborne.
Founder Shannon Dowsing says he has partnered carefully to create a commercial studio space and education facility like no other. International production company Target3D and EIT, along with Trust Tairawhiti, are supporting the aspirational concept while preparing to deliver a Diploma in Screen Production and begin production of original television content, with Tairawhiti rangatahi as the stars of the shows and working behind the lens.
It began with a strategic expansion of Target3D, negotiated by Mr Dowsing, from the UK to New Zealand — driven by commercial need and the opportunity of working 24 hours with staff on opposite sides of the Earth.
The approach changed, however, after an assessment of how to introduce the business and make it best-for-region. The expansion went into a holding pattern while developing what they believe is the future of work and education, says Mr Dowsing.
“Creating Rangai Limited allowed us to connect education and the commercial sector, providing students unparalleled opportunities, the ability to earn while they learn, excellent pastoral care and pathways to high-paid, exciting jobs.”
Target3D recognised the need to grow talent in Tairawhiti, or risk importing staff to a region already under capacity pressure. The partners adopted a Maori proverb to guide their decision-making and it is reflected throughout the business — He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. (What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.)
For the first time EIT will offer its Diploma in Screen Production in Gisborne. As part of its commitment, Rangai has provided the cutting-edge facility.
“It was important that our students work with the same tools we use internationally,” said Mr Dowsing. “We want our students to be the most employable in the industry, as they will be truly work-ready.”
To support this, Rangai has also negotiated paid learning opportunities for students, at living wage, aimed to offset the cost of education and give them real experience that is invaluable. Upon graduation, Rangai then offers recruitment opportunities via its national and international networks, but plans to retain as much production expertise as it can locally and grow the industry here.
Mr Dowsing founded Target3D NZ and Rangai, which is part-owned by Target3D UK. In the group they also own two studios in London and one in Spain.
Target3D specialises in motion and performance capture, known as mocap.
“We're experts with hardware, the tools that make up this industry's technology. We are a centre of knowledge and advise studios, universities and others on its technical limitations and ability to integrate with their workflow.”
The cutting-edge technology Target3D is involved with is utilised in applications ranging from robotics, biometrics, simulators, animation, virtual production, high-performance sport and virtual reality to medical and military training.
Mr Dowsing returned to New Zealand in 2014 after the sale of London-based technology innovation agency Inition Ltd, where he had the role of business development manager.
The rising technology of 3D printing had caught his attention in 2009. He applied for, and landed, a sales director role at Inition Ltd, a growing startup that specialised in the development of immersive, installation-based experiences and included VR, AR, mixed realities, and holograms among its technology platforms.
Mr Dowsing helped the company grow rapidly and by 2012 his role changed to business development manager.
He had a dream list of clients and cutting-edge technology at his disposal, he says in a page on his website.
“In my time there I created holograms for Shell, virtual and augmented reality experiences for BP and Vodafone, 3D films with Manchester United.
“We went on to complete the successful sale of the company after having tripled in size and reached our targets in a post-global financial crisis market.”
Mr Dowsing returned to New Zealand and enjoyed a couple of years surfing before running for the council in 2016.
“I ran because of my desire to see more digital industry in the region. Gisborne District Council was creating a regional digital strategy, but I wasn't able to influence it from the outside.”
He now believes digital strategy is best run by entrepreneurs. Unable to get traction at a strategic level, he decided to go back to a technological level and drive the change himself.
While Mr Dowsing ran for council, his past UK colleagues started Target3D UK — buying back part of Inition and proving the new company as a profitable and rapidly-growing business in its first year.
“It was a business we were all familiar with and the new owners of Inition misunderstood the revenue model. It began to fail, and the opportunity appeared. My old friends and colleagues were in a perfect position to kickstart a new venture.”
Not long afterwards, Mr Dowsing got the opportunity to go on a research trip to Ireland with then Mayor Meng Foon.
The purpose of the 2018 visit was to attend a 10-day Maori business research programme called Mission Ireland, organised by Te Tira Toi Whakangao — a group of global Maori tech companies and Maori sector investors working together to build a virtually-connected Maori business support ecosystem.
“The digital strategy investigation focused on how the Maori economy could increase its presence in digital technology,” says Mr Dowsing.
“During this journey I began to formulate the idea of bringing film technology and production to Gisborne. I wanted to create a centre of production excellence, knowing we had enormous IP (intellectual property) in cultural content, and stories that are untold on screen.”
A visit to London created the opportunity for Mr Dowsing to meet with Target3D and they formed a partnership on the spot.
“It had been on our mind but we hadn't determined how to implement an international partnership, so I started with an assessment of the resources we have here and what was best fit for Tairawhiti.
“We believe the opportunity here lies in TV more than film production. It's a growing industry with constant demand for content, opportunities for individuals on social media platforms or companies on the massive streaming networks.
“When I was writing our first strategy, I titled it ‘Innovation ecosystem' to define what was required for an entire industry to succeed in a region like ours, not just our business.”
The concept, however, highlighted Mr Dowsing's concern around the housing shortage and therefore the importance of training our own people to supply the workforce, he says.
“Ireland was able to supply a workforce because they had introduced educational pathways early on and continually invest in technology-based education. They identified the need to provide the majority of employees, or be unsuccessful in attracting companies to the country.”
Rangai has a 75 percent local employment policy.
“There are three of us at the moment. The next one will be a mocap specialist, something I can't find here, but they will also be a trainer for our students to share their knowledge.”
Although his production experience is comparatively narrow, for him it is knowledge of the industry that is required, he says.
“Understanding how the industry works and the financial model of production is what matters for a producer. My on-set experience is limited to a small range of technologies. I want our students to learn with the highest-quality equipment, and to later specialise in the areas they excel — because the industry is so broad.
“We train the future actors, actresses, directors, producers, screen writers, camera operators and any number of other roles you've never head of, like DOP, DIT, Grip, Focus Assist etc. There is no point having a big studio until you can hire all of these people locally, or the finances don't work.”
Target3D and EIT Tairawhiti worked on the Rangai strategy for two years before its launch. The first year was given over to planning that gave Mr Dowsing security around his significant personal investment, supplemented by a loan from Trust Tairawhiti of $225,000. Target3D will be providing some of the specialist virtual production equipment to support the advanced functions of the facility.
The Ministry of Social Development will provide 50 percent of the wages paid to students, and Target3D is providing some of the unique technology that will be installed in the studio.
Rangai's revenue model includes studio and equipment hire to EIT and local producers, managing student work opportunities via a cast and crew agency, and providing recruitment services on graduation.
With nearly a million dollars invested into the venture, it was essential to create a business plan that was sustainable, he says.
“We did a lot of research about how to bring digital strategy into the regions. It has its own unique challenges and can be detrimental to a native population. We wanted to preclude the negative effects of gentrification, for example — the displacement of local people from their homes to accommodate high-paid employees from outside the region.
“This business should initially cater for 12-15 people and aspires to hire many more in the long term.
“We could have a dramatic impact when we are successful, so there are as many social outcomes in Rangai as there are economic. We wrote the strategy with sustainability at the forefront.”
The Rangai business model includes a 9am– 3pm programme of commercial work while 3pm-8pm is given over to social activity such as drone racing, and competitive gaming (eSports).
“We didn't want to waste money on Google ads and boosting Facebook posts. The best way to meet our future students is to give them an entertaining space where they want to be.
“We want lots of people coming through here so we can convince them of opportunities in the industry. You don't need to be a member of the school to be a member of the eSports club.”
Rangai studio will operate with a green screen virtual production set, where any environment can be mimicked using the technology within the studio, says Mr Dowsing.
“We've got everything in place for virtual production except for expensive LED panels, but we've invested in the same cameras, lenses with precision tracking and motion capture equipment to match our London set-up, so the skills will be directly transferable. Students will be qualified to walk into a virtual production only used in high-budget television and film production.”
Active recruitment is part of the Rangai kaupapa. On graduating, students will have accumulated not just NCEA credits but production credits for roles they have done throughout their education.
“We will document and create a portfolio of work to sit alongside their CV.
“All students are represented by the Rangai cast and crew agency; this is the mechanism through which they are made available for work and will handle the business relationships. They can work with any company at a subsidised rate, so using them is incentivised, and there is a range of shows in preproduction by Target3D to provide them a guaranteed amount of work.”
Raised and educated in Tairawhiti, Mr Dowsing has always been passionate about physics and electronics and this led to a career in technology.
“At school I didn't know what I wanted to do, but the format of school-based learning didn't suit me. I went into a pre-employment course with Gisborne Developments doing automotive electronics; they placed me in a garage one day a week and the information just started to sink in.”
He later moved into an apprenticeship with telecommunications and transmission provider Alstom.
“I understood how I learnt and knew I enjoyed technology, so this environment was perfect for me.”
When he wrote his concept for Rangai he drew on his experience and the current emphasis on trades training in New Zealand, aligned with his way of thinking, he says.