An International Kids Emmy, a Rose d’Or, a GLAAD Media, a Kidscreen and Prix Jeunesse – these are just a few of the international awards that Flinders alumna Kirsty Stark (DipLang ’07, BCreatArts (Screen Production)(Hons) ’09) has won for the hit children’s series “First Day”.
First Day is about a transgender girl who’s starting high school and presenting as her authentic self in public for the first time. “For us, First Day was always about trying to create opportunities for trans kids to see themselves on screen and for all kids to recognise what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. We never expected awards, we never expected international recognition”, Kirsty tells us.
After the initial four episodes, Season 2 of the hit series has just been released on ABC iview. “Season 1 tells a lot of Hannah’s story, but we didn’t want to just end it at a point where she’d come out at school. We wanted to show what day-to-day life is like for a trans kid. Coming out is just one moment in someone’s life. To be able to explore that further has meant a lot. It’s something we’re really proud of, and we’re really glad to have released a second season.”
“In the film industry, everything really comes down to networking, entrepreneurship, and the ability to put yourself out there and create opportunities for yourself. There’s no job board where you can submit your resume and hopefully get a job, you have to create those opportunities for yourself. First Day started with Sydney based director Julie Kalceff and me getting together, talking about the idea and then putting a funding application together.
“She and I first met at an industry conference, we were both making web series at the same time. Over a couple of years, we got to know each other before she presented me with a one-page idea for First Day. We both really resonated with the potential to tell such an important story for children’s television and make an impact in the world.” The rest is history.
Laying the foundation for her career
Kirsty can’t pinpoint the moment at which she decided she wanted to have a career in film. “In high school, we had a home video camera and I used to make short little films with my friends and capture experiences for my friend who lived in Sydney, but never really anticipated that it would lead to a career or that that was even possible. But at some point, I knew I was going to come to uni and study film.”
At Flinders, Kirsty completed a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Screen Production) (Hons) – now Bachelor of Creative Arts (Screen) – and a Diploma in Language in Spanish. “I chose Flinders because, at the time, it seemed to be the only university that had a really practical film-focused course. When it comes to Spanish, I used to travel a lot and spent a year in Colorado in high school on a student exchange. A lot of the students there spoke Spanish as it was in an area with a lot of kids from Hispanic backgrounds. So, I started picking up bits and pieces there and wanted to keep learning. And then I ended up travelling through South America for six weeks.”
Without fully understanding what the opportunities in film were, Kirsty came to Flinders expecting to be a director because that was the only role that she had ever heard of. “Throughout my time at Flinders, I tried a whole range of different skills and ended up leaving having specialised in cinematography.”
Kirsty fondly looks back on the lecturers who taught her. One of her favourites was the late Cole Larsen, who still leaves a mark with the Hanlon Larsen Screen Fellowship that was established as a tribute to his life’s work. But other academics also had an impact. “There was a great range of lecturers. From day one when coming to the careers fair, I was met with this giant red Afro – Dr Nick Prescott. He ended up being one of my theory teachers in my first-year screen topics. I could tell from that first moment that I was going to learn a lot. And being green, I had a lot to learn.”
“What all of my lecturers offered was a great balance of screen practice and theory. I was more interested in the making side of things but they really got across the essence of why specific choices were made on-screen, reading into motivations beyond what was at face value and what an audience might take away from a film. Now, as a producer, I work with writers and directors on their pitches and scripts and have to recognise those elements myself. That was part of the groundwork that came from Flinders.”
The degree covered both theory and practical aspects of filmmaking. “One half was around film language and telling stories on screen. The other half was actually going out and making projects whether they were documentaries, corporate videos, or short films.”
Stepping out into the industry
During her honours year, Kirsty then completed a placement in the camera department of a low budget feature film that was being shot in Adelaide at the time. “That was my first credit on a film outside of Flinders. It was a good stepping stone to where I wanted to be. The benefit was that a lot of the camera department had just finished working on ‘McLeod’s Daughters’. So in terms of really understanding the skills involved in the job, I learned a huge amount through that placement.
“I worked as a camera assistant and did anything that was required, whether it was charging batteries to changing tapes or setting up tripods. We were working long hours and I wasn’t getting paid a cent but for me, I had stars in my eyes. I loved being on set, loved the whole world. I had an amazing time and was lucky to be learning from some really experienced people.”
For the first 5 years of her career, Kirsty worked in camera departments as a camera assistant. She had the opportunity to work on international productions as well as visit film sets overseas. Those two diverse sets of experiences solidified for her that it was possible to do anything from Adelaide and have it compete on a world stage. “I think I knew that in theory, but it wasn’t until I actually managed to carry out a project from start to finish myself and see that recognition come back that it really hit home that South Australia is a place where we do world-class work and have a world-class filmmaking community.”
What does a typical day in the life of a producer look like?
The short answer: there is no average day. “What I do across the day really depends on what I’m doing at the time. There are various stages to the production cycle, whether that be developing a concept, going out and pitching it, putting the finance plan together and reviewing all the contracting and legal work or, when heading into pre-production, casting and crewing, shooting the actual project, and then at the end, delivering it through post-production and putting together the strategy for marketing and release. So, it really varies depending on where I’m at in that cycle. But on a general day-to-day, it’s me sitting down looking at what needs to be done next, putting a strategy together, supporting the key creative team and then managing everything that goes on to ensure that it all gets delivered on time and on budget.”
What appeals to Kirsty the most in her role as a producer is the fact that she has choices and some control over the types of stories that get seen in the world. “I get to work with creatives and help them think about what is important to them? What’s their voice? What are their values? What story are they passionate about? I then take the big picture of that conversation and distil it down to its essence and build a creative and business structure around it to see their project through to the end. To me, it’s just incredibly satisfying when a plan works.”
Being a producer requires a broad level of understanding of the industry to be able to bring all these components together. As a producer, it’s important to have not only a strong creative sense but also a strong business plan around it. Kirsty opted for a different role in university as she felt she was missing out on all the creative fun. “It was only once I left university that I realised what a strategic and entrepreneurial role producing actually is. It’s hard to teach.
“I think what can be taught, though, is a toolbox or a process of questioning – of how to think, how to solve problems, how to be entrepreneurial, and then all of those elements can be applied to film and to the processes that you’re working on. A lot of that initially for me was through trial and error. But as soon as I realised I didn’t know something, I would go and seek out that information, whether it was through mentors, advisors, books or from different industries, and put it all together.
“I love the Steve Jobs quote that “You can’t connect the dots looking forwards. You can only connect them looking backwards”. The people, experiences and classmates that I had at Flinders have all come back and intersected with my career across different points. I still go to industry events, look around the room and see Flinders graduates and we’ll talk about what we’re doing and reminisce about the good old days of making student films in the mud, in the forest, in the rain.”
Supporting the next generation of filmmakers at Flinders
As an alumna, Kirsty is still heavily involved with Flinders’ Screen degree. “Almost every year I’ve managed to make it back and see the honours graduate screening and watch all of the work of the current cohort of students. I’ve also been involved in mentoring sessions, guest lectures, industry panels for graduates and assessment panels for honours students. I really love helping pass some of that knowledge down to the next generation of filmmakers. I’ve had some Flinders interns come in to work at Epic Films on particular projects as well.
“What I love about film school is the opportunity to make whatever your voice speaks to. Once you get out into the industry, often the work that you see is filtered down through multiple parties, whether expectations from a particular market opportunity or a funding source whereas in film school, all of the work exists because someone cares about it. It’s something that means something to them and so you see a really eclectic bunch of films. It’s always a joy to come back and see what’s in the minds of students each year.”
Start your Screen career at Flinders
“New players are coming into the educational space all the time but Flinders has a history as a really solid foundational teaching institution. I think it’s very easy to have the tools, cameras and ideas but it’s not necessarily easy to develop those into something that will work out in the industry. The ability to study at an institution like Flinders where you meet future collaborators and can test your ideas in an environment where you’re constantly getting feedback is really important. It’s like a safe launching pad to take off and begin your career.”