DShed: Past, Present & Future

Dick Penny, Watershed's Managing Director, discusses how DShed began, what it has achieved so far and where it might be heading next.
Dick Penny, Watershed Managing Director
Dick Penny
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Dick Penny Managing Director

on Mon 16 Nov 2009

DShed.net, Watershed’s online showcase that presents the city’s multifarious digital creativity to the world, was born ten years ago – right at the vanguard of the broadband revolution. A decade on, the website is undergoing a radical revamp to produce a richer and more involving experience for visitors. The move has come about thanks in part to funding from the Arts Council England programme Thrive, which motivated the site’s creators to examine whether DShed was servicing its content as best it could. This is a crucial question, given that just over 50% of Watershed’s turnover as a whole comes from work of a digital nature. But just how did DShed begin, what has it achieved so far and where might it be heading next?

It all began with an advent calendar…

The Experiment at the end of the Millennium

Appropriately, DShed was born out of an experiment to discover the infinite possibilities of the digital revolution. Flashback to 1999: Watershed Managing Director Dick Penny is approached by Professor David May, head of Computer Science at Bristol University. May was launching a project to explore how the media industry would harness the (still box-fresh) broadband technology.

“David had spotted that there was a lot of fibre in the ground [the new broadband cables] and that people didn’t really know what it was there for. This was ten years ago, after all! He wanted to explore its applications, and he chose to focus on the media industry because he believed that they were going to need digital technology – after all, moving images require a lot of capacity. David saw it as a great place to experiment and see what people would do with the high bandwidth capacity that was just coming on stream at the time.”

May was given a three-year loan of seventeen connections, all connecting to a hub back at the University. He asked seventeen media companies (Watershed included) to join in the experiment, simply by hooking up to the network and seeing what they could do with it.

“We went overnight from a 64k [kilobits per second], ISDN dial-up to 155Mb [megabits per second] of dedicated fibre,” Dick recalls. The change, he says, was “mind-boggling”. Suddenly, Watershed had acres of digital space to play with. “We were hunting around the Internet, just hoovering up data. We found a few high-quality moving image pieces out there and imported them – and they all came in in real time! “

“At that moment we realised that the Internet and digital transmission were going to change the world, and we decided then and there that we were going to tell everyone all about it.” It was the moment, Dick says, that moved Watershed on from being a well-liked film and photography centre, “into this new thing called a ‘media centre’ – which was what we were set up to be in the first place, but until that point no one knew quite what it meant! It was an extraordinary revelation.”

Exploring Planet Digital

The next step was clearly to get others on board to use these new digital tools – and to try to embed some world-leading digital expertise in Bristol. The city was, after all, at the head of developments in technology (cutting-edge companies Hewlett-Packard and ST Microelectronics both have Research & Development centres here), while its (thus far analogue) media scene, from Aardman and the BBC Natural History Unit via theatre and art to a world-famous music scene, was rightly famous. But how to set about harnessing this talent?

“There we were in 1999, with this big fat broadband pipe, thinking, ‘what are we going to do with this?’” Dick recalls. “We needed to find out if more people out there shared our excitement – after all, it’s no good starting a revolution if you’re the only participants! That’s the conundrum of the Internet – you need everyone engaged, otherwise it’s useless.” Let’s not forget that, back in ’99, the World Wide Web was still fairly new territory. It had been around in some form since 1992 – but there was still very little moving-image content on there.

First step: Electric December

In 1999, at the same time as their connection to the ‘big fat pipe’, Watershed had launched their first digital commissioning scheme with support from the Clark Family Trust – which later became the Clark Bursary, an annual artist’s grant for creative development in digital media. The two developments seemed to offer some obvious synergy.

“I remember we were all sat there in the office, thinking, ‘OK, we’re on this voyage of discovery now, where are we going to go? How are we going to get more people engaged?’ Which is when Derrick [Price, Watershed Chair] threw in the idea of an online advent calendar.”

A leftfield idea but, it turned out, a brilliant one. Here was a space everyone could understand and enjoy, with a new surprise (or chocolate, if you’re lucky) to be unwrapped each day. Watershed could simply ask someone different to create each day’s digital ‘chocolate’ – a small piece of digital content, be it an image or a very short film – a traditional ‘wrapper’, as Dick puts it, in which to present people with this new technology and learn the new digital tools.

“We just wanted to engage people with this new medium and its creative possibilities, and share the results. It wasn’t so much about selling the chocolates, as getting people to learn how to make the chocolates themselves.”

And so Dick and his team contacted a range of people across the city and invited them to come on board.

“We met with a range of responses, from enthusiasm to blank stares. But the crucial moment was when Dave Sproxton [co-founder, Aardman Animations] said ‘sounds fun, we’ll have a go’. From that point on, lots of other people got involved. And it was hard work – these were tiny bits of media, short films, little interactive pieces, but people were making them for a medium that they still didn’t understand.”

The first Electric December featured digital submissions from across Bristol – from household names like Aardman and the BBC to local schools, artists and community groups. Henbury School, City of Bristol College and the Children’s Hospital each took on a window, as did Arnolfini, Spike Island and Bristol Old Vic: December 27 featured a 60-second improv piece in sound and vision from Bristol’s world-famous jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Hang on – December 27? Indeed: as a countdown/homage to the new millennium, that first Electric December featured not 24 but 31 windows.

And, basically, it worked. Well…

“For lots of people it didn’t work – it crashed people’s home connections, which were still very slow in those days, a matter of kilobytes per second. But what shocked us was the range of different approaches that people took, and the range of collaborations they developed to learn these new skills. That was very exciting – we felt we had a real role to play in getting people to join up and share skills, to give Bristol some real competitive advantage and to enfranchise many more creative voices in the city.”

December revisited

The success of that very first ED was the spur for Dick and co. to plan a more permanent space for digital experimentation.

“It showed us the full potential of digital media, and we then started to look at other ways of connecting different people and sharing knowledge. And, critically, publishing the outcomes of these experiments so as to show others: ‘this is what we’re learning, get involved!’ The truth is that we started publishing content almost by accident, because we got so excited by this new connectivity.”

There were many more avenues to be followed soon: first, though, they decided to revisit the online advent calendar the following year.

“The second time around we thought, ‘let’s get more young people involved, let’s get these skills transferred onto them so that they can start playing around’. People were catching on to the new digital skills quickly - Atom Films [short films and animations website, founded 1998] was already one of the key places to get your films out there.”

So, for the 2000 calendar the Watershed team visited schools, passing on the skills they’d learned, and also commissioned more artists locally.

Meanwhile, internet connection speeds were growing. Watershed designed its 2000 calendar to suit these faster speeds – many windows had short films and/or required the latest ‘plug-in’ software.

“Oh my God, what a mistake that was!” Dick laughs. “The previous year we’d asked contributors to keep it tight, and send in only small pieces of content. In 2000, we just let them do what they wanted. Everybody complained like mad – ‘couldn’t get it’, ‘crashed my computer’. Chaos – but we made some great work.”

Sonic youth

And, every Advent since then, Electric December has blossomed online.

“Several times we’ve said to ourselves, ‘we cannot refresh this idea. It was brilliant – but it has run its course’. But each year, so many fresh people have banged on our door wanting to do it, that we’ve just thought, ‘OK –better do it again!”

A few years into the project, Dick and co. also noticed that their practice of bringing together professionals and young people, for the former to provide the latter with the skills to make content, was fast becoming out of date.

“The explosion in digital technology and accessibility meant that young people were now just doing it themselves – in fact they often had things to teach us. So we thought, why not turn it on its head and put the young people in charge as curators.”

The effect was to radically expand Electric December’s sourcing network. Whereas before the online ‘presents’ had come from artists and groups within Bristol, under the young people’s auspices the calendar began accepting contributions from elsewhere in the UK. These days, ED is a pan-European piece of work. The 2009 calendar is a partnership between kids working with DShed’s sister outfit eShed and young people from Vilnius, 2009’s Capital of Culture. The calendar has also been commended by 2008’s European Year of Intercultural Dialogue: the Bristol team are in regular dialogue and visits with other youth and creative groups across Europe, and recent Electric Decembers have featured work from France, Poland, Spain, Germany and elsewhere.

The birth of DShed

Back to 2001, though, and by now Dick and his team were realising that this growing content needed to be housed on a website of its own.

“At the time it was just hanging off the end of our Watershed ‘what’s on’ site. We needed a dedicated site to publish all this creative work.”

But what to call it? Watershed Online didn’t seem right, as most of the work on there was being made by others – Watershed was contributing commissioning money, expertise and connections, but the work was other people’s. It needed to be a neutral space, though still alongside and connected to Watershed. Thus was DShed.net – literally, a digital network parented by Watershed - born.

DepicT!

Another DShed cornerstone, DepicT! short film competition runs alongside Electric December as one of Watershed’s pioneering digital projects. The competition, which challenges you to make a super-short film under 90 seconds long, was launched in 1998, originally as a short storyboard competition – but, with the new digital tools becoming increasingly accessible DepicT! soon became a short filmmaking competition. DepicT! is now established as a major international online short-film competition attracting new talent and content from across the word and is also part of the annual Encounters Short Film Festival.

DepicT! aims to uncover distinctive voices and new talent in emerging filmmakers from across the globe and to offer them a prime industry window at Encounters International Short Film Festival and beyond. There have been many success stories over the years, shortlisted titles going on to be screened across the UK and at international festivals across the world; titles bought by distributors/content providers and clear progression routes for filmmakers to develop their craft.  DepicT! ’09 received 340 entries from 39 countries. DepicT! filmmakers Joseph Pierce and Matthew Walker were both named as two of Screen International's UK ‘Stars of Tomorrow’. Joseph's films Big on Love and State of Nature were shortlisted in 2006 and 2007 respectively, while Matthew's film Operator was the 2008 DepicT! winner.    

Where Electric December’s focus is on handing over the controls to young people, DepicT! is about nurturing emerging talent in digital filmmaking. Entries down the years have been colourful, eclectic – and at times fearsomely hard to judge. Dick recalls the 2004 competition, which threw up a battle royale between the judges.

“Judging the overall winner came down to two very different entries. ‘Non-Fat’ was a short film, shot on security camera in a coffee shop: funny but violent, with quite a difficult ending. It was up against this beautiful, poetic piece of animation – a work of art, really – called ‘Six Goats’. There was so little to separate them that we ended up awarding both first prize.”

2001 and beyond: Shed extension

Electric December and Depict! have been Watershed’s longest-running digital projects – but, in the eight years of DShed’s existence, they have been joined by all manner of other content, with the media centre continuing to run new projects (always with an onus on skills development), to generate and publish work and to collaborate on ever more projects with community groups and schools.

In fact, when DShed was created in 2001, it was clear that the site needed to be about more than simply showcasing the latest project: it also needed to publicise the hinterland of each project, how it had developed, what had been learned and what might come next. To build up, in effect, what Dick calls a “repository of experience.”

“We were amassing so much knowledge and experience that we needed a map of where we had got to thus far. So for instance, when we commissioned artists to produce some content, we’d insist that they also wrote a diary, and did a public demonstration at Watershed that we would record and post on the site. The aim was to build up a bank of content that isn’t just entertainment, but also education and comment – to create a history of ten years of extraordinary development.”

“What started as a journey into the unknown, began to develop into a series of histories and references. We began by showing the results of a few development projects – but DShed has grown into a very rich cultural repository.”

And, of course, as the resource itself has grown, the numbers of people accessing it, and the amount they use it for, have grown too.

“The biggest thing we were learning was that more and more people wanted to engage with digital.”

View from the Pavilion

Another key DShed project is Electric Pavilion, an umbrella site for a whole raft of creative content – films, animations, stories, games and music – made by Bristolians about their city, and created in 2005 using funds awarded for Bristol’s runner-up spot in the 2008 Capital of Culture bid.

“Electric Pavilion is still one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved with,” Dick enthuses. “It has brought together so many different voices in the city, and given us a real sense of how we represent Bristol. The sheer range of content it has created is enormous.”

One of the Pavilion’s main strands was Bristol Stories, an online collection of digital stories – short films, photomontages made by Bristolians about their city. The biggest virtue of this kind of project, says Dick, is the voice it gives to anyone who wishes to be heard.

“What’s so exciting about the Internet is the way it has disrupted historic power structures. Too many people in our communities have been either underrepresented or simply misrepresented by traditional media, because they don’t have the means to make themselves heard. But if you can give those people the means of production and publishing, if you can say to them, ‘here are the tools, here’s the know-how, make a film and say what you want to say about your life and we’ll publish it’: well, that has so many advantages. People feel more engaged and valued, which makes them more aspirational; and, critically, their input adds to the general pool of ideas and experiences, helping us all to come up with something fresh. That’s what being human is about – sharing and learning cultural references and behaviours.”

“Go to www.bristolstories.org and you can search for stories by type, author or location within Bristol. “It’s a very simple format which mostly uses the assets people already have – using their photo collection to construct a story, for instance. It required very little in terms of technical skills; the thinking that’s required is all about what story you really want to tell.”

DShed: towards the future

During the ten years since that first Electric December emerged blinking onto the ether, the Internet has changed fundamentally in terms of its sheer size, amount of traffic, and variety and quality of experience. And what Electric December and DepicT! were doing has ceased to be groundbreaking.

“In 1999, being able to publish and show multimedia material, especially without having to pay or negotiate a load of adverts, was pretty unusual. Of course it’s not anymore: the wealth of material on YouTube alone now is extraordinary, and there are so many alternative ways for people to exhibit their films – Vimeo, Facebook, even building your own website. So we did begin to think, ‘OK, we’ve been on a great journey, done some interesting stuff, made an interesting footnote in the history of digital creativity’. Is there anywhere we can still go with this? But then we noticed that our traffic was still going up, and that people were still wanting to publish with us.”

Indeed. Since 2007 the DShed team have conducted extensive research with the site’s users, contributors and other artists and film producers, to try to understand the site’s chief value.

“We’ve learned that it’s partly the Watershed brand, and the physical links to Bristol and its area. We’ve always said that the site is about people from our area, people we’ve worked with, people who contribute to the Bristol ‘ecosystem’. Our aim now is to make DShed a more valuable resource for creatives in Bristol and a better representation of creativity in this city.”

DShed reborn -  Film, debate, discussion: an online arts centre

And so, DShed.net is being given a facelift. It’s moving from what Dick terms “a slightly over-full repository of projects” into a living cultural space with an editorial voice seeking to put the work into a wider, meaningful context.

Will all of this make it a more user-friendly space? “We will find out. We will launch it and then we’ll ask people: ‘what do you think? Is it useful? What else should it do?’ We’ve understood that simply publishing and showcasing the latest project doesn’t get all the value from it – that there is huge value in all the work that has gone before.“

This is only the beginning for the new DShed, the team have ambitions to continue the development in order to experiment with other forms of presentation: maybe you’ll find a different guest each week choosing a personal selection of their favourite shorts, creating a series of personalised journeys. And, in the future It will cater for visitors wanting to plumb it at various depths, from idle curiosity to rigorous research.

“We will have a constant selection for people who just want to surf the site and consume a few little pieces – but for visitors who want to get more stuck in, there will be different routes in.” Interactivity will also feature: “If you want to impart some thoughts or wisdom on what you’ve seen, you will be able to go ahead and impart it on the site.”

In its current form as well as improving the way that the existing content is showcased, the DShed team also hopes to publish relevant articles, more recordings of talks at Watershed and relate the content with current programme highlights where relevant. Which leads us to a key aim of the new DShed – for its wealth of material to be not just entertaining but educational.