The history of Australia's democracy
for the Australian Electoral Commission

Each year around 90,000 students see this multimedia presentation at Old Parliament House in Canberra, as part of the award winning program run by the AEC’s National Electoral Education Centre.

Our job was to effect an almost total refresh of the existing, 14 minute long presentation, which was mostly created in the 1990s. It’s hard to convey how much we loved working on this project. It ticked pretty much every box when it comes to things we like: history, education, politics, research, a fantastic client, and some really interesting technical and creative challenges.

This is a bit wordier than our usual descriptions because unfortunately we can’t show you the project here. It consists of six separate but inter-related pieces of content that are shown on six synchronised screens in a bespoke theatre: a three metre x one metre screen, which is where most of the images below appear; two side screens flanking the main one; and below the main screen – inside a glass enclosed set – three TV screens a row, facing up and on an angle. More on that in a moment.

In terms of content, we wanted to start with a bit of orientation, showing the audience of mainly visitors to Canberra, where they were in relation to the Parliamentary Zone. So we opened with some aerials, shot by Rotorworks showing unusual views of Parliament House and the city, and importantly of the building the audience is in – Old Parliament House.

The aerials gave us a smooth transition to this shot of Mark, an Indigenous man, who introduces the narrative with an explanation of the long traditions of law making that existed within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for thousands of years before European settlement. In this frame, the camera is coming down to rest just before his piece to camera.

Mark’s segment ends with an aerial shot – the camera rising into the sky, which deepens in colour to become the backdrop for an animated timeline. This timeline continues throughout the main part of the show, highlighting key dates and milestones from 1789 to the lowering of the voting age in 1973.

We populated the timeline with primary sources, using Trove, working with the National Library of Australia, many State Libraries and collecting institutions, and the ABC’s archives – curating hundreds of images, documents, newspaper articles, footage, pieces of legislation and ephemera. Some appear and transition within image windows, others fill the screen as the timeline moves forward, and for some we applied a parallax effect.

We also wanted to include ‘real people’, providing a break in the narrated content to help the audience of mainly primary school students absorb and retain key points. Here are two of the five characters we cast and filmed, who appear on the two side screens – Trisha and Cole. This shot is a composite to fit them in this frame – in the theatre, this appears on three screens.

There was one key element from the original presentation we had to retain – the ‘peppers ghosts’ – created by the producers of the original presentation, Shirley Spectra.

Peppers Ghosts are like little holograms – think Princess Leia and R2D2 in the original Star Wars film. In this presentation, there are four characters: an early colonial Governor; Peter Lalor; South Australian campaigner for female suffrage, Mary Lee; and advocate for the introduction of the secret ballot, Samuel Henry Chapman. They appear as little people, around 20 centimetres high, within the set.

When we saw a school group view the original presentation, we could see why they had to stay. Everyone loved them, and they were a great way to create interaction between the main and side screens.

If, like us at the start of this project, you don’t know what they are, here’s how it works. The characters appear on the monitors below the main screen, which are facing up at an angle. In the correct lighting state and at the right angle, they reflect on the glass of the set and appear to be three-dimensional – walking up real steps in the set, casting a virtual vote in a real ballot box, and sitting in a real chair.

Throughout the presentation, they speak from the point of view of the historical figures – and occasionally the side screen characters, like Linda and Miranda here, react to what they’re saying.

As the narrative moved from the past and into the present, we wanted to focus on the outcome of voting – the people we elect to represent us. We came back to our aerials, showing the position of the House of Representatives and the Senate, adding match move image windows with footage of Parliamentarians supplied by Parliament House Broadcasting.