The Story Of Our Final Frontier


The Story Of Our Final Frontier

How The UN Made A Film To Challenge Gender Inequality

The message of ‘Equality: Our Final Frontier’, a new film for UN Women Australia directed by FINCH’s Jonny Kofoed, is simple: humans have, through their sheer ingenuity and determination, made the world a comfier, happier, and more expansive place. For some of us, at least. 

The film centres on a woman – really, any woman at all, for her experiences are sadly universal – as she moves through a futuristic society, experiencing age-old sexism in a world that is stridently modern. The film’s simple, urgent statement is thus: even as we continue to make huge strides in technological advancements, we still have a long way to go when it comes to true gender parity.

The statistics on the issue of women’s rights are grim. The official report from the UN puts equal access for women 135 years into our future. Though discussions relating to gender, sexuality, and bodies are more in the front of our collective consciousness than ever before, that has not yet translated into direct action.

We are stalling, and we are stalling in a way that draws glaring and painful attention to just how easy it could be for this problem to be fixed. As ‘Equality: Our Final Frontier’ shows, we can put a man on the moon. What we can’t do – not for lack of capacity, or financial resources – is make this planet, our one true home, a just and fair one.

Described by Kofoed as essentially being a “one-shot” film, the short plunges through a world replete with great developments in hardware and innovation, from a deliberately very phallic rocket ship, to a base established on the moon. It’s all rendered in a mix between live action footage and cutting-edge animation, a style that walks an elegant line between the real and the fantastical.

And yet even as a world made entirely by human hands flowers before our hero character, still she encounters problems that have beset women for time immemorial – the experience of being shut out of boardrooms, and made to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable on public transport. The point of the film is clear: these new gadgets and gizmos do a lot, but they are wallpaper slapped on a decaying wall until we sort the widespread and systemic exclusion of individuals based on their gender.

“You’re talking about colonizing mars; and colonizing the moon,” Kofoed says. “And yet there are still these ridiculous comments about beauty. You realise that the truth is stranger than fiction. You stop yourself, and you say, ‘That’s crazy. There’s so much going on, and yet this one thing can’t seem to be fixed.’”

When the brief for the film from The Monkeys landed on Kofoed’s desk, it was this simplicity that drew him to the project. “I loved the idea,” Kofoed explains. “The heart of the problem is the notion that we’re capable of great things, and if you glance into the future, there’s some pretty amazing things that are about to happen. But somehow, gender equality is still 135 years away. So that’s a pretty good starting point for an animation screenplay.”

Kofoed is talking over Zoom from his offices at Assembly, the animation and live action filmmaking collective that he co-founded. In the background, there are walls and walls of books, and a drumset, tucked away in the corner. It is, in fact, a nice reminder of one of the central themes of the film – a mix between the old, represented by the leather-bound volumes behind Kofoed’s head, and the newness of the grainy, digital window through which he is speaking.

This, indeed, has been part of Kofoed’s process for about as long as he has been working in the world of commercials. His understanding of technology is vast, but he has always balanced that technical skill with what he calls an emphasis on “soul.” Whether it be his work for Amnesty International or Women’s Refuge, he has never utilised mere technical trickery to tell his stories. He has always searched for a way that those gizmos can reveal something essential about us; about who we are, and what we want.

“For someone who works on computers all day, I don’t really like computers, and I don’t think they like me either,” Kofoed says, beanie on his head, silver ring on his finger, glimpsed when he becomes particularly animated, and begins to gesticulate. “We’re constantly trying to reject the digital world.”

Image: UN Women via Jonny Kofoed

From the beginning, ‘Equality: Our Final Frontier’ was conceived as an animation project, though initial conversations circled around the idea of bringing it to life in 2D. “​​I kind of felt like there was a real opportunity with animation with this project, because of the open-endedness in terms of creating a PSA,” Kofoed explains, “It was about not being held back from very specific casting, and the animation was going to make it very open-ended.”

The key, after all, was to ensure that this was not one person’s story, limiting in scope. There needed to be no barriers to entry for audiences. Women’s rights are a global issue, and though they take many different forms across cultures, the heart of the matter is always the same.

Even with this universal quality established as a central part of the film, the briefing was defined by that pressing question, which Kofoed brings up over the Zoom conversation himself – “why animation?” For Kofoed, the answer he kept returning to was simple. “Animation allows you to go places,” he says.

“A kitchen table shot is the same as a helicopter shot in animation land. They cost the same. We needed to walk down the street; we needed to go down a big escalator; and we also needed to fly to the moon. And those things with animation don’t have the same constraints. It’s all the same thing.”

Early discussions, during this briefing stage, used Matt Groening’s Futurama as a visual reference. Kofoed took that as an opportunity to explore a heightened world, but one with a deep grounding in the human condition. “That for me was a way of saying, ‘we’re talking about the future and about reality, but there’s something whimsical about it as well.’ It was interesting, in how we walked that tightrope of looking at the future in a surreal way, but keeping it relevant.”

In the early days of the project, Kofoed explored the idea of making the film a solitary walk through a timeline – a visual metaphor for the journey through the next hundred or so years, and how they can shape the battle for the rights of women. But over the course of that development, even as the central narrative thrust remained the same, the approach changed and altered. “Initially, there were dates all around her; she was literally walking through a timeline,” Kofoed says.

“And as we were working through it, we realised that there were certain things that we could weed out, and not be so heavy-handed. It was a really interesting process; pulling stuff out, and seeing if people are getting the right theme. Sometimes you have to pull yourself out of the individual shots, and realise that you’re constructing this very simple narrative.”

When production rolled around, Kofoed worked fast – the shoot for the live action footage lasted precisely one day. “It was a really small cast,” Kofoed explains. “We’ve got our hero, and we’ve got a couple of extras. So everything about the animation technique was driven by the fact that we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot it.”

That made the film more of what Kofoed calls a “design” or an “editing” job. He didn’t have the usual devices that storytellers can fall back on. The story itself was breathtakingly simple, the character more of a signifier than a flesh and blood human being. “It was quite pictorial,” he says. “A lot of the environment does a lot of the communication.”

Kofoed and his creative collaborators saw this story as a sadly lonely one. This is one woman, passing by herself through an overpopulated and oversaturated world that she cannot connect with; that has made no real space for her.

The film is, of course, a rallying cry for support, and it ends with a message of hope. This is not a journey that has to be taken alone. Indeed, any real structural change that will bring about a future in which everybody on the gender spectrum can take their own place at the table, will only happen thanks to a collective. But still, for Kofoed, it kept coming back to that one image – a body, moving through space.

“The film ends with her coming all this way, but there’s one thing missing,” he says. “So it’s simple, there aren’t many close-ups. And it’s important that it lands.”

Image: UN Women via Jonny Kofoed

One of the key moments in the film features the hero character sitting by herself on a train, her body shrouded in the whorling colours of animation. A faceless man – faceless in the way that the anonymised, controlling players of the patriarchy always are – sits next to her. She shuffles away. He shuffles towards her. It is a tiny, almost imperceptible exertion of the privilege and influence that men hold over women, summed up in two characters moving back and forth, as though in a sad dance. He feels safe. She does not.

“There was a good month where with that shot of the hero character on the train, it wasn’t coming across that this woman is really vulnerable,” Kofoed says of the moment. “And it was just about being able to use the green screen footage, and getting the man on the carriage to sit slightly closer. It’s like comedy editing, almost – you get one or two frames either side, work out where the ‘laugh’ is.”

It was the philosopher Miranda Fricker, a powerhouse of modern feminist thought, who gave a phrase to what is lacking from this kind of depressingly normal interaction; this dance. She called it “epistemic friction.” We are all of us in the bubbles of our own experience, tied to who we are as social players – I’m a man, and you’re a woman, so we move through the world differently. That’s just the way it goes. We are perceived differently, and we hold ourselves differently, and the world understands us differently.

But the problem becomes when there is no overlap between those bubbles. We are defined by the way that our gender is built and seen by society, and it is hard to imagine that changing. What we can do, is try and make ourselves usefully uncomfortable by encountering different ways of being in the world. We want to unsettle ourselves; to experience that friction Fricker describes. That’s a way of expanding our horizons, and better understanding how the people around us live.

The faceless man on the train has no friction. He sees the world as being made up of people who are, if not like him, then able to be pushed around and shaped by him. He doesn’t understand that there are any other ways that he could be, and he’s locked in a way of expressing himself that means that he can make someone feel uncomfortable without necessarily even understanding that he has made them uncomfortable.

In order to achieve gender parity, it’s that kind of useful friction that will help us. Men need to be unsettled – not in a damaging or destructive way, but in a way that helps them understand all the things that they cannot even see. Discrimination is a big, complex issue, and one that we need to work on constantly, in a multitude of different ways. If we remember to always search for the things that shake us up a bit, then we’ll see that brighter future much faster.

That, after all, is part of the power of ‘Equality: Our Final Frontier’, one that Kofoed acknowledges up top. A key element of the target audience for the film is those men who have perhaps forgotten, or need to be reminded, that there are other ways of being than their own. It’s Kofoed’s way of referencing what might have been the elephant in the room – this film is, in some ways, a woman’s story, and it’s being directed by a man.

“I’m part of the intended audience for this piece,” he says. “So that was quite interesting. And furthermore, as an employer, I have the potential to be part of the problem. So I’m working on a job and being educated at the same time.”

He takes a brief moment; reflects. “And also, as being the father of a daughter, I’m heavily invested in affecting the change as well. I think those are the best jobs, where you’re asking yourself, ‘what are you trying to say and who are you trying to say it to? And is it going to work? Is it going to affect behaviour?’ So it’s a personal project, in that respect.”

Image: UN Women via Jonny Kofoed

Appropriately, given the film is about the intersection between technology and the humanist project of making the world a better place – not to mention the problems that come when these two things pull apart – ‘Equality: Our Final Frontier’ uses cutting-edge technology to tell a very natural story.

To create the film’s polished final look, Kofoed and his team at Assembly deployed an AI process that applied a pre-established visual style to the footage that he shot in front of a greenscreen. The computer program was given its design inputs, and then it produced an output, one that overlaid a cohesive visual language on top of the very human movement of the actors that Kofoed shot.

According to Kofoed, this style is only going to become more popular as the years go on. “We’re seeing it more and more every month,” he said. This is art being made on the very frontiers of technology, and about those very frontiers, and what they lack.

It’s also meaningfully different from that prior technological advancement that mixes animation and live-action footage, rotoscoping. Whereas rotoscoping sees animation laid over shot footage “by hand”, which Kofoed calls “painstaking”, this new process was much simpler. “We just used the greenscreen – we had a 2D character we could drop into 3D scenes. We could re–light really quickly.”

In turn, this process allowed the post-production to move fast, and for the team to test out different ideas. One of the most dreaded words in the animator’s dictionary is “render” – the artform is hard going on computers, and requires a lot of processing time before anything approaching a finalised shot can be watched back. But Kofoed’s technology knocked render times out of the picture.

“With every shot we make, there’s probably ten in the bin that didn’t make it,” he says. “We like working that way.”

Image: UN Women via Jonny Kofoed

‘Equality: Our Final Frontier’ is a PSA. It is designed to change hearts and minds; to raise awareness of an issue that, thanks to powerful (and male) forces, has been allowed to languish in the shadows. But Kofoed and those who he worked with on the project across Assembly, FINCH and agency The Monkeys, never wanted to merely lecture. This was a film that had to be entertaining first; to engage in a way that saved it from being a dusty classroom lecture.

“We’re trying to be taken seriously, but also, we are competing for the same eyeballs as traditional advertising,” Kofoed explains. “And I guess with PSAs, you can’t just expect people to listen. You need to entertain. So just like with any short film, or a short story, it needs a good hook.”

That desire to joyously unsettle in the way that great entertainment always does began with an idea from The Monkeys to open with what Kofoed calls a “cock rocket” – that spaceship shaped like a male appendage that opens the short.

It was, the director says, about not giving the audience any opportunity to look away, and remained a principle throughout the making of the entire film. “We’re buying audience attention in ten second chunks,” Kofoed says, simply. “Luckily the future is very odd. So that’s where the entertainment was driven from.”

Precisely how the film gets taken up by audiences remains to be seen. But Kofoed is proud of the project, and understandably so. In particular, he likes the fact that it can fit any screen; be absorbed in any context. “It works on cinema screens, and it works on your phone,” he says. “It’s the same deliverable. It’s not an edited version. It’s the simplicity of the graphics, with enough texture there – it holds up.”

And anyway, the director has already shown the project to some of his most important critics – those who helped him make it. Throughout the process, he kept key people from both Assembly and FINCH from seeing the project, so that he could garner their input at just the right moment. “We’re quite strategic, knowing who gets to see it at work, knowing that there are only a few people who can see it fresh.”

Throughout, when he needed help, he brought the cut home and threw it on the telly so that his family could watch. As Kofoed says, the film can and should be watched anywhere. Its call for change and equality, supported by the UN, is universal, and should transcend culture and upbringing. But what an important viewing context that is – the home. It’s a message of hope, and a call for action, that meets people precisely, and intimately, where they live.