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Community Spotlight: NSFTV’s quest for storytelling in Singapore

Posted 12 months ago Written by SINGAPORE COMMUNITY RADIO
Photo credit The Hummingbird Co.

Community Spotlight is an ongoing editorial series by Singapore Community Radio to feature the creative minds behind some of our shows.

They’re famously known as an “online visual magazine for experimental video content”, but it barely touches upon the work done by Not Safe For TV (NSFTV).

A glance over their YouTube page gives a brief glimpse into the kind of stories they tell — from the fictionalized tales of four schoolgirls navigating the treacherous waters of teenagehood, to the real-world insights into singular figures from all over Southeast Asia.

The latter series, compiling brisk shorts under the title UNDONE, profiles a Filipino restauranteur who serves “mood healing food”, along with independent designers paving a new way forward for fashion.

living in SIN — which they aired as part of their SGCR debut Say Reel last month — took them out to the streets and beyond to tell the stories of Singaporean rappers, visual artist Sam Lo, and notorious felon Roland Tan.

That still leaves out the several tales that they’ve accomplished in just over a year.

Beginning with One Take, a coming-of-age chronicle of the lives of three Singaporean youths over ten years, NSFTV took it upon themselves to tweak the viewing experience for an online audience, adding a Spotify playlist for each character.

Fast forward to our pandemic year and the team had already accomplished a full series for Instagram Stories, filmed entirely over Zoom.

At the heart of their content is a consistent drive to tell Singaporean stories, especially narratives that haven’t gotten as much time in the mainstream spotlight.

Or, as they articulate it, to focus on “the overlooked nuances hidden beneath these issues” and develop “narratives that help to shed light on that.”

Their output and dedication to the craft were what drew us early on, and we had the chance to ask the team — creative leads Tan Hui Er and Ben Yeo, and business strategist Jerrell Chow — about looking beyond “COVID-friendly” content, handling pressure, and why empathy is important in the creative process.

We also spent some time with them on The Potluck Club with a freewheeling discussion helmed by SGCR producer Hwee En. Read below and tune in.

In short, tell us how NSFTV came to be!

Not Safe For TV first started with a creative idea between Hui Er and Ben, which turned into a potential passion project, which then turned into NSFTV’s very first web series One Take.

We’ve said the spiel many times: One Take was a fictional drama series featuring three young individuals over nine episodes, all done in single takes.

But more than just its filmmaking approach, we wanted to use these One Take characters and their stories to shed light on some of the unseen and unheard social issues that all of us modern youth deal with. This eventually set the foundations for the channel.

Once we had that defining trait, we guess you could say that the rest of it fell into place.

Your output has been incredibly consistent over the past year! Did the circuit breaker period change plans for the NSFTV team?

Definitely. In January, we had this whole content calendar planned out across 12 months which now looks nothing like what we’ve actually put out haha. But it’s 2020, so what’s new right?

With everyone scrambling to make “COVID-friendly” content (i.e. within new limitations), we felt the urgency to find our place in the content landscape as well.

Filming had always been the essence of what we do. So when we weren’t able to do that anymore, we were forced to reframe the way we approached stories and even reexamine the word “experimental” that we so often used to describe ourselves.

We ended up trying a whole bunch of stuff — from stock footage and animation pieces to even narratives directed and filmed over zoom.

To be honest, some things worked, while others didn’t. But gradually, we realised that beyond just finding formats that were “COVID-friendly”, what became more important for us was the tone and stories that we told.

One piece of content that was really well-received was An Instagram (Love) Story, an Instagram Story fictional mini-series that was completely filmed over zoom about a Singaporean-Malaysian couple separated by the lockdowns.

We were all pretty shocked at how well received it was. On hindsight, it was probably because it carried that sense of authenticity that all of us were looking for while in our homes, and the intrinsic desire for these personal struggles to be articulated through narratives.

Has the constant content churn from different platforms affected the way you approach your releases?

We’d be lying if we said we’ve never felt that pressure to constantly churn out content as well.

Looking at how fast other content creators jump on social issues and current affairs, it’s impressive. We used to really feel that pressure to push stuff out and for viewers to continually think of and engage with us.

Over time, that’s changed a little bit. Earlier this year, one of our friends outside of the content scene made a casual mention of how NSFTV’s brand and style felt different — in the sense that our works were a little more polished and that it usually added value by offering a different perspective.

Of course, we’ve always had these aims but it did help us to articulate the space that we wanted to occupy: by looking at the overlooked nuances hidden beneath these issues and developing/highlighting narratives that help to shed light on that.

And, in most of these instances, you need more time than the average content creator can afford. But for us, it goes back to having a voice and more importantly, knowing when to use it (or not to).

“…we realised that beyond just finding formats that were “COVID-friendly”, what became more important for us was the tone and stories that we told.”

Share with us some of your own personal inspirations with approaching or developing stories! It can be in any form of media.

Hui Er: I think empathy. There are universal experiences/stories/themes that people cling onto that remind us we are human and make us feel less alone.

Ben: It used to be an “if it’s not fun to do, then do for what?” kinda mentality. But now it’s more along the lines of what people actually find fun in watching.

Jerrell: I’m not as involved in the creative process, but when it comes to things like brand development and content strategy, music actually helps me a ton.

It’s weird, but I have playlists like “NSFTV 2019” or “NSFTV 2020” that capture a certain approach or emotion that I hope for us to convey in that specific year or period. I guess it helps to keep me aligned with where we’re headed.

In clockwise order: Jerrell Chow, Tan Hui Er, Poh Yan Zhao, Ben Yeo. Photo by The Hummingbird Co.

The first series that you debuted under Say Reel is living in SIN, and it covers an array of stories and people that aren’t explored — at least to this degree — elsewhere. How did you first decide who to cover?

We started by asking ourselves what were some of the aspects of our city that weren’t normally covered in mainstream media.

Most Singaporeans would agree that our own experience of the city goes beyond MBS and our clean and green image. In fact, we might even challenge it. We wanted to cover specific individuals and communities that represented this alternative image — that which gave us a little more to get excited about as Singaporeans, and also to be proud of.

There was that sense of contrast that we wanted to convey — such as underground hip-hop against mainstream pop, local motorsports against F1 racing, etc.

Even for the profiles with higher recognition like SKL0 and Pann, we just tried to identify what perspective we could add to their current image. And most times, that meant going deeper into who they are as humans.

There’s a wonderfully delicate approach you take with your interviews that doesn’t feel restrictive. Were there any obstacles when developing the series?

Definitely. living in SIN probably had one of the longer runways in terms of production timeline, as compared to other micro-doc series that we’ve created. The biggest obstacle was probably having to really stretch that time, but we think it ultimately benefited the series.

The intimacy that you see with the profiles took time for each director to build — both in the sense of relationship and access, and that’s what tied most of the episodes up together.

Authenticity was important for us, and we tried to protect it as much as we could.

Tell us what is up next on Say Reel!

For the next two instalments on Say Reel, we’re excited to share our past original series — One Take and Girls Girls Girls.

Some of these characters are actually going to feature in our upcoming series which is dropping this December, so be sure to catch them first on Say Reel for some hints of what’s to come!

Catch the next segment of Say Reel on Singapore Community Radio on November 17th.

Follow NSFTV on Facebook and Instagram.