How Green-Screen Shoots, Image Composites and Animated Game Shows Help Sell Visual Concepts in a Thriving Market
When industry pundits talk “peak TV,” they’re usually referring to the explosion of scripted content across channels and platforms that hadn’t typically aired scripted shows before. But unscripted formats, like game shows, are seeing a boost in production as well — and it can be just as hard, if not harder, to visualize the setting of a game show based on a mere concept rather than a completed script.
That’s where the virtual pilot, a sales tool championed by Santa Monica’s Sideshow Studios, comes into play. It’s a way to allow stakeholders to clearly imagine the look of a finished program before they’ve ordered it to production, and a way to flesh out lucrative concepts for content-hungry dealmakers.
“Ultimate Beastmaster has just launched on Netflix and straight into 10 countries at once, and that’s kind of the best case,” Sideshow Studios co-founder and Executive Director Peter Bailey tells StudioDaily. “We didn’t work on that, but to be able to sell that show to that network at that scale? Unscripted formats are always bubbling up underneath the surface, and a lot of them are being created at the moment. Everyone is looking for more content.”
OK, Extreme Musical Chairs … But What Does It Look Like?
The early project that got Sideshow interested in developing the virtual pilot concept was Oh Sit!, produced by 405 Productions and The Gurin Company for The CW in 2012. Oh Sit! was pitched as a kind of ultimate musical-chairs competition featuring 12 contestants racing through obstacle courses in five elimination rounds.
“They wanted do the show on a huge scale,” Bailey recalls. “When it comes to pitching, you have a short period of time and you have to communicate extremely efficiently to people who can’t see the vision in your head. We decided to get involved in this particular show because of the amount of work that was needed [to do that] and their limited budget. So we took on a partnership with them to make this show into what it became.”
Sideshow developed a three-minute animated sizzle reel for Oh Sit! that depicted the exact layout of the set and its obstacle course, which were an important part of the show concept. “That three-minute sizzle was shown to The CW and sold in a day,” Bailey says. “It was the fastest pitch to sale that [co-producers] 405 Productions and The Gurin Company had ever come across. It was very lucky timing — [the network was] looking for a summer replacement show, and this ticked all the boxes. But the ability to have that three-minute sizzle reel was what enabled them to take the show up the chain and present it to however many layers of people to [CW President] Marc Pedowicz, who understood it straight away. It’s a very easy decision to make once you’ve seen something like that.”
SInce that first success story, Sideshow has created virtual pilots for shows including a Twister concept for Mattel, SNAP! for The Tornante Co. and Sinclair Media, and QuizUp America for Apploff Entertainment and NBC.
Bailey says there are three different ways to make a virtual pilot. One is to shoot live-action performers against a green screen, later compositing them into set design created in Autodesk 3ds max. A second strategy, which might be appropriate for highly elaborate sets, uses still photographs rather than live-action footage to make composites showing performers in the CG set. Finally, a fully animated pilot, including audio, can be created to show the interaction between hosts and contestants and the set.
A virtual pilot usually runs a minimum of six to eight minutes, Bailey says, but notes that Sideshow has recently committed pilots closer to 20 minutes in length. But even then, he says, it pays to cut a shorter five-to-six-minute version of the full pilot. “Not everyone is going to sit through a half-hour or 20-minute pilot.”
Second Screens … and Spherical Screens
Sideshow has been making virtual pilots for years, but has only recently started promoting the service, noting the increase in opportunities offered by both the increased demand for TV-style content as well as the emergence of new types of unscripted programming. “We very much believe in the second-screen type of show,” he says. “That’s a TV- and internet-based show where there’s a meeting of both, so it’s not purely a game show delivered either streaming or on TV, but with more live interaction, which has always been a problem in the U.S. because of time zones.”
And Bailey sees implications in the current 360-degree video and VR renaissance. “We can obviously put a 360-degree camera into these 3D environments, allowing a viewer to experience the set design of a show in VR 360,” he explains. “We are bidding on a show for someone who wants to be able to put the producers on the stage floors where the contestants and host are going to be, with an object that is the center of the show. With VR and 360, we can do that — and that has raised a lot of eyebrows.”
Asked whether that means we could see new game shows that are designed to be experienced by viewers in 360 video, from a vantage point inside the show itself, Bailey demurs, calling that kind of show “a very different animal.” For now, Sideshow is using 360 specifically for pitching shows, especially in cases where it’s difficult to imagine how a physical location will be modified to allow a specific production to take place.
“I have friends in scripted dramas and sitcoms who say this woudl be an incredibly powerful tool for an international production,” he says, saving them the time and expense of making changes to a set once the entire crew has arrived to check out the location. “Everybody could sit down with their producers and directors at the same time and realize, ‘Well, we need a camera here, but there’s a wall in the way’ before everyone turns up on set.”
Maybe one day this style of previsualization will become de rigeur for any new program concept, but for now, Bailey says, Sideshow’s approach favors quality over quantity. “We don’t churn out tons of sizzle reels to go out and pitch,” he says. “We prefer to come up with very interesting ideas and work on them in a very selective way. That’s why people keep coming back to us — we understand the nuances of game shows and reality competitions, and we haev the technical ability to produce effective marketing and sales tools for them.”
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