Monday, 21 April 2008

Nighttime tv

Many years after my adventures in daytime, I got to make shows for the opposite end of the schedule. Way back in 1999 C4 actually spent (a little) money on programming that ran all night. There were video game shows, clip programmes, docs and even a bit of comedy.

I went to pitch a cartoon video game show, having made a pilot by stitching bits together of other pilot programmes we'd put together over the past 6 months. I sent it in to this new guy at C4 and didn't think we'd have a hope in hell of being commissioned. Our stuff was fairly mainstream (as anything originally made for kids and 'aged up' would be) and the things on his channel were decidedly, er, weirdstream.

But I got a call. A "come in for a chat tomorrow"-style call from his PA. I got very excited, as it had looked like I'd have been out of a job in a couple of months as my company had burned through our start-up cash and not got a lot of work in. So I based my entire future on (a) a meeting with someone I'd never met before; (b) an unsuitable idea; and (c) a tiny weeny budget. I told my boss we'd get some work, his eyebrow arched so much it floated above his head cartoon-style, and I went back to refining my CV.

Next day I got to C4 and met the com.ed. I initally lost all hope. To add to (a), (b) and (c) above, he was (d) American; (e) from the then-new area of the internet; (f) very arty and educated and visually aware, and (g) even stranger in his tastes than his output.

I made my pitch for my video games show. He then said (h) he had already commissioned one, presented by three 'hot chicks' and then showed a bit to me. It was fine, cheap-looking but rude and outspoken. And the audience of geeks would love the predddy layydies. I thought to myself "well, that's it then".

But it wasn't. He liked the odd animation style we'd got. He wanted us to go off and think about interstitials that popped up for up to 2 minutes between the shows. He fancied something dark, edgy and 3D. Cutting edge. Weird. Scary. A "timeless place, like a motel somewhere between heaven and hell" he said.

A motel was a good location, I said, lots of strangers brought together somewhere they'd rather not be. He agreed and gave me a VHS of the interstitials they currently had running, a spectacularly surreal thing with a man and a woman in a virtual set jumpcut to bits so it made no sense.

He told me to come up with an idea. Oh, and that whatever I came up with had to be on air in seven weeks. Otherwise he wouldn't order it.


Three days later our idea went in. It shamelessly used any and every character we'd ever designed. Gay robots (robots = easy to do in CG). A swearing baby (came free with the system). A slightly redesigned lady dancer (the video games presenter made skinnier). A man in the shadows who ran the place (so we could reuse the footage with new voice every episode). A boring bloke who no-one liked, the only real 'customer' (designed as a starjumping newsreader for the kids' show). And a slug (used on a previous programme).

Concept-wise... well, it was arty and surreal and odd. One 30 second link a week was the baby walking in, saying "arse biscuits" then walking out. We proposed a spoof on Kurosawa and other high-falutin' concepts.

Mr Com. Ed. loved it. He wanted twelve minutes a week. In six weeks. I had 3.4 staff (one part-timer) and 4 computers. We couldn't get half that amount per week in footage.

Double gulp.

So I did what I do best - cobble together a way to make something work. Not necessarily something good but something of use. Everyone congregated in the motel bar every episode, in the same spots. We'd make 650 standard shots, of backs of heads, hands tapping, eye closeups, wide shots, top shots, a speaker vibrating, the man in the shadows from 20 different angles. Half each week's output was made with those.

Another 15% of the footage were beautiful motion-captured dances of the lady character, with the small benefit that they came free with the software we had.

The titles were long and elaborate, and used up another 10% of the airtime. So we only had to make a quarter of the actual amount of footage. Even this was a strain so we rendered everything half resolution, which had the odd effect of making it grainy, something 3D animation generally wasn't way back then.

We stumbled on air and got into a relentless routine, myself editing the week's stuff on a Sunday (on my own, struggling with shots that didn't work or were bugged). Creative-wise, the arty stuff was difficult and boring, but for week 2 we did a spoof of one of C4's own late-night shows, more Carry On than Kurosawa. Com. ed., despite himself, loved it.

So we got to do fart gags, bad language, gay robot sex and an Easter special with one of the characters dying and coming back to life. Evil twins turned up, the lady turned out to be a transexual, Diana Ross arrived, and the dead mum of the only customer popped up to haunt him. She was just his character in a wig. There was a smoking monkey, the slug talked backwards and Mr Lee, a Chinese cook, came along to cook with zombies. All this and Bingo MCQuenzie, a news reporter who'd pop up occasionally to recap what had just happened, the microphone in front of his mouth (ie one shot reused repeatedly) and clips of previous episodes used to illustrate it (ie free footage). All we did was change the spelling of his surname.

Please don't ask me to explain any of this.

It did well - we think, ratings weren't something late night did - and we couldn't spend all the money they were paying us as we had no staff and sort of cobbled it together ourselves. This made me v popular with my boss. We got our run lengthened and then recommissioned.

I remember one particular Sunday edit. It kinda defined the show for me. I sat and cut together a sequence of shots for a minute long episode. It consisted of the only customer going into a cubicle and having a wee. For a full minute. Just shots of the cubicle, his face, his feet. Nothing rude. And as we couldn't animate water, no wee either. All the time he was sighing in relief, but in a strange, trance-like, satisfied way, echoey in this public lav, with a very strong water-landing-in-a-loo weeing sound effect.

I sat back and realised I was probably the luckiest man in the world to be paid to do that.

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