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Sideshow Studios on the virtues of the virtual pilot

In a time when industry competition is fierce and buyers are picky, dreaming up a unique concept is only half the battle for prodcos shopping their shows. The next crucial step ...
September 1, 2017

In a time when industry competition is fierce and buyers are picky, dreaming up a unique concept is only half the battle for prodcos shopping their shows.

The next crucial step involves making sure networks are presented with a clear visual of the series being proposed via the all-important sizzle reel. And with budgets being tight, the “virtual pilot” has gained momentum as the way to present elaborate, formattable series, such as game shows, in a cost-effective way.

Santa Monica-based Sideshow Studios has used this approach for projects from numerous networks and prodcos, using virtual production technology — a combination of animation, live action, and photo composite — to create game show pilots, social experiment reality programming and competition shows.

According to Peter Bailey, co-founder and executive producer of Sideshow, the primary advantage of the process is that prodcos forego the need to build physical sets for a pilot, but are still able to present high production values when showcasing their concepts.

Bailey says virtual pilots represent about 40% of his business, which was founded in 2004. The company provides a host of other services including design, visual FX, post production, audio and subtitles. But Bailey anticipates the virtual pilot business growing.

“[Virtual pilots] give people the best possible chance to sell success – it gives buyers the most detailed immersion [in] your format,” he says.

Bailey references shiny floor game show series such as The Wall and Candy Crush as the types of shows that could produce a virtual pilot before investing in expensive technology and equipment.

Sideshow alternates between using animation, live action, or photo composites to create its virtual pilots. In the case of the company’s most recent project, Snap Decision — a game show created by veteran producer Scott St. John for the Game Show Network — live action was the method of choice.

Snap speculates what you can tell about a person just by looking at them, with studio contestants asked to make snap judgements about three strangers, recently interviewed on the street.

“The production company specifically wanted a pilot featuring the host David Alan Grier,” Bailey explains. “In that case, it was important to see Grier improvise and allow him to do this thing.”

Sideshow placed Grier along with several other actors pretending to be contestants on a green screen, and created virtual replicas of the podiums, stage and screens that would be constructed if the pilot was given the green light.

St. John, whose executive producing credits include Match Game, Deal or No Deal and America’s Got Talent, says that while some of his shows have been picked up for pilots without any formal presentation, for series with complicated set pieces or constructs that are hard to describe on paper or in a room, the only way to sell it is to show it.

“For a show like Snap, it’s not like Jeopardy where the premise of the show is centered around the questions. I needed to prove that it would be an entertaining experience,” he says.

For Oh Sit! Sideshow created a 15-minute animated pilot for the original sizzle reel of the “extreme musical chairs” concept of the game, which aired on The CW. Pitches for a “Twister” concept for Mattel and QuizUp America for Apploff Entertainment and NBC also got the virtual treatment.

Coming up, Sideshow has developed an immersive 360 virtual reality service to add to its pre-production, production and post-production services package. And while details are yet to be revealed, the company recently completed a project with BBCWW using the technology.

“Virtual pilots help buyers understand the format or concept really quickly, and in the end, help a series rise above the noise,” says Bailey.

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