It's a drama that feeds on reality TV. With two star actors and some fabulous new talent, we've given ITV1 an 8 x 60-minute drama series set behind the scenes of a prime-time music talent show.
Rock Rivals is pure drama, but it's also the name of the music show within the drama, and has an interactive element for the real - rather than fictional - audience. Last May, with a couple of scripts, no team, no cast, no base or locations, delivering it felt like a real challenge.
From Shed, the creator of Bad Girls and Footballers' Wives, the scripts were always going to be occasionally outrageous, and were a joy to work on. An audience needs to feel genuine emotion for its protagonists, and casting Michelle Collins and Sean Gallagher as the two warring judges was key. Their performances were an effortless dance between the comedy and moments of heart-wrenching emotion. Then, in the same way that TV talent shows create vivid stars, we deliberately cast unknown actors to play the wannabes: a real chance for new acting talent to emerge.
So in early July 2007, I landed in Dublin with 15 actors - some of whom had never set foot on a TV set - for the 19-week shoot. Why Dublin? Obviously the tax break helps, but we also needed a range of lavish locations to illustrate the private lives of the two judges. Ferraris had to be driven into swimming pools, mansions needed to look as if they cost£20m and I wanted helicopters lying around the place like tabloid newspapers. All this Dublin can provide (at a cost) - along with 42 consecutive days of rain (free).
We shot on DigiBeta, but indulged ourselves by putting HD lenses on the cameras. Later, at the grade, we saturated the colours - not just to get rid of the grey skies - but to give the look of heightened glamour.
One of the biggest challenges was achieving the “show within a show” element. I was acutely aware that our audience would be able to make close reference to the world in which our drama was set. We all know Pop Idol, X-Factor and Fame Academy, so it was paramount that we accurately reflected the look of the costumes, chose and recorded the right songs and achieved a live, multi-camera look using only a single camera. I had great access to, and help from, Simon Cowell and his team at Syco, but what we lacked was the money for a lavish set.
The producers of today's talent shows are able to focus their entire build budget on the set - after all, it provides the nation with 12 to 15 hours of TV per run. With up to 20 locations per script, we had to create that illusion at a greatly reduced cost, and be able to take the set up and down at least three times without the sort of crew you expect at a U2 gig. CGI was the solution. A central stage was built with a video wall and basic lighting rig, but most of the large moving lights and all the huge wing extensions were constructed in Manchester by Space Digital using Maya and Shake. Online was done at Screenscene in Dublin with a “mammoth mixing task” at Ardmore Sound.
In drama, the music is usually one of the last things that the producer has to worry about - but, in this instance, it time- lined every stage of the production. The scripts contained more than 20 songs that would be performed by the fictional contestants. The winner's song was sourced for us by Syco and I commissioned one original song. I approached the job of choosing the other songs by following the rule that each had to resonate with or fly in the face of the story and the scene it was underscoring. The vocals for each song were pre-recorded with a piano accompaniment. Only after we had picture-locked for each episode did we arrange the full backing tracks. Most of the actors playing the contestants performed their own songs but some didn't, so they had to learn to mime to a session singer's vocals. When the songs were combined with the composed incidental music, we averaged more than 50 cues per episode - a mammoth mixing task.
Finally, we shot two different versions for the final part of episode eight. From the close of episode seven until a few hours before the transmission of episode eight, there will be an online vote at itv.com/rockrivals to see who wins the fictitious music talent show. A bit of fun? Definitely. But I love it!
Rock Rivals is a Shed production for ITV1. It airs from 5 March at 9pm.
Emma Turner: My tricks of the trade
When the weather's good, a producer should be on set. If it's raining, there are a million more important things to do in a nice warm office.
Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today, unless, as is usually the case, by tomorrow everyone will have decided that the way you had it yesterday was better.
Listen to your mother (my two children please note) when she tells you to stick at your music lessons. I can argue augmented sevenths and relative keys with the best of them.
Buy an iPod. I was able to spend many hours at Stansted and Dublin waiting to board delayed Ryanair flights going through playlists, demos, backing arrangements and Now That's What I Call Number 1's.
When things get tense in a script meeting/on set/in the edit, take everyone to a pub in Dublin and buy them a Guinness.