Tuesday 6 April 2010, 11:17
You may have seen ZingZillas on CBeebies yesterday (Easter Monday). It's a brand new music show all about a band of four primate friends who live on a tropical island and make wonderful music together and has taken four years to get from concept to screen!
Each episode follows the ZingZillas (Zak, Tang, Panzee and Drum) as they create a new song for their daily performance called the Big Zing. The show is for four to six-year-olds but I think adults will love it too.
A great deal of time was spent developing the idea, with production starting about 18 months ago. Head of CBeebies production Kay Benbow spearheaded this.
Kay knew that it would be a great show for our audience and a fantastic show for CBeebies in-house production to produce with unprecedented access to other areas of the BBC such as the BBC Concert Orchestra.
It was a very moving experience recording the orchestra playing the opening title sequence. How fantastic to have the sound of all those real instruments in the opening of every show not to mention all the other pieces of music they played throughout the series.
ZingZillas has been a really interesting show to create and I still find some of the behind the scenes detail really fascinating even after being so close to the project for so long.
I'm not a particularly techie person but I love how clever the animatronic heads are. All the heads have a lot of technical kit inside to make all the lips, eyes and eyebrows work.
Even with everything getting lighter and smaller, they are still very heavy - I guess on average about 4.5kg. On top of that is the weight of the wigs which is another 2.5kg so you're looking at around 7kg sitting on top of your head!
The character heads fit very closely to the actors' own heads. In theory the actors see out of the mouths, but in their line of sight there are all sorts of mechanical bits and bobs, a black gauze which stops us from seeing their faces and, of course, the mouths are moving all the time as the characters talk.
That isn't enough discomfort though! The motors all make quite a racket, plus the actors have the dialogue and music from the show as well as the voice of the director in their ears.
They can hear very little else around them. So they can't see, they can't hear and they're supporting an unnatural weight balanced on the top of their heads.
I then tell them I'd like to see them swinging on a vine, riding a banana car or cart-wheeling through shot - oh yes, and they need to be able to play the instruments their characters play!
This is a massive ask for any actor and of course a health and safety nightmare, especially when part of the set is nine feet in the air!
We did work out a way of achieving everything we wanted though. Each costume character had essentially a bodyguard. That person looked after them, dressed them, made sure they always looked tip top and were also responsible for giving the actors air and water.
The bodyguards are like the A Team - tooled up with water packs with a long feeding pipe and a very powerful fan which was made using a cordless drill.
The characters' facial movements are operated remotely by another set of actors - the voiceover artists. They're hidden away in a dark corner of the studio from where they use these very industrial looking, Atari-like controllers to move the mouths and eyes etc as they record the dialogue.
The thing with this type of technology is that very little can be just bought off the shelf - pretty much everything has to be bespoke made.
Something I still find amusing is that the remote controls for the characters' heads were made using the bits of a JCB digger.
That may sound extreme but the controllers have to be incredibly durable as well as able to do very fine and delicate manoeuvres - exactly the same requirements as a huge digger!
I'm proud of so many bits of the show but the one thing that is most important is the music. We were so lucky to be able to get so many fantastic musicians involved, especially when I think about the absurdity of some of the situations they'd be in.
A great example is opera singer Sarah Connolly singing opera with a madcap mandrill character who can only sing when he's in the bath! It sounds ridiculous but what better way to make opera accessible for very young children?
It was quite nerve-wracking at times with some of the guests. I remember we were all nervous about meeting Evelyn Glennie. She's a world-renowned musician and a Dame - and there we were asking her to come and play with a group of monkey-like characters.
What we wanted to do was bring great music to our audience and of course all the musicians involved had the same goal, so we needn't have worried.
You do wonder, though, what if they turn up thinking it was a classical recital and find themselves jamming with a group of colourful primates?
Evelyn was absolutely lovely to work with and loved what we were doing so much she asked if she could come back and do another episode.
FormerJamiroquai bassist Stuart Zender didn't even question playing bass for a track all about the love of bananas and Sir James Galway knew his grand children would just love the song we'd asked him to play. All the guests were great sports and totally got what we were trying to do.
Our composers, Chris and Wag, worked very closely with the guests to make sure their involvement was a collaborative experience. It's so fantastic that such a broad range of musicians were able bring their knowledge and experience to the show.
I don't think Chris will ever forget the day the late Sir John Dankworth called him up from his kitchen with Dame Cleo Laine scatting in the background. We picked guests who really care about their music and their particular genre and I think this really shines through in the Big Zings.
ZingZillas isn't just a TV show - it is also a brilliant website. My colleague Helen Stephens was charged with coming up with something fantastic for the web and she's certainly done that.
I have a three-year-old son so I'm pretty familiar with the CBeebies website but I really noticed a massive difference with the ZingZillas site. It's moved to a different level.
I don't know a huge amount about constructing websites and often find myself sitting in meetings just nodding my head as the jargon whizzes over the top of it.
What I do know, though, is that websites have to be fun, easy to use and engaging. The ZingZillas site is all of these things. An interactive buzz phrase is 'immersive experience'.
It means the producers want the people using it to feel like they are really there and really part of the experience. The Big Zing part of the site certainly does that with a section where you can use your webcam.
I have a PC and very half-heartedly plugged in my webcam, not expecting it to work. I was amazed when I appeared on my screen, onstage performing with the characters in the Big Zing.
It's a great bit of technology. As I waved my arms around like a lunatic, the instrument I selected played along with the track. The stage backdrops I'd painted earlier in the game in Todd's garden were also there behind me.
I had a go at all 20 of the instruments, which range from the Taiko drums through to the Theremin, but I really got carried away with the guitar - I think we all instinctively love to air-guitar!
I also wondered what it was like without a webcam and actually it's just as much fun playing the instruments with the mouse - as you move the mouse over the instrument it plays so it's equally easy to get carried away.
My three-year-old absolutely loves the site. Not only the games and the Big Zing but all the regular things we come to expect as part of the web package - printing out pictures of the characters (Make & Colour) or being able to play the theme song (Song Time) or a Big Zing from the show (Watch & Listen).
When we make telly shows we always hope that there is a little something of interest for our adult audience so they can enjoy it with their children. This clearly follows through to the website too.
There are so many things to do on it which are great fun for adult and child. In web language it certainly is an 'immersive experience' but in my language it's just great fun.
Tony Reed is the series producer for ZingZillas
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Thursday 1 April 2010, 10:07
Tuesday 6 April 2010, 13:47