Fans of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's dark comedy anthology series Inside No. 9 always expect a twist in each episode, but they got a real surprise this season.
Sitting down to watch a previously advertised episode called Hold on Tight that was billed as set on a bus, viewers were told that a technical difficulty meant it couldn't be shown and that a new quiz show pilot featuring comedian Lee Mack would air instead.
What came up on screen next looked and sounded, to all intents and purposes, exactly like a quiz show. Lee Mack was presenting from a proper quiz show set.
At this stage, though, keen fans may have realised that all was not quite as it appeared. Back in 2018, an acclaimed live Halloween episode of Inside No. 9 famously tricked viewers into believing that the broadcast had been cancelled due to technical difficulties, leading The Guardian to ask: ‘How did Inside No. 9 spring the biggest live TV surprise of the year?’
Sure enough, the quiz show pilot was actually an episode of Inside No. 9 – carefully disguised not to look like one.
This half hour of television had been in preparation for a while. In the months leading up to the show, the production team carefully laid a trail to fool fans. Listing magazines and EPGs all received information advertising the ‘ghost’ Hold on Tight episode. A poster was even created for it.
In the meantime, the production team was busy bringing the script of Shearsmith and Pemberton's surprise quiz show episode to life.
To do so, they had to specially create a realistic looking quiz show set in a studio. That is easier said than done. The first reaction of the production team when told by Shearsmith and Pemberton that they wanted to write a quiz show episode was that it would be prohibitively costly to make. Physical sets for quiz shows are expensive to build, and traditionally pay for themselves over the long run by being used for multiple series.
So, they began exploring the idea of filming in virtual studio and creating a virtual instead of a physical quiz show set.
The idea of filming in a virtual studio is gaining traction for entertainment shows, having grown in popularity in TV news and sports. The reason is straightforward: virtual studios can help productions to create imaginative sets while saving time and money and meeting sustainability targets.
Eirwen Davies, Production Executive for Comedy at Inside No. 9 producer BBC Studios Productions, recalls contacting dock10 studios to ask for a quote.
dock10 is at the forefront of real-time virtual studio production in the UK. The Salford-based facility has employed its virtual studio technology to create virtual and hybrid sets for shows such as BBC Bitesize Daily, Match of the Day, the FIA GT World Championships and Dinosaur with Stephen Fry.
Eirwen was upfront from the start, telling dock10 that - because it was for a one-off episode - she wasn't sure if she had the budget to make a quiz show set from scratch. "So dock10 said they had a virtual prototype for a quiz show that we could look at and adapt for our own needs. And that is what we did. We adapted their virtual quiz show set."
Director Barbara Wiltshire, who had worked on Inside No. 9's Halloween special, returned for directing duties, working alongside executive producer Adam Tandy. The show was filmed in the dock10 virtual studio for two days – about the same amount of time it would take to shoot it in a traditional multicamera studio.
The set itself was almost entirely virtual. Each of the contestants (who were in fact actors) had a physical buzzer in front of them that they could press. Apart from the buzzers, much of the set was digitally created – and was composited into the shots in real time during production.
Eirwen says that, from her vantage point in the gallery, she could hardly believe what she was seeing when she checked the shots on the monitors. "If I looked at the studio, there was literally nothing there. Then I'd look at the comped in shots [on the monitor] with the entire set in it. It blew my mind!"
Beyond the cost saving, Eirwen picks out a number of advantages of shooting on a virtual set.
She says the virtual set provided a great deal of flexibility for creatives like Shearsmith and Pemberton. They are used to shooting Inside No. 9 on location with a single camera, allowing for quick and easy retakes and pick-ups.
By comparison, she says, traditional multicamera studio productions can be quite inflexible. "They can be quite a beast and can take a while to build momentum. It's like a machine you are bringing into life in a studio. And this was actually easier."
"If you were filming a quiz show in a traditional multicamera studio, you'd run it as live from beginning to end to keep the momentum going, and then go back in for some pick up shots. Because this was virtual, and there was very little in the studio, we were able to do lots of different passes. It was almost a bit like a hybrid between a multicamera and a single camera set up."
Eirwen says the virtual set was more adaptable than a traditional set in other ways too. For example, it allowed for greater camera coverage. "On a physical set, you can only really point the cameras in a certain direction – in our case at Lee Mack or at the contestants. You can't shoot off to the side or shoot up. If you do, it becomes very expensive in the edit to create set extensions. But with a virtual set, we found we had more flexibility. You can just say, ‘We want to shoot this way. Can we just put a bit more green for the virtual set over here?’"
Eirwen admits she was initially worried about producing the episode in a virtual studio. "I was concerned that, although this looks like a quiz show, it isn't – it's a narrative comedy. And I've always thought that narrative comedy can't be done virtually. I'd thought that actors need to be able to interact with other actors in a physical set. For some actors, their character doesn't come alive until they are actually standing on a set in their costume."
Instead, the reality was ‘quite freeing’, she says. "My advice would be, don't be afraid of it – just run with it."
The virtual studio was also more predictable in terms of costs, says Eirwen. "I knew that once we agreed the cost for the virtual set, I wasn't going to run into other money problems. Whereas on a multicamera studio, you are always worried about the set being in in time, and if they have managed to light it. If not, there can be a domino effect."
In fact, most of the work on the set was carried out during the pre-production stage. Producer Kim Crowther and production designer Paul Rowan visited dock10 for a demo, and then there were regular meetings with dock10 virtual studio specialists who helped to adapt their virtual quiz show prototype. There were also a few Zoom calls with director Barbara Wiltshire so she could set up her camera plan for the shoot.
So, will Inside No. 9 be returning to a virtual set in the near future? "That will completely depend on what Reece and Steve write because every single episode is different," says Eirwen.
She is sure, however, that fans will love this episode. Speaking just before transmission, she emphasises the lengths that the production team have gone to keep it a secret. This extended to covering up the windows on the dock10 gallery to stop word getting out that Shearsmith and Pemberton were making a quiz show, and also giving the production a special code name. "If the secret is kept, the fans will love it because it will throw them a curve ball – and then there may be pressure on us to make the ghost episode Hold on Tight too!"