Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Backstage With Take That: Meet the Team Behind Meerkat Music’s First Gig

Music & Sound
London, UK
We speak to the brand, creative, production and sound talent behind the exclusive reunion of Take That and Robbie Williams for the launch of Meerkat Music
Launched not only to help entertain the nation during lockdown but in support of music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins, Meerkat Music broadcast its first virtual show on Friday 29th May with a highly entertaining and enjoyable performance from Take That and Robbie Williams. The show was streamed online receiving over 1.2 million views on YouTube with 1.1 million watching live on Facebook. 

To delve deeper into how the show was brought together in lockdown, LBB interviews the team behind this brilliant campaign with representatives from, VCCP Blue, Passion Pictures, Jungle Studios, Seven Productions and Attachment London.

Q > How was the idea for the Meerkat Music campaign born?
Liz Darran, marketing director, > We have been playing in the entertainment space for some time with Meerkat Movies and Meerkat Meals and this is an area we wanted to continue developing and evolving. 
With cinema and restaurant closures limiting our Meerkat Meals and Meerkat Movies rewards, we looked at other ways we could entertain our customers, and music felt like the right sector, offering a mixture of entertainment, fun and togetherness during a challenging period. 
Cliff Hall, CEO/founder, VCCP Blue > And with artists stuck at home alongside the nation, it felt like a perfect time to create a show that would put a smile on everyone's faces. It was a great first act - Take That and Robbie Williams with Aleksandr and Sergei all receiving an overwhelming response to the performance whilst helping Nordoff Robbins and Crew Nation for the good work they do.
Ed Sayers, director, Seven Productions > We were asked to come on board in our favourite way of working - very collaboratively. We were brought in to direct the live-action and provide the best tech solutions to make the whole production work efficiently, whilst being mindful not to put too much strain on the artists who ultimately had to set everything up. Alex Glynn led on technical direction and I led on direction. This project received the benefit of our experience on recent similar projects, but none were as ambitious as this one. 
Q > It must have been quite exciting to be involved in an online gig with Take That? 
Liz Darran > We have previously worked with Gary Barlow so we were super excited when the opportunity for Take That and Robbie Williams came up to launch Meerkat Music, it felt like the perfect partnership.
Chris Elrin, CEO/founder, Attachment London > The band weren't initially planning to perform this year but we worked with them to create and hone a really special moment for everyone in the country to enjoy, whilst supporting Nordoff Robbins and Crew Nation to help those in need.
Q > Having to produce this gig entirely remotely, what were some of the biggest challenges to overcome? 
Liz Darran > Getting Meerkat Music off the ground during lockdown was a unique challenge but, with the support of our agencies VCCP, Wavemaker, Exposure and Havas, we achieved what we would have previously thought impossible in an incredibly fast turnaround time – and we couldn’t be happier with the results.
Anna Cunnington, producer, Passion Pictures > The big difference is that we were not in the studio! Passion has an established remote working setup meaning that crew on this project were able to work from home very easily. With Dave Walker, our VFX Supervisor, creating the performance, two experienced Meerkat animators in Stuart Doig and David Sigrist and one lighter/compositor Howard Bell, the small team managed to get everything out on time in unusual circumstances with Dave even capturing his performance from his laptop at home!
Ed Sayers > The internet was unsurprisingly one of the biggest challenges! Nevermind that, it didn’t exist a couple of decades ago - we expect so much of it, and then the wi-fi goes down! We had systems in place for every eventuality, but sometimes it was just an enforced tea-break for everyone while it rebooted. Fortunately, Robbie had teas on hand to share with the crew… The other challenges are all the exciting ones that the production community has been having to wrap our heads round of late. How to do what we do, when we can’t do it the way we usually do it! And frankly, that’s exciting. There is no ‘normal’. For now anyway.
Ben Leeves, senior sound designer, Jungle Studios > The biggest challenge for us was obviously the fact that current circumstances mean we were recording all of the band remotely - who had different home studio set ups, different types of recording location and were physically in different time zones. Luckily we have a set up at Jungle in which we can safely record VOs in our studios without sound designer or actor having to come into contact with each other at all. So, we were safely able to get Simon Greenall (the voice of Sergei and Aleksandr) into the studio. Alongside that, I was the re-recording mixer so I was mixing recorded dialogue from the Take That boys with the voice recording and sound design I did in the studio with Simon. The only thing I didn’t do sound-wise was the music mix. but I had to mix the whole show and deliver a 40 minute wav file of the final mix. 
Q > Did any kit have to be sent out to the Take That members across their different locations?

Ben Leeves > They all have great home studios and the vocals were recorded on the microphones you see them singing into. But Ed [Sayers] had a fully disinfected kit sent out to each of Take That’s front doorsteps to give them all everything they’d need. 

Q> With the band being miles and miles apart at their home locations, what elements did you include to create the feeling of the band being together and to help the audience feel involved?
Matthew Lloyd, creative director, VCCP Blue > We knew Take That fans would look forward to seeing Robbie rejoin the band, so holding that back until mid-way through the second song and him just appearing in his kitchen, casually joining the call and humming along was a neat understated touch.
Ed Sayers > We worked hard to make sure the band, both as a whole and as individuals, had real ownership of the show. We were lucky enough to have a long call with each of the four band members to bounce off creatively, going away and writing an entire show-flow before presenting back to the band and their teams.  
On each of those calls their instincts for what the fans would love (and not) were strong. They know their fanbase! Together though we went to some pretty crazy places - lockdown had been taking its toll - and happily some of the bonkers bits made it into the final show! It was basically a home-fi Take That and Robbie gig, with them being resourceful in their own homes, plus stage direction from Sergei. That gives you a lot of creative freedom.

Q > And Ben, working from home means every person will have different sounds and ambiences in the room they are recording in. How did you match up the sound quality from each member’s different rooms to sound like one cohesive unit? 

Ben Leeves > That was the really hard part. With all the members being recorded from their very different separate locations, and Simon as Aleksandr and Sergei recording in our studio, I needed to match up the sound quality as best as I could. You don’t want to bring a good recording down to match a bad recording. So you need to run a bad recording through different types of software for things like noise reduction to enhance the sound. Although, for Aleksandr and Sergei I actually had to reduce the sound quality and add in some rebound sound as they are supposed to be on a Zoom call in their houses!

Q> How quickly was this project turned around? And Passion Pictures, how did you manage the lengthy process of animation in such a short time frame? 

Anna Cunnington > This project needed lots of animation, performance and reactions from Aleksandr, very quickly. We used specially developed Facial Performance Capture in order to be able to create everything in time. Using a system called “Performer” which builds a trackable profile of a face; where eyebrows and the chin are mouth shapes and expressions. 

Our VFX supervisor then performed in front of a camera which drives a model of Aleksandr. We then had to build a retargeting profile for the software to take all of the tracking data back into our usual high-quality model of Aleksandr.

Tidying up some of the lip sync and adding small expressions and blinks, this performance was then passed onto our expert animators who cleaned up any rough edges to make it a seamless animation. All of this was then rendered using our normal 3D pipeline so the finished thing was exactly the same quality as you would normally see from Compare the Market: fur simulation, lighting and shadows are all perfect. This cuts down on the frame by frame animation time required meaning we were able to get lots of dialogue captured and recorded in a short time. Keeping everything set in one location, Aleksandr’s study, means we were able to keep render times low. In the end we were able to produce five minutes of animation in just ten days! 

Ben Leeves > I received the script no more than three and a half weeks before the gig’s release so it all came around quite quickly! We had voice actor Simon Greenall at home dialling in on Zoom for the interview as Aleksandr and Sergei. Then we needed to re-record his parts of the conversation with Take That at Jungle to improve the sound quality - socially distanced of course. We had to get Simon safely into our studio for speed as we couldn’t risk any loss of internet connection on a project so time precious.  I did a few takes of the show with Simon so I had a good idea of what the end project was going to be like but I didn’t actually see the final thing until it was released. 

Q > The show has been really well received, what feedback have you had since its release?
Victoria Reiz, business director, VCCP Blue > The feedback has exceeded all our expectations. We have seen such positive responses from the moment we launched, let alone the overwhelming reactions for the show itself. 
We saw people posting how they’d set up viewing parties over the fences with their neighbours and joining group calls to dance the night away with their friends to their favourite band. Hearing that it was ‘the best thing that’s happened’ in lockdown - we couldn’t have asked for more. It brought people together in a way none of us thought possible in these unusual times and that is very special indeed. 
Q > Before this opportunity, did you ever think it would have been possible to record a virtual gig from so many different locations at such high sound quality?

Ben Leeves > I didn’t envision something of this size but it was actually easier to get everyone together for this because we’re all in lockdown, at home and easier to reach. I think this is the best sounding lockdown recording I’ve heard so far. I know Take That were very pleased with it too. Gary Barlow sent out a lovely video message to all the production team to thank them. 

Q> What were your highlights from the project and what are you most proud of?

Liz Darran > We’ve been delighted with the response to date – it was everything we hoped for, and more. Having read the comments on social, in coverage and anecdotally, the public reaction shows that we achieved our goal of entertaining the nation. We believe Meerkat Music is a platform with huge potential for growth and we can’t wait to keep the nation entertained with future gigs and headline acts.

Matthew Lloyd > It was extraordinary watching the various stages of the response. Seeing people getting their old memorabilia out beforehand, the absolute maelstrom on the worldwide live chat during the gig, and finally the thank yous afterwards on all social channels. It seemed to strike a chord and really gave a lift to people and that was wonderful to see.

Anna Cunnington > As it was an entirely new process, developed during lockdown, a highlight was seeing everything working for the first time. We got better and faster as the project went on and the results look great. Seeing how much joy this has brought everyone who watched it made the late nights and early mornings worth it. In the performance itself, it was a thrill for all of us to see long-time Meerkat director Dave Scanlon make a tiny cameo too!

Ben Leeves > For me, the first highlight was chewing the fat with Robbie Williams at the start of the phone call, he’s very down to earth. And the moment I was most proud was when I had the first watchback of the near final edit. I hadn’t heard it all put together properly with the singing yet so to see it all integrated brilliantly with such an outstanding performance blew me away.

Alex Glynn, tech director, Seven Productions >  Some of the most satisfying moments were seeing the band members’ energy and patience while being their own DP, gaffer, clapper-loader, props person, runner etc... Once they had done all that, they ‘just’ had to get on with their day job of being brilliant performers! It was great to see them own all the little touches that made the show something they would want to watch, as well as star in.

Ed Sayers > It was a privilege and a joy to be part of something where every one of the artists truly wanted to entertain the audience. Watching them all come together, seeing the genuine camaraderie between them and viewing the performance on my screen - all sitting in a garden shed (HQ), was very memorable.

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