Many of you will have heard of the TV show on the "Dave" Channel called "Carpool".
You know the one, Red Dwarf and Scrap heap Challenge star Robert Llewellyn picks up someone in his car, drives him or her around a bit and has a chat. It’s a great series and you feel like your spying on a private conversation between two people on their way to work.
What many of you will not know is how this series came about. Its far from the usual process of, bloke pitches idea to TV bosses, TV bosses say "umm here is £1 make a pilot"
No this series was born on the internet, grew up on youtube and is enjoying a long life in both new and old media worlds.
I caught up with Robert and asked him a few questions about how this all came about:
What was your initial intention when you first came up with the idea of Carpool?
Carpool grew out of so many different ideas over such a long time it's really hard to pin down. One of them was the development of small TV cameras that could be safely mounted in the car, another was my enjoyment in meeting people and talking with them and finding out stuff, I interviewed 100's of people over 10 years on Scrapheap and really enjoyed doing it. It was also partly watching a video I recorded over 10 years ago with the comedian Dave Baddiel when he gave me a lift through London. I just left the camera running and we forgot it was there. The result was surprising and un-broadcastable, but I knew I was onto something.
Over the past 3 years I have been developing a new series about sustainable energy, electric cars and related matters and the carpool idea seemed to fit into that as a way of interviewing scientists and engineers but eventually I tried it out and stuck it on the net and it just took off.
What kit did you start out with? and what was your work flow?
I initially used some second hand mini cameras, bullet cams or lipstick cams as they're commonly known. We'd used these a lot on Scrapheap and they were rugged and very small. However the technology they used was fairly old school, they only shot at 4:3 in sort of 1990's low def and the sound input was very basic. I used lapel mikes which always rubbed on the seat belts, the wires got pulled out, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
What technical problems did you have at first?
'Ingesting' the material into the computer was fairly complex. I used an early iMac and as always nothing was compatible, I had to import the AV files, then convert them to .MOV's then put them in Final Cut Pro, then render them. I did everything wrong, I knew the basics of how to synch and cut video, but the import settings were a mystery to me. The early episodes of carpool are testament to this bungling.
I eventually got hold of some Sony HSR MC1P cameras when I was working in the USA. I still use them, the picture quality is stunning, the sound is amazing, no lapel mics, everything was much easier once I used them.
How easy was it to get guests to appear?
I suppose that's where I have an advantage, I knew quite a few people who'd appeared on the telly and they were all really kind and supportive and said yes. That really helped spread the word, but I always wanted to feature people who interested me who weren't famous. I think it's proved successful, the mix of well known faces and people who may not be well known but are interesting seems to have worked so far.
Where did you host your videos?
I had a lot of help setting up the system with a wonderful company called channelflip, (www.channelflip.com) and they suggested I use blip.TV which is sort of like YouTube except they had no restrictions on the length of shows. At the time you could only upload 10 minutes to YouTube so that's why it started out there. I also had help making the feed appear on iTunes, and once the people at iTunes saw the show, they also promoted it which really helped.
I now have an account with YouTune and that's about to be upgraded considerably, but the vast majority of views come through iTunes and llewtube still. That's where the show has been running the longest.
You use twitter a lot, how did this help you promote carpool?
I do use twitter a lot, too much maybe but I quite enjoy the discussions taking place there. I actually think genuine word of mouth helped Carpool more than me banging on about it. I keep my carpool tweets to a minimum, I always loose a few followers when I mention it.
Were you surprised at how quickly carpool grew in popularity?
Yes, I was really surprised, it was beyond anything I could have imagined.
What changes did you make in terms of technical equipment and format as popularity grew?
Really very few, obviously the cameras I've already mentioned and an enormous amount of hard drives and back up. I now use a Mac Pro, I have something like 15 terabytes of storage all in, and most of that is full. Video is very space hogging, I've shot 123 shows and that's a lot of gigs.
At which point did you feel it was right to present the idea to RDF/Dave ?
It sort of happened the other way around. I think broadcasters could see the potential and they approached me. I was hesitant at first as I'd always seen Carpool as the format I was looking for to do on the internet and to have complete editorial control over it. I still earn my living doing 'normal' telly, so it was a long term experiment/hobby. However After doing something like 60 episodes on my own, I thought it worth trying out doing it on a more pro scale.
I assume RDF needed to know how many people were watching each episode, what systems do you use to gather viewing figures?
It was more Toyota who wanted to know how many people saw the show and what the likely reach would be. They have been very supportive without being prescriptive right from the start, they actively asked me not to mention the car or the brand, quite the opposite to what you might expect.
How they count TV viewing figures is beyond me, I've never understood it, I now down to the last view how many people watch on iTunes and YouTube, much easier. (4.2 million on iTunes, around half a million on YouTube in total)
What changes needed to be made in order to convert the show from a purely internet based show to a terrestrial TV show?
We used more cameras, much more complex sound recording, we had lighting panels in the car, the windows were carefully tinted (legally) and we shot the passengers getting in and out of the car. However once we were driving, it was exactly the same experience.
You produce a longer version of the show for the internet viewers, how did this come about as it seems fairly unique?
That was always the deal and all the parties involved were happy for that to happen. The biggest mistake I made was letting the online versions go cold while I did the Dave versions. Before I stopped the weekly updates I was getting around 30,000 downloads every Friday. When I started them up again 5 months later it had fallen to under 10,000. Now it's slowly building up again, but it's the reliability of people knowing every week there's a new episode which really helps build and audience.
What's next for carpool, and do you have similar projects in the pipeline?
Still unclear, the online version is definitely going to continue, I hope to re-vamp the delivery and presentation some time this year but the essential guts of the show will remain the same.
Feel free to plug Red Dwarf and fully charged.
Fully Charged is a very different project. Making carpool is essentially very simple to shoot and edit. 3 cameras running for 50 minutes, I cut it down to between 25 and 430 minutes and slap it on the internet. Fully Charged is more like a traditional TV show, takes longer to shoot and edit and is very much more time consuming. I'm hoping to get proper funding for Fully Charged, it's in the works, can't reveal any more at the moment.
Oh yeah, and there's this obscure little BBC show I used to do, Red Dwarf, not many people ever watched it, 8 to 10 million on average, and all around the world. We're making a new series at the end of this year, goes out in 2012. Don't know much more about it yet, I know the original cast are all doing it, that's about it.
Thanks to Robert for taking the time to tell us a bit about Carpool and his other projects.
If you want to know more you can follow Robert on twitter (he tweets a lot and is well worth the follow) @bobbyllew
His website http://www.llewtube.com/ is where you can see the latest episodes of Carpool as well as his new online series, called "Fully Charged"