Lost and Found in London, Live Broadcasting Case Study

Lost and Found In London

An epic tale of an epic, first of its kind project

Getting lost is one thing. Getting lost in a city like London is another.

But having the entire episode broadcast, live, in what was essentially a television style outside broadcast, transmitted direct to paying customers in more than 500 cinemas using only one camera and one HD transmitter in a single take, well, that’s called losing the plot.

Fortunately, the plot was decidedly not lost in the wee hours of Friday 20th January in London as actor and first-time director Woody Harrelson directed and starred in “Lost in London”, a self-written, semi-autobiographical, live, single-camera romp that reflected the events of Harrelson’s infamous night in London a dozen or so years before.

When told of Harrelson’s epiphany of trying to create a hybrid of live television, theatre and cinema months earlier, most told Harrelson he was nuts. Harrelson responded with, “I know. That’s why I’m doing it.”

London-based broadcast technology hire firm Broadcast RF was first contacted in mid-November by Nineteen Fifteen, the UK-based production company chosen for the project, about taking on the ambitious technical aspects of the project, which looked daunting right from the start. Although Broadcast RF is an acknowledged leader in live event RF technology, it is primarily for multi-camera sporting events like marathons, cricket, racing, rugby and the like.

The plan for Lost in London, however, was a first that combined aspects of live theatre, outside broadcasts, and cinema. Blending three often disparate disciplines proved to be not only a challenge, but an awakening for everyone involved.

According to Nick Fuller, project manager and Broadcast RF ‘wizard’, “The differences in production requirements, technologies, and techniques for these three disciplines range from the subtle to the profound, and it was sometimes challenging to ensure everyone was reading from the same script, as it were. However, the key to the whole project, without which we didn’t stand a chance of success, was to specify the right technology for such a unique undertaking.”

And that’s where Broadcast RF’s expertise in live events came into play. The film production had already selected the ARRI Alexa Mini HD camera, recording on board for the final film and producing a 1080/23.98PsF HD video output, which suited the cinemas. The camera was coupled with a DTC Domo Broadcast HD transmitter and a series of strategically placed Domo 8-Way Diversity receivers to complete the key components for the live links.

According to Fuller, “In live production you get, literally, one shot. There is zero margin for error. Everything has to work 100 percent of the time, and we had to ensure this for the full 100 minutes of the production. There was no ‘Let’s do that again’ or ‘We’ll fix it in post’.”

In order to maintain the best possible picture quality, the modulation used was 16 QAM with FEC 2/3 and quite a long GOP of 12, all of which emanated from a single Domo transmitter.

BRF was also required to provide four audio circuits; two embedded by the camera and two external radio-mic receivers, the latter cabled directly into the Domo transmitter analogue audio input.

The transmitter, however, was, for once, not mounted on the ARRI camera back. Because of the length of the production, four external batteries were needed to ensure power for the camera, transmitter and associated radio-mic equipment throughout. Four batteries would be a hindrance to the lone cameraman, so the transmitter and batteries, were tethered to the camera and carried in a backpack by an accompanying grip.

That’s all well and good when actors are walking around on set or in the street. The cameraman and grip were well-rehearsed and knew which way to turn in relation to each other and the actors as the action unfolded.

However, during rehearsals, the differences between television and cinema first became apparent when the actors needed to get into a car and set off through London, the film-oriented portion of the crew initially thought “We’ll just put the backpack on the floor of the car – even kneel on it if we have to – which should still allow enough space for the cameraman.”

The TV guys, that being Broadcast RF, rightly pointed out that it wasn’t practical to position the transmitter on the floor of the car because it had the potential to cause massive degradation of the signal – if it could not get out of the car.

So a way had to be organised to hook the grip’s backpack high enough in the car to make it level with a window so the signal could get out unimpeded. In the end, the grip followed the cameraman toward the car. Once the cameraman got in, the grip then hooked the backpack up high inside the car behind the cameraman and closed the door. The grip then ran back to hop into a chase car equipped with a Domo receiver and high power repeater transmitter to relay the feed from the action car. When both cars arrived at the site of the next scene, the grip jumped out of the chase car, retrieved the backpack before the cameraman could get out of the car, and carried on following the action together as they had before. It was a perfectly choreographed fire drill. The logistics of that single move, even though highly rehearsed, was nevertheless remarkable in the midst of a live performance, and similar moves took place at virtually every stage of the production.

According to Fuller, “One of the biggest initial challenges, which we overcame early on, was to get the film guys to understand the requirements of what was essentially a live television production, basically an OB, for the simple reason that the majority of them had never done anything live before. This is where a hybrid TV/Film production approach proved to be exceptionally valuable. There was a lot of, shall we say, cross-cultural learning that was highly beneficial to both parties.”

A Broadcast RF engineer was embedded with the film crew from the start of rehearsals to monitor, advise, and consult, which paid dividends in terms of ensuring that, technically, everything would be ready for deployment on the night.

Early scenes in a theatre were shot in a real building, not a stage set. In an available space across the road from the theatre, a set was built to depict a restaurant. A single Domo 8-Way Diversity receiver was used for the theatre and restaurant internal scenes. Because it was only over the road, Broadcast RF established a fibred connection to six antennas in the theatre from the receiver in the restaurant to cover both sets.

Another DTC Domo Broadcast 8-Way Diversity receiver was used for scenes in a nightclub and police station, respectively. These were both sets, with eight receive antennas in the nightclub and eight in the police station. The Diversity receiver inputs were switched by the RF crew as required for each scene.

As referenced earlier, another 8-way receiver with omnidirectional antennas was installed in a chase car for mobile scenes. The reason for omnidirectional being that the chase car was sometimes following the action car, and sometimes ahead of it, so reception was required from all directions.

For indoor scenes the local receivers directly decoded the Domo transmitter’s 100mW signal. However for the car scenes the chase car received this 100mW signal on an 8-way receiver and repeated it at a second frequency through a high powered amplifier, suitable for mobile applications and the strategically positioned outdoor receivers.

The car routes were planned to keep the length of journey consistent with the film dialogue, not to benefit the RF coverage, and at one point this included driving the wrong way up a one-way street, which couldn’t be done in rehearsals! To receive the pictures from the chase car a single 4-way receiver was placed on a pub roof, an 8-way unit was used to cover the central section of the route with two antennas on each corner of a building and halfway between this building and Waterloo Bridge there was another Domo 8-Way Diversity receiver to cover some of the final chase scenes and the final act, which took place on the middle of the bridge. The ASI outputs from these receivers were auto-switched into a final Domo decoder.

So the four scenes indoors were covered by two 8-Way Diversity receivers. And there were three receivers, two 8-Way and one 4-Way, for the external receive sites. The chase car had an 8-Way unit, plus a fully redundant back-up as it was vital to maintain this link and mobile receive systems are at more risk than static ones.

Fuller concludes, “This was a massively ambitious project that actually had very little to do with film. This for all intents and purposes was a live, single camera, single take OB. Even under normal circumstances in an OB – whether sports, news or events, there’s more than one camera, so the producer always has the insurance of somewhere to go. In this case, there was no insurance. It was like a high wire act with no safety net, no tether, no rope. If something went wrong with a link, there was literally nowhere else to go.

“We could not have done this without DTC Domo Broadcast’s 8-Way Diversity receivers. Without a shadow of a doubt, the performance of the DVB-T modulation and 8-way Diversity was what made it possible.”

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