We’ve all seen One Born Every Minute, 24 Hours in A&E, Educating Essex (or Yorkshire), The Hotel… But how many people know that these are ‘fixed rig productions’? And how many know what that actually means, beyond the fact that they have an unholy amount of robotic cameras festooned around the place? In fact, fixed rig production is the result of a complete rethinking of factual and documentary television. Both production logistics and the negotiation of consents have changed substantially. A recent Royal Television Society masterclass revealed a substantial amount of the secrets behind this new method of production which has been developed largely by companies working for Channel 4.
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
Fixed rig production combines elements of traditional outside broadcast with the benefits of fully digital tapeless production. The method depends on metadata and sound recording, two aspects of production that often suffer from neglect. Fixed rigs work best in institutions: a family, a hospital, a police station: they follow in the honourable TV tradition of precinct drama. After a long period of preproduction (up to a year… see below), the equipment is installed. For One Born Every Minute, that’s 48 cameras; for 24 Hours in A&E that’s 92 cameras and 18km of cable. A rig that large takes two weeks to install because they have to work around what’s going on: using resus takes priority over TV (unbelievably).
All those cables lead back to a control room, still termed ‘the gallery’ just like in a studio. There sits a surprisingly small team watching bank of monitors, one for each camera. From these dozens of feeds, the gallery director chooses just three to record. That’s surprising, until you consider the logistics involved: One Born Every Minute filmed for 20 hours a day for 11 weeks, producing more than 6000 hours from those three feeds alone. That’s a lot of tape… except of course there’s no tape involved. Instead, all three feeds are immediately fed into the servers provided by the post-production house. No transcoding!
The three camera feeds are ingested into the post-production house’s servers (which are on site) along with considerable amounts of metadata. The metadata is generated live. The cameras generate a small amount themselves, but the vital input is done by a logger, transcribing as they go, and using hot keys to record basic information like the names of everyone in the scene, and to annotate with comments such as ‘brilliant moment’, ‘funny’ or ‘sad’. This metadata can be searched in the edit later on: a search for “everything with X, Y and Z in it which is funny” can instantly fill a (virtual) bin with potential material. In addition, a show like Educating Yorkshire had a PA in the gallery whose one task was the daily editorial log, a summary of all the stories that had been caught, graded using a star system. Time-of-day timecode from all cameras ties it all together: something that would have produced chaos in the days of tape.
There are two reasons why all this works with just three camera feeds being recorded. The first is that the directors are doing their job: directing. The series director spots stories; the gallery director chooses the 3 camera feeds. Between them they decide whether to put two feeds on one incident and one on another, or whether they should keep the third camera on another event. A sound mixer provides a live mix of the principal event’s sound into the gallery to guide their decisions. The directors know what they are doing, so the choices normally work out well. But if they don’t, then sound recording acts as an insurance.
All the sound is being recorded. There may well be more mics on the action than cameras, because there are radio mics as well as fixed ‘atmos’ mics. And there are mics everywhere. In the gallery there is another AP listening to other sound feeds, looking for something about to happen. If this AP suggests switching to a fast developing story, then, as David Brindley said “we’ve caught all the sound and we can go back in the edit and piece it all together”.
So how many mics are there? One atmos mic can cover a room where there are two or three robotic cameras. So for every 60 or 70 robotic cameras, there will be 25 to 30 atmos mics rigged up in advance. And then there are radio mics. On Educating Yorkshire there were 22. So for every hour of footage there are 50 hours of sound. Eleven radio mics were permanently on the teachers, and eleven rotated around the pupils. A team ‘on the floor’ (ie in the school) managed these 11 mics, moving them to pupils who seemed to be ‘interesting’ at the time. This was an action that required sensitivity, so was not always possible. The most intimate and invasive act in documentary is the fixing of radio mics. And it is scarcely possible to put a radio mic on a minor whilst they are upset. So sometimes good sound (or even useable sound) depended on the chance of someone being picked up by the atmos mics as it was too invasive to fit them with radio mics.
What is a gallery? Mostly, it’s a portakabin the car park; sometimes it’s an OB truck; for The Hotel it was a suite. Who provides the equipment? Established outside broadcast companies like CTV which does 2000 hours of live sport a year. According to their Adam Berger,
“When we’re up and running, there’s only a technical crew of four people – a camera operator, sound mixer, a vision engineer and a technical assistant – operating a 50-camera system with 20 radio mics and another 50 or 60 effects mics. If we were doing a golf event, we would have a crew of 100”
And a post-production house like Evolutions provides the servers, as Owen Tyler said “We now go to the location and capture it straight on to our servers. We’re working more closely with the production, which is fundamentally different for us”.
It is a different experience for CTV and Evolutions staff who inevitably get drawn into the emotions of the participants. And it is different for the gallery directors too. A live director’s instinct, according to David Brindley, is to follow the action and to cut to whoever is talking. For documentary, however, it is reactions that are often more important than the act of speech, and so that is what the selected camera feeds should concentrate on collecting. It requires a different approach to live directing because “making sense of things”, according to Brindley, “is left to the edit”.
Documentary viewers are very concerned about the degree to which the participants in factual filming have given informed consent to being shown. Fixed rig filming would seem to present many more problems of consent than normal filming, despite its often heart-warming overall aesthetic. “we are there to showcase what’s brilliant about teachers or midwives” as Brindley put it.
The participants in the RTS event presented the fixed rig consent system as a slow incremental process taking up to a year before filming starts. First the consent of the institution, the precinct itself, has to be gained. This has to be absolutely solid. After all, as Helen Littleboy pointed out, there is a huge investment in the rig which would have to be written off if the school or hospital withdrew its consent. And then there are the ‘contributors’. In the case of the schools-based series, consents involved months of conversations. Where parents or a pupil did not want to be featured at all, then an undertaking was given never to film them. The contributors all had to be convinced to trust the programme makers, which can only come with conversations between individuals. Underpinning that trust was the undertaking that they could always ask for something to be withdrawn and not shown. But as Brindley says “99% of the time they were worried about things that we weren’t even thinking of showing. As for the rest, we would sit with them and talk it through. Sometimes a sympathetic line of commentary would be enough”. Finally the edited programmes were screened for all the contributors, which provided more reassurance: “parents were amazed that their children hadn’t behaved even worse”.
A key feature of fixed rig series is the interviews with contributors where they reflect on their behaviour or what had happened to them. In 24 Hours in A&E, they often show you that the patient had, in fact, survived, so they have to be delayed towards the end of the programme. In this case, there is reflection on the past and consent is finally negotiated at this point. One Born Every Minute had the luxury of filming predictable events, so a master interview with the pregnant mother and partners and/or family is a major part of the programme. As Sarah Swingler observed, “midwives are chatty people, so we sometimes ask them to bring up in conversation something that’s important in the master interview, so we can make sure we have a reference to whatever makes that particular mother special”. Swingler also revealed that the usual factual TV activity of casting does not work for fixed rig productions. “Normally you would cast larger-than-life characters for preference, but here it is the events that make people”.
The system on One Born Every Minute is a rolling consent system. All that the prospective parents consent to before the birth is to record the master interview. At that stage, there is no commitment on their side to be filmed giving birth. It is the production’s “leap of faith” to film the birth because consent to show that footage is gained only after everything has gone well. With the hospital staff and midwives, it is sometimes trickier as they are concerned that they might be filmed doing something inadvertently mistaken, or just when taking a break. So with staff, too, the consent is always a rolling process.
And is it worth it? After all, this is a very expensive way of making factual programmes, even though it can yield long series with high ratings. I would agree with Swingler and Brindley that there is a different atmosphere to these films. There is a tone of honesty and the unexpected that is hard to find with a conventional documentary where the relationship with the filmer in the room is increasingly a part of the story. Here, sometimes, people behave differently to the way that viewers and the programme makers had expected.
And where next for the fixed rig? Africa. Channel 4 will offer us The Tribe later this year, shot in Ethiopia. Two points are worth remembering, before the indignation sets in. First, the fixed rig removes the crew that is often the problem with anthropological filming; and second, that the participants may live in traditional homes, but they all have mobile phones which they use to watch TV. From the trailer shown at the RTS at least, The Tribe may well be packed with surprises.
JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He leads the ADAPT project on the history of technologies in TV, funded by a €1.6 million grant from the European Research Council. He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and also oversees the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen. His publications can be found HERE