Ian Beaumont reports on just how small broadcasting can be
Once upon a time, it took whole teams of people and masses of studio space to fit in all the cameras, people and set pieces for a single programme.
Location filming was a major commitment and very expensive. Most dramas were done semi-play style, all in the studio. Slowly over the years, technology improved and grew small enough to enable outside broadcasts to be achieved at much less expense, location shoots became smaller commitments as the reliability of the equipment improved.
It became standard practice to shoot location sequences on film and studio scenes on video. But edit suites remained room sized and prohibitively expensive, whilst studios remained expensive and large and required a lot of set pieces and lights Nowadays, almost everything can be done smaller and cheaper than ever before.
You do not need big expensive studios anymore, thanks to computer technology. Editing can be done on computer too, and cameras can be small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. Let me explain what I mean.
Thanks to Chromakey technology, also known as Colour Separation Overlay, a presenter can stand or sit in front of a blue or green (or sometimes orange!) screen and have still pictures or video electronically replacing the colour screen behind them.
It is a piece of electronic trickery that has been around for many years, and is considered nowadays as almost passé, but it is still a heavily used piece of electronic trickery. By combining this simple trick, with some of today's computer technology, it is possible to do much more with it now, than could have been conceived of when it was the new trick on the block.
Using a 3D imaging program on a computer, you can create a whole studio set, virtually. Combine this with your Colour Separation Overlay, and you have a relatively cheap, yet incredibly effective, virtual studio, for much less than you would pay for a whole virtual studio system, software and all.
Of course, 3D Virtual Studio technology itself has created a lasting impact on the industry. Small studios can be made to look a lot bigger than they really are, and entire backdrops can be created on computer and changed in seconds depending on the programme.
Changing real backdrops requires a lot of stagehands and needs at least a few minutes to be able to achieve it. Changing a virtual backdrop only requires one person to change the picture on the computer, and requires only a few seconds.
There was a time when the gallery would have been full of different people, doing different jobs, with a cacophony of voices ringing out, making a gallery sound very hectic and confusing.
The Producer would watch over the transmission, the Director would call the shots for the Vision Mixer to mix.
The Sound Mixer would control the various sound sources, whilst a Production Assistant cues in items on videotape and telecine. Operators for the various Videotape and Telecine machines would run those.
Any graphics that might be added to a programme would require a separate operator, whilst a Grams Operator would play in jingles, sounders, sound effects and theme tunes.
A Lighting Director would tell their Console Operator what lights to work and when to work them. An Autocue Operator would be controlling the speed of the prompters on the cameras, whilst the Technical Manager and Vision Controllers made sure the technical quality of the output was up to the required technical standards.
All in all, that is a lot of people just to make one programme run smoothly. Radio never really suffered with this kind of problem. The most people that would ever have been needed for a similar radio production would have been a Director, Sound Mixer and Grams Operator for playing in everything on reel-to-reel tape, records and cartridges.
The gallery for a similar radio operation sounds a lot calmer. Over the past few years though, technology has moved on and as a result, less people can do the same work. The presenter can operate the good old-fashioned autocue by means of a foot-pedal and write an auto-cue script on a laptop in the studio.
Sound sources can be switched on and off by means of a button and video sources can be started and cued in by a pad of buttons, operated by the Director, therefore not requiring a separate Vision Mixer.
Full screen graphics can be cued in and cued up by using two buttons. Sound and Video clips are played in from computer servers rather than Tape machines and record decks.
Just just 6 people, 4 people, and even two people can now run galleries that were a dozen or more people strong. At one time in UK broadcasting, the studio and gallery produced an offspring, the self-operated studio, known often as the self-op. Though it was called a studio, it looked more like a gallery by design.
These studios had a single fixed camera, with autocue facilities that faced straight at the presenter, whilst out of camera shot in front of the presenter was a modified operators desk, which had controls on it for various sound sources including the presenter's own microphone.
One button allowed the studio to opt-out of the network, whilst another replaced the camera shot with a full screen graphic from the studio's own store of graphics. Press the same button again to put the camera shot back on, and then you would press a button next to it to cue up the next graphic.
Modern versions of this kind of studio could allow various sound and video clips to be playlisted and cued in manually.
Until recently, the edit suite was the one area of production that needed a full room, to hold all the equipment needed. The whole idea that an edit suite could be portable was not really viable.
It was only when DVCAM and DVCPRO was created that the technology was small enough to allow the creation of an edit suite that was small enough, portable enough and lightweight enough to be carried and taken out on location.
Previous to this, a special OB van or lorry would have had to gone to the location, with a whole edit suite in it, if location editing had been needed.
Today, it is unusual to find a film crew on location undertaking a programme project without a portable edit suite with them at their base of operations, and in some cases, there are actually a few of these portable edit suites with them.
These portable edit suites are usually a combination of one playback deck and one recording deck, physically linked together, with the option of adding a second playback deck should you want to. This equipment is expensive, with a single Mini DV format deck starting at around £1,000 and by the time you get up to the DVCAM and DVCPRO formats of the professionals, you could be easily be spending five-figure sums or more.
These days as well, video editing can be done on computer. Even until very recently, video editing required extra memory and a lot more hard drive space than most computers could hold, because video takes up a lot of hard drive space.
However, with laptops now coming with 256 MB of memory and over 120 gigabytes of hard drive space, which equates to around 200 writeable CDs, video editing of whole programmes on a computer, is now very much possible, and as the amount of hard drive space goes up, it will most likely in a few years be possible to edit up an entire motion picture release on a laptop computer.
Audio Equipment and Studios
At one time, audio broadcasting was all that could be done in this country. The only regular broadcasting that there was prior to 1936 in the UK was audio only, no pictures.
Even when broadcasting with pictures began, the audio side of the broadcast was as important as the visual. The facilities for providing the audio accompaniments, be it recorded or live commentary, or even audio only, have over the years slowly gotten smaller and cheaper. Let's start with the audio-only side.
At one time, even for a something as simple as an announcement into the next programme, you needed an announcer to make the announcement, a technical operator, to operate the mixing equipment, and if the programme was a recorded programme, a grams operator to play it in.
When it came to programme production, well, the people required for that would depend on the programme. For a music programme, such as Housewives Choice, the presenter, technical operator and grams operator would be joined by a separate producer who would oversee the programme and direct the others.
For a comedy or drama programme, you would have cast members or performers, an announcer, who would sometimes act as a narrator, the technical operator, a separate recording engineer to oversee the recording side, writers who would write the scripts, and a producer and director who would oversee the whole of the production process.
There would also be usually a live orchestra to provide musical links, themes and segments, and a grams operator would play in the relevant sound effects. The equipment itself was large, complex, heavy and not exactly very portable.
A standard radio studio of that era could be a very intimidating place, and a theatre would create a much better atmosphere for radio comedy, variety shows or quizzes. So, instead of bringing the atmosphere to the radio studio, they took the radio studio to the atmosphere.
A special Radio Theatre was created, where an audience could watch radio programmes being recorded, and it would provide the kind of theatre-like atmosphere. The same kind of atmosphere you would get if you went to watch a comedy performance at the theatre.
In essence, it brought the atmosphere of the theatre to radio, and out of sight of the audience, there was all the necessary equipment to mix, record, edit, and indeed, transmit live, the programmes that were produced at the Radio Theatre. Since those days, the technology has grown a lot smaller.
Something as small as a MiniDisc, which can fit on the palm of your hand, can hold more audio than 2 10-inch reels of tape. The recording equipment has become smaller as well. It would take 2 big strong men to lift and carry an old style reel-to-reel tape machine. Not exactly what you would call very portable.
Even the UHER, which was for many years the standard piece of BBC portable recording equipment, the workhorse of many BBC radio reporters, was a heavy piece of kit, carried via means of a shoulder strap. If that UHER was on your shoulder for more than about half an hour, you knew it.
These days, the MiniDisc recorders are small enough to fit in your pocket, and can record as much audio as you need, without the interruption of having to change a disc, unlike the 5-inch reels the UHERs used, which only had 15 minutes of recording time at 7.5 inches per second. A MiniDisc can hold well over 2 hours of recording time, and the limits are being stretched towards 3 hours now.
That kind of recording space availability should be more than enough for any radio producer worth his salt to make a decent programme with. Even the microphones themselves have changed over the years.
The original microphones that stood on the desk in front of the announcer, was often large enough to reach up just in front of the announcer's nose. Nowadays, and for quite some time now, microphones are small enough to be clipped to a tie or a shirt.
Also, the microphone has gone wireless, with radio transmission being the major form of getting the sound from the microphone to the mixing desk. Hand held radio microphones have transmitters built in to the microphone itself, whilst the tie clip variant has the microphone connected via wires to a transmitter pack worn on trousers, skirts or even a belt.
Two styles of microphone have remained in constant use for years, having never yet been surpassed. One is the lip microphone, which is a handheld microphone, which you literally hold over your mouth. It responds to sounds in close proximity, hence it is useful for situations where commentary has to be provided.
These microphones are slowly being replaced by headset microphones, which also pick up sound signals only from close proximity. Headset microphones are cheaper generally than the lip mic, though they can pick up a limited amount of background sound. The lip microphone picks up almost none.
I can remember on BBC sports programming, when they showed the man reading out the classified results, you saw him literally in amongst the other members of the production team, wearing his headphones, and holding the lip mic.
Now, a production area is not quiet at the best of times, but when you heard the results through the lip mic, in the periods between the results, you would barely, and I mean barely, hear what was going on in the background.
The background pick-up on that microphone was very negligible. That is why it is still a microphone of choice, even though the headset microphone is slowly replacing it. The other is the boom microphone, which is still used today in television and movie production, practically unchanged in design since the early days of TV, although the technical ability of the microphone has improved very noticeably.
All of this, combined with improvements in mixing desk technology, that has made desks smaller and lighter, means instead of creating a separate, specialised radio theatre, you could actually take a radio studio, including mixing desk, microphones, and Minidisk recorder, to the theatre, in the boot of a small car.
Commentary booths for sports are small enough now to have 2 screens showing the output to the commentators, wearing headset microphones, and because cameras have shrunk too, there is now the option of putting a camera in the commentary booth, so you can see pictures from the booth before the game or during it.
So, having gone through the various technological aspects, just what kind of effect has all this had on broadcasting itself? Well, to give you an idea let me run through some actual case studies.
News 24 run their actual broadcasts with just 4 people in their gallery. One who runs everything visual, one who runs everything audio, one who deals with all the live links to Outside broadcasts and other studios and one person who edits the output for later use on the channel.
The suite where the output editor works is incorporated into the gallery. CNBCs permanent studio at the New York Stock Exchange is a very small room overlooking the exchange floor from above. The room contains just one chair and a camera facing that chair.
The camera has an autocue facility, controlled by the person in the chair with a foot pedal. One arm of the chair has a script tray attached to it, so that scripts or notes can be placed at hand of the reporter.
In the room is a talkback earphone, so that the reporter can be cued in from the gallery at CNBC's studio complex in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and a tie clip microphone for unobtrusive pickup.
Radio stations have for years been making more and more use of computer controlled CD jukebox and server based systems for running the majority of the output of the station.
Nowadays, the new breed of digital radio stations is taking this to extremes, with stations such as Smash! Hits Radio and others, running automated output 24 hours a day, no DJs, just a continuous mix of music and adverts.
It is not inconceivable that some digital TV stations are doing something similar with their channels, setting up entire playlists for a whole day's automated output. These are just examples of how technology has made broadcasting smaller.
In other ways, the movie industry has taken some of the pioneering work in virtual studios that the BBC was part of, and have done work with virtual studios that will eventually filter back down into broadcasting as it becomes cheaper. Virtual Studio technology may soon be able to make programmes like Doctor Who viable again, as the studio would be able to help replace expensive location shoots and make interiors scenes look better and indeed bigger.
Virtual Studio and 3D imaging technology has done a huge amount for movie drama and could very well do the same for TV drama in time. Indeed, the old standby of chromakey, aka Colour Separation Overlay, could well be a contributing factor in this development. 3D imaging technology, combined with Chromakey, could be a starting point for taking drama to a whole new level.
It would unquestionably help to reduce the costs of making some of the more costly dramas, and would allow designers more creative freedom when it comes to things like locations and interiors. Instead of relying on what is already available, such locations and interiors could be created specifically as backdrops for whatever is happening in the foreground, a bit like a backdrop on a stage play.
In some ways, computer games have also shown the way for TV. Back in 1995, computer created backdrops were being used with real actors for filmed scenes for games such as Command and Conquer.
These techniques were being used alongside fully computerised animations. Even back then, these scenes looked quite effective. Imagine what could be done with today's computers, 3D imaging software and simple Chromakey techniques, or even Virtual Studio technology.
When you think that when The Champions was produced back in 1972, a lot of the supposed location shots were actually produced using back projection and dressed backlots, that none of the cast ever travelled to the cities that the agents were supposed to have visited in the series, you realise that these techniques have been in use for years, there is nothing really new about any of them.
Only the technology has changed. From production right the way through to transmission, the advances in broadcast and production technology have shrunk down broadcasting.
The fact that a relatively cheap piece of video editing software and a decent piece of 3D imaging software on a laptop computer, with a decent camcorder, a blue screen backdrop and a selection of appropriate props is practically all the tools you need to produce drama of some kind, shows just how much things have shrunk. You could hire out a room, about the size of a sports hall, and do the filming and editing in the same room.
Such a thing wasn't possible even as recently as 5 years ago. Now, the possibility exists and could drastically cut the costs of producing certain types of dramas. It is not just dramas that could benefit this way. Sports and News coverage is already seeing ways in which virtual studio and imaging technology is helping to tell the news, and aid explaining strategy in sport.
Factual programming could use the same kind of technology to help visualise history or science, or even visualise timelines and exterior scenes in crime shows or other factual programming. The possibilities for such technology are only limited by the creative imagination of the producer. Technology has helped broadcasting in many ways over the years, and the potential exists for it to keep doing so.
It has made it cheaper and more accessible, meaning that there will be more producers, and indeed more broadcasters. Some of these will unquestionably be on digital TV and radio, whilst others will be broadcasting on the web.
Whether this actually improves programme quality or not, all depends not on the technology, but on the skill and imagination of the producer of the programme, and that is another matter entirely.