As the gates to the event open and the hordes roll in to watch the North West 200 motorcycle race, production company Greenlight TV is primed: production schedule ready, broadcast timetable planned meticulously. Then... torrential rain, a crash and a major oil spill... finally a credible bomb alert.
It's at times like these when production skills and technical agility come to the fore.
It sounds exciting: high-powered sports bikes racing at speeds approaching 200 mph along country roads, complete with collisions, crashes and breathless overtaking moves. Greenlight TV films it all for live TV and wraps it up in pre-recorded TV shows and DVDs. The race may be thrilling, but it's not nearly as exciting as the behind-the-scenes skill and technology that go into its broadcast. Production teams have to keep the cameras rolling even when things don't go to plan.
Taking Technology for Granted
In 20 years, we have gone from 4 stations to multi-channel, interactive HDTV. That's dramatic. And it's been a revolution that has meant production companies and broadcasters having to completely reinvent themselves and the way they operate.
Sometimes as a consumer it is difficult to appreciate just how much the TV world has turned on its head. Today we take 100+ channels for granted. The neighbour's flat screen TV has ceased being a thing to be envied. 3DTV might be another great leap forward but it is being introduced with little or no fanfare. It's actually broadcast technology that's out in front.
Even the professional production community itself has become blas about this kind of massive change. Creating high definition video within a tapeless environment, in 5.1 surround sound, complete with beautifully rendered titles, fx and graphics has become just the norm. These revolutions are not banal. There should be no mistaking how different our world has become because of TV technology. We have been, and are still in the midst of, a bigger media revolution than anyone could have imagined even two decades ago.
So at first glance, a story in a production magazine about an independent company shooting a sporting event may appear to be a run of the mill piece looking at filming fast bikes. However, when weather, terrorism and a calamitous crash conspired to upset all the broadcast plans at the North West 200, it is possible to appreciate the value of a professional production team.
David Beynon of Greenlight Television which specialises in motorsport sounded calm (after the event!):
"In this industry and in this sport, you have to be ready for anything. Fortunately we've seen most things before and can respond accordingly."
Greenlight has certainly lived through significant change; they are used to reinventing the way they work. Beynon made a telling comment about the incredible impact that the digital revolution has entailed for his company:
"Our first edit suite was installed 15 years ago. It was linear, standard definition and quite efficient. It cost us £350,000. Our latest upgrade this year saw the final 3 linear edit suites stripped out and replaced by Edius HD non-linear workstations with HD decks. The cost was less than £35k per suite." In total Greenlight now runs 7 Edius HD suites and and 4 FCP suites.
Digital acquisition was a start. Going tapeless was then another staggering leap forward - again an easy thing to say, and again, Beynon paints the real picture: "High speed ingest saves time. So what? Simply, it gives us way more time to produce way better programmes without hours waiting for tapes to be digitised."
The North West 200
The acceleration in the production process has coincided with the explosion of digital TV channels and the demand for more and more top quality content. The planned coverage of North West 200 was a case in point.
The motorbike race attracts more than 100,000 as well as the biggest names including Michael Rutter, Guy Martin, Ryan Farquhar and Michael and William Dunlop. Taking place in May, the circuit runs between the towns of Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Such a competition in such an environment demands programming of the highest quality, whether it goes out on schedule or has to be rewritten at a moment's notice.
This year Greenlight plan was to produce over 13 hours of programming - live and next day - as well as a 3-hour DVD to cover the race which is Northern Ireland's largest outdoor sporting event.
"The cost, speed and performance of today's technology means that we have to make few compromises." Explains Beynon. "It also means that we can make all of the footage from the event, from on-bike cameras, the Cineflex on the helicopter and over 20 trackside cameras available to not only all of our suites on-site but also to the BBC online team in a separate unit. With the assistance of Televideo's OB expertise and EVS technology, the crew can produce and play out live, high quality content to the BBC in real-time, mixing material from any of the 20 cameras.
In Post with EDIUS
As well as live TV, the Greenlight crew was commissioned to produce numerous feature pieces and a post-race wrap-up programme for the BBC. For this Greenlight turns to its newly installed edit studios which were recently upgraded by Gaz Aldridge of Gaztec Services. In a post production world dominated by Avid, Adobe and Apple, Aldridge recommended Grass Valley's EDIUS. He commented:
"Greenlight is all about high quality, fast turnaround programmes. Software like Final Cut Pro have their place but they are best suited to complex content creation rather than fast cutting. For realtime, multi-format editing, we go for EDIUS. You can drop anything onto the timeline with no need for transcoding and, twinned with a Storm 3G card, EDIUS is exceptionally quick."
Storm 3G can handle any mix of high and standard definition video content, unlimited video, audio, title and graphics layers and any combination of real time effects. It also offers real time, full resolution, full quality HD and SD video outputs. "But most importantly, it's highly stable. Running on Hewlett Packard Z800 workstations, Greenlight has an industry-leading, robust solution."
The speed and power of modern editing equipment, liberated from the days of passing tapes around the edit suite enable Greenlight to work concurrently on the same material for different programmes. Working with a shared storage solution means a faster workflow and unrestricted access to content for the editors. "We want to produce more versions, use more camera angles, more effects, more titles. We can never have enough power!"
For Gaztec, one revelation has been VideoStar's's titling software, VisTitle for EDIUS. "Its realtime performance is ideally suited to Greenlight It gives them control, creativity and reliability - everything they need." However, Gaz Aldridge's excitement goes up a level when talking about the 3G Elite card. "It instantly turns a laptop into a fully fledged broadcast field edit system boasting HD-SDI connectors with embedded audio and timecode and HDMI sockets for full resolution monitoring. It's a phenomenal piece of kit."
No matter how quickly the technology advances, Beynon states plainly that he will always want more. Whether it's to overcome the final bottleneck of Cinema 4D renders or speeding up the creation of elaborate graphic sequences in Final Cut Pro, Greenlight TV will always crave more power. "Production companies thrive on creating programmes of the highest quality. We are ambitious. We want to deliver better programmes every time, to get more air time and to keep our customers truly satisfied with our work." Remarked Beynon.
In the Hot Seat
As far as the race and the broadcast schedule were concerned, nothing went to plan at this year's North West 200. However, despite the levels of stress amongst the producers and editors, the show went on. Beynon concluded:
"When all hell breaks loose, you've got to fall back on experience and know how. And you have to trust in the technology."
Every year fast cars, fast bikes and fast boats make incremental improvements. But it's actually in the broadcast world where the real race is happening - get ready for 4K, 8K, super-hi vision... Faster, cheaper technology is announced every time a trade show opens. And we will keep needing more of it, especially when plans fall apart.