Now that television production companies seem to have exhausted the rich seam of subjects for fly-on-the-wall documentaries, producers are turning their attention to more structured environments which still involve a high degree of public participation.
The steady increase in the number of made-for-television competitions bears witness to the viewers' appetite for programming that features real people. You don't get much more real than the teams competing in Channel 4's Scrapheap challenge series. Eschewing the current trend for muscle-bound fitness contests, Scrapheap revolves around ingenuity, brute force, and the contestants' skill with a welder. Two teams of four are tasked with building a machine for a particular purpose, using only the contents of a city-centre scrapyard. A race is then held to determine the winning design.
Taking any kind of television equipment into an environment that requires the use of hard hats, boots and chemically-impregnable overalls is a risk; when the production becomes complex (up to seven cameras, three presenters and 12 radio mics), the situation becomes a potential nightmare. The team from Total Audio Solutions, hired by RDF Television to provide sound recording and comms facilities, take this in their stride. Conrad Fletcher, Co-Director of TAS, is pleased to be working with RDF on this unusual project: "RDF is one of the few production companies who are prepared to take sound seriously. However, we've tried to limit the cost by being able to provide everything in-house, including a PA set-up for the last series. Having equipment which is easy to rig and totally reliable in operation is essential on a project like this. You can't afford to miss the big moment."
Total Audio Solutions provided sound facilities on the first series of Scrapheap, and also for the RDF production Wheeler Dealers, for BBC2. Carl Dolan, one of the three-strong TAS crew on Scrapheap, explains the philosophy behind the location set-up: "Each of the seven contests is shot over two days; the first is a build day in the scrapyard, with the second on location for the race itself. We essentially provide the same level of facilities for each -- though, for the race day, the equipment is de-rigged into a 4WD off-roader as the locations can be a little remote!"
An unusual on-screen feature of
the production sound is the use of Beyer TGX30 headset mics for the contestants.
These were chosen to provide sufficient rejection for intelligible speech during
the build days, since the close proximity of heavy machinery such as industrial
angle-grinders and metal cutting equipment make the use of lavaliers for the contestants impossible. In any case, the futuristic look of the visible mic capsules helps to support the post-apocalyptic look of the programme.
Each of the eight contestants is also fitted with a Sony WRT-860A transmitter. Presenters Robert Llewellyn (of Red Dwarf fame) and Cathy Rogers, who also co-produces Scrapheap, are fitted with standard Sony ECM-77 lavaliers with the same radio pack as the contestants. The final cast member is an expert, acting as both judge and consultant to the two teams.
Peter Knowles and Conrad Fletcher were responsible for the design of the RF system employed on the show. "We use three antennae in the scrapyard itself, two for standard diversity and a third mounted on the highest pile of scrap!" Fletcher explains. "We thought that being surrounded by so much RF-opaque material would be a major problem, but we haven't had a single drop-out." Peter Knowles adds: "We were amazed that the RF system is not bothered by the sparking from the angle grinders and arc welders, considering that they're being operated within inches of the transmitters." Another surprise is the resilience of the transmitter electronics to the hard knocks delivered by their less-than-careful wearers. The units are hidden underneath the contestants' overalls and tend to be forgotten once the clock is running.
In addition to the incredibly dirty conditions, the RF packs have to contend with large quantities of water: one of the challenges is to recover a small car from a lake. For this, Fletcher uses resealable plastic bags designed for mobile phones on board yachts, with the mic capsule inside the bag with the transmitter. These work well in practice, but a faulty seal did result in the complete immersion of one transmitter. Following a two-day drying-out period, however, the transmitter was back in action on set!
Feeds from the RF antennae are split to feed the six Sony WRR-850A dual receivers, which use an internally-stored frequency plan to avoid intermodulation problems. The audio output of the receivers is fed to the TAS mobile, which houses an Oram BEQ console. "The Oram is great," commented Fletcher, "the grounding is very good and the headroom's superb." Though the console facilities are limited by the very wide module pitch (30 channels across a VW LT-35 van frame), the console benefits from having dual inputs on every channel and has worked happily for two years without a hitch, even in the filthy conditions experienced during the two series of Scrapheap recordings.
Individual signals are recorded on a pair of Tascam DA-98 eight-tracks, with the presenter and judge mic channels duplicated on both machines. Despite the wide dynamic range of the sources, the headband-mounted mic capsules are so close to the contestants' mouths that no compression is used at all. A mixed mono feed of each team (plus presenters) is re-transmitted via a standard Sony WRT-860A beltpack transmitter. The Beta SX handheld camera/recorders used for the shoot are each fitted with a plug-in Sony WRR-855A diversity receiver, which picks up the mixed team feed. This is recorded by each camcorder and used as a post-production guide track.
RDF elected not to use a vision truck for the Scrapheap series, but the demands placed on audio and communications facilities are still great. In fact, the absence of any central control point and the documentary-style production mean that an unusually high degree of radio communications is needed. Up to 48 Motorola GP300 radios are used for production comms over three channels, and the presenters and judge are equipped with Icom IC-R2 scanners to enable them to snoop on the teams' mixed RF feeds and any comms traffic. Peter Knowles is not concerned about the high number of radio systems employed on the shoot: "The synthesized nature of the Sony system allows us to use multiple frequencies safely within a single TV channel; also, the risk of intermodulation is reduced even further by using low-power transmitters and highly sensitive receivers." The topology of the system has an added advantage; when presenters need to do a piece to camera, they are given a different transmitter, the camera is retuned [a process which takes a few seconds], and the recording can be done autonomously.
Recording of the build day takes place continuously for 12 hours, due to the unpredictable nature of the challenge. When added to the race day, this results in nearly 100 hours of tape for each one-hour show. It is therefore vital that RDF Television's editors can locate key scenes quickly. As there is no connectivity between cameras (except RF for the guide track), timecode is supplied by Ambient Lockit sync generators fitted to each camera and the DA-98s. The Lockit units are tuned and locked to the same code every morning, and left to free run all day.
The 12-hour session places a strain on battery life for the portable transmitters. Fletcher experimented with many different types but has settled on the Varta AA cells. "These give six to seven hours of life with the Sony transmitters and, because the receivers monitor the battery condition, we always know well in advance when a change is needed," he commented.
Mains power for the TAS mobile is provided by a basic Honda generator. Although by no means ideal, due to its inherent noise and erratic frequency output, Fletcher reports that all the audio and RF equipment in the van has remained rock-steady. In fact, the Sony receivers have proved reliable enough to be exiled to the support truck to make more space in the recording van.
The second day of shooting takes place on location and the sites chosen vary from airfields (building a glider), through lakes (rescuing the aforementioned car) to the final, which is set on a tank driving course, complete with water traps, barricades and pyrotechnics! For this, the main elements of the TAS mobile are built into a pair of flightcases and transported to the location in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Despite seeing two Landrovers put out of action early on in the day, the TAS team was confident of its ability to set up an entire studio's worth of comms and sound in a muddy field.
Replacing the Oram on the second day is a pair of Spirit ProTrackers eight-channel rackmount mixers designed to provide a front end to any of the common multitrack machines. These provide the same multitrack outputs and mixed feed to cameras, as well as local monitoring in the temporary OB van.
Audio post production is carried out in RDF's Notting Hill studios, which are equipped with Avid suites. The entire video and audio post period takes five weeks per episode and, with so much recorded material, the final programme has more genuine off-the-cuff moments than most televised competitions. Conrad Fletcher is happy to hand over the DA-98 tapes to RDF to finish the job: "Five additional weeks per programme would be impossible for us to manage, we're just too busy," he comments, "though it would be nice to work where it's warm and dry!"
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