Lights, radio, action!: the use of communications in the entertainment industry
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason investigates how radio communications technology is being used in the creation and dissemination of entertainment content

In the field of radio technology, one phrase which gets bandied around an awful lot is ‘mission critical’, primarily in relation to situations in which communication has to be instantaneous and uninterrupted or lives could be lost.

Without wanting to state the blindingly obvious, probably the most ‘public facing’ example of this is the use of push-to-talk by the emergency services, something which has been thrust well and truly into the spotlight by the recent difficulties surrounding the UK Home Office’s ESN project.

Other ‘mission critical’ sectors, meanwhile, include aviation, as well as utilities, the latter of which relies on ultra-low latency SCADA technology to regulate its energy generation systems. All of these represent environments in which literally nothing can be allowed to go wrong.

With that in mind, there is, however, another field in which everything has to run like clockwork, only this time with reputations and, more to the point, often enormous budgets on the line. Welcome to the high-risk, high-reward, incredibly stressful world of film and television production.

Can you feel the Force?

Audiolink has specialised in the supply of two-way radio to the TV and movie industry since 1975. In that time the company has been integral to a range of productions, including the likes of recent blockbusters Avengers: Infinity War, Blade Runner 2049and Dunkirk. 2017, meanwhile, marked the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope, for which – the Land Mobilemovie geek contingent will be delighted to learn – Audiolink rolled out comms to George Lucas and his crew of errant space knights.

Delving into the often-daunting logistics involved in current film-making as it relates to on-set comms, company director Andrew Morgan says: “We get involved in all three stages of production. That is, pre-, post- as well as principal photography once the sets are built.

“We supply anything from 40 to 400 devices at a time depending on the scale of what’s required, normally in the form of Motorola GP340 analogue radios, all of which will be on simplex frequencies. We’re also starting to deploy DP1400 radios, but again set in analogue mode to avoid any kind of digital delay, which they can’t get their head around if they’re doing a large stunt. We also supply DP4400s, which are digital, to construction.”

According to Morgan, because of the sheer scale and complexity of contemporary productions, nearly everyone involved in the movie-making process nowadays is likely to require radio access. This includes the construction team, first and second units, as well as specialist crews such as those manning what’s known as a ‘biscuit rig’ (more on which later).

Morgan illustrates this through a discussion of Audiolink’s involvement with the recent Tom Cruise action vehicle, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. This endeavour was not only vast but complicated, taking place as it did in three different countries: the UK, Morocco and Austria.

“Filming in the UK was located at Warner Bros’ Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire where we have a permanent repeater set-up,” Morgan says. “We supplied something like 400 radios for the main unit, as well as a couple of hundred for the second unit, which generally tends to be responsible for all the action shots.

“In terms of frequency, the construction department will tend to have its own as distinct from the other units, simply because of the amount of channels on the analogue radios. Each radio has 16 channels, and stunts will have their own, as will camera, special effects, costume and so on.” He continues: “As well as the two-way radios, we also supply iPhones, mainly for the American crew and executives who come over, so they can communicate with the States whenever they need to. We have deals with EE, Vodafone and O2, and we also provide the SIM cards.

“As you might expect, our clients generally only want the latest models – I’ve got something like four iPhone Xs sat in my office as we speak. It’s very expensive, but it’s something else which has become part of the service we provide.”

According to Morgan, one of the biggest challenges facing the Mission Impossiblecrew was a sequence that was shot in Morocco, involving a motorbike chase taking place along the side of a mountain. This required frequency plans for not just the first and second units, but also the local Moroccan crew and the aforementioned ‘biscuit rig,’ which is a giant drivable platform used for action sequences taking place at speed.

“The chase was staged down a long road, so we needed to provide coverage from top to bottom. The first thing we did was put a repeater in, which had to be moved every day as the shooting of the scene progressed. It was powered by a generator, backed up with solar panels.

“The repeater provided coverage for the main shooting channel, essentially so that they could ride at serious speed knowing that there was no debris or rubble on the road. Our engineer was stationed there for the full three weeks of the shoot, which is very unusual.”

Another issue with filming in Morocco centred around obtaining the permission to use frequencies in the first place, something which apparently involved a considerable amount of work with the country’s government. The process was further drawn out due to the shoot being scheduled to take place around the time of Ramadan.

Speaking of this, Morgan says: “All the discussions around frequency were delayed because of the time of year. It didn’t affect the main unit, but we had to ship them unprogrammed to the second unit and let our engineer take care of it on the ground. It can be an incredibly complicated business.”

Unicast and multicast

As important as the creation of content such as the Mission Impossible films clearly is to the entertainment industry, it would be a pointless activity if there was no way to distribute and view the material once it has been made.

In the old days, this meant sending a physical copy of the film in question for exhibition at the cinema, or to a TV station to be broadcast over what are rather quaintly known as ‘terrestrial’ channels. Nowadays, meanwhile, the process is far more consumer-focused, with IP-based platforms providing outrageous amounts of content on demand for a flat fee.

As revolutionary as the ability to stream/download material over broadband has been, however, its impact could pale in comparison to that of 5G when it comes to the dissemination of content. Whereas the likes of Netflix operate via unicast (ie, sending individual, discrete, chunks of information – say, an episode of House– to multiple users), 5G will likely represent of the full fruition of ‘multicast’ (that is, a single data transmission addressed to a group of users simultaneously).

The core beneficiaries of 5G from the content production side meanwhile will likely be the broadcasters of live events, who will, among other things, be able to drastically reduce their costs, replacing cumbersome outside broadcast units with teams of reporters wielding hi-spec smartphones.

Arguably more exciting – at least for the consumer – is that next-generation broadband will also likely provide infinitely customisable content.

Going into greater detail about the gradual evolution towards ‘5G broadcast’, specifically in relation to multicast and the delivery of content to consumers themselves, Qualcomm staff manager for technical marketing Danny Tseng says: “The starting point of the use of 5G for the mass dissemination of live content is LTE enTV, which has been standardised via 3GPP release 14.”

He continues: “This brings numerous radio access layer enhancements, including support for longer inter-site distance, high broadcast capacity and deployment flexibility for both mobile and fixed devices.

“The specification also supports transport-only mode, so you could potentially have a TV provider – and over-the-top content providers – tap into mobile operator networks in order to deliver content.”

According to the LTE Broadcast Alliance Network – of which Qualcomm is a member – the aim of the technology in its current form is to provide a way of “supporting a large number of different services over large geographical regions”. As published in the organisation’s recent white paper on the subject, this has been proved through a variety of recent “commercial and trial deployments”.

“There’s currently interest from across the world,” says Tseng. “For example, we are working with the broadcasting ecosystem in Europe and showcased the Future of TV last year. Ultimately, mobile devices are the most convenient, widely deployed platform, and broadcasters will always want to increase their reach.”

Going back to the subject of content production, other likely benefits once 5G is finally up and running, according to consultant Larry Thaler, include faster mobile FTP, as well as far smaller devices due to the reduction in the number of modems required.

Speaking of the former – as quoted on the TV Technology website – Thaler says: “If you’ve ever been on the road with a crew who needed to shoot and send back raw materials or edited pieces to the station from a Starbucks Wi-Fi, you know that it can take a while.

“After 5G rolls out, tethering a phone will become our primary method for non-live backhaul.”

Referring to the aforementioned likely step-change in outside broadcasting, meanwhile, he says: “Imagine covering a concert or sporting event with five fixed-position smartphones all live into the control room at the station or production centre. Electronic cropping of the super-high-resolution video would provide panning and zooming. Almost zero cost for coverage.”

In November last year, mobile network operator EE performed what it claimed to be the first live broadcast with remote production over 5G, transmitting from Wembley Stadium to the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London’s Docklands. The footage was then produced remotely by a BT Sport production crew in the East End of London.

Speaking of EE’s 5G Wembley test bed – which operates in the 3.4GHz band and is connected to a 10Gbps backhaul link – Jamie Hindhaugh, chief operating officer at BT Sport, says: “5G will enable BT Sport to deploy the most advanced remote production of any broadcaster. It will allow us to cover more live matches from more leagues and competitions, and to bring fans highlights action closer to the final whistle than has ever been done before in the UK.”

Communications technology plays an integral part in both the delivery and production of media content, fields in which, while lives might not be at stake, there is still much to lose.

Audiolink’s Morgan illustrates this from a supplier’s perspective, saying there are no second chances if you let someone down – once the trust is gone, it generally doesn’t come back (or, in his words, “forget it!”).

A similar pressure is felt by the broadcaster/content provider, meanwhile, particularly given the plethora of options now available to the consumer if their service isn’t up to scratch.

The film and television sector may not be mission critical, but ‘reputation critical’ it most certainly is.

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