For the innovative Live + Wild project, which explored how 5G could be used in documentary filmmaking, this was tackling how to create and deliver fast-turnaround content from remote and challenging locations.
With the majority (90%) of England's land mass described as rural, only 10% of land is in urban areas, places with enhanced digital connectivity potential. If you go to Scotland, this majority jumps to 98%.
In most locations across the country therefore, filming, uploading, editing and distributing content from outside broadcasts, live streams or remote locations has myriad challenges – from lack of connectivity, difficult terrain or near-inaccessible locations, to the distance travelled to physically transfer content via hard drive for upload and editing.
We spoke to award-winning production company Candour, lead partner of Live + Wild, alongside communications specialist aql and MTN Safety, to pick out key learnings and benefits behind the project’s scope
No fails, only invaluable experience
Can 5G help filmmakers deliver live or fast-turnaround footage?
In five outdoor locations across the UK, filming took place among varying degrees of remoteness, with unstable weather conditions and accessibility challenges. Some were many miles away from any kind of stable connection, so the use of 5G connectivity was both critical to success, and exciting to trial.
The filming locations were:
- Sea cliff climbing at Gogarth, North Wales;
- Helvellyn triathlon in the Lake District;
- Caving in Ribblesdale, North Yorkshire;
- Live streaming tests at night from Kielder Observatory in ‘dark sky reserve’; and
- Sea kayaking around Holy Island, off Northumberland.
Due to unforeseen supply chain issues with Covid and Brexit, the project’s timeline was compressed into eight months, with filming running concurrently and the teams swapping from one to the other in quick succession. The tighter schedule was not ideal, yet learnings came from each location – there were no failings, only insight for future work. You can read more about the specific results and learnings from the Kielder Observatory tests here.
Clear demonstration potential
The most exciting outcome of the project for Candour was the crystal clear demonstration of how 5G can enable rapid-turnaround filmmaking and content creation.
The filmmaking industry is traditionally fast-moving, with usually a few months, if not weeks, before transmission to plan, film, edit and broadcast. Deadlines are tight, there is little room for manoeuvre and almost no luxury of time.
For instance, a 30-minute show Candour recently produced for Channel 4 had only four weeks’ prep for a few days of on-site shooting, and then a few weeks’ worth of editing.
Reliable, off-the-shelf solutions that work first time are paramount, reducing risk and concern about using cutting-edge technology that may not work. Most things in documentary filming only happen once – you can’t reshoot or start again when the pressure on delivery of content is so time-constrained.
These reasons mean there are limited opportunities to trial new solutions, making the results of the Live + Wild project all the more important for the wider production sector.
The ability to test
The project gave the teams leeway to trial the latest equipment and processes, taking a step back from their normal fast-paced environment.
As one camera operator put it: “[Trialling is] something we’d never be able to do in our day-to-day work.”
Deadlines were still there to hit, yet the lack of a transmission/broadcast date allowed for more testing days and location recces. More visits and testing with different groups allowed for experimentation, proactivity and creativity to navigate challenges.
Smaller outfits such as Candour don’t have the luxury of endless R&D. Unless you have a huge budget like a BBC Attenborough documentary (where you have the latest kit and are on site for months or years at a time), then you have to rely on solutions that work out of the box first time. With the creative industries made up predominantly of SME organisations, this is a challenge many production companies will be able to relate to.
Going deeper underground
The Yorkshire potholing shoot gave rise to particular challenges, from filming on a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) to navigating the limitations of the cave structure – moss on the walls and the practicalities of getting the 5G rig into confined spaces.
Generating 5G signal underground was very different to a mast sending out 120° of coverage overground. The team trialled with pre-recorded content before live footage, to make the process as feasible as possible. However, on the filming day there was driving rain and 40mph gusts of wind, the base station was built into a 4x4, and the kit – as well as the fibre cable to the 5G rig – turned out to not be as rugged or weather resistant as first hoped.
Secondly, the people working with the equipment were cavers, not technical experts. If something went wrong, the walkie talkie message comes back saying “the connection isn’t working” or “the white wire is not connected”, and they do not necessarily have the expertise to fix things on the fly. A clear lesson therefore was that when testing tech to its limits, having someone close to hand who can manage any last minute technical issues is vital.
Using the learnings from the project, Candour has been able to pitch new ideas to customers and partners, expanding their working practises using this new knowledge and experience
Constant uploading = continuous feedback
With data transfer there is a legacy broadcast mentality that biking, or couriering, hard drives of filming material back to base is the most efficient way. Again, time pressures limit the possibility to test new ways of working – something the 5GTT programme has enabled.
Usually, you have three or four cameras shooting for around 12 hours each, with footage transferred to a terabyte drive and taken by vehicle back to base, then ingested and encoded before it can be worked on in the editing suite. You could wrap up filming at 8pm and the very earliest you could get the footage ready to go, including ingesting (getting footage into software, ready to edit), is in about 24 hours.
Being a rushes runner can also be miserable work, simply taking the hard drive to and from places, not using your skillset, nor really engaging with the industry. The existing model comes at a high human time and money cost; the runner could be used more productively and effectively on site.
With a reliable 5G connection, the project demonstrated that rushes can be uploaded constantly, continuously processing. Additionally, receiving constant feedback from the editors in near real-time means earlier flagging of issues, which they can phone back while filming is ongoing to address the sound/lighting/framing issue live.
When testing 5G speeds (not reliant on an inferior backhaul) at the Kielder Observatory test site, the team observed the ability to transfer between 1-4 full cards of material – a day’s worth of filming, approx. 74gb – back to base in about 3.5 hours. This could be ingested, transcoded, and viewed in real time, as opposed to waiting to courier rushes back at the end of the day. This was at a speed of 50mbps – 5G’s theoretical max speed is 100mbps, so this could be halved.
Working concurrently is definitely the way forward and this was a clear benefit realised from the Live + Wild project. The alternative to regular, ongoing feedback is reshooting portions (or, in worst case scenarios, the whole day’s filming) taking significant time and costs, if you are even able to recreate the filming location with multiple people, weather and availability challenges, to name but three.
Democratising revenue streams for all sectors
The final benefit is one for any sector, not just the creative industries.
Outside broadcasts or filming in challenging locations are logistical feats. Conventionally, they are unwieldy (needing satellite trucks for uplinks), and very expensive – costing up to, and beyond £10k per day. For smaller organisations and enterprises, this cost is far too great to consider filming content. At the Kielder Observatory for instance, they are an education centre, where you can look through telescopes, and share material for educational outreach.
However, the site is three-and-a-half hours from Leeds and one-and-a-half from Newcastle. In addition to the cost of petrol, the required timing – late at night to get the best visibility – means that a huge potential audience is restricted. You can't have the elderly, schoolchildren, or other groups of people physically there very late at night.
The observatory runs on solar power, has very patchy public 4G, and they tried to distribute content on their owned channels during lockdown using Facebook Live. With the Live + Wild project, a Land Rover was set up with a small satellite uplink kit, demonstrating the future potential for widely available 5G technology to create and share high-quality pieces of content quickly.
The wider potential for art, sports, community or other smaller budget venues to own their own content creation and delivery strategy, makes it far more affordable and would allow them to engage and interact with a wider audience at a time and place that suits them.
The additional revenue streams, for organisations and SMEs could have a significant impact in a time when Brexit, COVID and economic challenges mean that previously-available funds may no longer be available.
This exciting potential use of 5G enabled content – which is within close reach – brings quick-turnaround content direct to these audiences at a time and place they can access it. Democratising delivery of content wherever you are, and whatever your sector, industry or specialism.
For more information on the project, check out the Live + Wild page on UK5G.