Mat Overton is a Specialist Technician (Media) here at the University of Bradford. In this blog, he writes about Bradford’s Outside Broadcasting truck and the amazing opportunities that it has created for our students.
Eight years ago we launched the University of Bradford’s Outside Broadcasting truck, affectionally known as “Bertha”. It was a labour of love, with the vast majority of work done in-house by myself and our Film and Television Production academic lead Chris Hazell. It’s amazing to look back as some of the high profile events we’ve covered, and the amazing work experience our students have had thanks to the ability to take our TV production facilities on the road.
Our proving ground for the truck came with two visits to the Great Central Railway in Leicestershire to film steam train galas at Swithland and Quorn. Now, unless you’re a railway enthusiast, spending a whole day pointing a camera at a fiery box of metal puffing back and forth might not sound like a barrel of laughs, especially if the weather turns out to be “a little wintery”, but our students loved the challenge (if not the frozen fingers).
As well as the experience of filming things you wouldn’t normally get in a TV studio, they had the chance to build scaffold towers and play with expensive box lenses hired in for the shoot, with half of the crew staying overnight to complete the rig the day before. We used mini-cams in the track to get fantastic shots of the locos as they passed overhead and learnt a lot about the logistical (and health and safety) challenges of rigging an entire railway station with cameras and microphones when trains were still running! The end result was two DVDs of action, raising over £15,000 for charity in the process.
Live theatre broadcast
In 2014, we were asked to provide a trial live theatre broadcast. Whilst commonplace now, this was new to many theatres at the time, so the West Yorkshire Playhouse wanted to trial the concept by providing a stream of a new play to theatre operators around the country who would be getting the play in the future. Written by well-known TV actor Maxine Peake, “Beryl” tells the story of one of the UK’s greatest female cyclists – Beryl Burton from Otley.
With limited time for setup and rehearsal, our students were able to fully crew, rig and operate a broadcast from Leeds whilst a paying audience were in attendance. We also had the oversight of professional TV director Roy Player for the live broadcast.
2015 saw a general election – the first of many political events to follow! BBC Yorkshire asked if we would be able to work with them to provide a pre-recorded prime time election special for BBC One.
So, with a crew of around 10 students, we rigged the newly opened Leeds Arena for a 45 minute “regional Question Time” with Harry Gration and election candidates from all the major parties. We were fortunate enough to have just upgraded our broadcast cameras to the latest Sony channels. Being the same model used by BBC News, The One Show and EastEnders, this meant that we were now able to hire in extra channels giving us up to 8 camera chains for an event, providing a lovely image match to existing BBC broadcasts.
Children in Need
This was then followed later in the year by BBC Look North’s live broadcast for Children in Need. Each November, the BBC regions will provide their own Children in Need event, rigging all or most of the main evening’s 6.30pm news programme as an outside broadcast, followed by “opt-outs” to the regions from the main Children in Need programme on BBC One later that evening. With the benefit of Bertha, we provided a complex rig across three different spaces in Bradford City hall, featuring a choir, pop band and Bhangra stage! Probably the biggest challenge here was to try and retain wireless talkback communications through the thick stone walls and lead windows of the building.
One of the biggest areas for Outside Broadcast production these days is in sport, and our students have had their fair share of pitch-side action, filming the annual Rugby Varsity grudge matches against Huddersfield uni – always a challenge due to windy conditions on location, and a bit more refined – Live IPA (International Pool Association) pool championships, which took place from our own student union. Both of these allowed the students to practice the quick-paced action involved in filming live sports – even the sedate ones! With no script, camera shots are made on the fly, and you have to anticipate where the ball(s) will go. Pulling camera focus as a pool ball glides across a table is an art form in itself! These events also present the challenges of scoreboard graphics, operators and a commentary team, who all need managing by the director – usually myself, Chris Hazell or another student.
In 2016 the EU Referendum followed, so we produced another “regional question time” style show from the Bradford Alhambra studio. Bradford has always proved a challenge for OBs, as it’s built up of mostly hills, not very good for the OB truck to park, and the director finds his wheeled office chair sliding to one end or the other mid-broadcast! The shear length of the cabling run meant a complex feed to the BBC satellite truck, and in over fibre through an upstairs toilet window before getting onto the venue stage. With our output and Sony cameras in full HD, our broadcast was selected to be shown on the BBC One HD channel, which cannot opt-out for regional variations.
The EU referendum triggered another general election in the spring of 2017, this time starring the Square Chapel arts centre in Halifax. Alongside the Piece Hall next door, this was in the middle of a refurbishment, so our students had a lot of fun cabling in through the not-quite finished new atrium into the venue. The BBC were obviously partial to Halifax, as 6 months later, we rolled up for an outdoor outside broadcast in the Piece Hall itself for another live Children in Need.
2018 and 2019 saw two contrasting Children in Need shows. Both produced by Tom Ingall, a senior broadcast journalist for BBC Yorkshire, and one of our alumni from our media courses (not to mention also the producer of our earlier steam train gala films!), we first went to Barrow Hill Roundhouse near Chesterfield. This is an engine shed for historic steam and diesel locomotives, so provided an amazing backdrop to rig, and for the students to light with our new portable LED lamps.
Meanwhile, Scarborough saw poor weather and a very hilly rig up to the Woodend centre. As we have developed our resources over the years, it has made us less reliant on external kit. By this stage, we were able to provide our own fibre links into the venue, and the BBC could use one of their iCAV vehicles, with video over mobile phone networks to get the signal back to base, rather than the expense of using a full satellite truck. I’m proud to say that by this stage, I believe around half of the BBC’s own technical crew out of Leeds are all Bradford alumni, with several members of production crew, and gallery staff being able to trace their degree back to one of the University of Bradford’s media courses.
Collaborating with professionals
With all of the BBC events, students were not just shadowing BBC staff, they were working alongside them, providing half of the live crew – operating cameras, booming the audience, operating the autocue, audience wrangling and acting as runners.
The Outside Broadcast truck has added a huge amount of experience to our students’ CVs.
For most university production courses, multicamera production is carried out in a studio environment where everything is ready to go in advance. On an OB, a wealth of additional experience is gained – from reeling / dereeling cables, setting up tripods and pedestals, plugging in audio cables, video leads, triax and fibre cable, communication circuits, etc. Even something as simple as mounting a camera in a tripod is very different in broadcast TV, but for the most part as a camera operator, this has all been done for you when you walk into a TV studio.
The rigging process really helps add to the student’s understanding of how it all works and comes together for a live OB pre-recorded event. I’m proud that we’ve been able to equip the truck with industry-standard kit that will be familiar if they go into a studio or OB environment post-degree.
For the past 13 years we have also filmed and broadcast live all of the University’s graduation ceremonies. This has been a great opportunity for me to provide paid work to our students, and more than 150 ceremonies have been filmed with a crack team from our 1st and 2nd year Film & Television production students.
Whilst graduation has been my baby even before we got the OB truck, this December for the first time, I had to hand it over fully to a team of students whilst I was in hospital attending the birth of my own child! Whilst I’ve nailed Graduation down to a fine art over the years, it has meant that the setup has become more complex, especially this year as the new VC introduced a new stage layout and prompting screens to the setup.
Despite this, they handled it brilliantly, and prove that the efforts we go to in teaching can produce graduates to be proud of.
For more pictures from Bertha, follow her on Instagram @BradfordUniTV, Twitter or Facebook.