The most interesting job I’ve done recently was The Circle at the end of last year. That was a four-month project that required us to create an entire TV facility in an abandoned building in Manchester. It involved eight EVS servers recording permanently, nearly a petabyte of storage, and about 30 edit suites and laptops all running 24 hours a day.
The Circle is a Channel 4 reality TV programme (also picked up by Netflix) where contestants go into apartments based in a single building and can only communicate with each other via ‘The Circle’ – a voice-activated social media platform. They can catfish and pretend to be other people, build alliances and backstab each other, with the aim being to avoid being blocked and come out as the most popular player. There are 10 contestants with an apartment each, and each apartment has about 10 cameras in. We take about 40 feeds a day, all day, which means for every hour of production there’s 40 hours of record to pick from – about 60-70 terabytes of media each day.
Gravity Media’s role is building and supporting the record, logging and editorial side of the rig. Key to the setup is that the client requested full redundancy for the record system, so we’ve got four EVSs recording permanently and another four recording for backup just in case there are any issues. And because we can’t run the risk of falling behind on a show like this, we back up everything, including our media storage. So that means we also had 16 Avid NEXIS units running too – about 960 terabytes of capacity; half for the record and half for the backup.
This is all built onsite in Manchester. There’s a block of flats in Salford they use for the show, and just opposite is an old University of Salford building, which is where we set up. We take literally everything in in July: the racks for the EVS and Avid gear, the desks for the edits to go onto, all the furniture, and the whole thing gets rigged up and stays that way until the end of November. The initial rig takes 10 days with four engineers, building the working system enough to be able to hand it over to a single engineer – me – who remains onsite to refine and troubleshoot from there.
Before we take anything of this scale to the location, it is all designed, configured and tested at our post-production HQ in Southwood. The main core, as well as all the edits, are all built at base, so we can be sure the core part of the workflow works. We also test the Avid Interplay side of it too, so it’s got an ultimate failover if there are any server issues. The rest of it is designed to fold out onsite, where we have the engineers and the time to do the finishing touches. But everything should arrive on location pretty much preconfigured and requiring minimal configuring once there. We also run a bootcamp at the start of production to show the editors how things are laid out and where they’ll find things. The edit systems are great here as they group all the clips and the editors can look through them.
This is probably one of the biggest jobs we work on. We have 15 edit suites that are divided into finishing suites and story edits, with a producer edit in each suite running alongside (30 edits in total). The main editor station is configured with an HPZ8 Gen4 workstation connected to two 24-inch monitors, a 14-channel mixing desk with VO, Genelec studio monitors for audio monitoring, and PVM monitors for client monitoring. We also have three titles machines that only do screen effects, and there are seven ingest edits all feeding in. We’ve then got the gallery up at the top, which is doing the logging, so that’s another 10 IPDirectors just for monitoring each of the apartments. Then there’s a whole host of bits of storage and production laptops on top of those. At any one point I’ve usually got about 40-50 suites or machines in use, and they’re going 24 hours a day. The production team also has to work 24 hours a day, of course, so they have two teams doing that in 12-hour shifts.
Everyone has to work hard. From our side, you’re generally doing a 10-hour day during the rig to get everything up and running, and then when you move onto initial production – when people start using the kit in earnest – your days start scaling up. I think there are probably about three weeks where it’s pushing towards 18-hour days most days. Once we’ve gone through that initial trial by fire and people have got things how they want them, my workload settles into a 12-hour pattern – normally from midday till midnight. This is because both Channel 4 and Netflix gear production as if they’re delivering a nightly show. They’re not, because it doesn’t go out until much later, but because of storage requirements and how much media is generated, shows are still produced night by night.
My day is built backwards from when they expect to deliver. My routine would typically be: arrive onsite; speak to the ingest crew to see if any issues have been brought to them; speak to the edit supervisors, to find out whether there are any notes from overnight issues; and if it was just a couple of niggles, I’d go and find out what the case is with those. If there was anything serious, people would usually ring me, so day-to-day it’s usually just checking the event logs and keeping things ticking over. I’m pleased to say there were no major issues, which is pretty incredible – particularly on the EVS side of things: we set them up, and they just ran and ran flawlessly.
If I was asked to pick a highlight from the last season, it’s probably simply that we got it over the line; the sense of relief and the sense of pride. At the start of it, I was running 18-hour days and it felt like the end was so far away. You’ve got all this equipment and it has to run, it has to stay going, and if it does go down you have to be able to fix it and get it going again quickly. It was so intense. Getting that to the final stretch and realising we’d got all the edges sanded off and everything working smoothly felt pretty good. And when you think the kit had all been built in the middle of the pandemic when a lot of people were furloughed, so there was a much smaller crew and we all had to work with safe-distancing in mind, it was an impressive achievement and one for the show reel for sure.
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