Behind the scenes with Formula E’s television production team

For the past seven years, Formula E has raced on city streets around the world, from Beijing back in 2014, all the way through to Berlin last month.

The 2020-21 season was the most competitive in the championship’s history, with Mercedes driver Nyck de Vries clinching the title by 7 points in the season deciding round.

The nature of the championship has presented challenges for North One Television and Aurora Media Worldwide, who produce Formula E’s television offering under the FE TV banner.

We caught up with the team in London to see how the championship makes its way to fans watching around the world…

The high-level geographical setup

As well as the complexities caused by racing around the streets of cities such as Rome, Paris and London, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused extra issues for the TV production.

During normal times, most top-tier sports keep the same ‘core’ production team week in, week out, ensuring that the quality of the output remains the same for the viewer watching.

However, the late cancellation and rearrangement of events has resulted in clashes, meaning it has been harder for the team, led by Formula E’s TV director West Gillett, to keep providing a consistent product to viewers.

“It’s definitely been a harder season for us, not only because of the restrictions, but also because a lot of the crew don’t want to travel, to come home and have to quarantine,” Gillett explains, chatting to Motorsport Broadcasting from the expansive ExCeL Centre, home to the London E-Prix.

“We’ve had to open up our crew to a much bigger pool of people, and to not have that consistency is hard,” he says.

“We’re having to start afresh every time, and that’s been quite tiring, but we’ve been fortunate enough to have the right people in the right places.”

Prior to COVID, around 20 broadcasters brought their own personnel with them on-site, a number that reduced to just 1 when the pandemic hit.

Geographically split across three different locations, Timeline Television’s base in Ealing, West London serves as production base for Formula E’s wrap-around programming and team radio feed.

Timeline supports broadcasters such as Star Sports in India, and CBS in US, as well as other broadcasters who take the English language feed, with 35 people producing content from Ealing.

Al Kamel Systems operate from Barcelona and houses Formula E’s graphics operators. In addition, a team of 100 people, led by Gillett, produce content on-site.

The on-site team produces the race feed, as well as the ‘big screen’ displays around each venue, linking in with both the Ealing and Barcelona bases throughout.

At any one time, the production team have up to 40 different feeds coming into them. For the London E-Prix, Formula E operated 18 track cameras.

In some instances, Gillett positioned cameras on top of scissor lifts and cherry pickers, with Jib cameras also utilised.

Capturing the speed

The external angles have evolved significantly since Formula E’s first race in Beijing 2014, helping to capture the speed of the machinery.

“We were panning quite wide [in Beijing], and we found the cars to be a bit slow. A little trick is to start wide, and then zoom into the car, as it enhances the speed on the pan,” Gillett explains.

“I also bring the cameras closer and lower, as the closer you are to a subject matter when it comes past you, the faster it looks. When you’re much further away, the subject is moving slower across your eye line.”

“It’s finding the right balance, we have the ground level cameras where we need them, to enhance the speed, and then the higher cameras to show the circuit and the corner.”

Inside the Formula E production gallery with director West Gillett.

In addition, Gillett has 6 high-speed mini cameras, 8 on-board camera angles and 6 RF cameras to utilise during the race itself.

With a limited number of on-boards coming through however, there is a risk that incidents further down the field go uncaptured from a close-up angle, as has happened on occasion during season 7.

Gillett relies on the engineers to “choose the on-board that is most relevant at the time, otherwise we’re going to have 24 cameras coming in, which is too much.”

“If [Sebastian] Buemi is chasing [Lucas] di Grassi down, ideally, if di Grassi has a rear facing camera, I’ll have that on and I’ll have Buemi’s forward facing camera on.”

On the team radio front, a professional motor racing driver, believed to be Charlie Butler-Henderson, listens to the incoming feeds from Ealing.

“He is listening to the feeds remotely through the MRTC, which is the same system that the teams listen to. If we’re focussed on a particular subject, he’ll start listening to that driver and bring in anything of relevance,” Gillett tells me.

Like with the on-board angles, the team may miss some of the ‘juicier’ team radio snippets with only one person from the team monitoring the feeds, however, given the length of the races, it would be impossible to fit in every interesting soundbite.

How replays happen

Formula E generates replays from a separate production booth on-location, with four different operators analysing all the available angles for the gallery to play out on the feed.

Gillett explains, “My VT coordinator will select what’s going to be coming each time. For example, if I’ve got a replay of Nyck de Vries, there might be two or three angles.”

“With any replay, the first angle tends to explains what happens, the second angle would be an effects angle and the third angle an onboard. If I’ve got three angles, I start the first one on line A, the second one on line B, the third one on line C.”

The narrative from the production team helps commentators Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti decipher what happened with each incident during the race.

Nicholls, who has been lead commentator on most of Formula E’s 84 races, helps both new and existing fans interact with the electric series through his old-school ‘red car, blue car’ commentary style.

“You don’t want to spoon feed people and make people feel patronised. But I think there are ways you can say things that explain, but also inform,” Nicholls believes.

“If I say, ‘there goes the black and gold DS Techeetah,’ I’m explaining to people who don’t know what it is, but I’m also just describing it in terms of, for example, ‘look at that blue sky.’”

“I think it is important to differentiate especially when we have a mixed-up field here, a lot of whom won’t be household names. It’s important to point out who’s who to the viewer, I also struggle to identify drivers in a team,” Nicholls adds.

Sitting next to Gillett in the International Gallery is Formula E’s television Executive Producer Mike Scott, who Gillett calls ‘invaluable’ to the production.

“We’ve worked together for 23 years now, and he’s calling each session,” Gillett says.

“He’s invaluable because he’s looking at the timing and scoring, seeing who’s magenta [fastest] in each sector, and then telling me that I can get to camera X in time to follow the car.”

Formula E ‘one step ahead’ in innovating

While some aspects of the production have their limitations, Formula E have also innovated their offering through Driver’s Eye, Attack Mode and their full-screen ‘wipes,’ helping their coverage to stand out.

“The [Driver’s Eye] technology works on an RF frequency, coming down one of our on-board lines to us. Over time, we’ve tried different lenses to see [the effect it would have].”

On-board via Driver’s Eye with Porsche’s Andre Lotterer during the Berlin E-Prix.

“We’ve tried some wide lenses, we’ve had some narrower ones, and now it’s got to point where we’ve found which is the right lens for us. We digitise the steering wheel because the teams don’t want us to broadcast it. It really does pop, particularly on low light,” Gillett explains.

“But, it’s a really immersive camera and it’s definitely something Formula E have done well.”

Gillett believes the championship is ‘one step ahead’ on the innovation front, citing the fact that Formula E innovations have since made their way into different championships, such as the driver replay wipes.

“I think the key thing to note is right from the beginning, Formula E have always been pushing the innovation, trying to be one step ahead. We led the way with broadcast graphics.”

“Like, the Safety Car [graphic], it takes over the whole screen, ‘there’s a Safety Car.’ Sometimes people miss the information, so we’ve made it really bold, very clear, and the design of it I think has definitely led the way,” Gillett believes.

“The driver replay wipes, this is something we introduced around four years ago. We’ve done green screens, we cut them all out, with a wipe for each person. It makes it so much simpler; you clearly know, the replay is going to be of Alex Lynn.”

“There is another championship now that’s adopted that, Formula 1, but that was led from Formula E. So, it’s the simple things like that we’ve introduced over the years and the design of it.”

Since Motorsport Broadcasting interviewed Gillett, Driver’s Eye has also made its way over to Formula 1. The camera, homologated by the FIA and manufactured by ZeroNoise, appeared during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend.

F1’s iteration featured no steering wheel digitisation, putting them ahead of their electric counterparts, something Formula E may wish to review with teams.

With fans returning to motor racing circuits worldwide, Gillett is keen to bring fans closer to the action, and from a broadcasting perspective looking to ‘amplify’ that relationship further as the championship heads into season 8.

“There’s always going to be new ideas, for example with the podiums and things like that. We introduced the sequence with the drivers coming through the crowds to the podium which I really liked.”

“I think that’s something that has been missing this last year and a bit now, and I think that in season 8, I’d like to really amplify that relationship between the drivers and the fans in some way.”

Coming up in part two of this feature, we look at how the ExCeL circuit evolved from concept, to reality.

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BT’s MotoGP series editor Kevin Brown on their post-COVID return to the paddock

MotoGP returned to Silverstone at the end of August following a year away due to the COVID pandemic, with Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo dominating the race.

For UK broadcaster BT Sport life, in the MotoGP sense, is returning to some sort of normality.

The full team returned to the paddock for the Austrian double header, after spending all of 2020 and half of 2021 presenting coverage off-site back in the UK.

We caught up with BT’s MotoGP series editor Kevin Brown via Zoom during the Silverstone weekend to see how things have been since the team returned to the paddock, and what challenges still lie ahead.

We last spoke earlier in the year, and at that point the team was working remotely. How are things now you are back on site, compared to before COVID?

It’s not an awful lot different. The main thing is that the paddock is not so busy, it’s a very different Silverstone paddock. It’s lovely to see so many fans back in the grandstands, but obviously it’s a very tight and strict paddock bubble that we have to respect and we do respect.

As far as we’re concerned, [MotoGP’s commercial rights holder] Dorna have done a brilliant job to keep the sport running throughout the pandemic, and if it [helps] keep everyone safe, then that’s the main thing for us.

Yeah, and I imagine from your perspective, you have all the relevant contingencies in place if you do need to come back off-site later in the season for whatever reason.

Indeed. If there’s anything that we’ve been extremely pleased with over the last 18 months it is our ability to adapt. I think that every time we think about something we must think about what would happen ‘if’. It has sharpened us up in that respect.

Every time you plan, you make a second plan in case the first plan can’t happen. I don’t think we did that as much in the past, and now it is just constantly making sure you’re one step ahead.

We talked last year about the benefit of having on-air people on site, and this weekend really proves that with the face-to-face interaction with the riders.

We’re getting the benefits of being on site massively. It allows us to follow stories much easier, our commentators can go and talk to people, abiding by paddock rules. You can’t just go into someone’s motorhome and talk to them, you have to wear masks and be super careful, but at the same time the information flow is easier when you’re not having to rely on messages and phone calls.

I think that getting those little pieces of information that enhance a commentary or a presentation are easier when you’re here so certainly for our presenters, I think they are really getting the benefit of being back on-site.

Here at Silverstone, both Jake Dixon and Cal Crutchlow are racing in the main class, and of course it is Valentino Rossi’s last British MotoGP. I imagine you’re pleased that you can be on site to cover Rossi’s last races, and get the Suzi [Perry] interview with him.

I mean from Suzi’s point of view; she’s been there for the whole of [Valentino’s] 26 years. She’s been there from the time that Loris Capirossi used to interpret her questions for him when his English wasn’t very good!

It’s that sort of thing where their careers in MotoGP have kind of run in parallel so I think it’s quite fitting that we’ve been able to do a proper sit-down interview in the BRDC, and it was lovely that Silverstone made the facility available to us.

We had the best part of 40 minutes with him on Thursday, which was lovely because he’s got such a great relationship with the British public. It’s nice to feel like we can do the occasion justice.

[Note from David – the full interview will air on BT Sport soon, scheduling details to be confirmed.]

The BT team has returned to the paddock, but Silverstone also marks the final weekend in one respect for the production team. Just talk me through the changes in that area.

We’re all here [at Silverstone], but from Aragon onwards, we go to a full remote solution. Our presenters and commentators will all go to the track, with a support team of cameras, sound and technical, and then the rest of the production, the gallery, the edits, will be back in Stratford [BT Studios at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park] for the rest of the season. We’re embracing the new technology and moving into the future with it.

We’ve talked before that this was always going to happen at some point, but COVID has accelerated that.

And, we’ve learnt from COVID. We’ve learnt that we’re able to do things without sending so many people around the world and at the moment where travel isn’t so easy, to have the flexibility to have people in the UK as well as on site is fantastic.

I think for us it’s something that we were going to do anyway, but with COVID we’ve just had to get on with it a lot quicker than we otherwise would have done. We very quickly learned that so many things are possible. It feels like we’re just taking another step, every so often.

We went from doing The Greatest Race on people’s phones at people’s homes, to Hinkley at Triumph, then we went to the BT Tower. Then we started sending some people on site, then we’ve all gone back to site just to get us through this little period, and then here we are from the next race we’ll go full remote.

It’s actually felt like a very sensible progression, but it came about by circumstance, it wasn’t a planned move to do it like this. Each time you look at the rules and you look at what’s safe and you look at how best to do the best we can in the circumstances, and this is just where we’ve got to.

There’s a lot of very clever people at BT who are able to engineer it seems almost anything. When we need a solution, they’ve backed us all the way, and found the right way to do it. We’ve worked together, via North One and BT, to get it all right as much as we can and to try and serve the viewers and the subscribers as well as we can.

We had a brilliant championship last year, this year has been terrific too with some brilliant races, the last one in Austria was extraordinary.

It’s just a privilege to be able to cover it. I think we all feel very lucky really and I think we feel lucky that our sport has kept going, and is still going but with fans as well. Fingers crossed it can just keep on progressing back towards something that resembles normality, and we’ll just be covering it in our new way.

Yeah, absolutely. Will you be on site, or in Stratford?

Initially at Stratford. We need to get this bedded down and set up but again there are ways of me not being in Stratford. We know that there are ways of producing the programmes from wherever we want to, and I think that’s quite important.

If there’s a race I feel that I need to be at for editorial reasons, or for meetings, then I can still do my job but I’ll just do it remotely. When so many clever solutions are available to us, we have that flexibility which is terrific.

BT Sport’s coverage of the 2021 MotoGP season continues from Friday 10th September, with live coverage of the Aragon weekend on BT Sport 2.

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36 years apart: how F1’s broadcast from Zandvoort has changed

This weekend sees Formula 1 return to Zandvoort in the Netherlands for their first race at the circuit since 1985.

In the 36 years since, much has changed for Formula 1, for Zandvoort, and for broadcasting overall.

But some of the Zandvoort circuit remains intact from the layout F1 raced on in 1985, allowing us to compare how F1, and its camera angles, have changed since McLaren’s 1-2 back then.

The headline figures

Unlike in 2021, where Sky Sports airs every session live, back in 1985, the BBC covered only the race live.

The 1985 race formed part of BBC Two’s Grandstand offering in late August, with Show Jumping, Swimming and Athletics also featuring on the bill. In addition, a 35-minute highlights package aired late on Sunday evening.

Back in the 80s and 90s, local broadcasters typically produced the World Feed, this long before the World Feed was centralised in-house within F1. For the Dutch round, public broadcaster NOS produced the feed in 1985.

To show how much motor sport broadcasting has evolved, NOS utilised just 8 trackside cameras to produce the Grand Prix.

Now, Formula 1’s in-house team uses around 25 external trackside cameras to produce the action, this figure excluding all of the additional pit lane and on-board cameras that the team has access to.

Although the Zandvoort circuit configuration has changed in the past 36 years, the circuit length has remained the same. So, how has the number of external cameras tripled over the past three decades?

With the help of Formula 1’s television images and motor sport digital producer Chain Bear, we analyse the lap…

Tarzan (turn 1) to Hugenholtz (turn 3)

The lap starts with the run down the start-finish straight into a 180-degree hairpin, commonly known as Tarzan. Out of Tarzan, the cars head through a left-hand kink before a right-hand bend named Gerlach.

A comparison between 1985 and 2021 – comparing the main angles used on the start-finish straight for the Dutch Grand Prix.

From an advertising perspective, the start-finish straight has radically changed. The 1985 angle features a few small BMW boards heading towards turn 1, whereas the 2021 angle features prominent Heineken advertising, making it impossible to ignore.

The overhead gantry has its disadvantages though: the gantry can block the banked final corner, which means F1 cannot cut to the above angle too early, otherwise they may miss any overtakes at the start of the straight.

Back in 1985, the director had just one choice of camera heading into Tarzan: a high up camera (seen in the image above) covering the start-finish straight and all of Tarzan.

This weekend, F1 has five different camera options for the director to play with. Pointing up the start-finish straight towards the final bend, F1 has a choice of a high and medium-level angle.

Two lower cameras bring viewers closer to the action: the first positioned towards the end of the start-finish straight when the cars are at top speed, with a second camera positioned on the exit of Tarzan.

Furthermore, F1 has a remote camera located at the apex of turn 1. The camera, positioned on the pit lane barrier, tracks cars as they sweep into Tarzan, the director heavily using this angle during the first Formula Three race.

With thanks to Chain Bear, a visual comparison between 1985 and 2021, focusing on sector 1. Cameras, quite literally, everywhere! Use the slider to compare the two.

Both the 1985 and 2021 iterations of Zandvoort have cameras located at Gerlach, although the 2021 version also has a camera positioned on the short straight between Tarzan and Gerlach.

Out of Gerlach, the cars brake for the Hugenholtz hairpin. Now banked to aid overtaking, F1 has placed four cameras around the hairpin, a justified decision based on the weekend’s action so far.

A high camera, reminiscent of the hairpin at Suzuka, is the traditional World Feed shot. Supplementing the high angle is a Jib camera on the inside of the hairpin, while there are two ‘ground level’ angles on entry and exit respectively.

The exit camera worked beautifully on Friday, capturing W Series driver Fabienne Wohlwend’s accident in slow motion from a very close distance, while F1 captured Carlos Sainz’s smash on Saturday morning from a variety of external angles, helping to tell the story to the viewer.

In contrast, the 1985 version of the broadcast featured… zero camera angles at Hugenholtz. Instead, the broadcast focused on the hairpin from the preceding camera at turn 2 and turn 4, known as Hunserug.

The closest viewers would get to the Hugenholtz hairpin in 1985.

NOS used the higher angle to track the cars through turns 5 and 6. One camera angle covered 15 seconds of action per lap, a common feature of F1 broadcasting back then, but such a trait would be below 2021’s broadcasting standards.

Hondenvlak / Master (turn 8) to final corner

Following the fast decline right hander at Scheivlak (turn 7), the 2021 circuit deviates from its 1985 counterpart. The 2021 circuit heads right again through Master, while the 1985 straight continues a little longer before heading through a left-right chicane.

Showing how few cameras there were trackside in 1985, there were no external cameras positioned at turns 6 or 7, the 1985 director relying on the cameras at turns 4 and 8 respectively to cover this section.

Although the track layout changes at this point, the comparison between these angles is still valid, and shows again how much sports broadcasting has moved on from an advertising perspective.

Elevation is noticeable on both shots, but the 1985 angle features multiple advertisers, while the 2021 shot sees the Pirelli brand advertised to its fullest potential, with no other brands ‘interfering’ in the angle.

A comparison between 1985 and 2021 – looking back towards Scheivlak (turn 7) at the Dutch Grand Prix.

Wherever fans look during a race weekend, there is a ‘Heineken’ shot, a ‘Pirelli’ shot, an ‘Aramco’ shot, and so on, which is a better way of activating brands than the old school approach, even if it looks ‘samey’ on screen.

Throughout the second sector, 2021 reverts to the one camera per corner set up, with 9 cameras positioned from Hunserug at turn 4 through to the turn 12 hairpin, and an additional camera covering the straight between turns 10 and 11.

F1 has not given the turn 12 hairpin the same treatment of Hugenholtz earlier in the lap, a sign that F1 does not expect much action to take place at this section of track.

The extended gravel run-off area here and closeness of grandstands also limits F1’s options: there is unlikely enough room for a Jib camera on the inside of the hairpin.

As old re-joins new, both the 1985 and 2021 shots are in a similar position. As we see earlier in the lap, the 1985 angle is again higher to capture more of the action as the cars headed onto the start-finish straight.

The lower 2021 angle helps capture the elevation change as the machinery exits the banking to begin another lap of the 4.3-kilometre circuit.

With thanks to Chain Bear, a full visual comparison between 1985 and 2021. Use the slider to compare the two.

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