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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