Ordinary live programs are unpredictable enough, but live programs featuring satellite link-ups to the South Pole, news stories, and panel discussions are the kind of thing that usually only mainstream broadcasters would attempt.
Fortunately, broadcast facilities specialist Shift 4 and content marketing agency Captive Minds weren’t interested in being limited by the usual, so Shift 4 created a purpose-built studio and control room to stream live footage of a record-breaking Antarctic expedition.
In December 2013, 19-year-old adventurer Parker Liautaud set off on an incredible and arduous journey, trekking 640km from the Antarctic coast, to the South Pole. The expedition was undertaken in the hope of setting a new world speed record for an unsupported ‘Coast to Pole’ crossing, and it also had a scientific purpose to collect snow samples and weather data for environmental studies.
To tell this amazing story to the world, content marketing agency Captive Minds contracted broadcast facilities specialist Shift 4 to provide MCR (master control room) facilities for a temporary studio that the agency had designed and built in the foyer of global insurance giant Willis Group’s London headquarters. The idea was for Willis Resilience Expedition TV – named after the expedition’s backers – to broadcast a live 60-minute show each day for 16 days during the expedition, with a magazine-style format including live updates directly from Parker, reporter-led environmental news stories, news analyses, and studio debates involving leading climate scientists, environmentalists, and government figures.
Marcus Chidgey, Captive Minds’ Managing Director comments, “Our vision for the expedition required the latest technology to be deployed to deliver the level of production our client was looking for. We needed a high-quality, versatile solution and this is exactly what Shift 4 and NewTek provided.”
When Shift 4 received the brief, it was immediately clear that it required more than just a conventional vision mixer. “We would effectively be producing a live TV program every day, with multi-camera inputs, live on-screen graphics, satellite link-ups, VTs [pre-recorded videos] and live phone interviews, plus live streaming and recording content for later use,” says Alex Trezies, Managing Director, Shift 4. “The TriCaster was the obvious choice as the hub of the whole operation.”
It took Shift 4 around a week to set up the MCR, including three days of testing. The Shift 4 team worked closely with the Director of Photography and the Sound Engineer to ensure that the five studio cameras, cabling, radio mics and talkback, and tally units all fed seamlessly into the TriCaster.
Shift 4’s Technical Manager Colin Coomber took on the role of Technical Director for the shows, overseeing all the technical aspects of the studio and sharing the operation of the TriCaster with Jack Connell, the Vision Mixer [Video Editor]. Each 60-minute live show was mixed in the TriCaster and streamed to Willis’ YouTube channel, and then uploaded each day to www.willisresilience.com to be viewed on demand. The TriCaster’s additional outputs supplied Willis’ internal network, as well as a large screen situated in the Willis building. The finished programs were then shared online with Willis HQ in the US for re-versioning and streaming to Willis’ media partners all over the globe.
As with any live show, the team had to expect the unexpected. “As the show and the expedition evolved, so did our onsite operation,” says Colin. “With the live links to the South Pole, we didn’t know what was going to happen or whether it would work, so things would often change on the spot. The TriCaster helped us cope very easily with these last-minute changes.”
A significant change to the technical set-up was made during preparation. “The client wanted to be able to stream a constant 12-hour loop of videos to the YouTube channel, including the previous day’s show and various VTs. To facilitate this we added a second TriCaster unit to play out rolling video, then we switched to the main TriCaster to stream and record the live show, and then we looped the recording round and played it out from the second TriCaster, to the YouTube channel and the big screen in the Willis building. That left the main TriCaster free so that we could prep for the next day’s show, edit clips, and organize content properly,” explains Colin. He adds, “It was very easy to install and connect the second TriCaster – just a simple Ethernet cable – and the only impact it had on the workflow was to make things easier.”
Colin was surprised at how many of the TriCaster’s capabilities were used on the project. “We thought we would only need to use half of the features available, but we found a use for nearly everything, and many functions became invaluable,” he says. “We were able to simultaneously record satellite feeds as a hi res for the archive, a low res for the YouTube channel, and various ISO’s, all with just the click of a button, which saved loads of time. The graphics functions were very easy to use and adapt – Captive Minds sent us a design which we just dropped into the TriCaster. We could also create new captions or names on the fly, which was great if there was an unexpected guest or a new clip to show. We also made use of the virtual studio function when we wanted a satellite feed with a ‘live link with the South Pole’ graphic but could also record a clean feed without the graphic.”
The TriCaster also diffused a potential issue with the audio feed before it happened. “When the audio came from the Sound Engineer’s mixer, there was a picture delay of eight frames,” Colin explains. “The Sound Engineer said we would need to get a delay box, but it was easy to create the appropriate setting on the TriCaster to sync the audio and video.”
Surely the most exciting, but also the most technically precarious, part of the project were the live links to the Antarctic. With unpredictable weather conditions affecting both the explorer team and the equipment, a contingency plan was set in place.
“In the VT player [DDR], it was really useful to be able to create bins of content,” says Colin. “We had the live show running in one tab and generic shots and photos of Parker and other remote guests in a second tab; if the picture dropped out, we could switch seamlessly to a library shot. It was particularly useful to have that content in a separate tab so that clips didn’t get mixed up, and we were able to add to it as we went along.” This organizational function was also utilized after the live show, when Willis wanted to do ‘spotlight sessions’ and internal corporate interviews, using the Antarctic footage but with different branding, graphics, and stings; the Shift 4 team kept those elements separate in another tab.
The project was an overwhelming success, both for the young explorer who successfully broke the world record and for the client.
Simon Greenwood, Series Producer for Willis Resilience Expedition TV at Captive Minds says, “It wasn’t easy for us to design and build a large, fully soundproofed studio to operate in a working reception area, but with the help of Shift 4’s technical expertise we were able to deliver engaging, highly professional, live broadcasts every weekday for over two weeks. We’re very proud of the accomplishment, and indebted to Willis for having the ambition to make the whole project happen.”
“For a live show like this, when there is only one chance to get it right, we knew we could rely on TriCaster,” concludes Alex Trezies. “We really pushed it to the max and it handled everything we threw at it. We simply couldn’t have done this without TriCaster.”
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