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Sound alert for television drama

There has been a swathe of complaints about the sound quality of British dramas in recent weeks. BBC1’s Jamaica Inn drew 2,200 complaints over inaudibility, with critics rounding on the performance of lead actor Sean Harris. This was followed up a few weeks later with further complaints about Quirke.

TV sound has shot up the production agenda as a result. BBC director of TV Danny Cohen said last month that audibility issues on dramas like Quirke and Jamaica Inn are “a great source of frustration.”

Production experts point to a number of causes. Mumbling by actors is identified as the big issue, particularly by actors taking on regional accents.

Fraser Barber, head of sound recording at the NFTS and a production sound mixer with credits including The Tunnel, House of Saddam and Silent Witness, says Jamaica Inn actor Sean Harris “didn’t deliver a performance that anybody could have recorded in an intelligible way.”

Barber adds that he is surprised that director Philippa Lowthorpe let it pass. “She is one of the best directors I have ever worked with from a sound point of view. She will often ask the sound recordist if he is happy before she will ask the cameraman…so I am absolutely stunned that she decided to make those artistic decision on Jamaica Inn. She obviously thought it was very real. But maybe it was too real.”

LipSync Post md Peter Hamden says producers and directors “should try to balance the quest for authenticity in drama with the needs of the viewer sitting at home in a domestic environment. TV doesn’t have the benefit of a captive audience like cinema. Having said that, nobody wants to return to the days of received pronunciation…”

A bigger budget for voice coaching, and longer preparation time for actors, could help tackle the issue, says Fraser Barber. He says actors who have to adopt different accents often do not have enough voice coach training. “Someone like Meryl Streep would work for months with a voice coach before taking on a character in a film. But on a TV drama they probably get a few hours with a good voice coach. The actors are not confident with their accent, so worry about speaking up.”

Barber says difficulties can also arise because programme makers are so familiar with the script, they don’t realise there is a problem with audibility. He recommends that sound recordists watch rehearsals without the script. “That flags up to me if there is a problem with someone’s diction or if they’re too quiet.”

Barber also worries that budget cuts are putting increasing pressure on sound departments. A good drama requires a production sound mixer, a boom operator, a sound assistant and, ideally, a trainee. He says that the reality now is that the assistant is offered trainee money, which means it is very hard to get the right level of expertise. 

Skimping on sound budgets can often prove to be a bad move warns Liam Laminman, md of Trickbox TV. “There’s security and value in having the right people and resources working on a production. There’s always that time when you need to cut a few corners and shave some money off the budget – but sound shouldn’t be the first compromise.”

Sound problems, of course, can be fixed in post – but only to a certain extent. ADR can be used to help sort out unclear dialogue. But, notes, Matt Skilton, senior dubbing mixer at Envy, some actors dislike ADR and it’s often difficult to ADR some scenes convincingly. “If in the mix the ADR is ‘standing out’ and ruining the scene, everyone will reluctantly agree to go back to the original mumbled dialogue for the sake of the whole scene.”

Skilton says it’s also good practice to check a sound mix on a normal TV. After all, it might sound “absolutely fine and all the dialogue as clear as possible when it is monitored in the dubbing theatre on a good sound system with very little or no background noise.”

He adds: “Music at too high or low a level can be a problem and a very subtle mix in the studio can often go unheard on a domestic monitor.”

After all, the sound quality of newer flat screen TVs can be appalling as there is less room for speakers than in the old CRT TVs. On such TVs, a dynamic mix, with large swells in music or effects followed by quiet periods of dialogue, while popular with directors, can be an issue for viewers. Variations in volume are the single biggest cause of viewer complaints, according to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which in 2012 published its standard for broadcasters to normalise audio, R128.

This R128 recommendation will be fully adopted in the UK by October, part of the requirements for delivering digital files to broadcasters agreed by the Digital Production Partnership (DPP). All shows will then have the same relative loudness levels.

The Farm’s Nigel Edwards says: “The new broadcast standard of R128 from the DPP will help to alleviate the dynamic range on TV. It will bring up the quiet mixes and bring down the loud mixes.” In effect, it means viewers won’t have to reach for their remote control so often to adjust the volume to deal with variations in sound.

Taking a step back, Barber urges a degree of perspective on the sound issue though. There have been a few glitches recently, he admits. But, he adds: “I don’t think that there are many problems on TV drama. Particularly in the UK, the standard of sound of TV drama is really, really high.”

This article was taken from the July issue of Televisual.

Posted 24 July 2014 by Tim Dams

Glasgow 2014: producing the opening ceremony

A rather large shadow, in the form of London 2012, looms over the organisers of this month’s Glasgow Commonweatlh Games opening ceremony.

Danny Boyle’s bravura, exuberant Olympic Games opener set a new benchmark for the genre. Russia responded to the challenge earlier this year by spending a fortune on the Sochi ceremony.

Glasgow, meanwhile, has far less money to spend: £21m on its opening and closing events, compared to the £80m London spent across the four Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies.

It presents a daunting challenge to the team behind the Glasgow ceremonies, which are being produced by Jack Morton Worldwide. All the more so because there’s an added layer of complexity for Glasgow: each ceremony will be staged at a different venue, Celtic Park and Hampden Park, which means prepping two locations.

However, Jack Morton has form in the genre, staging ceremonies at two previous Commonwealth Games, as well as the South Africa World Cup, the Athens Olympics and consulting for Beijing.

This track record is one of the reasons that Jack Morton won the Glasgow tender, says head of ceremonies and artistic director David Zolkwer (pictured, above right). However, it also won, he feels, because they “embraced the challenge” of producing ceremonies which will inevitably be compared to London and Sochi.

Their response is to attempt to do things differently.  There’s a danger Glasgow would somehow fall short if it aped a conventional ceremony, Zolkwer says. “We neither have the resources nor, being in Glasgow, the inclination to play the shock and awe card,” he says.

It’s meant respectfully reassessing what ceremonies have become, says Zolkwer. “Are they actually as generous in spirit as they purport to be, are budgets escalating beyond reason, are they being done to places rather than by places, who owns the output?”

He notes that, wonderful as London was, it’s known as Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony. “Our goal is to create Glasgow’s ceremonies so you won’t hear any of our names flying around, despite this conversation.”

The objective, Zolkwer says is “to be authentic”, and to find the seed of the ceremony’s story from within the character of the city and its people. A key theme of the ceremony is about Glasgow being a generous host. “Glasgow is the most social, hospitable city – it’s extraordinary,” says Zolkwer.

It means viewers shouldn’t expect to see too much in the way of synchronized moves from a massed cast of volunteers. “We’re more interested in celebrating individuality. As far as being a generous host is concerned, we are not going to invite the world into our home, shut the door and then tell them how fantastic we are. (We have done our fair share of that in the past.) Glasgow and Scotland are interested in engaging with the rest of the world and the Commonwealth, more interested in celebrating what we have in common than what makes us different.”

The full content of the ceremonies is being kept under wraps. Details released so far include the installation of a huge 97x10m screen, the biggest ever seen in Europe, that will run along the south stand of Celtic Park. Thousands of volunteers have also been recruited to take part. Controversial plans to demolish Glasgow’s Red Road tower blocks live during the ceremony have been scrapped, though.

Games ceremonies are an odd hybrid for producers – part theatre (with a cast of thousands), part OB television spectacular (airing to up to 1bn people) and part ceremonial (the format includes the arrival of The Queen and the Parade of Nations). As in theatre or film, the challenge is coming up with the story, casting, rehearsing and staging it, says Zolkwer. Then, there are the technical and operational challenges of staging the event. “In effect,” says David Proctor, head of production (pictured above, left), “we are, along with our colleagues at SVGTV (the host broadcaster), creating a large studio with a massive studio audience for global broadcast.”

Glenn Bolton, head of technical (pictured above, centre), says his team will be on site at Celtic Park for 66 days before the ceremony. The equivalent of 7,678 man days of labour are required to build the theatre infrastructure required. The screen weighs 48 tons alone, and needs a 120 ton support structure. The stage, meanwhile, weighs in at 45 tons and there’s 55 tons of equipment in the roof.

Adding to the complexity, points out Proctor, is that there are also multiple stakeholders to work and collaborate with. These include the organising committee, Glasgow 2014, the Commonwealth Games Federation and Glasgow Life, as well as sponsors and local creative and social communities.

Zolkwer speaks of a “very close, friendly, mutually supportive relationship” with the organising committee, their key client. “We are very keen not to come to Glasgow and ‘do’ the ceremony to the City, and the OC is very keen on that as well…Our job is to make Glasgow and Scotland shine and it will best do that by being allowed to speak for itself.”

Posted 21 July 2014 by Tim Dams

Shooting the Commonwealth Games

The summer of 2014 has been packed full of sporting events taking place in the UK, from Wimbledon, the Tour de France, Test Match cricket to the British Grand Prix.

But the biggest sporting event being held here this summer – indeed since the London 2012 Olympic Games – is the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Starting on 23rd July, the city will play host to teams from 70 countries over 11 days of competition. It is being staged at a cost of more than £500m. Given that it is a ‘home Games’, coverage in the UK is going to be widespread with the BBC airing over 300 hours across BBC1 and BBC3.

Indeed, the BBC is going to be giving the Commonwealth Games almost equal billing to London 2012 in terms of network coverage, digital options and presentation teams. Every single second of competitive sport will be available to viewers either on TV or online. 

Producing the host feed

Coverage of the Commonwealth Games is being run by sports broadcast producers Sunset + Vine and Global Television, which were jointly appointed as host broadcasters in December 2011 after a competitive tender. It’s the first time that London-based sports producer Sunset+Vine and Australian TV production services provider Global TV have partnered, as SVGTV, as a host broadcaster on a major event.

S+V is responsible for producing what viewers will see at home, so will oversee all the filming, camera placement, direction and lighting. Global is charged with building and running the International Broadcast Centre and making sure the technology is in place to get the feed from venues to rights holding broadcasters around the world. An estimated one billion viewers are expected to watch the pictures produced by SVGTV.


S+V chairman Jeff Foulser points out that the company has covered a string of high profile events, including Test Cricket, Premier League football, and the Aviva Rugby Premiership. So stepping up to produce a multisport event “was a natural extension for us,” he says. It had bid before, on the Asian Games in Qatar and Doha, and got very close to winning the contract. For the Commonwealth Games, S+V decided it needed to partner with another company and got talking to Global. “We felt the skills between the two companies were complementary”, says Foulser. Global has worked on two previous Commonwealth Games, providing facilities and technology expertise at Melbourne in 2006 and Delhi in 2010.

A steep learning curve

Foulser admits that it’s been a huge challenge to produce a multi-sport event. S+V has had to scale up, improving its finance, IT, HR and legal departments. For the Games, the SVGTV operation will employ over 1,200 people.

“It’s been a steep learning curve,” says Foulser. “But ultimately if you break it down to 17 different sports, and you cover each one of them well and make sure the broadcasters get what they want, it is not that much different from what we normally do, just on a bigger scale.”

He says S+V has sought to hire the best staff, from the UK but also Commonwealth countries including Australia and South Africa. Hiring the best is crucial on such a major event, believes Foulser. “I’ve always worked on the basis that you are only as strong in a major production as the weakest link in the chain. If you don’t have any weak links, you should end up with a decent product.”

The operation has run an office in Glasgow since August 2012, building up over time. Pacing the work has been crucial says Gary Lovejoy, the host broadcast deputy head of production, who explains that he’s striven to hit deadlines as early as possible on the project. It means, he says, “you can then work on the odd late things because you have got other things hopefully done and dusted.” 

For example, S+V started recruiting camera and EVS operators in February and March last year. Lovejoy says: “One of the reasons we had to is that a great many of them from this market were going to the World Cup. So we had to explain that they could do the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, because there is a gap between the two. But it does put a pressure on professional people with families, which is why we started early.”

Covering the venues

The host broadcaster will be covering 14 venues. The main one is the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) Precinct, close to Glasgow city centre on the north bank of the River Clyde. It will host the competitions for six sports – gymnastics, boxing, judo, netball, wrestling and weightlifting. During Games time it will also be the home of the International Broadcast Centre and Main Press Centre. Meanwhile, Hampden Park has been adapted so it can play host to the Track and Field Athletics competitions.

SVGTV began the installation of the IBC in May, while installation work started at the venues in June. 
Over 280 cameras will be used in total to capture the Games. SVGTV says that no standard manufacturer has been selected to supply equipment such as cameras or vision mixers. Graphics, however, all come from one supplier – Swiss Timing. Meanwhile some 25 OB units will be in operation to deliver the footage. NEP Visions is the largest by volume, covering the athletics and other events. Telegenic and CTV Group are joint-second in terms of contribution, with Arena handling squash and table tennis. Aerial Camera Systems will be providing the speciality cameras.

There are no plans to shoot in 4K, unlike the World Cup where three matches are being shot in the format. Neither is there any 3D production from the host broadcaster.

Keeping it neutral

Sunset + Vine is known for introducing innovation into its sports production, whether its Bafta winning coverage of the Paralympics for Channel 4 or the introduction of Hawkeye technology into cricket coverage. So have they got anything up their sleeve for the Paralympics?

Lovejoy says they will make “a huge effort with the commentators” on the world feed, making it more vibrant than most host broadcasters. He thinks there will be more passion too, because the crews from the UK and Commonwealth know the competitors. “They will know what to look out for – everything from facial expressions to the way the teams conduct themselves.” Foulser adds that SVGTV has to be careful to remain neutral though, as the feed goes not just to the BBC but also to viewers across the world. “They want to see the event covered very well, and to see their competitors. So it needs to be neutral.” 

Foulser says one of the long term impacts of the host broadcast coverage could come through the Host Broadcast Training Initiative (HBTI), a legacy project of the Games. More than 600 Scottish-based creative sector students will receive training work experience through the HBTI, with some 240 students selected to work during the Games themselves. Students, says Foulser, will be trained how to use the latest OB hardware equipment and technology, and will assist during the live broadcasts of the Games. “By the time we get to the Games, they will be able to contribute,” he says. “We don’t just want them standing around.”

Producing the BBC coverage
The Games feed provided by SVGTV will be used as the basis for the BBC’s output. Presenters Gary Lineker, Clare Balding, Gabby Logan and Hazel Irvine will lead the coverage.

The scope and success of the BBC’s London 2012 coverage means that it has a hard act to follow with Glasgow 2014. The BBC, however, is devoting plenty of airtime and resources to the Games. “It’s very much in the style of what we did in the London Olympics,” says Jonny Bramley, executive producer of major events for BBC Sport.

BBC1 and BBC3 will air the Games throughout the day and every evening. In total, there will be 300 hours of network coverage, 200 hours of radio and more than 1,300 hours of live action via up to 17 digital streams. 

The BBC is basing its production operation from the BBC Scotland’s HQ in Pacific Quay, just across the Clyde from the main Games venue, the SECC. It means the corporation can save production costs by using its own space, rather than booking into the IBC. That, however, creates its own complications. “If we had been building our own bespoke BBC Sport operation from scratch, which is what we normally do for major events, we could have pretty much tailored it to our needs,” says Bramley. “This is a new departure for BBC Sport. BBC Scotland have been really helpful in working with us to achieve the right technical solution, but it’s taken a lot of effort on both sides to get there.”

Integrating the operation into Pacific Quay saves money but increases its technical complexity. For example, the BBC has had to install fibres which run underneath the River Clyde from the IBC to Pacific Quay, carrying the event feeds and its unilateral coverage. Adding another layer of complexity, the post production of the Games coverage is being run from the BBC Sport HQ in Salford.

Taking care of the politics

The BBC’s coverage also has to be delicately balanced. The Games takes place just a few months before the Scottish referendum on independence. 

For political reasons, the BBC can’t be seen to be taking sides in any way with its coverage of the Games, which could be seized on by nationalists or unionists to promote their political agendas. “We have made sure we have taken a lot of good advice from our own political unit and also from BBC Scotland,” says Bramley.  “The general advice we are giving people is to treat sport as we would normally do, and not to bring any political context into it. All of our on screen and on air talent have been given advice on how to treat the subject.”


11 Days of competition. The Games opening ceremony is on 23 July and the closing ceremony is on the 3rd August.

17 The number of sports that will be featured at the Games, from athletics through to boxing, cycling, gymnastics, rugby sevens and weightlifting.

70 The number of countries taking part, including Australia, Belize, Bermuda, Canada, Ghana, India, Malta, Nigeria, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, Tuvalu, and Uganda.

14 The number of venues being used for the Games, including the SECC, Ibrox, Hampden Park, Celtic Park and the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome.

25 The number of OB units in operation to deliver the footage of Glasgow 2014.

280 The estimated number of cameras being used in the venues to capture the footage of the Games.

240 The number of Scottish-based broadcasting students who will work at the Games as part of the Host Broadcaster Training Initiative.

1300 Total number of hours of live sport that will air on the BBC, either on TV or online.

1300 The size of the production team who are producing the host broadcast feed for SVGTV.

Posted 07 July 2014 by Tim Dams
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