Here at Autocue we’ve held the exclusive contract to supply all prompting equipment and operators for BBC News for almost 20 years. In early 2012, we were required to do a complete new installation of our equipment across several studios as part of the BBC’s move to New Broadcasting House (NBH).
The project encompassed multiple custom builds, compromises and innovation on our part. In total 30 MSPs are deployed across 13 studios in a number of configurations, some on giant jib, straight reading and traditional on-camera setups. Along with those, 11 talent feedback monitors were required across most of the studios, these also proved quite challenging in a lot of cases - but we'll talk about that later. You can see all of these when, flatteringly, they pan across the studio in every broadcast.
I had only been at Autocue 2 years and had never been to a live studio before, let alone one that was, at the time, little more than a building site - especially the underground studios where we started. Still, I was told that our head of hardware, Mark Shoesmith, and I would be the two responsible for the NBH install. Being just a lowly production engineer at the time and never having touched a broadcast quality camera before, it was a pretty unnerving experience.
Security and health and safety regs at NBH were unsurprisingly pretty strict, so after being inducted (which started at 7 AM, and I don't do mornings) and equipped with our hard hats and hi-vis jackets, we began our install. Or, tried to. As I said, security is very tight - would you trust two random blokes wheeling in giant boxes on a trolley that would barely pass for an improvised tea trolley? Me neither, and with how expensive and shiny NBH is, the red tape wasn't surprising and provided much needed opportunities for me to, well, wake up.
But then we were off, into half-built elevators with nothing but chipboard for a floor, which wasn't fixed down and wobbled (the hard hat would have broken the 3-story fall, no worries) we proceeded to our first studio. Studios A, B and C are all larger studios - easy to get lost in but not as easy as it is to get lost looking for them. All three studios are underground and reside within a labyrinth of tunnels and hidden doorways. I was lost. A lot. During one visit there had been problems with the lights down there and obviously, finding your way in darkness wasn’t fun.
Studio C, which handles World News, had just finished having the rails installed for the robotic heads and was having all the lighting installed and calibrated, so it was a bit crowded. It didn't really matter though, our pro plate and MSP12 are very simple to install, even for a total newbie like me. However picking up a camera worth more than all my worldly possessions combined, while fumbling and tripping over cables and camera rails, onto a tripod head, which was at an awkward height, is pretty scary. I had to dig deep, but after a couple hours the prompters were mounted. Now for the talent feedback monitors (TFMs), where the problems started.
The contract specified below the lens TFM17s for Studio C, however the actual set didn't want to allow for that. There's a small dividing wall around the world news desk (you can see it in the picture above) which obstructed the TFMs as they were moved around on the rails. This came to light when a... minor collision occurred during a test run. Oh, how we laughed. Not as much as we laughed when we had to undo all we’d done and re-think it, then re-do it. The best solution turned out to be 9 inch TFM’s on magic arms, but there was quite a bit of experimentation before we came to that.
Studio B was easier to find - due to it being massive, at least to me. Towering over the whole studio is a gigantic arm or ‘jib', which we had to somehow mount a prompter onto the little camera it held. I was told it’d be quite easy but to me it was a monstrosity of metal and technology that looked far too heavy, and potentially dangerous, for me to be touching - so I simply didn’t. However this was where I really learned a lot of the stuff you need to know to install or be a ‘rigger’. Handling pedestals, balancing, camera plates etc. In the previous studio most of it was taken care of before we got there. As you can imagine, not only am I now fumbling about with a camera worth more than my house, I’m now pushing buttons and tinkering about with a very expensive pedestal as well, intimidating to say the least. Once I learned it though it gave me confidence that I knew what I was doing and I mounted the remaining 4 prompters without any help from Mark. That confidence would be short lived however, when we moved into Studio A the following week. But that’s another story, I’ll tell that in Part 2!
Thanks for reading.