Mobile Production: Flexibility and Innovation on the Road
Mobile production units were deployed at two major events in Nashville in 2014—the Country Music Awards and a rare live episode of the television series Nashville; this is the story behind the scenes.
By Tom Inglesby
In September 2014, ABC decided to take the third season premiere of its flagship drama Nashville live on network television. In this day and age, this is very unusual for a primetime drama, and it was even more unusual because the producers of a very film-style show such as Nashville had never attempted anything like it before. Mobile production company TNDV was tapped for cameras, engineering crew, a video production truck, an audio mix truck, and a host of specific production tools such as jib cranes, replay servers, intercom infrastructure, and of course venue-wide monitoring.
Live television is nothing new, but to create a live version of a dramatic show, while still maintaining the feel of the very scripted and typically heavily posted show, took months of preparation and a strong team of production professionals. The combination of both HD uplink and HD fiber made the live component unique, as TNDV was not shooting in a typical environment that might have these resources available. Every aspect of live production had to be brought in.
In November, ABC picked TNDV for its seven-hour-long, live-streamed CMA Awards: Backstage special. This live, multi-camera streaming media experience gave viewers the ability to use their tablets and mobile devices to get an exclusive look at what was taking place behind the scenes before and during the live CMA Awards telecast. Fourteen cameras from the limo drop to the red carpet to the live award stage gave viewers exclusive access to one of the country’s largest awards shows—and did it live.
Each of these projects was unique, and each required out-of-the-box thinking and the use of resources that may not be typical in a day-to-day production environment. Nic Dugger, TNDV’s owner and president, believes challenges like these are what keep his company on the leading edge of mobile production. TNDV has to be flexible to meet the needs of a diverse set of clients, events, and productions.
“There is common thread across all of what we do: Flexibility,” explains Dugger. “We’re finding more and more that clients don’t want to be forced into a specific production infrastructure. The days of a mobile production company saying, ‘This is what we have, so this is what you’ll use’ are waning. We continuously re-architect [sic] our infrastructure to meet the demands of each production project and environment.”
That flexibility enables TNDV to accommodate multiple formats easily, for example. “Our infrastructure is designed to quickly swap out systems and components, and build each show around camera counts, and I/O capacity across switching, routing, and audio mixing,” Dugger continues. “We’ve evolved beyond relying on fixed lists of products and specifications. That flexibility gives our clients the confidence that we offer the best in production equipment, services, experience, and capabilities.”
What does the market for mobile production ask for these days? There’s no question that mobile production needs to be a more interactive experience. There are projects where you can simply park your truck, position your cameras, and record. However, the lines are blurring across several verticals when it comes to mobile production. As Dugger says, “We’re rarely just shooting for a show or projecting visual content onto a stage backdrop. We’re taking live programming to air, streaming it online, recording line cuts for DVD editing, professionally mixing audio tracks, and driving image magnification for multiple display screens all at once. We’re sharing a high-end intercom matrix across the venue for every production arm to tap into. And we’re accommodating all of this from compact, energy-efficient trucks that take up a lot less space on the production site. Our footprint may be all over the venue, but we’re never in the way of the client. Our trucks strategically integrate all required equipment in a smaller package than most high-end trucks. That keeps everything nimble, which our clients consider a significant benefit.”
Those working on the technical side of broadcast and production like to have options. Certainly when it comes to equipment choices, the industry is lucky to have an array of vendors to choose from for all but the most specialized products. However, when it comes to connectivity, an ever-present requirement in mobile production, the options quickly diminish.
Looking specifically at cameras, there are two primary connectors most mobile production companies consider. For many years it was triax, which provided the extra protection, greater bandwidth and interference rejection compared to its coaxial cousin. Triax was perfectly fine in the SD universe, and it remains a viable option in HD productions.
Fiber is the second viable connection option, and the preference for TNDV, as it offers the dual benefits of accommodating longer camera runs; and wider bandwidth for HD signal transport back to the truck. The latter benefit certainly makes fiber—specifically, SMPTE fiber—a better option when it comes to moving 4K, 3GB/s and other advanced HD signals across large venues.
Still, as Dugger admits, “Cable is cable, and whether connecting with triax or SMPTE fiber we’re still adding weight and consuming storage space on the truck. Every pound matters when it comes to long-haul highway transport. For example, a three-camera shoot with 1,000 fiber foot runs still requires 3,000 feet of cable. The fiber connectivity solutions from MultiDyne have helped us solve the problems of reducing the costs, labor, and complexity associated with long-distance fiber connections.”
TNDV recently added a sixth truck to its fleet, allowing the company to meet increasing demand for its live production services around the country. Dubbed Elevation, the 40-foot truck delivers all the power of the industry’s largest trucks in a more manageable, energy-efficient footprint.
Elevation offers a similar video and audio infrastructure to TNDV’s other medium-sized, multi-format mobile production trucks—flexibly integrated to accommodate live and recorded shoots of any size. The architecture adopts TNDV’s strategy of flexibly customizing the workflow to meet any client’s demands, rather than forcing broadcasters, venues, and other customers to work within a strict, fixed system.
Elevation also adds unique energy-efficient flourishes to differentiate it from other mobile production trucks, including an on-board 25kW generator to power air conditioners and the entire Elevation production infrastructure. This makes Elevation an ideal choice for isolated remote shoots—a common task for the TNDV team—by eliminating the costs and headaches of finding power in more secluded locations. “Elevation becomes self-powered with the flip of an onboard switch, eliminating the costs of expensive generator rentals,” notes Dugger.
The medium-sized footprint also aligns with TNDV’s strategy of keeping trucks manageable for clients working within limited spaces, including arenas and temporary outdoor venues. This strategy accelerates load-in and load-out times while taking up less real estate on location. At 40 feet long, Elevation is the same size as TNDV’s flagship Aspiration truck, a vehicle that TNDV clients appreciate for its features-to-size ratio. Like Aspiration, Elevation includes a Ross Vision 3 switcher, an Imagine Communications Platinum integrated router, and AJA Ki-Pro recorders on the video side, along with multiple Hitachi SK-HD1000 cameras for multi-standard, multi-format field production at premium quality. The audio infrastructure is also similar, with a redundant Pro Tools system, JoeCo MADI recorders and an 80-port RTS ADAM intercom system—but adds a Soundcraft VI-3000 audio console for expanded functionality.
“The VI-3000 moves us into the 96-input world from the 64-input world of our other video-centric trucks, and adds an integrated I/O infrastructure located physically on the desk itself,” Dugger says. “This not only increases our channel count for larger audio productions, but simplifies our setup and configuration process for signal processing and source equipment across the audio infrastructure.”
Mobile production has to meet several criteria: be everywhere, be unseen, and be flexible enough to do both at the same time. It’s more than just having the right gear, a truck to put it in, and a business card. Those days, and those competitors, are long gone.