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Whisper Films on the starting grid

24 May 2016
Whisper Films on the starting grid

One of the prized contracts in the outside broadcast calendar went to Whisper Films earlier this year, an award that caused some controversy.

The indie, which was formed in 2010, is backed by Channel 4 as part of its Growth Fund, for which the broadcaster took a small stake in the company. When the BBC prematurely divested itself of terrestrial UK rights to cover Formula One at the end of the 2015 season, Channel 4 took up the reigns and put the presentation of it out to tender.

Established by Sunil Patel, who oversaw the BBC’s F1 output before leaving to launch Whisper, BT Sport presenter Jake Humphrey and ex-F1 driver David Coulthard, Whisper beat more seasoned sports producers like North One – which produced ITV’s recent coverage – to the chequered flag.

Patel is unfazed by suggestions of favouritism in the press. “The pressure to succeed because we had this high profile win doesn’t come into it. The pressure comes from all those on our team to deliver on our own high expectations. We are duty bound to keep fans entertained and to improve coverage where we can. There is no added pressure from any other party.”

Because of the tight nine week turnaround between landing the contract in mid-January and the start of the 2016 season in Australia – nearly two weeks of which was required for shipping equipment to Melbourne – Whisper wisely decided to rehire Presteigne Broadcast Hire as its OB partner.

Presteigne had designed and supplied F1 flypacks complete with air conditioning and power distribution systems for the previous seven years of BBC broadcasts, and had the kit ready to go at its headquarters in Crawley. It also supplies up to 15 crew including sound ops and engineers.

“By and large we are using the same kit as the BBC operation with one major uplift in editing,” explains Patel, who will executive produce C4’s coverage. BBC Sport had made a fateful decision to base its editing on Final Cut Pro 7 in 2011, just as Apple decided it would no longer support a professional version of the software. A sensible decision, then, for Patel to replace them with four new Adobe Premier suites.

On site, these are linked with EVS IP Director logging and search tools, integrated with a trio of EVS XT3 servers and further hooked into an EditShare rack of collaborative storage. The rest of the kit contained in two flypacks remains the same and includes a Ross switcher, Lawo sound desk and Riedel Artist for talkback, with the only other significant addition being a Sony PMW-F5 with Canon Cine lenses to work alongside conventional RF cams.

“This will give us a real cinematic look for feature making – content we are familiar with given our heritage of branded high end content,” says Patel.

Whisper has created a range of brand-funded sports content in association with companies such as Red Bull, UBS, Shell and Hugo Boss. It has also won conventional TV commissions such as BBC1 doc Racing With The Hamiltons: Nic In The Driving Seat, and produced highlights for ITV4’s coverage of DTM German Touring Cars. Whisper also produced BBC2’s NFL studio-presented highlights in the run up to the Superbowl 50, introducing a touch screen for pundit analysis.

Patel said he decided to apply for Growth Fund investment when TV commissions began to “dry up”, and he felt that C4’s backing would give Whisper “credibility” and better access to commissioners.

Formula One Management (FOM) run a strict and well-oiled machine. Rights holders have to join them at the F1 sting five minutes prior to race start, leaving the host feed only once the podium ceremony is over. In between rights can only tailor presentation with commentary.

“There is limited opportunity to do anything within the sport itself, but the real difference is around the presentation aspect, hence our commitment to our talent line up,” says Patel. “The difference will be in the insight we can give to viewers from the people we have on in the pit lane and paddock.”

The FOM set-up is deliberately formulaic across the world. “There are new places, such as Baku and Mexico for 2016, which we will be keeping a watch over this year, but each venue has its own unique challenges,” comments Presteigne head of technology, David O’Carroll.

All the opening sequences and feature material is stored and played off the EVS. A catalogue of historic race material is also held there. “For example, if Lewis Hamilton does something special in practice or race day and he refers to a previous race, we do have the ability to find that moment he is talking about and play that incident as live,” says Patel. “It’s just a question of searching for the clip logged in IP Director.”

Much of the chatter in outside broadcast circles is about how technologies such as IP can be used to cut the costs of sending crew and kit to events around the world. The F1 flypack and its dozen or so engineers and technicians are already a slim-line production.

“The only aspect I can see coming back to the UK would be editing, which won’t happen until the cost of fibre reduces and internet speeds increase,” says Patel. “The next generation of IP-enabled kit might hold the key to saving costs instead of transporting kit and the cost of hotels.”

Perhaps more than any other sport, Grand Prix racing would seem to lend itself to a higher resolution, yet despite dabbling in stereo 3D and making the most of advanced wireless technology, FOM’s coverage remains resolutely HD for this season at least.

“In principal, we could supply 4K in the pods with some minor alterations,” says O’Carroll. “What is more challenging is the reliance on RF across the site. There’s not a viable 4K link that would allow us to acquire 4K. That said, we can upconvert 50p from the camera, which would look pretty good, if not true 4K.”

“Given the detail and design of the cars, 4K would be amazing for Formula One, but until a platform like Sky (which is broadcasting the rest of the F1 schedule in the UK) offers 4K to consumers, then I can’t see it happening,” says Patel. “It will take a year or two.”

With a contract for ten races a year until 2018, the indie will be in the best place to anticipate an upgrade should FOM – or Channel 4 – decide to up the ante.

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