“Stay on this! Stay. On. This.” – the split second decisions behind Formula 1’s television direction

For the first time ever, Formula 1 has given fans a behind the scenes look at how they direct a Grand Prix, and what happen during a race-changing incident.

Through Formula 1’s Fan Voice site (login required), a six-minute clip covering Sebastian Vettel’s accident during the German Grand Prix, complete with full open audio of the main production desk, has been uploaded by the team [note added on 21/08 – also available on YouTube now below].

The clip offers an eye-opening account into how motor sport production works, and the effort that goes in by those working on the television product, from the camera operators situated at each of the designated points, to the lead director. Before going any further, it is worth taking a look at how the British Superbikes outside broadcast truck is operated, which is what this site did last year (here and here). Whilst F1’s production is on a much grander scale; the broad principles apply across the spectrum.

For the six people portrayed in the video to function properly, many other people must be on their toes and ready at the correct time for the machine to turn. To put it simplistically, the video depicts four work streams:

  • Main Feed – otherwise known as the World Feed that millions of fans around the globe see. Philip Rorke leads the ship, with Paul Young the production assistant. Rorke chooses between the Track Mix and all the other camera options available to him, such as heli-cam, on-board, and pit lane angles, whilst Young is making sure we are not missing anything on the other feeds.
  • Track Mix – imagine Formula 1, but without the added extras, such as replays, crowd shots, on-board angles, or pit lane shots. The track feed is simply that. Dave directs the track mix, calling the next camera number along with the style of the shot, whilst “Foxy” is the link between Dave and the camera operators, ensuring Dave has not missed anything.
  • Replays – the ability to isolate specific shots, and choosing an order for the play out of the best angles. If you heard Tony shouting different colours during the video, that is what he is doing.
  • Team Radio – a team of four, led by Ray, listen to the radio feeds throughout the race, choosing which snippets are worth playing out over the World Feed.

The four work streams are constantly interacting with each other, to deliver the best product to fans. In the six-minute video, the underlying World Feed switches feed twenty times, flipping between the track mix, roaming pit lane and paddock cameras, the ‘cam cat‘ camera, amongst other angles. I will at this point apologise if I have misinterpreted anyone’s voice and attributed it to the wrong person below.

Feeds used during Vettel’s German Grand Prix accident
00:00 to 00:16 – track mix
00:16 to 00:43 – heli-cam
00:43 to 00:53 – track mix
00:53 to 00:57 – roaming camera 2
00:57 to 01:05 – track mix
01:05 to 01:09 – roaming camera 3
01:09 to 01:13 – track mix
01:13 to 01:27 – roaming camera 1
01:27 to 01:31 – special
01:31 to 01:44 – cam-cat
01:44 to 01:57 – track mix
01:57 to 02:39 – replay (roll A)
02:39 to 02:50 – track mix
02:50 to 03:08 – heli-cam
03:08 to 03:19 – track mix
03:19 to 03:24 – roaming camera 2
03:24 to 03:42 – cam-cat
03:42 to 03:59 – roaming camera 4
03:59 to 05:05 – track mix
05:05 to 05:10 – roaming camera 2
05:10 to 05:55 – replay (roll A)
05:55 to 06:00 – track mix

Although only used for just over two minutes in the clip, the track mix is operational for the entire race. If you listen carefully, even while the heli-cam was the focus of the World Feed before Vettel’s crash, you can hear Dave calling the track mix shots.

“Stand by 12. Stand by 12. And take 12. Stand by 15. Stand by 15. And take 15. Stand by 16, we are going early, wait for Hamilton. Stand by 18. Stand by 18. Take 18 early. Stand by 19 early. Ooh, there’s an off!” The very moment you hear Dave start to begin the last sentence, a wall of noise reverberates on the clip, along with shouts from Rorke to take track mix.

Some of the above should be self-explanatory, but to explain, the camera angles around the circuit are numbered 1 through to an arbitrary number, not every circuit will have the same number of cameras. Some turns may have more than one angle, so camera angle 11 may not be turn 11. “Stand by 15” means “stand by, track camera 15” rather than “stand by, camera at turn 15”, an important distinction to make.

A director may want to take an angle earlier than usual if they want to establish a shot, usually the case if a new segment is about to begin (for example, an emerging battle). By having multiple feeds in the background, it meant that Rorke and his team could switch straight from the heli-cam to the track mix as soon as Vettel headed towards the tyre barrier.

2018 German GP - Safety Car.png
Lewis Hamilton leads the field behind the Safety Car, but note how the order behind him does not represent the timing wall order. Establishing the true order on camera is critical for the director…

The emphasis from Rorke about what he expects is fundamentally clear throughout the video, Rorke leading the team from start to finish. No two races are the same from a direction perspective.

Telling the story
Directing a live sports broadcast is not just about capturing the incidents, it is about telling the story, something Rorke reiterates throughout the clip. The story was Lewis Hamilton versus Sebastian Vettel, with the other drivers playing a supporting role.

That might be exaggerating the point slightly, but other potential points of interest, such as Carlos Sainz changing onto intermediates and Lance Stroll spinning were excluded from the main feed as they were not considered part of the story that Formula 1’s production team was trying to tell. “Is it important to see Sainz on intermediates, not really, this is the story,” notes Rorke.

One of the roaming cameras captured Sainz’s change to intermediates, so the option was there to switch, whilst the attention of the track mix was on Hamilton and Vettel. Given that Stroll spun not too long before Vettel crashed, switching to Stroll on the track mix could have resulted in switching to Vettel slightly later than what they did on the main feed. Playing Stroll’s spin out following Vettel’s accident would have added very little to the overall story-arc.

Later in the six-minute period, Sergey Sirotkin retired with a mechanical problem, Sirotkin’s retirement considered a minor topic compared to re-establishing the running order up front following Vettel’s accident. Anyone who has ever watched a motor race will know that the order can radically change because of a Safety Car period. In between Vettel’s accident and Sirotkin’s retirement, several cars pitted, and whilst the timing wall is present in the graphics set, Rorke considers establishing the order critical, with several back markers also in shot.

Phil – Okay, now let’s see who is behind the Safety Car.
Dave – Hamilton is leading, now let’s get to the front please.
Phil – Don’t worry about Sirotkin for the moment. [camera cuts to him] Go to the cars then.
Dave – Here come the cars coming down here. There’s the cars.
Phil – I just need to establish the order again on that next shot again please.

It is a high-pressured environment, with things that fans, including myself, take for granted at home, discussed in finite detail to ensure that the product is not rough around the edges.

All perspectives covered following Vettel’s crash
The World Feed goes “round the houses”, covering all angles of Vettel’s accident, including crowd shots, and angles from both Ferrari’s garage and pit wall.

As well as this, the team are keen to portray the raw emotion and body language that comes with Formula 1. “Stay on this. Stay. On. This.” is the very direct instruction given by Rorke to remain on the same track feed in the opening seconds after the crash.

The supplementary stories of both Bottas’s and Raikkonen’s pit stops play out, but the overarching story is clearly Vettel’s accident as the production team returns to him walking away from his car instead of changing focus. Rorke again establishes the leadership position aboard the production truck. “Vettel is absolutely pissed off, stay with this please. There’s loads of stops going on, but this is what is all about.”

The team continue to follow Vettel back through the paddock and into the Ferrari motor home. Throughout all of this, the graphics appear at the right time, almost invisible to the conversations that we hear in the video.

Vettel’s accident is replayed over the World Feed twice from different vantage points, once without team radio and once with team radio included. There is enough breathing time between the two replay suites, the second set of replays also including a slow-motion angle of Vettel entering the motor home. Throughout the video, different conversations are taking place in the background, with decisions made that impact the television product.

Would supplementary track feeds make for good additions to F1 TV?
As mentioned earlier, the track mix is simply a feed without additional bells and whistles. For the retro gamers amongst you, think of Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 4, which featured a TV mode, but without the obligatory helicopter angles, pit lane shots or crowd reactions.

There are some fans who may prefer this method of viewing, and if F1 is putting together this feed for internal purposes, one might argue that the feed should be made available via Sky Race Control and F1’s new over-the-top service.

One other thing that the six-minute video brought to the forefront was that the World Feed consciously missed some moments that occurred further down the field. In the grand scheme of things, I cannot imagine many getting too upset at missing a Carlos Sainz pit stop or Lance Stroll spnning. The decision-making in this instance was on point.

Nevertheless, it brings up an interesting question as to whether a ‘Track B’ feed, which was prominent during the F1 Digital+ days, should return. The feed focused on action further down the field that the main feed may not have been covering, which in 2018 terms would be the equivalent of covering anyone from Haas downwards.

A nice idea maybe for F1 TV, but the video posted by Formula One Management represented the most dramatic portion of the season so far, and not representative of the season so far where such a feed may be useless. In a 22 or 24 car field, maybe so, but I am not sure you can justify producing a mid-pack feed in a field of 20 cars. Nevertheless, it would give the main director an extra track feed to switch to, should they desire.

Motor sport is a team event in many different respects, and that extends itself to the production side of the event. If this video does anything, it helps make you appreciate just how much effort week in, week out, goes into producing Formula 1 television. It is not an easy job…

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3 thoughts on ““Stay on this! Stay. On. This.” – the split second decisions behind Formula 1’s television direction

  1. This could be another revenue stream for FOM.

    I’d happily pay to watch a race again just listening to the gallery and how it was all put together. Brilliant.

  2. Thanks you so much for bringing this 6 minute “behind the scenes” broadcast feed to our attention. And kudos to FOM for publishing it. It was utterly fascinating to watch/listen to it. I imagined that it was something like that but I was so impressed with the passion and the skill that the directors showed for capturing the drama.

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