Field to Screen

Audio engineers Steve Hartley and Patrick Duncan.
Drawing by Patrick Duncan explaining how Sky propagate their signal from a live event to a TV.
If you're tuning into the live coverage of the Rugby World Cup, spare a thought for those working behind the scenes. Ande Schurr talks to one cog in the machine, audio engineers.

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If you're tuning into live coverage of the Rugby World Cup 2011, spare a thought for those working behind the scenes. Ande Schurr talks to one cog in the machine - audio engineers on OB (Outside or Onsite Broadcasts) trucks, delivering live sound from the field to your screen.

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When I hear of a large feature film I wonder where it was shot and who the crew were. When it came to large sports events, including the Olympics, I was only thinking about the event itself – I didn’t give thought to the massive undertaking of the host broadcaster to shoot and edit the event live on air for viewers around the world.

Those freelancers who straddle both worlds, that is, work on both OB’s (Outside or Onsite Broadcasts) and films, TV dramas or documentaries etc, gain big rewards. They get the chance to work in that smaller intimate way onset with actors and creatives in the film industry and they gain the capacity to handle the pressure of the large-scale roll out of equipment and workflow set to a strict deadline for Outside Broadcasts.

Steve Hartley and Patrick Duncan are audio engineers working full-time at Sky TV. They have complete control of the audio control room on the OB trucks which shoot a range of live events throughout the year such as the rugby, basketball, boxing or any other sporting or major live event such as the elections. Our interview covers the role of the audio engineer, how much work is there for freelancers, the problem of training new people, and other interesting information for those wanting to know more about OB’s and the Rugby World Cup arrangement.

Ande: Before Sky TV, what were you doing?

Steve: We both started at CTV (Canterbury Television) in Christchurch. When I was 15, I started doing lighting and audio-visual jobs at the town hall. It was an after school job. I was already looking after all the lighting and sound at high school. When I was 16 I had a chance to work at CTV. I did a month or two of work experience for free first. Every day at 3pm after high school, I’d be hauling arse straight to the TV station – I’d be on air at five till about 8 at night doing about three hours of live television. Then a chance to work on ‘What Now’ (kids television show) came up so I did both jobs and asked Patrick, who was already working at CTV in other roles, to help me with the overlap.

Patrick: I came from a different path. Steve was very focused. By 15 he’d figured out what he wanted to do. By 17 he was full time. I went to university after high school to study biology but I needed a part-time job so I approached CTV and after 2 days work experience I got a job.

What is the audio engineer at Sky TV?

Steve: I’m a senior audio engineer, Patrick is an audio engineer. The difference is that I can be the senior audio engineer on OB’s (mix the sports games live in the truck audio suite), I can audio assist on OB’s (set up the field and commentary equipment), I can operate the studio’s at Sky and I can use all the Pro Tools suites and do any inserts for shows that need to be done, or any promos. Patrick is a little different. Traditionally, the audio engineer role would mean you were an audio post specialist only and you would do the live studio while assisting on OBs. However Patrick is different in that he can be the senior sound mixer on OB’s, assist on OB’s, do the studio, but is still leaning the Protools systems. So the audio engineer can do three out of the four things required while the senior engineer can do all four.

Patrick: We all have our strengths. There is no way that neither Steve nor I could ever be as good as the Sky post-audio guy Howard Dunn. At the same time I think he would prefer not having to spend his time mixing OB’s. Just my opinion because the thing he’s really good at is the whole Pro-tools suite. But that is the requirement for the senior sound person at Sky, to be able to operate in all four areas.

What happens after the bubble of the Rugby World Cup?

Steve: The Rugby World Cup is 8 weeks of a massive event that’s supposed to be number three in the world behind the Soccer World Cup and the Olympics. But at the same time, it’s only 8 weeks of the year. So everything up till now is still business as usual. Effectively, the ITM cup next year probably won’t be condensed to 8 weeks but will run for it’s full 12 weeks. So the RWC is just an extra job that comes in but next year we have the Olympics to focus on which will be another big event. Every year has something big that requires just as many staff. I don’t think it will affect the freelance market – whether they get more or less work, I think at the moment, if anything, you will either get more work or it will stay the same.

What advice do you have for freelancers who want to work on OB's?

Steve: In general most of the students that come out of broadcasting or film school, you end up having to retrain. We feel that it is more valuable learning stuff on the job at the coalface rather than from someone in a school.

Patrick: There are some utterly incredible sound ops in New Zealand that are scattered around the place. Cookie (David Cookie) who is looking after the audio side of the World Cup preparations is a fantastic sound op. Haresh Bhana who does all the America’s Cup mixes around the world, who makes the whole environment which the other people take for their sound mixes - and add their own commentary over - is significantly hard to figure out. Alan Gerrie who is down in Dunedin is still the best rugby sound mixer in the country [Steve: in the world]. These guys are really good and there are more. You don’t find a lot of them in the school system. They don’t have a lot of time to spend teaching how to do things well so what we’ve found is by working on the OB’s you get a chance to spend time with these people and then you find out what you’re doing wrong and what you can do differently and better. That has been really useful. It doesn’t take much to get into contact with them. You just have to be as proactive and useful as you can while you’re there so you can come back again and do the next lot. Half the time you don’t even ask a question of them but you still get to see how things are done. But even now, times have changed and standards are lower for the new guys coming in.

Steve: I was just talking to Cookie about this. He said it’s a shame our guys don’t get the training like they used to. He said in the 1987 Rugby World Cup, or the ITM cup games leading up to it, there was a guy up in the stand with an RT calling up the sideline sound assistants (the ones holding the boom mics) and saying “you’re in the wrong place, you should be there – why are you not there, why are you there? You have to be over there”. It’s got too PC now and there used to be enough people on each crew so you could free someone up to do that role.

Patrick: I was mixing on a large live event at the Christchurch Town Hall for CTV (before I was at Sky) and Ross McDonald was sitting on my shoulder blitzing everything I was doing. He told me I was doing that wrong, that wrong and that wrong. It was one of the best experiences I ever had because during that hour and a half of making content it got so much better because I always knew what I was doing wrong – I have to be slower doing those fades, I have to be smoother getting on to the next bit. So there are lots of students coming into these classes at film school and hopefully some of them are really good because they will be needed. At the same time, if you spend your time going “I have my piece of paper, I’m ready now” then it just won’t happen for you. But if you spend your time at school and then a little bit of time somewhere else on work experience, even getting paid for it, you tend to come out good. You have a bit more of a clue what you need to know.

Steve: I fully agree. Students must get real world industry training at the same time as their school training. Come and hassle us – either those of us in the sound or camera department. It’s not hard to find out who we are.

Is an OB for everyone?

Patrick: No. With so many different things you can do, an OB requires that you have a really good understanding of time; that you are part of a team that relies on interconnections to actually achieve whatever you’re trying to put to air or make in the first place. You have to have a lot of self-direction. Sure, there’s a director on-site, but if you don’t know what you have to achieve in the first place and complete it without someone telling you, then you’re going to have a hard time on an OB because there are so many things to look after. You need to be really conscious of the time you’re working within and be able to do this in a manner that makes you fun to work with.

Of the crew, if we have an ITM cup, then we have 6 cameras which means 6 camera operators – they are all freelancers except for the head camera op. The cameras are connected by cables - and no one seems to ever understand that cablers are vital. If you’re a cabler, it’s a great way to get into different things because you’re associated with a senior camera op. who knows everyone on the crew and you are literally attached to them which means you can ask questions and be as interested as you want to and they can’t get rid of you, so if you help them out and understand there is a lot to cabling and most cablers don’t get that. They think “just pull the cable and get it tidy”. Coiling is actually quite hard but if you do it properly it’s so useful because we use 3-5km of cable for each game. For $50 cash per day, it’s a good way to meet these people, see the whole prep, shoot and pack-up and see if you have any interest in OB’s in the first place.

What’s the relationship between Sky and OSB?

Patrick: OSB (previously Onsite Broadcast ltd, now Outside Broadcast Ltd after the acquisition by Sky) used to be a company owned by Prime Media Group in Australia. They’ve been bought by Sky. They are now just another department of Sky. Just like in the old days, TVNZ had Moving Pictures, which was their OB service.

What does a week at Sky TV look like for an audio engineer?

Steve: My week this week (Aug 29) is - because Rugby World Cup is next week - this morning I travelled back from New Plymouth, today, tomorrow and Wednesday I am at OSB packing the truck for next week, I have Thursday-Friday off then Saturday I go and do the Warriors game then Sunday I’m in the studio.

Patrick: While he’s doing that I have Monday off, Tuesday-Wednesday in the studio, and Thursday off, Friday in the studio, Saturday I don’t know what I’m doing yet, Sunday on the ITM cup final. The schedule is down a week before. We have the security of being full-time Sky staff yet our schedules look like we are contractors.

What do you think about when you’re mixing on the OB truck?

Patrick: While we are mixing these games we are thinking - what is going on around me? Do I like how the crowd is sounding behind me (in the rear speakers); do I like what is happening in the front speakers? Is there someone sitting in front of one of the crowd mics shouting and you have to find it and take it out. At the same time you’re listening to the stereo version of what you’re doing and asking again “do I like that is happening here?” Is the crowd too loud and dominating? You have to find the balance between the two so the mix works for both 5.1 and stereo.

I need to be one step ahead of the director at any point in time. If we are on a video tape item and we are coming to a live interview on the field, I need to have my finger on that fader, on that mic, ready for that interview - having already been in communication with the sound assistant on the field to prep the mic and give it to the right presenter. That job of advising the crew is the job of the DA (Director’s Assist) who says things like “we are coming to our commercial break in 1 minute” and also gives information about what is happening after what we are currently doing. If I’m mixing something I need to know what I’m doing now, what I’m about to do and what is the next thing. You need to know two things after what you are doing now. If you don’t know those two things then stop paying so much attention to what is happening now and figure out what is coming up otherwise you’re going to get yourself into trouble.

What happens to the sound and vision when it leaves the OB truck?

Patrick: Sky broadcasts in 5.1 surround sound. That was completely new for me – everything else I’ve done has been in stereo. When we mix sound on an OB we create both 5.1 and stereo versions of our audio. The stereo version is created out of the 5.1 in the first place. In order to get that audio and video back to Sky, so it can be then pushed back out into everybody’s home, the audio has to be turned into a Dolby stream. So it gets digitised first and doesn’t get decoded until it arrives in someone’s Skybox and TV.

Is the film industry different from the OB industry?

Patrick: Yes. The difference is that I like the experience of doing one thing once. That would be the biggest distinction. I don’t know if I would do well in film, because it’s a lot more structured in getting the exact perfect shot no matter how long it takes. For me I really enjoyed mixing What Now. It is on air for 2 hours on Sunday mornings 8-10am. Yet I spent 25 hours on average each week preparing for those two hours so all my work happens beforehand trying to get ready so that I’m prepared on the day to do one thing once, when it’s required. There’s more pressure but you have to know how to handle that.

Should a film and TV freelancer explore the OB industry?

Steve: Take yourself as an example. Doing field recording, the money is probably better but to make yourself a better operator you have entered the OB side as a way to help you out there. You do similar things but you learn tricks that can help you on the other side - because you have a deadline to meet – you’re on air in half an hour so you have to get there, there has to be that urgency. If you get to your field shoot and knock out everything – get all your checks done, setup all your gear, it means you can sit around and drink the coffee for longer.

Written by

Ande Schurr

8 Sep 2011

Ande Schurr is a professional and experienced sound recordist with a passion for the film and TV industry. His columns on The Big Idea focus on 'How Freelancers Succeed'.

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