Quite a lot can go wrong when producing live TV from remote locations in the mountains of Norway. Sindre Skrede explains the anxiety and hurdles of producing slow TV on foot and in areas with no cellphone reception.
It is 15 minutes before the first live broadcast of a wild, four-week experiment where NRK will produce slow TV with Lars Monsen, an adventurer from Norway known for his many nature expeditions.
Everyone is ready for the broadcast to start. Monsen has found his position and over six hundred trekkers have joined us to walk today’s route. Even the weather is on our side.
Still, something is not working.
The project has been in development for two years, but here, at Dyranut on Hardangervidda, we are not able to broadcast the signal. This is not looking good.
– Ten minutes to broadcast!
The message through my earpiece dramatically increases my heart rate, but there is little I can do. The maker of our unique backpack of radio transmitters, receivers and video mixers, Jon Ståle Carlsen, is working persistently to uncover the error. The backpack, a custom-made «production control room», is not able to connect to the internet, and therefore not able to broadcast neither picture nor sound to the waiting public.
– Grab the router from the other backpack! technical leader Trygve Dahl yells to me.
I run into the cabin we have transformed into a temporary workshop and storage area for NRK, and grab the router from the spare backpack.
As I am sprinting outside again, I realize the backpack has magically achieved contact with the outside world. I put the spare router in my own backpack, and hastily position myself with the production crew in a pre-planned formation, as we are getting close to going live.
Thomas Hellum is now ready behind the backpack, with multiple screens displaying video inputs. In his right hand, he carries a wireless controller for selecting which video feed to broadcast.
In his other hand, he is holding a switch for selecting which intercom channel he wants to speak on – one for all the photographers, one for the host Lars Monsen, and one for the central control room in Bergen.
– The intro is live! We are now on the air! Steadicam please walk around and get me pictures of the crowd, Thomas says on the internal radio.
Jan Erik Finsæther walks among the crowd with the main camera, called steadicam for short. Meanwhile, Alex Reitan runs in front of us with a different camera, so he can capture the hikers from a far.
Above us we can hear the buzzing sound of a drone flown by Espen Willander and Hilde Frøisland. Gry Haugholt is intently watching the sound mixer. Everything is finally ready.
As the intro finishes, Lars Monsen greets the audience in his familiar manner. Holding the camera himself, he welcomes the viewers to day one of «Monsen minutt for minutt».
At 1240 meters above sea level, we are starting our journey through parts of Hardangervidda, a vast mountain plateau in southern Norway. We are hoping to show the exact same view to everyone who wants to join in via their television screens.
One would think watching a group of people walk in nature from cabin to cabin, over hills and valleys for hours on end might seem boring, but the concept slow TV has touched a string in the hearts of many Norwegians.
A long, long line
To produce the show we have 22 people from NRK on location, but many more are participating behind the scenes to get everything running smoothly.
All the feeds from the cameras, the drone, and the sound mix are sent to the big backpack that is essentially functioning as an OB (Outdoor Broadcast) truck, weighing around 32 kilograms.
Thomas Hellum is producing most of the show on location using custom-made gear and the backpack. Sound and picture are transmitted to NRK’s studios in Bergen for final mixing.
In theory it all seems so simple, while it is so terribly complex and hard to pull off in practice.
– The areas we are trekking through do not have proper mobile reception or any other modern infrastructure. Normally, we can broadcast live through the mobile network from the many nooks and crannies in Norway, but for this project that was not feasible, NRK’s transmission and link guru Audun Torsdalen explains.
Many viewers have also asked us why we could not just broadcast the signal by satellite. That was considered, but a satellite transmitter is too heavy to carry, and it must point 100 percent exactly to the satellites we would transmit to – so that was not possible either.
A year ago, Audun was asked to find a feasible method of sending the signal home. Since then, he has calculated coverage areas, signal strengths, link locations, and tour routes.
The solution was creating our own so-called mesh network.
– The first similar broadcast we did was «Reinflytting minutt for minutt», where after we did «Besseggen minutt for minutt». We also gained experience from doing a series on the paddle steamer Skibladner, Audun explains.
To best show how it works, we can follow the signal from the OB backpack to the viewers at home.
The OB backpack is equipped with a radio transmitter transmitting the broadcast signal through two antennas on the top of the backpack. The signals are going to one of two «hares»; volunteers carrying a radio transmitter that helps the signal navigate the sometimes difficult terrain of steep valleys, large rocks, and local hilltops.
– The hares and OB backpack are parts of a mesh network, which means that the transmitters decide in-between themselves the best way to route the signal, Audun says.
From the hares, the signal jumps along to a link crew on a nearby mountaintop. Here, two people are monitoring the signal, one from NRK and one volunteer from the Norwegian Trekking Association.
The team then transmits the signal to similar outposts further off until it reaches a location with adequate cabled internet.
Through the cabled network, the signal reaches Oslo through Bergen, and is then broadcast to all viewers.
– The steadicam is flickering again!
Thomas is not pleased. The main camera is failing. I am sprinting to the front of the field to catch up with Jan Erik and his steadicam rig to troubleshoot. We are now walking briskly to reach Stigstuv before the end of the show at 4 pm.
While we are on the move, I open the control box on Jan Erik’s back, and try to flip the tiny switch on his radio transmitter from low to high signal strength.
– The video feed from the steadicam is back on! The steadi is on, Thomas confirms over the intercom.
There are plenty of hurdles while trekking and producing live television. We hope viewers will not notice the problems we encounter, but when they happen, we try to fix them as best we can.
We have had little time to test everything beforehand, and troubleshooting on the move while going live is hard and complicated. The most troublesome parts have been the wireless camera links, and transmitting the signal from the OB backpack. In general, our experience is that everything wireless is a source of frustration, and out here nearly everything is communicating without cables.
One might think that wireless equipment is following the well-known principles of physics. One might also assume that it would be possible to produce stable and error-free video and audio transmitters in 2018. However, we still feel, time after time, that these things are more closely aligned with black magic when they work and voodoo when they do not.
Either they work and nobody knows why, or nothing works and everybody is still clueless.
That said, we knew what we signed up for when we decided to go for all this wireless equipment. We also knew the risks when routing everything through a rather small backpack. In the end, we count 27 antennas, big and small. Even though they, in theory, should not affect each other, they most likely do.
The producer’s view:
The inside of the OB backpack:
We use four cameras: Lars Monsen uses a small Canon XA25, the drone is a DJI Mavic Pro Platinum, and the tele camera running in front of us is a Sony FS5. The main camera on the ground is a Canon 5D Mark IV: actually a still camera, but with great video capabilities and a very good autofocus.
Each link crew also have their own camera, covering the landscape in case they cannot receive a signal from the backpack. A nice back up if anything should happen with the signal from the trekkers.
Flying the drone while on the move is no easy task. Both Espen and Hilde are constantly running while flying to keep track with the trekkers. After stopping for a battery change, they are usually ending up behind the field. Fortunately, the drone can automatically hold their position when the operator lets go of the controls, meaning the pilots can run in short sprints. Together they are coordinating who flies and who is spotting the general area the drone operates.
The main camera, staying close to Lars Monsen, is a combination of several elements.
Fundamentally, it is a steadicam, a relatively light camera rig for mechanically stabilizing the camera while moving. This rig reduces the up and down motions usually generated by walking.
Learning to perfectly operate a steadicam takes years of practice and requires continuous fine-tuning from the operator. Since everything is mechanical and dependent on the operator, we decided that it would be too hard to operate five to six hours a day in uneven terrain. We therefore added an electronic gimbal adding stabilization on three axes and aiding the operator in keeping the picture horizontal.
This combination gives the photographer more time to watch his or her footing while producing almost steady shots. On their backs, the photographers carry a waterproof box containing a wireless video transmitter communicating with the OB backpack.
Batteries and cables
– The OB backpack needs to change batteries, the intercom crackles.
The timekeeper on technical manager Trygve Dahl’s cellphone has just announced that it has been an hour and a quarter since the batteries were renewed. In addition to this low tech solution, he sometimes checks a website displaying battery voltages and temperatures inside the backpack.
– Let’s take a little break here, Lars. Perhaps you can talk about where we are, and how far we have left? says Thomas to Lars, before giving a gesture to start changing batteries.
One of the many volunteers following us gets close when he sees the signal. Truls carries four packs of three batteries in each: approximately eight kilos of batteries in total. Additionally, he is carrying his own luggage. Like the other volunteers, he is quickly there as soon as we need something.
Without the volunteer support, we had never been able to carry out the project. Distributed among the many volunteers are batteries, spare parts, personal luggage, tents, and sleeping bags for the NRK team. For example, photographers do not have to carry their own luggage in addition to the heavy camera equipment.
The batteries are changed without shutting down the OB backpack. Thus, the broadcast can continue uninterrupted while we rest for a few minutes.
The trip is over – but not the day
The day is far from over as we arrive at Stigstuv. A bunch of batteries needs to be fully charged, and the equipment needs to be ready for the evening talk show.
For the technical crew, few hours are available for rest. A series of technical problems needs sorting out while we have time to solder, change cables, fix joints and rebuild faulty equipment.
After three more days of walking we finally reach this week’s final destination at Hardangervidda.
The first week is over, and the way we are organizing logistics, sleeping, charging, carrying, and equipment has changed dramatically since we started the trip. Learning is a lifelong thing, and you learn fast when doing insane TV projects in NRK.
Each day we try something different, and we will likely continue to make changes until the last day of the production in a couple of weeks. There is the question whether the main equipment will ever work completely as intended from the start when we arrive at our final destination. I have my doubts that it will ever happen — but the main thing is that it works in some way or another.
This show is one giant experiment we will iterate on until we arrive in Indre Troms in a few weeks. There is the question whether the equipment will still be working as planned when we arrive at our final destination. We have our doubts.
Right now, the production is in an area called Jotunheimen. As I am typing the final sentence of this article, more than 2000 meters above sea level in Sogn og Fjordane, the sun is slowly setting below the horizon.
In seven hours the next workday begins. Tomorrow we are again going to create a minute by minute broadcast from some of the most beautiful places Norway have to offer – for the first time shown live on TV.