Hydro X Prix in Scotland sees Aurora in lockstep with Extreme E vision
In keeping with Extreme E’s core principles of equality, electrification, environment, and entertainment, the televised coverage of the latest round of the championship’s off-road electric racing series, which took place in Scotland 13-14 May, was brought to the screen using a high number of novel approaches to motorsport production.
To find out how and why, SVG Europe went on-site at Hydro X Pix in Dumfries and Galloway to chat wwith the production team from host broadcaster Aurora Media Worldwide.
According to executive producer Matt Beal, the equality angle alone is highly significant.
“Motorsport [demographics] is almost totally male-dominated, but we’ve got around 30 per cent female viewership,” he says. “The reason for that enormous shift is obvious: we’ve got amazing female drivers competing in parallel with men. The only other place that’s comparable is mixed doubles in tennis or the mixed triathlons in the Olympics.
“This isn’t trying to be another Formula One, it’s not trying to take a chunk of that market. It’s trying to speak to everyone else who thinks motorsport isn’t for them – that’s 99% of other people,” he continues. “Just because you’re younger, just because you’re female, doesn’t mean you don’t want to watch racing and be excited by it.”
“As a TV producer, I want it to be wet. We’re travelling a world with a global championship. I don’t want every event to look the same. I don’t want the same track everywhere, the same rumble strips, the same asphalt. I want it to feel different.”
“It’s about the story around the sport as well,” says Barry Flanigan, Aurora’s chief strategy officer. “That’s why editorially, a lot of the stories that are told are bringing to life not just the characters that are involved but also that story of sport with a purpose. This brings in a broader audience than just the motorsport audience.
“From a demographic perspective, a lot of the references in the show, the graphics and the look and feel, and the way that the brand plays out editorially, come from the world of gaming and other passion points beyond motorsport,” he adds. “That just helps broaden the appeal of the whole thing and it looks quite different when you see the product. So you’ve got this whole new audience that suddenly coming into the sport, discovering it in a different way.
Innovation and ideology
“What’s brilliant about Alejandro Agag [CEO of Extreme E and Chairman of Formula E] and Ali Russell [chief marketing officer at Extreme E], is that they’re very brave in the way that they think outside the box,” says Beal. “They invest in an idea, and after making that investment, they let people like us take risks and roll with ideas. But with that kind of freedom comes responsibility. Because you’ve got to back up their dream, and you’ve got to back up their trust in you.”
“Alejandro and Ali are real entrepreneurs,” live director Westbury Gillet agrees. “A lot of innovations have been introduced, rethinking the way you do things [in broadcast motorsports]. The idea of the Command Centre [pictured, below] is completely unique for example.”
This pop-up strategy room, created with live event production specialist, ADI, features indoor LED screens and LED lighting fixtures set around an arc-shaped area. Here host representatives from the five competing teams during the race including drivers, team principals, and engineers, have access to team radio, TV feeds and telemetry.
“Essentially there are four RF nodes out there which put a very big IP mesh over the whole event. There’s not a single cable coming out of here that connects to any of the cameras.”
“We’ve got the team principals all in one space, and then they can all watch the race together, with the teams hot desking like in an office,” says Gillett. “They’ve got a LED Wall that wraps around with related content and race notices. Putting all the teams into one area, and one environment adds drama. It also saves budget as the teams don’t have to bring all the equipment around the world to build up separate pit walls like in Formula One.”
During the race, we had access to this area and watched as constant updates circled the room on an LED ticker, while tense theme music ran constantly in the background, adding to the drama. Aurora camera crews captured the teams’ reactions and broadcast them live to viewers at home. The whole experience is very up close and personal, sure to heighten the in-the-front-seat nature of the broadcast.
Another technology innovation is the cars being powered by electricity rather than petrol; a fact that Gillett and Beal fully exploit for maximum excitement during the coverage.
“I think it’s a plus that you can’t hear the engine,” says Beal. “The onboard cameras carry sound from all around the car. We had a big roll in the qualifying race and when we played that back as a package of onboards, you hear every bang and every crunch.
“It’s off-road racing, which is ultra-dynamic. The environment is hammering those cars,” he continues. “Those drivers, when they are not battering [into] each other, are getting battered just getting around this track. The noise highlights that more than anything; you pick up a lot more and you’re hearing what they’re feeling. We’re broadcasting all that atmosphere in 5.1 and it’s not being drowned out by the sound of machines.”
Extreme E also introduced Gridplay, a system where fans can vote online twice a day for their favourite drivers, and the team with the most votes gets to hand-pick its spot on the starting line for the final race. As it has the opportunity to influence the race outcome, it certainly puts the fans right at the centre of the race. But there’s no high-tech here; the Gridplay display is just a wooden board in the paddock with some bits of card for slotting in numbers.
“It’s a bit like Bruce Forsyth’s Play Your Cards Right,” says Gillett. “It’s super simple, a bit of wood that gets knocked about. Then there’s the podium, which is made of wood, very clean and organic. It just has a little bit of wire with sponsors’ names hanging behind it. But it’s a very nice way of showing off the background without having a big backdrop. So, we’re using the technology when we need to and when we don’t, we’re not.”
Talking to Gillett, it’s obvious that Aurora works in lockstep with the operations team on the race in terms of planning shots and camera angles. “We work super close with operations in putting this event on,” he says. “The design of the track is [planned] for the drivers, but also for purposes of the broadcast to get a decent spectacle on TV.”
“Essentially there are four RF nodes out there which put a very big IP mesh over the whole event,” says Beal. “There’s not a single cable coming out of here that connects to any of the cameras. It’s designed that way so that when they go racing here in a quarry in Scotland, or through the canyons in the desert, or across the Arctic ice sheets in Greenland, the kit’s flexible enough to go with the dream. It’s also lighter. We don’t have drums of cable coming down, we can go a long way.”
Beal points out that all of Aurora’s kit here is built bespoke for Extreme E events. “It all gets packed away in the container and put on the ship; it doesn’t do any other jobs,” he says.
“So the creativity isn’t just in the broadcast or during the race. It’s also in the way the technology has been built and designed to do this project.”
Sustainable satellite production
In terms of environmental approach, Aurora is a founder member of the Albert Sports Consortium. “It’s a really important part of our output and what we support as a business,” says Flanigan. “[Production manager] Kelsey Gallagher works very hard to keep us Albert-affiliated and carbon neutral. We keep our personnel numbers down to the bare minimum.” That is also expedited by remote production – while the race cut is created in the paddock, the live show is curated in London.
“The production being remote was something that was conceived of before COVID and before everyone else began working on those solutions,” says Gallagher. “I think that allowed us to still go ahead with the series launch during a difficult time globally. Not many of our plans needed to change. We were already set up to have satellite links that we build on-site and line them up from wherever we are around the world. That allows us to minimise the crew massively on site.”
“Until you’re here you can’t see all of the amazing work that everyone’s doing in their individual areas.”
For redundancy, two satellite links are built on site, and the race cut is sent down to Gray’s Inn Road in London where the live broadcast show is ‘curated’.
Aurora also provides fans with an online series called Unfiltered which takes viewers behind the scenes during race weekends, and it produces a magazine show called Electric Odyssey. “Over the season Electric Odyssey generates the same number of viewers as one round of the race. It’s like the seventh round of the event,” says Beal.
“We use it as a platform for all of those Extreme E partners and suppliers to tell their stories,” says Gallagher. “Until you’re here you can’t see all of the amazing work that everyone’s doing in their individual areas.”
Extreme E, its broadcast partners and its sponsors can also quickly draw on clips and content from an asset management system, created in partnership with cloud solutions provider Base. Using the Base portal, Aurora uploads race footage directly into an IBM S3 bucket via Aspera’s accelerated file transfer tool to a Veritone Digital Media Hub (DMH). This content media asset management system generates proxies and indexes all the files into content categories.
“Our main editing is based in Gray’s Inn Road [in London] but using the DMH, everyone can work collaboratively at the same time,” says Gallagher. “We also work closely with Extreme E’s digital team, sharing what we’re doing, capturing what we need in those places, and then crossing over, just to make sure that we’re not doubling up and everyone uses their time efficiently. We have so many stories to tell, so much to capture, and such a short amount of time to do that.”
Whatever the weather…
Gallagher says the event site for Hydro X Prix is probably one of the most stunning she’s yet seen. “From the paddock, you can see almost the whole course. It’s quite something.”
However, her main challenge on this leg of the championship has been the unpredictability of the Scottish climate. Day 1 had started with heavy fog followed slowly by bright blue skies and a hot sun that then baked the course and caused a lot of dust during the race. Contrasting this, the following day saw heavy rain.
“I’ve never had an event when the weather changes so much or so quickly,” says Gallagher. “You always have to be flexible and willing to change the plan.”
“It’s called Extreme E for a reason,” agrees Beal. “You control what you know, and you use the skills of those around you to be flexible.”
Beal for one welcomed the change in weather. “As a TV producer, I want it to be wet,” he explains. “We’re travelling a world with a global championship. I don’t want every event to look the same. I don’t want the same track everywhere, the same rumble strips, the same asphalt. I want it to feel different.”
- Extreme E in Scotland: Battling the elements at Hydro X Prix
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