BBC R&D

Posted by Ant Miller on , last updated

[Editor- the following is an article by James Allan telling the tale of the production of Jazz Shorts, a special music show commisioned for the BBC HD channel. R&D provided the Ingex tapeless recording system, and used the ambisonics sound recording technology too, and the show was produced and directed by Nik Pinks, an R&D engineer.]

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On a dreary Sunday afternoon in west London I'm sharing a small corner table in a pub with Nicholas Pinks, Robert Dunbar, and David Holland. They are the directors and producers of a new pilot BBC HD programme called "Jazz Shorts", and along with engineers and researchers from the BBC R&D department, they are responsible for a landmark in the history of the BBC HD channel.

"Jazz Shorts" is of key significance for the BBC HD channel, and for two reasons in particular. Up until now, programmes commissioned for the BBC HD channel have mostly been byproducts of other BBC SD channels. "Jazz Shorts" on the other hand is one of the first programmes to be commissioned solely for BBC HD. It marks a clear new stage in the development of program making at the BBC.

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Approaching the project with the target to make a dedicated HD programme allows for a lot greater focus of how the potential of the medium can be used. David Holland was keen to stress that thinking in HD meant that the team's aim was to immerse the viewer in the surroundings, to put them amongst the audience, to feel intricacies of performance.

"Jazz music is wrought with delicacy"

"We want to bring the viewer the performance as it is live, HD allows for that intimacy."

The second reason "Jazz Shorts" is a landmark production is because of what lies underneath its skin. For this is the first truly tapeless broadcast of its kind in the world. The BBC Research and Development department have been developing the technology (INGEX) for some time now. Nicholas Pinks, director and producer of Jazz Shorts works as part of the R&D team who has been at the core of the project.

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Using INGEX, the change over a traditional workflow is dramatic. The whole concept is to integrate the separate parts of the recording and editorial process. The relevance of this to the future of the HD channel goes beyond simple time and money saving ventures. It is the brainchild of BBC R&D, the heart of the technology the corporation bases itself upon, designed to create a much improved production workflow with HD at heart.

However, Ingex isn't the only groundbreaking technology involved in the production. The R&D team also utilised their Ambisonics equipment- this is a form of audio recording that was explored back in the 1960s, but has been returned to in the BBC's labs as it may have great potential for use with new audio formats, such as surround sound. You probably won't notice it in the final show, but part of that soundtrack was captured on ambisonic microphone equipment.

Speaking to Nik I asked how he felt about "Jazz Shorts" being a test bed, a "trojan horse" of technology creeping inside the confines of BBC HD:

"We got commission based on joint merits. I believe the HD channel wanted more dedicated music, and I also feel this programme worked very well with demonstrating future technology which is obviously due to the efforts of BBC R&D. I think the pilot of Jazz Shorts set out what it aimed to achieve, a tapeless production, shot to the BBC HD's stringent standards, with a very good story, and ultimately an enjoyable and informative show for the audience."

After all, the idea for the show was not conceived in the technology labs of the BBC but the favored location of inspiration for a TV producer - the local pub. Nik, Robert, and David came up with the idea after a live gig at the George IV in Chiswick. Watching the audience interact with the stage was of key influence. The question was whether they could replicate this atmosphere through the medium of television.

There is another anomaly with the production of Jazz Shorts. The three people I am sharing the table with on this rainy afternoon have all graduated from university within three years. In fact, much of the crew was made of university friends. When you take into consideration the pioneering nature of the production, it strikes me as a little odd that such great risks would be taken by employing novice crew members. Robert Dunbar (Co-Founder of Sixth Stage Productions, and Producer of Jazz Shorts) explains to me why they assembled the team this way.

"We wanted people who can work together as a team, most of the crew had background experience in the theatre or live performance. We needed musicians rather than sound technicians."

This in turn makes perfect sense when regarding the artistic merits of the programme, yet the underlying fact remains that if you cannot operate the technology, you will not have a broadcast. For a small company, the financial constraint of an experienced crew is a burden that can decide the programs it produces. Teamwork and artistic flair are great skills to have onboard until you reach a point.

"There were obviously people involved who had a much greater experience, we had some of the BBC R&D team, and Chris Price from DV Solutions, but the crew had to be based around people who were creative and had a passion for the work. Everyone working on the team was desperate for it to be a success."

If you were to peer into the world of the production team of Jazz Shorts during the three days surrounding the programme you would certainly find moments less than comfortable, some would hurt to watch. It was far from the stellar process envisaged by the team, but these things never usually are. If anything were to be proven from "Jazz Shorts" It would be that the BBC are committed to HD, but for the Robert, Nik, and David it is much more personal. What they have set out to prove is that you do not have to be a big company to make big steps forward. And for BBC R&D, it's been a great opportunity to show that the latest technologies to emerge from the labs can be used by productions large and small to make compelling and engaging programmes.