September 2021

Ten years of technology and innovation at dock10: an interview with Paul Clennell

Ten years of technology and innovation at dock10: an interview with Paul Clennell

As dock10 celebrates its tenth year, we talk to its Chief Technology Officer, Paul Clennell, about the extensive technology that underpins the UK's leading television facility. Paul offers a snapshot of dock10's current technology, the drivers behind some of television productions most exciting innovations, and his thoughts on what the future holds - from Virtual Studios to UHD/HDR to Remote Production.

Why was dock10 created?

dock10's origins lie in the BBC's plan to move key elements of its television operations, including BBC Children's and BBC Sport, outside of London to Salford Quays in Greater Manchester. At the time there was criticism that the BBC was too focused on producing content within London, and Mark Thompson, the then Director-General of the BBC, was keen that the BBC should, in his own words, "serve and represent the whole country, not just its capital." However, this required a major new television facility that could support the creation of world-class content outside of London – dock10 was born. Construction began in 2007, and we were ready to go on air in January 2011, being officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in March 2012.

What resources does dock10 offer?

dock10 is the UK's leading television facility and our eight permanent television studios and two outdoor spaces are fully equipped to handle any size or type of television production – we recently invested £5 million on technology and infrastructure upgrades.

Our permanent studios, HQ1 through HQ8, incorporate some of the latest equipment – including 15 Sony HDC-3500 4K cameras. All our television studios are fitted with virtual studio capability and are integrated into our top-spec 200Gbps network that was designed around 4K/UHD television production and allows content to be instantly moved around the facility. We also operate our own MCR and high specification hosting for equipment.

Our award-winning in-house post production facilities have over 50 fully-equipped edit suites, with Flame and Baselight capability and 4K monitoring. We also have sound suites, VFX and extensive media management capabilities. Increasingly, we are also set up for remote working – we even have a helpline for editors working from home.

dock10 also manages the high-speed cross-site fibre network at Media City that provides broadcasters and production companies with over 20 global network providers and the exceptional connectivity needed for transferring high-quality video – we're one of the best-connected sites in the world.

Of course, all this technology is nothing without a talented team to operate it and we have attracted some of the best in the business! We have a permanent staff of around 160 full-time specialists supported by hundreds of freelancers who work on major projects whenever needed. At any time in the building, we might have ten major broadcast projects and 50 to 100 post production suites working – it's always busy!

What are the key features of dock10's ten television studios?

We have eight television studios plus two specialist audio studios and two outside spaces for live television shows against the impressive backdrop of Media City. All these studios have their own unique characteristics that enable us to cater for every requirement. They range in size range from HQ1 - the UK’s biggest multi-camera TV studio at 12,540sq ft and an audience capacity of 1,000 people – to small studios designed for 24/7 continuity for dedicated channels. We have recently invested £1 million in a new gallery solution for our smallest studio, HQ8 (713sq ft), to meet the increasing demand for virtual studios and remote galleries.

But when you look beyond size, what's brilliant about our studios is that they all share the same high-spec technology. They all have similar cameras and technical equipment, all are equipped with virtual studio capabilities, all have state-of-the-art galleries, and all are connected to dock10's unique infrastructure. This is great for customers as our connectivity and flexibility means any studio can incorporate whatever technology is needed – so every production can find the right size and spec of studio space for their production.

Each studio has a dedicated suite of galleries for production, sound and lighting. These galleries are integrated into dock10's network so that any gallery can control any studio and so that multiple galleries can be linked together for larger and more complicated productions. This gives productions the flexibility and scalability they need.

What television programmes are made at dock10?

Our studios have been used to make almost every kind of television production imaginable. This includes Saturday-night primetime live entertainment such as The Voice UK and pre-recorded primetime favourites like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. We have long running quizzes - Countdown, A Question of Sport, University Challenge and Mastermind - and a host of other entertainment shows including Dragon's Den, Naked Attraction and Judge Rinder. Studio comedies include The Wright Way and Citizen Khan as well as remakes of television classics Are You Being Served and Porridge.

We also support more serious productions like Watchdog and even live television debates on nationally important topics such as the general election and even the lockdown. We are home to BBC Sport and its flagship football programme Match of the Day for which we designed and built a ground-breaking virtual studio set – recently updated for the Euros. And we are also home to loads of children's television including long-running favourites Newsround and Blue Peter. Our studios have been used for major live events such as Sport Relief and Eurovision: You Decide, recently our virtual studio capability was at the heart of the Esports spectacular Gran Turismo Championships 2020. There's not much we haven't seen here! Many of the shows recorded in our studios are also post produced here, and our facilities are also extensively used for post producing dramas such as The Stranger.

Most of our clients are UK based broadcasters, including all the public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5. However, these are all making content for international audiences with premium programmes that are sold all around the world. We are also receiving more requirements from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. It's fair to say that while many of the productions and production companies may be UK based, the content is very international!

What are dock10's virtual studio capabilities?

dock10 has taken a very different approach to virtual studios and all of our studios are 'virtual' enabled. Typically, people think of a virtual studio as a room with green walls and a green floor. However, a single virtual studio can be restrictive in size and space, so by giving all of our studios a virtual capability we can add virtual and augmented elements to any size of show. All the technology is centralised in our CTA and can be deployed to any or all of our television studios at any time so that creative directors can choose the size of studio that best fits their requirements. It's a really revolutionary approach and we have been taking calls from facilities all around the world asking us how we do it!

As for the technology, what excited us was the possibilities coming out of gaming. We saw the potential to take green screen to the next level by using the real-time photorealistic graphic rendering which makes the virtual environment look indistinguishable from the real world. The movie industry has been doing this for years, but they put the actor into a green screen for the impossible shot and then add the virtual world in post. Now, thanks to advanced camera tracking and graphic processing, we can do the whole shot in real-time, live on screen, so the director will see what the viewers will see! These advances are breath taking and we wanted to be in it from the start. Broadcasters like the BBC were early adopters, using our virtual studios for Match of the Day. Then, when the schools closed for lockdown, we created the virtual classroom for BBC Bitesize Daily in record time and have gone on to create a second series with a hugely expanded virtual set enhanced by an augmented reality robot—all in real time.

What technologies does dock10 use for post production?

We are primarily an AVID house operating 50-100 suites across the site as well as providing remote post services across Media City to customers such as the BBC. Our facilities are equipped with the latest technology, including Avid edit suites with Avid MediaCentral | Production Management, Avid Pro Tools audio suites with Source Connect voice booths, Baselight and Lustre for grading and the latest Autodesk Flame suites for VFX. We have a 10-person graphics studio and state-of-the-art dubbing suites operating Pro Tools S6 M40 desks. Our boutique facility 'The Quay', has ten offline and two online suites, 4 VFX suites, a motion graphics area and an expanded grade facility with built in projector. We're very proud to have been named Best Post Production House 2020 in the Broadcast Awards.

What are dock10's sound studios used for?

Our two specialist audio studios are deliberately designed to serve very different purposes. HQ9 is a very large (6,382sq ft) specialist orchestral studio seating an audience of 250. It is the dedicated home of the world-famous BBC Philharmonic, one of the country's finest orchestras. With the feel of a large theatre, it is used by the BBC Philharmonic and visiting orchestras to achieve and capture the grand sound of a full orchestra.

HQ10 is designed for a very different purpose - a specialist multi-purpose audio studio for recording radio plays and drama. It can accommodate a large cast and seat a 100 strong audience which is great for creating atmosphere. It also features an anechoic chamber or 'dead room' which completely absorbs background sounds for perfect recordings of anything from a pin drop upwards! Having the two studios means we can provide really specialist spaces that are appropriate for very different sound requirements.

How has dock10's technology changed over the last 10 years?

When we built dock10, next-generation technology was just emerging and we were able to incorporate it into the design, such as the latest IP network and centralised control room. It was a smart investment that has served us well over the last ten years, but technology never stands still and we are constantly refreshing, updating and upgrading to ensure we keep ahead of the curve. For us, the recent big shifts have been in UHD/HDR, augmented and virtual reality, and remote production. Our most recent major upgrade included a £5 million technology investment that supported these advances across our studios, post production, media storage and network.

New equipment included 4K UHD cameras, vision mixers, multi-viewer monitors and core routers, as well as our 200GBps network developed specifically to smooth the way for 4K UHD/HDR and VR/AR. It also saw our install of virtual studio capabilities in all of our studios, using gaming and camera tracking technology to extend and enhance real sets in a photorealistic way - a powerful creative tool for producers.

Remote production was already transforming the way live sports events are broadcast, but it has really come on during the pandemic with live events minimising crews on location, preferring to handle production from galleries in a main studio. To support this, we invested £1 million in a dedicated multipurpose remote gallery that works seamlessly with outside broadcasts and connects to the dock10 network. The last 18 months has proved how well remote production works, with dock10 becoming a hub for coverage of pandemic hit events such as the FA Cup, the Euros, and the Olympics. And beyond the pandemic, I think remote production will still play a big role as broadcasters and producers use it to reduce their carbon footprint and create content in a more sustainable, cost-effective, way.

How does dock10's network support the delivery of television projects?

It's absolutely essential! Our 200Gbps network was specially developed to meet the demands of 4K television production and is connected to our ten television studios and their galleries, more than fifty post production suites, our ingest, control rooms and the data centre.

We built the network to extremely impressive technical specifications, comprising of two interlinked elements with a Control LAN monitoring and managing studio and gallery equipment in real time, while a Production LAN is dedicated to supporting 4K file-based content workflows. A full range of the latest software control tools and detailed analytics constantly monitor the entire network to ensure its stability and smooth running. On top of this, with the industry increasingly concerned about cyber security, the broadcast network is a dedicated standalone network used exclusively for broadcast content and comes complete with all the latest cyber security safeguards.

For our customers, our network delivers spectacular advantages and efficiencies. Imagine this: a UHD television show captured in our studios can be made instantly available for editing and then sent directly for transmission from post production, delivering clients exceptionally fast turnaround of UHD programmes. Similarly, the new network allows 4K contributions for live shows to be edited in dock10's post production and be available immediately for live playout, allowing changes to be made right up to transmission. It's all made possible by our network!

What are the biggest television projects dock10 has worked on recently?

I'd say it was the Euros2020 and Tokyo Olympics, both for BBC Sport. For the Euros, Covid guidelines and travel restrictions limited on-site access to match venues, putting greater emphasis on our remote production and a new virtual set we had built for the tournament. We wanted the Euros to push the boundaries of virtual studios, creatively and technically resetting the standard for sports broadcasting. The goal was to use it to help lockdown fans feel as close as possible to the action, like using a circular design that brought the audience closer to the presenters and 360-degree panoramic imagery that gave viewers the immersive sense of 'being there', and to really take coverage to the next level.

For the Tokyo Olympics, years of planning had to be revised in a major shift to remote production. dock10 became the BBC's broadcast centre, housing all the 'on-location' elements and helping an army of pre-procured contractors integrate their teams, technology, and workflows into our facility. Fortunately, we have plenty of space and were able to quickly reconfigure our studios and infrastructure to accommodate everyone. Our HQ3 housed the virtual set and HQ2 became a dedicated post-production area—both connected to loads of overflow areas for social distancing. We even built 30 VO booths! I have to say, it was a credit to our teams who never missed a beat - managing a robust, flexible, collaborative space that perfectly handled countless incoming feeds to produce 350 hours of content while enabling the BBC to reduce on-location personnel by 75%.

What has been the greatest challenge dock10 has faced in the past ten years?

Actually, the most interesting challenge was probably establishing ourselves in Salford. Moving production outside of London was a major change for the industry – a generational change in the way television is made. It's not always been an easy path but there has also been a lot of support along the way. Today, we are firmly established as the UK's leading television facility, built around the latest technology and attracting some of the best talent in the industry out of London and into Salford. It shows that the BBC's vision for the regions was well founded and that's something I think we can all be proud of.

What plans does dock10 have for the next ten years and beyond?

A major area of focus for us is expanding virtual and augmented reality into more entertainment shows. I really believe that the next big global format will be using this technology to bring an idea to life that we were told was impossible or too expensive – giving entertainment formats an extra dimension. Let's say you've got a daytime game show, for very little it's suddenly looking like prime-time Saturday night. Or an entertainment show with spin-off, behind-the-scenes or interview segments where each segment is branded differently but using the same space and with speedy turn-around. We've been working with producers to use the system on a children's programme, a game show pilot and a live entertainment production, and the huge success of bringing the Gran Turismo Championship to 'virtual' life here at dock10 earlier this year was a real boon for our ambitions.

We'll also be making more of our UHD / HDR capabilities in our studios, really encouraging more content to be made in this format. What we did for the Euros was truly stunning and I hope it made more people stop and think – why is there not more UHD content? And it's a good question! Right now, our network, studios, post production – everything is in place to enable UHD production. We know the change is coming, we're ready for it, and we're going to do all we can to speed it along.

Remote post production – enabling post work to be done wherever the customer wants – really took off during lockdown. We moved our post production team to home working almost immediately and with minimal disruption – that's 90 editors working remotely on our system! But as well as providing a robust and reliable remote post production solution, we've received most praise for the support we've provided through an almost round-the-clock remote post call centre – a team of some of our best people answering questions by email or phone 14+ hours a day to keep everything running smoothly. We were offering remote post production before lockdown and now I'm sure there is going to be an even bigger demand for it.