Inside “Expedition Unknown – Egypt Live”: a two-hour live event with the opening of a 2,500-Year-Old sarcophagus
Discovery Channel viewers from 95 countries around the world witnessed a challenging production: the live unearthing of a 2,500-year-old mummy. The two-hour live event, also multicast on Travel Channel and Science Channel, was broadcasted from one of the least visited parts of the country: Minya, located 250 km south of Cairo. How did this extraordinary production develop? Gregg Moscot, VP, Production & Operations at Discovery Studios and Matthew Kwok, Technical Producer of the show, open the door to “Expedition Unknown – Egypt Live”.
How was “Expedition Unknown – Egypt Live” born?
Moscot: “Leslie Greif’s Big Dreams Entertainment sold the concept of a live archeological show in Egypt to Discovery. The network paired it with Expedition Unknown and had Discovery Studios provide the production services for the live program.”
How long did it take you to prepare the show?
Moscot: “We moved very quickly as the Antiquities Department of the Egyptian Government was continuing their excavation with or without us and we wanted to capture it as soon as possible. We prepped it and shot it, all within a 3-month period.”
Have you ever had any previous experiences in an event like this? I think it is the first time someone does something similar…
Moscot: “It was by far the most challenging and ambitious production that I have ever mounted in my 25 years of production experience. We turned an endless blank slate of desert sand into a live remote production site. In the end, it’s all about the teams that that we hire, and we hired the best of the best. It was an exhilarating experience for everyone involved. We all worked so hard and it paid off in a big way.”
We’re about to talk about the technological part of the show, but it is mandatory to ask about human resources. How many people were part of the “Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live” team?
Moscot: “Between our U.S. team and Egyptian team, it took about 175 people to pull this off.”
Through the live transmission, we can see different cameras in different situations: in a vehicle, fixed cameras, subjective cameras, cameramen… Could you tell us more about this and how did they meet your needs?
Moscot: “We had a variety of cameras, some manned and mostly un-manned to provide for the different environments and angles. For example, in the tombs, due to the small spaces, we relied heavily on our POV cameras.”
In addition, it can be seen technology like LCD / LED screens… Could you explain what your live coverage needs were and what solutions did you implement?
Kwok: “We used a large Sony 4K monitor driven by a VIZRT Engine. The main LED screen used was for behind-the-host talent position. The VIZ engine drove maps, the show logo and other elements that were pre-produced specifically for the screen.”
Undoubtedly, one of the main challenges of the live event has been the transmission of video/audio/data in real time under extreme conditions: underground recording, in-vehicle recording… and it was in the middle of the desert! How did you solve these challenges?
Moscot: “We took extra precaution in our prep period to make sure that we had all of the right tech specialists in place and tried to ask all the right questions. For example, due to the complications of the signals deep inside the tombs, we had to hire an RF specialist just to make sure that our signal stayed as clean as possible.”
Those signals were processed in a Mobile Unit. Could you tell more about it?
Kwok: “Yes. The signals were produced by the VIZRT or Premiere Edit station, then either played out via VIZ or EVS. The signal went through a frame sync in order to match the colors needed.”
Was an on-site production or was it a remote production?
Moscot: “Full Remote Production utilizing a mobile video truck, with satellite redundancy.”
Finally, let’s talk about the distribution. What solution did you implement for the transmission of the signal?
Kwok: “For signal transmission, we used 2 KU uplink dishes. Each of these took two separate paths leaving the OB Van and two separate satellites. Once uplinked, local partners were able to downlink. Then to get the signal back to Discovery, we downlinked in the UK and fed over fiber to Discovery’s NOC. We had a backup downlink site in Germany, should weather have interfered with the downlink location in the UK. This allowed for full redundancy on both the uplink and downlink sites.”
What additional problems did you face during the production of Expedition Unknown – Egypt Live and how did you solve them?
Kwok: “Our local broadcast partner was very helpful in arranging a good OB Van and some additional ancillary equipment. The POVs we used were brought in from outside Egypt, as there weren’t enough locally for us to use. One of the challenges we faced during the planning phase was the lack of RF Communications and Audio devices available in Egypt. In order to overcome this, our team hard wired as many locations as possible. However, with such a fluid show, covering vastly different areas (tombs, set area, ridges, etc.), keeping everything organized and clean was a challenge. Additionally, as you can imagine, dust and sand mixed with TV equipment always creates unique challenges. It was very important to keep our equipment covered and protected due to the occasional sand storm and light rain.”
The show was amazing, both in technology and content. What is your next challenge technologically speaking?
Moscot: “Thank you! We will have to wait and see, but we are excited for our next adventure.”
What technologies do you think that will be implemented for similar shows in the future? 5G? Remote production?
Kwok: “In the future, there are a number of technologies that could be implemented based on the landscape. Due to our remote location, any cellular or internet-based technologies were not available to us. One area we can continue to expand on is the quality of cameras we use as POVs. Additionally, there are a number of robotic options that we could use in tight spaces like a tomb. Finally, we were able to use Tagboard, a social media aggregator, to interact with viewers. I see more of that being used in the future so that the broadcast is more of a conversation than just the talent talking to the audience.”