“Coronation Street”: The technological present of the oldest soap opera in the world
Coronation Street is one of the most beloved shows in England, “from the professionals who make it all the way up to the Queen,” admits our interviewee Gary Westmoreland, Director of Technology, Drama & Continuing Drama at ITV Studios, in charge of the technological strategies of soap operas like Emmerdale or Coronation Street itself. How have they managed it? Maybe being the oldest soap opera in the world gives them credit; they aired the first episode in 1960 and in 2010 they entered the Guinness Book of Records holding that title. However, it also has much to do with the fact that it has touched the hearts and souls of many generations of British people through characters and plots that allude directly to the purest feelings we all feel.
Sixty years in production is a lifetime. Gary Westmoreland grew up with the image of Coronation Street on his television and joined the team in 2015, but he has assured us that all the people and technology that contribute to the production of the show, from the first sentence written in the script to the last color tweak before sending it to air, work like a very well-oiled machine. A perfect system that has not been stopped by the transition from tape to archive, nor by the change from SD to HD, nor by COVID-19 more recently. Let’s see what the future holds for it, with surely as much success as its past.
How would you summarize 60 years of the history?
It’s Britain’s best-loved program. Really, I think that’s true. It’s loved by everyone, even the Queen. It started from very humble beginnings in Quay Street and has grown into the machine it is now with the loyalty it receives from its fans.
As for Coronation Street as a program, it appeals to the real feelings of a working generation and the ins and outs of normal life. We still see it today, Coronation Street is one of our most important programs and it continues to grow year after year.
What are your functions associated with the show?
I’m Head of Technical Operations for both Coronation Street and Emmerdale; its sister soap. My role is to examine the processes that are carried out in our studios and technical facilities and try to make them as efficient as possible for the future. I look at both productions to make sure that we get economies of scale, and have that ability to, where appropriate, be able to use the equipment from both shows to maximize the resources of ITV Studios; the parent company. I look at the equipment that we’ve got, how we work, and where things might go in the future strategically.
It’s a pretty interesting place because you have to keep an eye on all the deliveries that we do, an issue that has expanded over time, and will certainly continue to expand in the future. It was very easy in the days when you just delivered to the network and that was it, but today, with our multiple deliveries around the digital content hub, VOD services and whatever else, it’s a challenging task.
Why it was easier on the old days?
I think easy is probably the wrong word, it was different. The volume of what we offer has certainly increased. I guess the technology of the time also made that a challenge. Just look at the tube cameras that were used back then, how light interacted with them and what we could and couldn’t do because of that. We also have to take into account live recording on videotape, tape editing and that whole linear world, that old good stuff. [Laughs]
I think we’ve come a long way since then, but there are still challenges related to equipment acquisition and costs. For example, back in the day, acquiring 10 channels of cameras for the number of studios we covered, the technology behind it, the way we shot, the way we edited and the way we presented it to the network, I’m sure was a big challenge.
As we went along, we changed cameras to Ikegami HDK-E79, which were SD but with HD lenses. We were still producing SD but with elements of HD equipment being adopted ahead of the switch over, which finally came with a camera and Post Production upgrade.
More recently, when we’ve replaced those cameras, we’ve gone to 4K. Although, there is a thing with the soaps. There are lots of producers that are doing standard UHD these days. We’re not there yet and this is because and the risk of ensuring the volume we do and the risk of ensuring Coronation Street’s high production standards. Now we are moving more than ever to be a company that has content on your Netflix, on your Sky, or Disney, as a global player. What we do in the U.K. is broadcast over DVB in high definition. When we renew our technology, as we did a couple of years ago, we look at that, are they suitable to make the jump to 4K or UHD? We make sure we are ready for the future.
The cameras that we’ve got are a couple of years old now, but they’re Sony HDC-3500. These cameras gave us the ability to go to a higher resolution than we currently transmit. Could we do UHD in HDR? Yes, we could. Do we? At the moment, no.
Are you involved in any renovation process these days?
A lot of the innovations are not related to television. A lot of the things that we do in the background have more to do with things like how we move scripts around the building and how we do them, and how we try to keep our carbon footprint down. There’s a big machine in terms of technology that sits behind the office process that also needs to be well built. For example, the Google Docs environment is built for that, but we also need to be able to add images, other digital content into the documents, be able to annotate them, have that database management, that there’s no corruption when a person opens the same document from somewhere else. And achieving that is a challenge.
We have deployed a couple of systems: one around crew and facility scheduling and the other around how the scripts are written and how are distributed. There is a lot of security around that because that is our pre-transmission storyline and information. We have implemented relatively new software, which has taken a bit of work over the last couple of years, and we have been thinking about how to integrate with our other systems.
We are also looking at how we can move away from the standard UK delivery file format, AS-11. We are wondering whether we should look to the IMF standard to bring together all our essence in a single file that shows a playlist. Those are the areas we are working on these days.
Do you own the equipment that you have?
We own all the technological elements and devices we use. At the end of the day it’s equipment that we have used, that we use and that we will use for sure, because Coronation Street is a machine that’s been around for a long time, so it makes sense to own the core of the equipment. On the other hand, it is also beneficial to be part of ITV, as it has its own rental house that provides us with the extra camera, lights or sound equipment we need.
Apart from the cameras you mentioned above, what brands have you relied on?
We are an Avid house, so we have Avid Nexis with Avid FastServe Ingest devices. We have implemented ISOGroup via Avid & JellyBean Media to manage the front end of the studio recording. This allows us to group clips and import sequences directly into the editing environment, with the ability to input additional metadata as required. Media Composer for editing, Pro Tools and S6 mixing consoles for dubbing. Another thing we have deployed is Media Central Cloud UX. That gave us the opportunity to be more flexible as our production team are now able to review, comment and edit content remotely on various devices such as iPads.
And that is where the challenge has arisen. The introduction of an iPad works well when it sits on the foundation of our network, in our building, over which we have total control. But it’s not so comfortable when you get out of that environment. Nor as secure. Now, broadcast is becoming more IT-driven than ever and, in that transition from traditional broadcast engineering to IT, lies the real challenge.
What are your production methods?
We do the episodes in blocks of four. This is because of the volume we handle, to make this process more efficiently. The system is much tailored to make sure we can do the volume we need to do on a daily basis. It’s also true that we are in a bit of an unusual position because both Coronation Street and Emmerdale have been running multi-camera for many years. Recently, we altered our production methods. We used to shoot vision-mixed multi-camera and now we just do multi-camera shooting. We utilize up to four cameras at once, all shooting the same scene, we record the ISO feeds, and we catch the sound with Fisher booms; and this allows us to increase our creative options.
We would love to hear about the great challenge that the Coronation Street format has experienced over the decades.
I think the biggest challenge that they would have had from the beginnings is the increase of volume. From two episodes a week to the number of episodes we’re airing now. I think the volume of content, maintaining the quality of the writing, the production, what we see on screen and the production values is probably the biggest overall challenge that Coronation Street has faced.
And apart from that, one of the biggest technological challenges we have faced was when we changed from SD to HD. And it has to do with volume increasing as well. That transition was made at the same time we were going file-based. How you then back that up? You have to trust on this entire computer environment and might be an uncomfortable feeling because we are very close to transmission in terms of our deliverables. How would we continue to produce content and remain on air if we lost key elements of our infrastructure?
Nowadays we are looking at the equipment that we have got on premise and the possibilities of how we would do the same using cloud providers and which workflows are suitable for that. We’re looking for efficiency, as we said, and the ability to put our security backup systems in the cloud is very interesting. You don’t have to deal with egress charges and migration between platforms, and you can reduce your on-site presence to and move to a more efficient way of working. It’s secure, and it allows us to do all those things we still have to do in a way that’s efficient and greener.
Where are your facilities?
We moved from Quay Street to our current site in Media City, Manchester, UK. We were at the old Granada Television site on Quay Street from its origins. The project required a complete rebuild of Corrie’s sets. We built four studios, we rapidly then built another two, so we’ve got six studios on-site. Obviously, we go off on location to shoot certain scenes where that’s required for the storyline, but a lot of our production is done on that site.
We changed the location to achieve flexibility. We have a duct network with point-to-point fiber throughout our site, and there is the possibility of connecting to that fiber when necessary and adopting a different solution in the coming years. Today, much of our infrastructure works as follows: we have a box in the studio to which we connect our equipment. That then talks to a piece of equipment in our apparatus room which distributes the feeds both out to the studio and incoming. This is all done automatically and is due to the fiber technology that has come along in the last two decades. It’s becoming more compact, easier to use and allows us to do things we couldn’t imagine before.
Sometimes we experiment with things. When we built our additional studios, Studios 5 and 6, we basically built them as stand-alone studios without galleries. We have a mobile gallery that we move wherever we need to have flexibility in our shooting schedule. It’s like being in the building. I’m sure in time that will develop and probably we’re not that far away from being able to go to a place that’s not on our Media City site and do the same thing using 5G and cellular bonded.
Are you looking at this possibility?
It’s an area we’re studying right now for the sister soap opera Emmerdale. The town of Emmerdale is a 30-minute drive from the base. It has limited connectivity just because of its location. Eventually we will have the ability to shoot from there directly on site or in the cloud. The days are here when we do a color grading session in Manchester, our operator is in Plymouth and the producer is looking at it in London, so remote working is very much our future.
Speaking of the devil, how much COVID has affected your workflows?
The pandemic changed the way we had to operate our galleries, the way our production staff in the studio was, we had to keep people socially distant, we had to protect our crew and our cast. That meant there were some changes on set. Sometimes that meant different techniques in terms of how you could approach people and how you physically shot it to make it work.
The technical part of the remote workflow; obviously, in post, it’s relatively easy to do and it was relatively easy to do with the tools we already had to let our editors work from home. It’s more about when people have to come into the building to do the high-level technical finishing. This is always going to be the biggest challenge. I think that it is very easy to lose that collaboration because you’re not physically in the room. Nine times out of ten, communication is body language rather than what’s actually being said.
However, and apart from that condition that final adjustments have by involving decision-makers coming to the building, the remote work has been deployed, in general, perfectly considering the starting point and the procedures we were using, which are very traditional. Actually, very quickly, we were able to turn it around with very little additional effort. That’s been great.
Is there anything of the remote work process you have developed that you are going to maintain to the detriment of traditional production methods?
Personally, I don’t think we’re going back to a stage where all the editing is done in the building. It’s really interesting, because we have to balance the well-being of our workers and also the fact that they want to reconcile home and work. If that really works for people, then we will get a better product from our staff. If people are happy and satisfied with the work-life balance, then we will encourage this element and try to maintain it because it is a really healthy thing to do, as well as reducing our carbon footprint.
The curious thing is that, given the expansion of demand and, consequently, of content that we have experienced historically, it would be logical to consider creating more office space to accommodate the expansion of staff. But, COVID has turned this thought on its head – do we really need that extra space? Couldn’t we build it for other purposes?
I think those are the elements that we will maintain, because it is beneficial for our staff and also for our workflows. We will rely on that part of collaboration, whether the technology supports it or not. For example, could we get into virtual production environments and would that help us being more efficient? Well, if this technology was more mature it certainly would.
Are you investigating the possibility of introducing Virtual Production into your pipeline?
It’s not something we have actively studied yet. It’s a theory that we’re playing with. What you can deliver on television today is, for example, what we usually see on a sports commentary show. A lot of graphics flying around the presenters, a virtual set, and so on. Elements that, in reality, are not there. We wouldn’t produce it that way, but for drama it sure is a cheaper and more efficient way to do it. The ordinary way is to shoot with physical sets and then edit and add all the VFX. Compared to virtual production, with the possibilities that it can come to offer, the traditional way is much less efficient. But that’s just a consideration we have in mind, for the moment.