dock10: New technology by the old Manchester Canal
dock10 was born under the pretext of decentralising the BBC’s production facilities. The British feeling that the BBC, the UK’s national broadcaster, was too settled in the British capital was palpable and the intention to have facilities spread across the country was becoming an ambition at the media corporation’s headquarters. Around 2007, the BBC’s general director Mark Thompson, by those days, was in favour of the BBC, in his own words, “to serves and represents the whole country and not just its capital”.
The initial plan was to move key elements of the BBC’s television operations, including BBC Children’s and BBC Sport, out of London and into Salford Quays in Greater Manchester. Construction began on the Quays during 2007. Dock10 was ready for broadcast in January 2011 and the facility was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in March 2012.
Older history provided by the company details that construction of the Manchester Canal began in 1887 and was excavated by hand over the following six years. The canal was provided with several docks for the mooring of shipping and river transport. In the original plans, an area was foreseen which, in the future, would be dedicated to accommodate another pier for the port of Manchester. The place was going to be called dock10. It never happened. But the company we are talking about has proudly acquired that name.
Dock10 is part of an audiovisual complex called Media City. It is also home to the BBC and ITV, as well as the multinational companies Ericsson and Kellogg’s. All of these companies benefit from the presence of dock10, as its infrastructure provides them with one of the most advanced networks in the world.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Paul Clennell, Chief Technology Officer at dock10, and we offer you this interview through his knowledge and experience.
Do you have your own equipment, both human and technical, or does it depend on each project?
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 (Master Control Room) 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!
Speaking about your network, how does it work?
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!
You have 8 multi-camera studios specialized in television production. They are mainly different in size, but are there any technological differences between them?
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 12,540 sq ft (1,165 m2) 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 (713 sq ft / 66 m2), 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.
What about your virtual studios? What is the technological equipment of them?
Typically, people think of a virtual studio as a room with green walls and a green floor. But, in fact, dock10 has taken a very different approach and all of our studios are ‘virtual’ enabled.
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.
You also offer post-production services, what technology do you have to perform this work?
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 Interplay MAM, Avid Pro Tools audio suites with ISDN and 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 your control rooms like, can you tell us what infrastructures they cover and how they are equipped?
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 kinds of productions are made in sound studios and what are the most frequent technical requirements?
Our two specialist audio studios are deliberately designed to serve very different purposes. HQ9 is a very large (6,382s q ft / 593 m2) 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.
You are celebrating your tenth anniversary in 2021, how has your technology changed over the last 10 years? What are the major renovations you have carried out?
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.
What percentage of your services is dedicated to international clients?
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 kind of television productions are made in your studios? Series, television programs, live broadcasting?
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!
What are the most important projects you have carried out?
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, he said, “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 are the most interesting challenges you have faced?
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 are your future plans?
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 and 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.