Formula 1: Drive to Survive, inside F1 circus
“Formula 1: Drive to Survive” showed us the personal face of Formula 1, with drivers at the core centre of the documentary. Available on Netflix, it was produced by Box to Box Films, with the collaboration of The Collectv.
Both companies have built a strong reputation creating premium sports content, especially in F1. We talked about the challenges of a production like this with Chris Sarson, Managing Director of The Collectv and Tom Rogers, Head of Post-Production at Box to Box Films.
The Collectv: Bringing data management to support the show
What’s the history of The Collectv?
Chris Sarson: The Collectv has been operating for over seven years. Our background comes from post-production. We are dealing directly with the studios, as well as a lot of different shows and receiving media from all kinds of locations. Our philosophy is born out of trying to make media arrive from location to post-production as seamlessly as possible.
We found Tom through a mutual friend when Drive to Survive was initially starting. We talked with the team at Box to Box Films to help them understand what they wanted to achieve. The next step was trying to make that possible with Netflix, which was for us a new broadcaster. They have got very high standards and so does Box to Box Films. We had to try and make sure that we met those standards.
Aside from Formula 1, we do other sports, reality shows, provide managed services and manage installations for production companies in their own in-house facilities. We do a range of things but fundamentally, our focus is on getting things right for post-production, during that is on location or in a facility itself.
You’ve worked with Formula 1 since 2012, How has that collaboration evolved?
We worked within the Formula 1 community since 2012 but we did it with lots of different broadcasters and other partners. We started with Sky F1, which was involved with Timeline and Gravity, who were the main partners for Sky.
After that, we worked with Channel 4, but through Whisper who is another client of ours. We got to know Formula 1 themselves and we now supply resources to them across their facilities in the UK and out on location still. We have built a strong reputation and then we had the success of Drive to Survive. We have been a part of that, only a small part, doing our data management but it helps on building our reputation.
What is the role of The Collectv in the production of Drive to Survive?
Our focus was always on the data management. Our team works to ensure that we provide what Box to Box Films needs to deliver their shows. We had the constraints of Formula 1, which is a bit of a flying circus. We helped develop the backup system for the cards to make sure we can get them in quickly enough, turn them around, create the proxies, we also have to flex through the system as well, depending on the deadlines to deliver the shows.
What changes have there been from the first season to the third?
The system we started with is not the system that we have today. It was a physically bigger system, which meant it had to go in the cargo planes as part of Formula 1’s biggest shipments. We used to have two racks of equipment. That’s now gone down to three or four cases of equipment that are light and small enough to fit in the hold of planes. Therefore, we have lost some overall processing power, but the flexibility and the portability of the systems is worth more and we’ve got enough processing power to get away with a slight loss.
One of the most important things about Drive to Survive is the behind-the-scenes action of being able to go anywhere, do anything and see everything. The new system allows much more flexibility and last-minute decisions to happen, rather than having to pre-book space on a plane weeks before and things like that. I think that’s been the most important evolution that we’ve done so far.
What technical equipment is necessary on your part for this production?
Storage is the main thing. We really need to be aiming for three copies of the media as soon as we can get hold of the original camera cards. We have our own near line storage, which has got to be fast. We need a good number of disks and 10GbE connectivity. They’ve all got to be fast. They can’t be the cheapest stuff out there. They’ve got to meet a threshold because we only have a certain amount of time before the power is going to be cut, and we’ve got to go to the next race.
The other part of it is the copying and the Avid machines. We have up to four workstations plus other Macs to help manage the workflow, so they do the copying from the cards. We have loads of card readers. We copy and we transcode that media through those workstations to make the Avid proxies.
It’s really important for us to make those Avid proxies wherever we can because it helps to get it into the edit quicker. It’s also a good safety net, a good check for us because if it goes into Avid and it transcodes, there’s a good chance those files are not corrupt. If they were, Avid would spit them out or not transcode them.
In a production like this, an immense amount of data is generated daily. How do you handle it? What is your workflow? Are cloud services an important part of it?
As far as the data management goes, we don’t generally rely on cloud services and that is for a number of reasons. Security is really important, but also, we are at tracks around the world and Formula 1 directly has huge and fantastic connectivity, so we don’t always have access to that as a separate production team.
Towards the end of the season, we need to get some media to Tom, as quick as possible. With the relationship that Box to Box Films has with Formula 1, in the last few races of the season we share some of the connectivity with Formula 1 to get the proxies back to the UK even quicker, so those edits can start as quick as possible. It’s not cloud computing, but that’s where connectivity is important and it would be very hard to meet the strict deadlines without that connectivity that we rely on.
Although we work very closely with Formula 1, we try to work by ourselves from a data management point of view, as much as we can. We rely on backing up to data tapes and physical drives that are secured and password protected. We are still in quite a physical world, generally in the way in which we work.
Box to Box Films: Driving premium sports stories to the screen
You have a great experience in documentaries. What makes Drive to Survive different from other productions?
Tom Rogers: I think there are universal qualities to the projects that Box to Box Films do and that’s about creating premium sports content and opening up some of those sports to a wider audience. The brief when we started Drive to Survive was to create a show that not only appeals to existing racing fans, but also broadens the Formula 1 audience.
The most important parts of Drive to Survive are the drivers, the team principles, the characters that make up that sport and that’s something that sometimes can be lost in the conventional coverage of Formula 1. Hopefully, it looks like the viewing figures for Formula 1 are increasing year on year and hopefully Drive to Survive is playing its part in that and so that remains the focus, the human stories.
With a copyright content like F1, where does the FIA mark the limit for recording in the circuits?
With Formula 1, there are a lot of stakeholders at play. You’ve got Formula 1, they own the content that they create and are the ultimate rights holder to the sport. They were very keen for the show to happen. Besides that, there are certain areas in a race track where you need additional permissions to go to because they are run by the FIA, for example, the steward’s room, where a lot of the sporting decisions are made, or the press conferences. The FIA have been fantastic and supportive of the show.
But also, you’ve got ten Formula 1 teams as well, who have their own interests and sponsors and responsibilities. I think we were very fortunate when we did Season 1, that there were a few teams that really committed to the show early.
How is that relationship with the Formula 1 teams?
Formula 1 has been traditionally a very secretive sport, which is understandable. The teams are spending vast amounts of money developing cutting-edge technology. They don’t want the other teams to see what they are doing because that could give away their competitive edge.
Season 1 was a massive leap of faith for some of those teams. We were very lucky in the first race we filmed, which was Melbourne in 2018. Haas and Red Bull allowed us to film with them as very early adopters. I think once people saw them doing it and what we were about, they became more open to it and more trusting. It was a slow process. Inevitably, when Season 1 launched, more people came on board.
It’s pretty widely reported that Mercedes and Ferrari elected not to do Season 1, which I understand. They are two massive premium names in the sport and were slightly more hesitant than some of the others. I think once they saw the show and realized the value it brings; they elected to take part in Season 2 and 3. We operate slightly differently for each team, depending on what they’re comfortable with.
There is a review process with them in the edit, but that is not for editorial. It is purely for intellectual property. It gives the teams the opportunity to ask us to blur certain confidential parts of the car or replace a shot where we captured something confidential on a computer screen. Without the teams there wouldn’t be a Drive to Survive.
Is everything on the documentary recorded by your team or do you have access to content from the F1 organization?
Part of our agreement is that we can use any footage that is captured by Formula 1 during a race weekend. The general rule of thumb is if you are seeing a car on track, it is Formula 1 footage. They have spent decades perfecting the capturing of the race content. They have an enormous number of cameras around the track. There are 24+ trackside cameras, plus 80 on-board cameras, helicopters, RF roaming cameras in the paddock and pits.
The infrastructure that would be required from us to duplicate that effort would be crazy. They have a really talented pool that works across their offering. The really nice thing I think that Drive to Survive has done is highlight some of that camera work that didn’t make it onto the TV broadcast. Our focus is on a battle between somebody fighting for 10th and 11th position because that is part of our narrative whereas the TV coverage may be focusing on the race lead. Some of the beautiful work from the guys at Formula 1 is getting more air time and gets highlighted in the show which I think is great.
How many cameras do you use for the coverage? What other equipment did you use at the recording?
In terms of the cameras that we use, Season 3 was slightly different just because of COVID and the restrictions that we were working with. Season 1 and 2, we predominantly chose a set number of races that we went to as a big team. We call those our major races. In a 20-odd race season that would normally be about 10 to 15 of those races.
That could be three or four PD shooting teams deployed and the cameras were the Sony FX7 and we’ve migrated to the Sony FX9 for Season 3. It’s a good small, compact body and you get great pictures out of it, with a massively versatile range of lenses available to you, and we can shoot at the specs that are required by Netflix. We capture at 25 frames progressive. Sometimes we have a DoP shooting on Red; we’ve used Red Gemini before and we also supplement that with some GoPros.
Those PDs with the camera are supplemented by a sound recordist. They use a lot of Zaxcom microphones. The beauty of this microphone is that it not only transmits like a conventional radio mic, but it also captures it to a memory card in this little battery pack. When our characters disappear off out of range, we’re still capturing the audio.
That for Drive to Survive is invaluable because it leads to those most candid moments. We remember in Season 2, Guenther Steiner from the Haas team has a pretty heated argument with his drivers, Kevin Magnussen and Roman Grosjean. We didn’t have pictures to go with that but all of that audio is captured because he was still wearing his Zaxcom radio mic. That’s a massively key component to the show.
Then normally those two roles are supported by a producer, whether that’s an AP, or a field location producer, just to help those crews navigate around the paddock.
Season 3 was slightly different because if we were going to film with a team, we had to fully embed with that team. We basically had to go through the COVID testing protocol with the team, and fly, eat, travel and accommodate with them. Even to avoid confusion, our camera guys would dress in the team kit so that it was obvious that they were within that team bubble.
As a result we scaled back some of those crews. Our series director embedded with Red Bull as a one-man shooting team. He did sound, pictures, everything for the Red Bull shoots because they could accommodate one person within that team infrastructure. What it did mean during the COVID year instead of going to maybe 10 or 15 races in a big way, we would go to most races in a slightly hybrid medium-sized offering.
That leads into what Chris was saying before; it’s all about having to scale back the kit. During the COVID year, we needed to be extra flexible in terms of how we could get to our races and manage the media that was coming in. The technological advances that The Collectv has made for us over the last few years really pays dividends when it comes to managing and working in a COVID-19 safe environment and following social distancing rules.
You chase the drivers all around the world, in terms of logistics what are the challenges of this?
We have an incredible production team back at Box to Box Films. They worked flat out for the whole year, basically organizing everything from filming permits, to travel, accommodation, care, staffing, everything like that, it’s a challenging show to put on. We also have a great crew that spent a lot of time away from home. It’s a show where you are away a lot to film it and without their dedication, there wouldn’t be a series.
For Season 3 the stakes were even higher, because not only have you got a global sport, but a global sport during a global pandemic, which really brought into focus all of those logistical challenges even more. You couldn’t simply book a last-minute trip to Madrid to film with Carlos Sainz. We needed to plan well in advance to make sure that the testing was carried out, that our crew were isolated for the correct amount of time as required by whichever country we were traveling to and from. Something as simple as shooting in someone’s house became incredibly complicated and actually almost impossible. That’s why a lot of the scenes that you see in Season 3 happen outside. There are a lot of challenges that had to be taken into account, not only logistics.
A documentary has no script. What is the workflow on postproduction to create the content once the season is over?
We have to try and predict the future because we can’t film every single event. For example, Carlos Sainz in Spain’s GP makes sense.
Then, in terms of how we deal with the material in the edit, it all comes in. We ingest and process all of it. The Collectv transcodes on location for our big races, but sometimes we have smaller teams going off doing other shoots that require transcoding back in the UK. Once it is all in, we have a team of loggers who then go through the material to transcribe it, and then make that available to the edit producers.
We have an edit producer for each episode and they are basically feeding those editors the material that we need for the story. The editors then start working on what they believe the story is in conjunction with the senior team, the executive team, the series directors and also feedback from the crew on the ground.
Then we watch many cuts, we feedback as a team, we share cuts with Netflix, and they feedback. It’s a very sort of organic process that we go through before we then eventually start to lock episodes, and it takes time.
With COVID-19, are you editing content on remote? What do you think about on remote workflows?
I think actually this has been one of the positive things that came out of the crazy months that we’ve all been through. I was always open to working remotely but we didn’t have a choice this year, we had to. Ultimately it wasn’t safe to have all of our editors and producers together in a facility and it would have been irresponsible for us to do that. We had to figure out and sort of pivot the production to being remote and we did that via Avid Teradici, with our post-production partner.
The Collectv have also been instrumental in advising us on the latest workflows when it comes to remote editing, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how seamless that’s been. We actually find that quite a few editors now prefer it and I think the future of editing is a hybrid combination of the two. I believe pretty much all of our productions will have a remote element in them now.
I also think there will inevitably be a point when getting everybody together is beneficial. It normally comes towards the end of a production when you are just trying to get to picture lock. You’ve got notes coming from Netflix and execs, you are trying to navigate how to address those as a team and communication is a lot easier face-to-face for those moments.
I think a sort of hybrid form is where we are heading and I think the technology providers made massive improvements. It also enabled us to open our talent pool as well. We had an editor that was based in South Africa while working on Season 3. That would have never had happened on previous seasons because you would have had to be in London. I think in terms of opening opportunities for talent that doesn’t live in the location of a show as well is great.
With the F1 season going on, are you recording a new Drive to Survive season right now? If so, what would be the news and challenges of this year?
Tom Rogers: I think the challenges with any future seasons of Drive to Survive are inevitably just keeping the format fresh. There are obviously characters that we’ve known and grown to love during the previous three seasons and it would be nice to maintain those characters and to keep the interest going for those. Similarly, I think with the regulation changes coming in at the end of the year, that political sports business angle will be interesting.
Chris Sarson: I would like to add the high standards that have already been set as another challenge. This is a series that has become really, popular. Everyone has got really high expectations. Everyone has really high expectations, which include The Collectv and Box to Box Films. It is important that we reach and exceed those expectations.