Monday, 4 May 2015

Bucks New Uni and The Hornets Show - by Rob Kelly

Hornets Show - by Bucks students
What is the Hornets Show?  The Hornets Show is a monthly football magazine show revolving around the fortunes of Watford Football Club, who are partners with Bucks, and who have recently been promoted to the Premier League.  Bucks students shoot The Hornets Show against green screen backgrounds and then composite the shots onto CGI backgrounds to make it look like it’s been shot in a shiny high tech studio. It’s a complicated and ambitious project that our university has been running for 3 years. So, how does it all work? Animation & VFX lecturer Rob Kelly explains.

Hornets Show - Virtual sets by Bucks animation students

What is the Hornets Show and How Did It all Get Started?

Rob: Three years ago I turned up as usual for one of Steve Partridge’s Monday morning Watford match day production meetings. At one point during the meeting Steve started talking about the green screen studio at Bucks, which had not really been used for actual green screen shoots much at the time. As I blearily recall Steve turned to me at one point and asked me to set up some kind of green screen test shoot - which I promptly did.  To be honest it was my Chandler Bing moment (from Friends) when he inadvertently volunteers to work in Tulsa, Oklahoma because he wasn’t paying attention during a meeting, in fact he was asleep. It was like that kind of ‘OMG what have I just agreed to?’ moment.

We did the test shoot with some third year students a few days later and out of it came something which became The Hornets Show, a monthly football magazine show for Watford FC.  We had the shot the green screen footage but we had no studio set to put it in, so I found a set from, a CGI model website, Wat-fordised it in Photoshop and composited our student presenters into the set in Adobe After Effects.

Virtual sets

How did the client react?

Rob: Our Watford clients loved it and we started producing it on a regular basis with a great deal of help from some very talented 3rd year CGI animation students.There’s only a very few of the very top range football clubs who have their own TV channels/programmes. I think teams like Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal have them, so you can see why Watford are so pleased to be among them.The Hornets Show gets shown on Watford’s website and is for Watford subscribers.

Is this a unique venture?

Rob: I don’t think that any other Film & TV university course in the UK does anything quite as ambitious as the Hornets Show, to my knowledge.

Making The Hornets Show is basically like getting a jumbo jet off the ground once a month, having a tooth pulled, being tasered, etc., etc - you get the picture. It’s complicated and tough but we do it every month. We’ve found out that our students love a big challenge like the Hornets Show, the Wednesday band shoots and the Saturday football match day filming: they always rise to the occasion and they enjoy the very steep learning curve. They like being dropped in the deep end and being given great responsibility.  We’ve found that our students really come into their own in terms of confidence and achievement in their second year working on projects like these.

Real sofas, 3D environment

How does it work? Do you have regular production meetings?

Rob: We run the project like a proper TV production, with pre-production meetings every Monday morning with our client/presenter Jon Marks, a freelancer who commentates at Watford matches.  We usually have three production meetings per show.  In the production meetings we discuss what work needs to be done and assign roles for the VT packages and the main shoot crew.

How do the students fit in?

Rob: Each student is assigned a professional role and they work as a proper TV crew. If a student in a key role fails to turn up for a shoot or a production meeting without a very valid reason they get ‘fired’.  You may find this a little harsh but this is exactly what would happen on a real TV production: if you don’t turn up for important meetings or for a shoot your phone will very suddenly stop ringing and nobody will give you any more work.

Production meetings are essential for communication within groups of people needing to work together. Without them it would be very difficult to know is happening and what needs to be done. Jon has set up a Facebook page which has proved invaluable for student-client communication.

The production meetings are quite informal and we talk through what VT packages Jon will need for the  show and then we assign crews for these 3 minute packages. If nobody volunteers for these films I have to ‘volunteer’ the students myself.

Does it look "real"?

Rob: Absolutely. A Watford player apparently thought that the TV studio set was actually in the corner of Watford’s actual football ground and that this was a window behind Jon.

What is the format of the show?

Rob: The VT packages have set formats.The first is called ‘In Your House’ where a Watford player goes round to a child supporter’s house and they get to know each other. Invariably they end up playing FIFA.

The second is called ‘Player Challenge’ where a player and a supporter challenge each other to do some- thing football-related, usually involving kicking something.

The third VT is called ‘My Match Day’ where our students follow someone connected with the match.

Do you have experience in football?

Rob: Plenty. For reasons that I really can’t understand virtually all of my work for the last few years (before starting working as a lecturer) was to do with football. My main projects have included UEFA Champions League, UEFA Euro 2012, FIFA World Cup, La Ligue (French division I think), Now Sports (Hong Kong), the Asian Cup, Al Jazeera Sports (Qatar) and Sky Sports. There are more but I can never remember them.

Shooting green screen
How do the students do the work?

Rob: The students are left to their own devices to organise themselves, booking cameras, transport, etc. It’s impossible for me to micro-manage this project and it’s essential that the students learn to organise them- selves professionally, but fortunately it all seems to work out.The second and third production meetings are to make sure the VT packages have gone to plan, getting VT edits approved by our client and to keep every- one in the loop as to what’s happening on the project.  So, no nasty surprises.

Shooting green screen

Tell us about "Pre-Light"

Rob: We do something called a ‘pre-light’ on the Tuesday afternoon before the Wednesday shoot. When you light a film studio for real you would ordinarily do a pre-light the day before the actual shoot. This is primarily to save money by only having essential lighting technicians and the DOP to light the studio before the rest of the crew/talent/extras, etc. turn up the next day.

It often involves the amazingly tedious process of watch-ing sparks putting up zillions of lights called sky-pans into the studio ceiling, which takes ages.  Film studio lighting is all a big con in my opinion.  TV studios have the lights in position all the time, which is much more logical.

How green screen works

What about new students - can they cope?

Rob: Yes. We just did a Hornets Show recently with some second year students who were doing it for the very first time.  David Bryant, our technical director who is the nicest genius you’ll ever meet, was not available so we had a few technical problems which slowed us up a bit.  For example we couldn’t get one of the cameras to work as it was broken so we had to do the shoot with 5 cameras not 6.  When you work on film/TV shoots in the industry things always go wrong - they just do.  It’s your job to think on your feet and find a solution.  I’ve found in my career that directing/producing TV is basically solving problems quickly.  Failing to find a solution to a production/technical problem is not an option.
Green screen - how it gets done

Tell us about the shoot.

Rob:  Once the studio is lit we arrive on Wednesday morning and set up the cameras, this is called a multi-camera shoot. Multi-camera is when multiple cameras film an event and their live output is fed into our outside broadcast truck gallery where it is effectively edited ‘as live’. ‘As live’ means that the shoot is performed as though live but there is the opportunity to edit it later in case of mistakes, otherwise known in the business as NG (no good) takes. Audio set up in the far corner and get their radio microphones ready.

Green Screen

What do the students do?

Rob: The students and Media Resources also set up the autocue, usually on the main camera, camera 1, since that’s the one that the presenter looks at the most.  This is the camera that the presenters can read their script from while they are looking directly into the camera.  We’ve only got one autocue at the moment.  One of the students will be on autocue controlling the size of the type and the speed that it scrolls.  The physical weight of the autocue pulls camera 1 down so the camera operator has to compensate for that during the shoot.  It’s a drag but that’s gravity for you.

Green screen sofa

Tell us about how the cameras work:

Rob: The cameras all have to be cabled up into the OB truck which is parked right outside Media Re- sources.  The studios have been designed for this cabling to happen easily. Once the cameras are set up they have to be white balanced as usual.  This is done electronically remotely in the truck on something called ‘the racks’.  Racks is an essential piece of equipment as it is used to control the colour, contrast, saturation and aperture/exposure (generally called grading) of all the shots to make them look identical.  Without racks all the shots would look different and it would be  very distracting and unprofessional to watch. ( - password: bucksob).

The autocue operator has to make sure that the presenter can read the size of the type easily and that the scroll speed is comfortable for the presenter.

When you grade each shot you need to get the skin tones looking right first.  Then you adjust the green to make it bright enough to composite (key) in After Effects.  This is done by balancing the studio lights once you can see the shots on the OB monitors and equalise the outputs.

How do you light green screen?

Rob: This is the lighting and camera set up for the presenter’s desk introduction shot.  The green room area is where the FM (floor manager) puts out Jaffa Cakes and posh cranberry presse for guests to sit and relax when not on camera.  Everyone loves Jaffa Cakes, apart from Lorna apparently.

The lighting model we use is called ‘TV lighting’ in the business, essentially high key lighting where every- thing is lit and there are few shadows.This matches the lighting of the CGI set. News channels and sports programmes all tend to use this type of lighting.  We use 3 key lights wrapped around the presenters’ faces with a big backlight on them.  The guests have the same lighting set up but obviously in the other direction.

When you shoot green screen you have to be very careful to not have anything called ‘green spill’. This is when parts of your subject reflect some green and will compromise the edges of your matte when you composite the shots.  You can minimise green spill by moving the subject as far away from the green screen as possible, not wearing reflective clothes such as black leather jackets and by using a backlight with magen- ta gel on it, called a ‘minus green’ light.  This month Emma, our new presenter, had green spill reflecting off her metallic watch.  We had to ask her to take it off otherwise it would have been very difficult to key.

When Jon, the presenter, turned up for the very first shoot we did he was wearing a white shirt which

was slightly reflective.  As soon as I saw this in the truck I had to give some students some money to run to Marks & Sparks to buy him a nice black shirt that didn’t reflect any green.  All the guests have to be briefed on what colour clothes to wear before the shoot.  No green or blue and nothing with fine checks, this is be- cause it will visually buzz on screen.  I have to visually check the guests as they arrive to check their clothes will be OK.

You also have to be very careful about things like clunky necklaces (like Emma wore on the current show)  that will bang into the radio mic and make the take NG in terms of audio.

The team
What is the "Ob Gallery"

Rob: Back in the OB truck the director briefs the camera crew as to what shots and framings are needed. Criti- cal focus (i.e. pin sharp images) and totally locked off (not moving) cameras are essential for this composit- ing effect to work. If the camera moves it looks like the set is moving and it won’t work. I spend my after- noons in the truck telling the cams to check critical focus continually until everyone is bored of me.

What about focus?

Rob: The director works very closely with the vision mixer.Vision mixing is basically editing as live by pressing the buttons that put the chosen image on the programme monitor which go into the final edit.The direc- tor can preview the incoming shot but can choose from the other cams to ‘hot cut’ directly.This may sound complicated but students get the hang of this very quickly and are often amazed at how much they learn in a very short time.The director’s instructions to the VM need to be very economical so as to be quick: ‘2 next, 2 now’ and so on.

How does the clapperboard work?

Rob: The best place to put the slate (clapperboard) is usually right in front of the presenter’s face because that’s where the cameras are usually pointed.

What if people make mistakes?

Rob: Occasionally the people on screen make mistakes, called ‘gaffes’. If they do we have the chance to re-take the shot which can be inserted into the locked-down (final final final edit that can’t get changed) edit which goes to the compositors. If the presenter gets a fit of the giggles this is called ‘corpsing’.This normally hap- pens when we shoot cutaways of Jon just nodding to camera, called ‘nodders’.  Nodders are very useful to disguise problems with edits when you wouldn’t ordinarily have a shot to cut away to.

We had a number of problems on the most recent show with crackling on the radio mics.We think this was down to the 4G signals from everybody’s mobile phones.When you’re shooting something as complex as this you need to turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode.

Do the Watford Players participate?

Rob: Yes. Recently we’ve been having Watford first team players coming into the studio for interviews which adds an extra dimension to the show.Watford viewers are obviously really keen to see their player heroes being in- terviewed.  When players come to the show we have to fit around their busy training schedules.They usually finish training at about 2pm and when they arrive they need VIP parking and must be processed (i.e. shot) as soon as possible and then released asap.  This is primarily a job for the floor manager who has to be on their toes pre-empting arrival times, making sure reception has their mobile number, waiting in reception, etc.

Tell us about post-production

Rob: We’ve recently streamlined the post-production process to make it quicker to deliver to the cli- ent to keep the topicality of the show content fresh and relevant. If it takes longer than a week to turn the show round its content becomes old and no longer relevant, like reading an old newspaper.

We had to ask Emma to remove her metallic wristwatch as it was causing green spill.

Compositing is a specialised skill, as is audio which film/TV people would normally farm out to those types of professional editors/compositors.

How long to the students get to finish the job?

Rob: The students have until midnight on the evening of the shoot to complete the ‘locked-down’ edit.This means that the edit won’t change and is effectively the final edit for the compositors. Consequently the edi- tors’ call time is not until we wrap at about 16.00.The lockdown is given to the compositing students first thing on Thursday and they have until the following Tuesday to composite the show.

What about client approvals?

Rob: We try to get the lockdown to Jon the client asap to view and hopefully approve. Often there are small changes which are fine but every change costs us precious time out of our compressed schedule. Every change, known as an iteration, has to be made, rendered, uploaded and downloaded on Dropbox and ap- provals returned by email. It all takes precious time.

What is really apparent by the end of the shoot is how much the crew have enjoyed themselves and how much they’ve learned collectively.  They usually have crew photos taken with the presenters and guests. Cue loads of applause, back-slapping and the popping corks of cranberry presse.

What else can we look forward to in the future?

Rob: Steve Partridge, the guy who runs the department, has been trying to push the boundaries of what can be achieved on a Film & TV degree course. Just when you think you’ve got something nailed he’ll tell you that he’s blagged another £2,000,000 of high tech kit and then you’ve got to learn how to use it and then teach it. I’m not complaining: it’s what makes teaching here interesting and challenging and really beneficial for our students in terms of employability.

You may have noticed some strange looking things bolted into the ceiling rig in Studio 1 recently.These are motion capture sensors. Motion capture is the technology that was used for Lord of the Rings (Gollum – Andy Serkis) and King Kong (also Andy Serkis, he does a lot of this apparently, and he lives in Crouch End because I see him on the bus occasionally).These sensors are going to be used to sense where the cameras are in the studio in relation to the Hornets Show presenters and a new 3D CGI set.

Tell us about VIZRT

Rob: Steve’s also acquired another piece of technology called VizRT.This is a real-time 3D CGI compositing com- puter in which a live 3D set will be stored for the show. Our second year animation students are currently designing the new set for the Hornets Show and it’s looking great. So next year we will be able to move our cameras round the green screen studio and the motion capture (mocap) sensors will be able to tell VizRT how to move the CGI set accordingly in real time, which will be incredible. I’m pretty sure that no other university will have anything as remotely ambitious as this technology.

We’ll also be able to create live interactive onscreen graphics like you see in Minority Report and Iron Man.  The possibilities are frankly endless.This means an ongoing and a closer working relationship with our animation and audio colleagues at the university and our invaluable relationship with our friends at Wat-ford FC.  But the most important thing to consider is that it will hopefully increase the knowledge, creative potential and employability of our students.  Oh, and they actually have fun too.

For more on the experience of studying at Bucks New University, come and visit us at one of our Open Days, take a virtual tour of one of our animation studios, check out what our students think of our course, and see why we're ranked in the top 12 creative universities in the UK. Find out why we're giving free laptops to all our students, and why we give all our students free access to videos at Also, see what financial assistance might be available to you. Learn which is better for animation, a PC or a Mac? Get hold of a copy of a map so you can find your way around campus, and learn aboutmotion capture at Bucks.


  1. Yikes! This man's a genius! Why isn't he a full professor with permanent tenure? And another £50k pa. And a final salary pension package. Wake up, Bucks!

  2. Thanks Rob! We'll see you get your extra £50k and a pension asap!