Speed dates, strict monitoring bubbles, world first lighting effects and a stage that resembles a giant hug – welcome to the team embracing Eurovision 2023 from the heart of Liverpool to the soul of Ukraine. Adrian Pennington reports.
Eurovision is quite simply the biggest singing competition in the world and comfortably the biggest live TV singing contest. As you can imagine, it requires a vast undertaking from a technical point of view. Presenting a new song live every four minute is a real test for the technology and the professionalism of teams backstage, and with a TV audience of over 160 million and millions more listening on radio, there’s nowhere to hide.
This is a very special and unique year to produce Eurovision. The UK is hosting the contest on behalf of Ukraine, which makes the Eurovision 2023 contest the first to be held in the UK in 25 years. IBC365 talks to three of the principals involved with host broadcaster BBC in bringing us Eurovision 2023 live from Liverpool.
Behind the Scenes: Eurovision 2023 - Sound Design
The Head of Sound for Eurovision, Robert Edwards, is responsible for the whole sound design, artistically and technically, including production of stereo mixes for radio and TV, and a 5.1 sound mix. Edwards also selects the sound team and ensures the whole operation is inclusive, efficient and productive.
“I am very fortunate to have already experienced the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity of working on Eurovision in 2018, where I was responsible for the world broadcast mixes for radio and television in Portugal,” Edwards told IBC365. He has also sound mixed Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor and the world feeds for Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Tokyo and Beijing.
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He explained that the EBU has a very strict rule-book which emphasises that this is a competition, and that every country should be treated equally and fairly. There are strict rules about the backing track structure, the duration of the songs, the numbers of performers on-stage in the act, and the fact that ‘Live Dubs’ are not permitted and all lead vocals must be live.
“At its heart, it remains a song contest, with the excitement of live vocal singing. In 2018, backing vocals all had to be live, but that rule was relaxed due to Covid, so the contest now allows some help with backing vocals on track or live.”
Each of the 37 country ‘delegations’ is encouraged to give Edwards’ team a time-coded description of their vocal sound and any vocal effects that they want to add such as delays, equalisation or reverberation. Autotune in any form for the live vocal is not permitted. The singers also are constrained in their choice of microphone and are only permitted to choose between handmics or headmics.
“Our radio mic system from Shure, via Brit Row, is very large, so we couldn’t allow other radio mics from other countries,” Edwards said. “After each rehearsal, the delegations are allowed to give mix notes, but they are conveyed from a special viewing room, so delegations cannot directly influence the sound mixers. Delegation monitor engineers are not permitted inside our monitoring bubble, again, to prevent undue pressure and influence.”
Creatively, the Eurovision sound team are aiming at a “fixed target” which is the mix released on the various streaming platforms publicly released several weeks before the competition.
“Obviously, we are dealing with a live audience and live singing, but we aim to faithfully replicate the commercial mix,” Edwards said. “Within reason, I’ve had to design a system that is principally serving the live broadcasts, but can also create a party atmosphere in the large venue. More than half of the show is dialogue, so there must be an appropriate balance between the Rock and Roll, and the Voting admin in the shape of the presenters.”
If you like your stats then the sound tech inventory includes: 52 microphones for singing, 58 audience microphone channels, 64 playback channels, 24 IEM channels with 120 bodypacks, 16 presenters mics and over 100 additional IEM packs for drummers, dancers, and flag-bearers.
Lawo and Studer broadcast desks are supplied by NEP and Mixbus respectively. FOH and monitor desks via Digico are provided by Brit Row. Edwards’ sound crew also includes seven students.
“Everything is backed-up,” Edwards said. “There’s a fully operational back-up OB truck which can handle everything.”
The radio mics are Axient ADX2FD so each mic has two diverse transmission paths, each with diversity receivers (four ways to get the same mic). The dual-engine Digico desks have redundancy between each other. The systems have UPS back-up power, each fibre loop has a diverse backup route.
“Eurovision is a vast undertaking from a sound point of view. It is simply the biggest singing competition in the world, and the scale of the infrastructure reflects that. Presenting a new song live every four minutes or so is a huge logistic challenge, and a real test for technology. It requires supreme concentration, and unparalleled skill and professionalism from the team behind it.”
Behind the Scenes: Eurovision 2023 - Lighting Design
Tim Routledge is both the creative lighting designer and head of the lighting department for Eurovision working for BBC Studios. His credits include Stormzy’s 2019 Glastonbury Festival set, Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ World Tour, Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony 2014).
“I’ve done many multi act music shows for broadcast but this is on a scale like no other,” Routledge told IBC365. “Eurovision is really known for its epic and transformational lighting that is layered, evolves and delights and my brief to myself was that we aim to deliver a world class lighting product.”
His task ranges from designing the vast rig from scratch to managing a 24-hour team of programmers and associates to managing the creative aspirations of each delegation.
“The show isn’t my show or any individual’s show, it’s the sum of all the creative teams for each performance and it’s my job to harness all those ideas plus my own into a visual spectacle. It’s creating workflows for handling all of the visual references, timecode tracks, concepts and ideas that come to us that makes the volume of the show harder than most.
Routledge was brought onboard in late October when the show had shortlisted set designers down to two. His early brief was to advise on how each of the proposed sets would offer best lighting potential and any pitfalls and issues.
“Julio [Himede’s] set stood out,” he said. “Like any set it has its challenges, but it absolutely has its own character.”
After working on concepts for the show based on Himede’s winning set design, Routledge met up with the designer at his studio to brainstorm together on finishes, LED trims and how to integrate lighting into the set design.
“My team and I created a one-minute flythrough of the lighting design to show the Exec Producers and then worked hard to rationalise and edit as the set was built up into a workable model,” he explained. “Even with one of the biggest shows in the world there will always be a budget ceiling to consider.”
By New Year the lighting team had delivered a workable rig. Lighting vendor Neg Earth was chosen after an extensive and detailed procurement process.
In February, Routledge held a zoom meeting to present his lighting design and creative possibilities to the delegations. Normally, the delegations are sent a document detailing parts of the rig they can use. This year they were shared the 3D lighting flythrough made by the BBC that also showed any moving elements of the set and lighting rig.
Each country then had a month to develop their creative ideas for performance. In mid-March the BBC lighting team travelled to Liverpool to hold 20-minute ‘speed dates’ with each delegation to discover what they have in mind.
“They present a director’s video, creative look and feel documents and request any props, lighting or video content they may want,” Routledge said. “It’s my job to go away and assimilate all this information to create lighting cues and briefs for all the delegations so we can commence pre-viz.”
Behind the Scenes: Eurovision 2023 - Full lighting specification
“To create depth we’ve added 190 Robe Tetra X on the rear of the video doors to deliver a spinning, kinetic pixel-driven lighting wall. Behind that we have a wall of Robe Painte and Q8 strobes to add even more depth as the doors revolve. Around the oval stage, which is effectively in the round, I wanted a way to make new architectures of floor lighting so I designed 22 lifting columns into the lighting shelf that can rise and fall the Robe Spiders on the edge. We have new fixtures in the form of the Clay Paky Sharpy on the four large set arms that frame the whole show.
Routledge’s other main lighting feature was designed in homage to his late father. “He got me into thinking about design as a child. He introduced me to the work of Josef Svoboda who was one of the world’s early modern scenographers and there is a light that is named after him – the Svoboda. I wanted to create a huge modern version of this that could fly in – so we have 10 Svoboda Pods, a trapezoid-shaped truss edged in Volero Wave containing nine high powered beam fixtures (Ayrton Zonda 9) that punch from it like the original Svoboda.”
The lighting spec is tabulated here:
One difference from previous recent Eurovisions is that the UK has very different rules for strobing of lights and pictures on broadcast. The BBC production must follow OFCOM rules, monitoring pictures using a Harding machine.
“Other European countries don’t have such rules and can strobe and flash lights as much as they please,” Routledge said. “As such, we have had to manage delegation’s expectations.”
Three days of tech rehearsals were assigned to test all lighting systems from comms, white balance to timecode and midi triggers. The entire lighting control system is fully backed up with all three programmers running a spare console that tracks the main console. It’s the first time the Song Contest has run MA3 software with the German-based computer lighting control specialist MA Lighting backing it all up with tech and software support.
“The set is stunning but presents a number of challenges for me as an LD,” Routledge said. “I love a challenge and working with complicated sets really gets you thinking. The ceiling overstage was full of automation to make the doors work and making a rig that worked when the video was fully enclosing the set is one of the biggest challenges to give it depth. By simply adding high powered LED battens integrated into all the walls and doors we can create depth and be able to underscore the music.”
Routledge added, “I’ve always dreamed of doing this show. It’s the ultimate show for lighting designers and I still pinch myself about being selected to deliver such a special event.”
Behind the Scenes: Eurovision 2023 - Production design
One of the challenges when designing the set for this Eurovision was creating a landscape that clearly identifies as the Eurovision stage, explains production designer Julio Himede (64th Annual Grammy Awards, the 2018-2021 MTV Video Music Awards).
“While the set has to transform and accommodate 37 countries each with their own creative identity, the set has to carry its own clear visual vocabulary,” he said.
Part of his technical brief was to integrate multiple performance areas, as well as providing clear entrances and exits for large set pieces and props to travel on/off stage for each performance.
“At Eurovision there is less than a minute for these fast changes, and it takes an army of experienced crew to make these quick turn arounds possible,” Himede said.
“Creatively, we needed to provide a design that could transform itself over and over again, so that each artist performance has a point of difference but it doesn’t start to feel repetitive. This transformation occurs through different production values such as automation of set pieces, lighting, video content and special effects.
“We also needed to be mindful of the unique circumstances of this year’s event – UK hosting the show in honour of Ukraine. We were tasked with designing something that celebrated both countries and cultures, and also Europe’s support of Ukraine. Ultimately, we devised a stage that resembled a hug embracing the Liverpool Arena from above and below and opening its arms to Ukraine as well as the show’s performers and guests from across the world.”
Himede began the design process by researching cultural identities of Ukraine and the UK, such as music, arts, literature, architecture and fashion.
“This allowed us to find a dual approach between both countries. We then explored the notion of unity, community and music. This initial phase of the process was presented with mood boards. We then moved to hand sketches, and started translating these ideas into 3D models through Rhino software. After a couple of weeks of exploring in the model, we moved to renderings, and started talking to HoDs, such as producers and video and lighting specialists who provided advice along the way.”
The architecture of the set is clad in video tiles, part of the video set pieces, which keep transforming themselves into multiple compositions. Wi Creations is supplying the complex automation system for these video pieces running Wimotion software which integrates video content, light and immersive sound.
With LD Tim Routledge and lighting specialist Neg Earth, production is integrating “some incredible new lighting effects, never seen on broadcast before,” Himede revealed, “such as an exciting wave fixture that animates light in a unique manner.”
Set automation was tested a month before the start of the build by Yorkshire-based Stage One Creative Services at the M&S Bank Arena. More weeks are spent testing other production elements embedded within the set, such as lighting, special effects, and sound. Three make sure every country participating gets sufficient time on the set before the semi-finals.
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