‘Versatile and practical’: Unraveling BBC Wales’ new mobile kit

BBC Wales announced it was equipping reporters with a new mobile kit. It’s a very complete kit and one that really wouldn’t have been possible three or four years ago. The mobile gear that we put around a phone is evolving very rapidly. This kit is both a snapshot of where we are and a preview of where we’re going next.

I’m a huge gear nerd, so I used the opportunity of the rollout today to have an email conversation with Guto Thomas, the reporting lede for BBC Wales.  Though it was a conversation ostensibly about the mobile kit, it covers a lot of ground about the state and business of modern journalism. Interview below the kit interactive…

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What’s the role of mojo for BBC Wales? Are you looking for your reporters to do traditional broadcast packages on mobile equipment from the field, direct-to-social short bursts, some blended thing or something I haven’t thought at all of?

Most of our reporters have become used to sending audio back to base using their smartphones over the last few years, but the adoption rate for gathering and sending video has been much slower.  And ironically, the area which is the easiest to deliver is by far the most unfamiliar to traditional broadcast journalists – i.e. stills photography.  However, the landscape is changing.  The evolution of social platforms in a news context, and the revolution in capability for iPhones, iPhone peripherals and bespoke apps is converging to create a new space in which mobile journalism can thrive.  So the idea in BBC Wales is to create a handful of mojo kit bags which include the best quality and most flexible range of tools that we think will allow mobile journalism to grow into a more mainstream activity.  At the moment, it’s still a niche.  In terms of what we want from the field – the list is only limited by the creativity of the production team.  In areas such as News, it’s by definition a more traditional newsgathering function.  In Sport, there’s some scope to be more creative in creating short trails for existing traditional programmes – e.g. graphics onto stills or video.  However, the mix of kit and apps also mean that other production areas could push the boundaries much further.  What binds all of this together however, is the ability of staff to send their content back to base via the BBC’s PNG app, ready for transmission or publication on traditional or officially sanctioned platforms – as well as the ability to send publish content directly to a social platform.  It’s allows different horses to ride different courses.

How much mobile production have your reporters done?

For over a decade, the concept of stand-alone journalists working remotely in BBC Wales has evolved from DV-tape cameras to tapeless VJ workflows, edited on laptops and now Macbook Pros.  We’ve moved from real time playouts to file exports and from FTP to our JFE system (BBC only), which delivers video content directly to any local office around the world.  The iPhone was even more transformational in that it delivers all of this functionality within a single, small device that you always have with you.  Editing finished content on the same device is the next step – which is why we’re specified the larger screen and capacity of the iPhone 6s Plus.  However, it’s in no way a necessity.  There are different ways to look at each side of the #mojo coin – the strict side which dictates it’s not #mojo unless every step of the production chain is completed on the same device; or the pragmatic side which provides options for gathering, sending, downloading, or editing  … all of which are interchangeable between devices and locations … and all of which is dependent on the circumstances.  How adept is the individual with using the device?  How much time is there until publication of transmission?  And how good or bad is the connectivity?  We hope to see our ability to manage all of these factors improving as we start using this new kit, leading to far more mobile journalism content being delivered.

How many of these very robust kits have you created or plan to create? What’s the ratio of kit to staff?

Initially, as a proof of concept, we’re delivering three of these kit bags.  We also have many of the constituent parts to make up a fourth kitbag, based on a trial kit-bag that we’ve been asking journalists to use over the last few months.  This has allowed us to get valuable feedback from staff about which bits of kit are more important than others – although it will inevitably continue to evolve over time as new products and innovation becomes available.  The traditional model would have been to provide kit as personal or dedicated issue.  However, this is no longer financially feasible, and so we’ll make the kits available to any staff that wants them, on a daily hire charge to each Department.  For a single day, the hire charge will be around $15.  This will provide that reporter with kit and apps worth around $2300.  We have over 1200 staff in BBC Wales – but of course only some of those would want or need to use these kit bags.  Roughly one third of BBC Wales staff work in either Sport or News & Current Affairs – and so we think the kit should be able to pay for itself via these nominal hire charges within 12 months.

Are these kits designed to be grab-and-go for people en route to a story or are these going to be assigned ahead of time with the expectation they’ll be used in the field?

They are very much grab and go kits.  Every four months, we’re going to assess the extent to which kits are being used, as well as the quantity and quality of the content they deliver.  We simply can’t afford to issue multiple personal issue kits – however, the usage statistics from the approach we’re taking will be invaluable when we need to assess future requirements, when our existing fleet of VJ cameras reach the end of their useful lives.

Was there a specific design philosophy behind the kit you built?

Yes – quality, versatility, practicality and value for money

You went with the Rode SmartLav and have a corded stick mic. Why no wireless gear?

Good question.  We already have Sony and Sennheiser radio mic sets issued with all of our VJ camera kits.  The beauty of the iRig Pro is that the XLR connection allows us to use our existing kit with this new technology.  Just as with the Beyer reporter microphones, we simply wouldn’t be able to justify the cost of buying extra radio mic kits of this quality for these kit bags.  However, colleagues in BBC Wales Sport  are just this week testing the Rode Filmmaker kit that transmits on a wireless connection rather than a radio frequency, and so that’s something we may revisit sooner rather than later.  We suggested they try this because of radio frequency licensing problems for their event in Bosnia … so we hope that provides as good a result as the football game they’re covering between Wales and the Bosnian national football team!

The ShoulderPod s1 is a great tool for hand shooting, but you chose to go with a different tripod mount (the MeFOTO sidekick) which gives some more options in terms of filming but adds some bulk to the kit. What was the reasoning?

We wanted to make sure that anybody that picks up this kitbag feels that they’re not hampered by the limitations of the equipment.  We’re also very much looking forward to the launch of Shoulderpod’s new smartphone rig that they demonstrated at the #mojocon conference in Dublin last March.  This could provide a solution that renders our Plan A redundant.  However, providing creative programme makers with a range of tools that enable the best content to be delivered is a core aspiration for this project – which is why we went for having two different kinds of mount rather than just one.  In addition of course, it also means that the kit can accommodate multiple iPhones or smartphones to be used at the same time.

I don’t see any frames like the iOgrapher or the BeastGrip or the mCam that include shoes for mounting external things like light, pre-amps, shotguns, etc. What drove that design decision?

Well spotted.  Yes, we’ve experimented with some of these already for various devices, and have decided to wait for a few months to see how the new Shoulderpod rig compares in terms of quality, versatility and cost.  Al of the rigs you’ve mentioned will also be considered at the same time – as well as any others that are launched in the meantime.  This is a market that’s exploding with innovative new products – but we’ve just decided to wait. The other factor here is that we want to get as much feedback from users as possible, so that we go for the best solution that suits them.

Speaking of which, it seemed like you went with very “phone-attached” technologies (the OlloClip lenses, the Manfrotto light kits). Was that conscious design decision or just how things worked out?

Yes – to a point.  However, if we go for a frame in the future, then the lens is the only element that would be directly affected.  The microphones, Manfrotto light, even the iRig pro can all be mounted.  I have a sticky back coldshoe adapter glued to the back of my iRig that allows it to be moun ted on a hotshoe etc.  So I’m pretty confident that most of this kit is robust enough to survive the rigours of heavy usage, and that they’re adaptable enough to be rigged in different ways.  Whether I’m proven right is about to be put to the test!