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On location for Woody Harrelson’s film Lost in London

Technical crews are often asked to perform the impossible. Woody Harrelson's semi-autobiographical film Lost in London called for plenty of RF and other connections

Many writers and artists have based work on a traumatic episode in their lives as a form of catharsis. Actor Woody Harrelson has done this by writing a screenplay based on the 2002 incident when he was arrested during a crazy night in London. The difference is he then decided to perform the script live on location, streaming to cinemas in a production involving a single-take camera shot and multiple microphones and radio receivers.

Promoted as the world’s first live feature film, Lost in London was screened on 19 January to 550 cinemas in the US and one, the Picturehouse independent screen in the UK capital itself. Harrelson, who directed as well as starred as himself, appeared in several online trailers promoting the venture before the event and wondering at the wisdom of his choice.

Vicki Betihavas produced the live staging of Lost in London and says other production executive had to be convinced that it could be performed and ‘broadcast’ live: “Woody was always going to film it live and I was asked whether it was possible. I thought it was ambitious and although there was the thought that they could never do it live, I knew in my heart it could work.”

To make this feeling a reality Betihavas consulted wireless system specialist Broadcast RF. “They sent their guys out on a reccie, because without the RF link it wouldn’t work,” she says. Nick Fuller, Broadcast RF’s project manager for the production, went round the 14 proposed locations in central London looking for suitable receive positions.

Eventually 54 antennas were set up, with a Domo HD transmitter built into a transmit backpack connected to the Alexa Mini, which was handheld for 100 minutes by camera operator John Hembrough. Tim Fraser, head of sound on the project, and his audio number two, Simon Bishop, worked out sound could “hitch a ride” on the video uplink by being embedded into the video stream from the camera. “To do this we added some audio kit to the rucksack on the grip’s back,” Bishop explains. “We had an Ambient TinyMic on the camera and three channels of radio mic receive in the sack.”

The foundation of the audio set up was a series of hubs that would handle the dialogue at specific locations, with the output going to a main control room manned by Fraser at the Central Saint Martins (CSM) art school in Holborn. The primary hubs were the bag hub, the van hub and the restaurant hub. The first of these was a mobile rig run by recordist Geoff Price, who heaved a Sound Devices 688 mixer-recorder, a SL6 radio mic rack, expander fader module, additional RM receivers and “a good few transmitters” around on a Dedleg support.

“Geoff was always close to the camera and sent it a mix of various sources,” Bishop says. “Sometimes it would be from another hub and at others he could mix directly the radio mic packs on the actors. Geoff was a bit like a mobile telephone exchange, routing the feeds from other mixers to the camera.” Fraser adds that this arrangement meant there was always only a “short hop” to the camera for the feeds.

The van hub was built into a Mercedes Viano minibus with Ian Sands at another SD688, with a CL12 controller, Zaxcom Nomad FP8 fader panel, SL6 rack and assorted radio mic receivers and transmitters. “I was looking after anything with wheels,” Fraser explains. This included following a Volkswagen camper, two London black cabs and a police van, which all played a part in the comedy-drama and were fitted with hidden mics and mag mount antennas.”

The third hub was based at a restaurant, from where Simon Bishop also covered a nearby theatre and adjacent street. “I brought in a rack of eight Sennheiser receivers and some extra aerials and combiners and we fed them up the fibre from the theatre to the restaurant, where I could mix those two locations and the street,” Bishop comments. Equipment at this location included an Allen & Heath GLD80 mixer with two expander boxes to give 40 inputs and 20 outputs, a 12-channel rack of Sennheiser receivers, Audio Ltd EN2 link transmitters, Lectrosonics Rx wireless receivers and a Sennheiser in-ear monitor transmitter.

Because the first 25-minutes of the ‘broadcast’ took place between the theatre, the restaurant and the connecting street it was decided Bishop would mix the dialogue from his position. Main mixing responsibility then passed to Tim Fraser at CFM, where three sets had been built for scenes in the police station, including the front desk, interview room and a cell.

Fraser mixed on a Yamaha QL5 console (pictured above), which Bishop says was partly chosen because it allowed for delay to be dialled into the signal and so sync up incoming feeds. “The delay was the main problem,” Fraser acknowledges. “We couldn’t predict what it was going to be. We thought maybe 0.6 to 0.7 seconds but it ended up at 720 milliseconds via the camera. That was coming through the Alexa Mini encoder, with the embedded signal going into a Cobham transmitter. The delay meant it was difficult to do neat crossfades.”

The dialogue mix was sent to the Red TX mobile studio (pictured inside is grams op Ollie Nesham, Holophone effects boom op Rohan Igoe, recording engineer Steve Massey and dubbing mixer Tim Summerhayes), parked round the back of CFM. Here Tim Summerhayes added effects and music – composed by Antony Genn and Martin Slattery of The Hours and performed live in the truck – and, as Vicki Betihavas observes, acted as a re-recording mixer in a film dub. One scene featured pre-recorded dialogue by Bono, who, as on the real night, spoke to Woody Harrelson via his mobile phone while the actor was under arrest in a police van. The U2 singer’s ‘part’ was played in line by line from a QLab Go Button app by sound assistant Sara Sanchez, who had to lie on the floor of the van.

There were approximately 30 actors with lines in the film, most of who were on Sennheiser wireless mics. These were supplied and rigged by Terry Tew Sound and Light Hire. The four boom operators on location also worked wirelessly, using Audio Ltd gear to link to the appropriate hub.

Something as unpredictable as a live film was bound to have its glitches but these were relatively minor, including a radio mic that Fraser describes as sounding “RF-ie” and some echoey spaces on the opening scenes.

As a DVD release is on the cards all the dialogue was recorded for future remixing. Price and Sands laid tracks on to their SD688s, while Fraser and Bishop used Sound Devices PIX970 multitracks, using Dante and MADI connections respectively.

Fraser concludes that if he ever had to do something like this again he would do the same, only with a few tweaks. The question is whether anyone else as unconventional as Woody Harrelson is around to do it.

Picture: Top: Writer/director/star of Lost in London, Woody Harrelson, on the street location with actor Ade Oyefeso and boom operator Steve Pritchard