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‘Lost in London LIVE’: Real-Time, Real-Life Production Adventures

"You've got to embrace what's never been done before," says Fathom CEO John Rubey.

On January 19, movie theater audiences can sit down to see actor Woody Harrelson break ground in the world of filmmaking with his live-to-theaters “feature,” Lost in London LIVE.

Written and directed by the versatile actor and co-starring Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson, among others, and roughly 300 extras, Lost in London LIVE, based on Harrelson’s real-life misadventures, will follow his character, covered with a single ARRI Alexa Mini, for about 100 minutes of difficulties and complications spread out over 14 actual London locations. The proceedings, distributed by Fathom Events, will be uplinked via satellite to 550 theaters throughout the company’s network, followed by a live Q and A.

The “live movie” will be piped into theaters as a 1080i image stream with Dolby E sound at 9PM Eastern and concurrently throughout the country. Harrelson has promised that if this project fails, he will jump off the Waterloo Bridge into the Thames.

Co-produced by Ken Kao of Waypoint Entertainment, the film was inspired by critically-acclaimed German film Victoria, also all shot in one take. The makers of that film, however, took several passes at the action rather than sending it live to cinemas.

When Fathom CEO John Rubey and the event’s live producer Vicki Betihavas were interviewed on January 10, the latter was overseeing rehearsals and still working on determining technical and logistical aspects of this head-spinning endeavor.

“We loaded in Sunday,” she explained. “Tomorrow we have the synch tests. The development of the film itself has happened over several months”—still quite a fast pace for even a traditional theatrical feature—”and we’ve been planning the production for weeks. Now we’re finally testing and rehearsing.”

“When Woody Harrelson approached us with this concept last October,” said Rubey, “we thought it was one of the best ideas we’d ever heard. I don’t think anyone’s attempted anything as elaborate as this. We’ve done events multi-camera, one location,” he says of sports and musical presentations Fathom has been known for, “but one camera and 14 locations through the streets of London? Never done anything like it! We’re taking crazy to a whole new level. There might be technical glitches in it or whatever, but you have to embrace that!”

“A lot of this seems straightforward,” offered Betihavas, a veteran producer of complex, live events, “until you’re drilling down into the specifics of pulling this all together.”

Cinematographer Nigel Willoughby (Downton Abbey) had already lit the 14 locations by this point and had been instrumental in working through the complex camera logistics, which will require a single operator to capture the action and scripted moves with the Mini. The camera will be entirely wireless – a first assistant will pull focus remotely and the image output (as Log-C 1080i) will be sent wirelessly to the DIT, who will add some color balance live.

Betihavas did admit they were working with something of a “net,” if not a very sturdy one. A second Mini and operator will be following along so there is something to cut to should there be a problem with A-camera but, depending on where they are in the story, this camera may be able to provide little more than a cutaway to some buildings.

There will also be a full tech rehearsal dead rolling off one of the Sony nonlinear playout systems that will be be used to play out the titles. Betihavas notes that the system is similar to the EVS setup frequently used on her projects, but the production was unable to find an EVS system that could handle the 23.98 frame rate.

Though shooting Lost in London LIVE is obviously a daunting proposition, Betihavas notes that from her POV, the audio is even more so. Every speaking actor will be wirelessly microphoned. It is still to be determined if there will be an omnidirectional 5.1 mic mounted to the camera. There will be approximately 54 receivers for dialogue and a sound mobile unit housed with multiple ProTools workstations to play out music. Then that audio will be relayed to a studio, where a mixer at a Studer mixing console will oversee the Dolby output.

This, of course, is not the type of live event on which Rubey and Betihavas have previously collaborated. Fathom has presented multi-cam music and sports events out of fixed venues with control rooms, but they describe Lost in London as being a “location film shoot.” Everything’s wireless and there’s no infrastructure. Betihavas has never faced the level of challenge for headset communications in any previous project.

“Beyond the RF for the actors,” she said, “The whole comms operation is enormous. We’ve got eight different comm channels. Engineers are in what would traditionally be called the ‘live gallery’ and there obviously has to be communication with the camera team and the script supervisors.” — there’s one to cue the actors and one to cue the operator and assistants for camera choreography.

“Everyone doesn’t want to hear what everyone else is saying. There will be something like 200 radios and that alone is quite a complex operation. Just in terms of RF, the technology involved is more than Wimbledon or British Open golf.”

Extending the concept that this is a movie, not a television broadcast, she added, “Usually, you think about title sequences months down the line. How do you open the show, close the show, how does music flow? Suddenly, we’re doing ‘postproduction’ at the same time that the structure of the film and the performances are being finessed.”

Before returning to rehearsals, Betihavas said, “I’ve got a bunch of very excited technicians. They’re all very seasoned and they’re all loving this challenge.”

“You’ve got to embrace what’s never been done before,” Rubey summed up. “The longer you’ve been in this business, the more you’re taught to avoid most of what we’re doing here. But when you have someone like Woody Harrelson and he surrounds himself with top people who want to make the best film they can in a way it’s never been done before, you don’t second guess that. You get onboard.”

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