Elections

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 07.28.01The BBC’s election graphics are the perfect combination of fun and serious. In the olden days we had a fabulous gent called Bob Mackenzie. He was serious, but with a Canadian twinkle in his eye. This was Bob, on the left, live on election night in 1970.

Green01 - Bob Mackenzie

You see the problem immediately. The technology. The “swingometer” ― which measures movement between the two main parties ― was a wooden arrow on a nail. Actually let’s give it a capital, because I feel it’s that important: the Swingometer. At some point there was a leap forward and the wooden arrow became a plastic one. But as you see in the photo above, the technology sometimes let Bob down. The man on the right with Brylcreemed hair has arrived with a paintbrush. He is painting in extra percentages, caused by an unforeseen swing to Edward Heath.

The moment is actually a collector’s item for those of us who do elections. It might just be the least glamorous in the history of television. At the same time, it speaks of the joyously unknowable quality every election night has.

I often wonder what the brilliant Bob would have made of my studio in 2015. Below you see me standing in what we call the “green space”, a kind of news cathedral. I was a moment away from performing a burst of virtual graphics into David Dimbleby’s live programme. There had already been sensational news. The Conservatives looked like pulling off a shock win.

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In 2015 we had the equivalent of the Edward Heath surge, with bells on. The SNP added an incredible number of votes compared to the 2010 election. We had allowed for an unprecedented 30% swing — remember Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 was only 10.2% by comparison, so surely thirty per cent was enough? Yet still my graphical arrow nearly hit the ceiling. “We almost broke the Swingometer,” I said on live TV, which got quoted everywhere.

You possibly watched our graphics on election night. No longer can the presenter say the technology has let them down. The computers have become bigger and better ― you are more than welcome to say that clarity remains our greatest challenge! We are always aware of the trade-off between impact and explanation. We also struggle with an axiom I think we discovered for ourselves:

If something is complicated to start with, the more time you spend explaining it, the more complicated it gets

Anyway, if you’re interested in how the graphics work, I shall briefly explain.

The graphics themselves are, of course, not real. The images are generated in a huge computer in what we call our graphics gallery ― a backstage area full of the best kind of geeks and nerds. You can see the intensive labour required to set up my studio in this timelapse video.

When the cameras see the particular shade of green in the studio, they replace it with graphic from the huge computer. For that reason I must NOT wear green trousers (which was almost a dealbreaker when they offered me the job). Our researcher, the super-smart Ed, has to be hidden behind an avocado shield so he cannot be seen:

03 Ed behind screen

To give an example of the power of green, in the picture below you see my team discussing an issue affecting the display of constituencies. We are in a rehearsal and we have noticed that Corby is in the Labour column. We think it should be in the Conservative column, given the other results that have started coming in.

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On the left are directors Chris & Stuart; next to me is producer Ben Watt, who guides the entire graphics operation. You will see that they have given me a faint projection of the constituencies on the floor so I can get my bearings.

The meeting went on, as meetings tend to. People arrived and people left. Now, if we switch to the view from inside the director’s gallery, you see this:

Green06 - Downing Street CGI

That is how the viewer would see our gathering if it were televised. Here you grasp just how stunningly a twenty-first century graphic is rendered. So many pixels and megabytes in 2015! Gone is the gent with the pot of paint. For the first time in the history of election broadcasts we actually look as if we are in the real Downing Street (so much so that, when the sun came up on Friday morning, viewers complained that my ongoing appearances outside the night-time Number Ten must have been pre-recorded).

Not only that: when we cut inside our virtual House of Commons, the MPs could be seen to blink and shuffle around in their seats.

Looking at the photo above, I should also point out Mark Edwards, in the red scarf. Not only because he very rarely appears in his own graphics, which made this a special moment; also because he is the main designer. Jonathan Spencer is a huge influence on the process too. I’ll stop there with the names, for fear of trying to mention the entire team and missing someone out.

I asked one of the project managers, Russell Leak, to say more; in case you’re really, really interested. Ready?

“The computers we use on elections have to be powerful and fast due to the amount of graphics they need to process in real time. Real time, like in video games, means the graphics change instantly as the camera moves; not like a movie where you have months to render and tweak.

“But in a video game they don’t have to worry about something called genlock where we need to sync the graphics to the studio cameras. If you skip a frame in a video game nobody notices or worries too much. In TV-land, if you miss a frame everyone notices!”

On an even more technical note (hang with this — it’s great), Russell continues:

“On the last General Election we used the latest graphics computers — HP Workstations  Z440 and Z840. The graphics cards were Nvidia Quadro M6000s which had only just been released. The graphics cards have to be fast to process the millions of polygons, high resolution textures and constant data throughput which the BBC team build. The software that runs the system in real time is Vizrt, used by many TV companies across the world but the election graphics push its capabilities to the limit. The UK election having 650 constituencies means we often need 650 objects loaded at one time, and that’s enough to test any graphics system.”

Russell sent me a link to his firm’s behind-the-scenes article and video if you want to see what it all adds up to.

For me, the presenter, it is a joy and a headache. I jump around my green space without being able to see what the viewer can see. On election night I am the only person in politics who doesn’t know where he’s standing.

But my forerunners help. Not just Mackenzie, but Snow.

Peter Snow! Nearly everything I know I learnt from my broadcast hero, whose skill was combining enthusiasm and expertise. If I had half of what Snow had in either I would be a lucky man. When you watched him, you always felt the information came first; the impact of the graphics was secondary. And yet he had an amazing ability to jump out of the television screen at you. My memory of elections past is that Peter was actually explaining things from the carpet in front of my parents’ fireplace. When I turned fifty in 2015, I was bowled over that he came to the party; we are friends.

06 Peter Snow hero

It’s not just Snowie who makes me ever-conscious of the precious green-screen heritage. Back in the seventies, Monty Python seemed to find the BBC’s election nights a source of almost endless material. One of their spoof reports came from a declaration at the constituency of Harpenden. The candidate’s name is read out:

Malcolm Peter Brian Telescope Adrian Umbrella Stand Jasper Wednesday (pops mouth twice) Stoatgobbler John Raw Vegetable (sound effect of horse whinnying) Arthur Norman Michael (blows party squeaker) Featherstone Smith (blows whistle) Northcott Edwards Harris (fires pistol, which goes ‘whoop’) Mason (chuff-chuff-chuff) Frampton Jones Fruitbat Gilbert (sings:) ‘We’ll keep a welcome in the’ (fires three shots, stops singing) Williams If-I-Could-Walk-That-Way Jenkin (squeaker) Tiger-draws Pratt Thompson (sings:) ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ Darcy Carter (horn) Pussycat ‘Don’t Sleep In The Subway’ Barton Mannering (hoot, whoop) Smith.

After this very long name, the commentator says in a hushed tone: “Very Silly Party.” And the mayor reads out the result:

Two votes

Then they cut to Terry Jones in front of the Python-style Swingometer, which is about to show a huge swing away from the Sensible Party.

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I love the comedy. Who doesn’t? And I know I shouldn’t be even remotely snobbish about being taken off, because the imprimatur of Monty Python is part of what makes the Swingometer such a big part of British political life. And there is a link, too. Earlier I very self-consciously used the phrase,

I was a moment away from performing a burst of virtual graphics . . .

and found my finger hovering over the p-word. News people like me can be uncomfortable with the idea of performance, but that is what it is. One editor visited the set. He looked around in amazement. I told him it was difficult not to get carried away with the drama of it all. He said, “Don’t worry about that, Jeremy — give me the whoosh!” which I thought was great advice. The Pythons drew us in with comedy; Dimbleby and Edwards do it with seriousness. What we all have in common is the sense of urgency. On election night we pull the curtains open and shout, “COME AND WATCH OUR SHOW!” Because if we’re not excited, why would you be?

The combination of performance and technology needs to have a point to it. Take a look at me in the picture below, and then look in the camera monitor to see the resulting image:

election night

To me, that sums it up. Everything we do needs to point to the numbers. Content is king, and clarity crowns the content. You can see from the photo that the crispness of the graphics means we can show more on screen. Hopefully give more of the picture. Analyse the numbers with bigger calculators than they did in the sixties? Maybe so. Turbo-calculators, enthusiasm, gigabytes, histograms, virtual brickwork . . . it’s a heady mix. Even headier when the clock strikes ten and the votes start coming in.

One problem for me? Unlike Bob Mackenzie, I can’t ever say the technology let me down. I often wonder how much fun Bob or Peter would have had with the equipment the BBC can get its hands on now.

By the way, if for a fraction of a second you were thinking it is glamorous, rest assured it is a million miles from that. In General Election downtime I sit at the back of the set on a moth-eaten armchair which is a cast-off from the scenery of Holby City (when the veteran cabinet minister Douglas Hurd came into the studio at the last election, he found it too difficult to walk into the building from the cab, so he used a Holby wheelchair). While I sit on that grubby sofa, there is nothing to stare at but a nest of wires which sit there reminding me why we don’t film the graphics from backstage.

08 nest of wires

I am guessing that in a couple of decades, all of that will be replaced by a chip the size of a thumbnail. But for now, the number of trip hazards remind me that we are not quite there yet.