TV Production “New Normal” ~ Quiz Variety show ‘The Ninety-nine Walls’

TV Production “New Normal” ~ Quiz Variety show ‘The Ninety-nine Walls’

Video conferencing becomes a practical hint! ‘The Ninety-nine Walls’ resumes filming through remote participation! The team takes us behind the scenes.

In the variety show ‘The Ninety-nine Walls,’ one challenger is chosen out of a hundred participants, which include celebrities and members from the general public, to challenge 99 ‘blockers’ with a mission to answer questions in a field that one is confident in. By answering 5 questions in a row correctly, the challenger can win one million yen.

Usually, a total of a hundred people would all be participating in the studio, but due to the impact of the ‘Corona Shock,’ filming like they used to has become a huge hurdle. But subsequently after much consideration, 99 people were able to participate remotely on the special show which was aired on June 6th, 2020. This was considered a revolutionary form of filming from its past shows. The faces of all the remote participants were showed up on large screen ‘walls’ positioned in the studio.

It was surely the first time that this many people participated on a Japanese variety show together online. And witnessing this for the first time was a stunning experience for everyone involved.

It may seem like a large-scale try out, but how did they manage it all? We spoke to the director, Yuya Chiba, to go behind-the-scenes.

Yuya Chiba (Planning/Direction -‘The Ninety-nine Walls’)

■Could you tell us about how you actually managed to get 99 people participating remotely on the show?

We are using a web conferencing tool called ‘Webex’ by Cisco. We felt that we must have 25 remote participants appearing on each screen, so this software seemed the best. We set up 4 separate screens, each with the video conferencing tool connected to 25 people, and then displayed it on to the huge monitors in the studio.

As for the sound specifics for this, the remote participants are asked to put their voice settings on ‘mute’ to cut out the irrelevant echoing sounds you would normally get from online conferences, when multiple people speak at once. Jiro Sato (MC) then tells the remote participants to press the ‘unmute’ button on each of their computers only when they are speaking.

Also, when it comes to one of the 99 remote participants answering a question, we could switch any of the screens with the 25 participants, to the shot of the main speaker. All of this was done manually by stationing one director per room performing these sorts of technical operations.

As for this, 4 directors were simultaneously operating 3 PC monitors at the same time: the screen for the main speaker, the split screen with 25 people, and the one which covers other essential shots from the studio required for the on-air show.

A director simultaneously managing 3 PC monitors

■The ‘blockers’ were using the ‘fastest finger first buzzer’ on their smartphones?

As it’s a quiz show, we can’t leave out the ‘fastest finger first buzzer,’ something which the participants press when answering a question. So, we went to the technical department to discuss about this. “We want to create some kind of a mechanism which can be used on a smartphone, whereby all the show’s participants can access a single room on a server, and have it so that if someone taps a buzzer to answer a question, the others will be instantly locked, and the name of the person who pressed the buzzer appears. This should also coincide with a simultaneous buzzing sound in the studio too.”

Like this, we just simply stated the ideal framework. But, they were like, “maybe we can do it,” and I thought to myself, “are you serious?” I originally believed that it would be unrealistic.

So, we asked them to make a prototype right away, and initially it was one where you simply had to tap a button with the word “push” written on it, and then we considered all elements to make sure that there won’t be any time lags during the game too.

Eventually, this ‘fastest finger first buzzer’ was completed and so we were now on course to make a kind of show, whereby the contestants could challenge one another with it through remote participation.

‘fastest finger first buzzer’

■How difficult was it to get to the point of actually being able to air the special on June 6th, when 99 people were finally able to participate on the show remotely?

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread, we were told that this program might not be able to continue. Back then, there was still some time before the next show, so we started considering about various options, such as filming it on the outdoor rooftop of one of Fuji TV’s studios, in a fully ventilated environment. And actually, we didn’t originally have the idea about the possibility of remote filming.

And, just as we were in the middle of a meeting to discuss countermeasures, we received a vital update suggesting that we might be able to use a video conferencing tool, as it’s being used by other programs for their online meetings, and that it could be a good idea for this one too.

Even though this has been the new norm for some time now, back then, I didn’t know much about ‘video conferencing tools.’ So, I asked about 10 staff members working from home to see whether we can try it out. We didn’t get any time lags of such after all, and we were able to have a seamless conversation without any problems. And then I thought to myself, “maybe we can actually do this!” and we immediately started to move forward with it all.

So, I drew up a proposal to just have the 4 large screens, Jiro Sato (MC) and the main quiz challenger in the studio. All the other 99 participants were to participate from home remotely.

However, we decided to put back the filming originally planned for April. During this time, we were not fully sure of our plans. But after we did a full rehearsal including camera tests, to confirm all the intricate processes to make it all work, things began to take shape. Eventually, the broadcast was given the go ahead for June.

■After doing the actual filming for the show, tell us about some of the things you felt in terms of direction.

I’m sure Jiro Sato (MC) had some concerns since it was difficult for him to see how his interesting talks were being taken by everyone, as it’s very much different from the usual studio recordings.

On the other hand, we were able to see even more good sides to him in terms of his hosting skills, areas we don’t usually get to see often on his other programs. For example, when there were no responses from the remote participants, he would also go silent and a few seconds of entertaining and comical moments would pass…

Jiro Sato (MC – ‘The Ninety-nine Walls’)

■Are there any areas you felt lacked from remote productions, compared to the usual filming productions?

Whenever I enter the studio, I feel that the exciting sense of atmosphere as a result of actual participants being in the studio, however, I guess this is a challenging one to create with remote production.

When it comes to the big question in the show (“one million yen if you can answer the quiz correctly”), where you have 99 people actually in the studio all nervously watching on, all of this is completely different from when they are participating remotely through a PC monitor.

I also feel that the atmosphere you get when there are undulating cheers and an exciting round of applause in the studio, every time a challenger gives a great answer, cannot be replicated with the remote technology we have. I think that these elements are only possible with a live-studio recording.

■I see. So, you were also able to rediscover some of the real values of what you have been creating for the past shows. Also, has there been changes in the way the production crew are working now in reference to the show’s production style?

All the post-production editing work is now fully being done remotely. The editing office is connected 24 hours a day through “ZOOM” (webchat application), and the videos the editors are working on can be viewed simultaneously online. Without actually having to go to the office, we can access “ZOOM and see what segments of the videos they are working on, and we can ask them to make changes such as on-screen captions and telops. I think this is quite ‘revolutionary.’

■How about narration recordings?

The narrators also do the recordings from home. The editing office sends out microphones and other equipment in advance to them. We haven’t had a meeting at the editing office for over 3 months now.

 ■Seems like there has been a big shift. It now feels like an important part of history.

The editing studio we are working with is called ‘Japan Media Create,’ and its representative always had doubts about the general editing process for some time now. It seems that, what they have already been preparing for well before the COVID-19 pandemic is simply just beginning to take shape.

■Wouldn’t assistant directors lose their opportunities to learn the editing techniques like they used to?

Yes, that’s really true. I feel for them. I think we’re probably the last generation to have had the opportunity to work in the actual editing rooms. In the future, assistant directors need to have the mindset of paying attention, whenever there are interactions between the director and the editor as regards to a show’s directional issues. Without this enthusiastic attitude, they could be put in a sudden situation whereby a show has been completed without them even realizing many of the processes which went underway.

Covering a studio which has transitioned fully to remote forms of production

So, a remote editing process, which director Mr. Chiba feels is ‘revolutionary.’ To find out more, we spoke to Mr. Yoshikawa, the representative of ‘Japan Media Create’ in Shirokane, Tokyo.

 ■So, all the editing is now being done remotely. How does it work?

The editing is done on this computer installed with “Premiere Pro” software. The left monitor is what the viewers will actually see, and we use “ZOOM” to share the videos online with the staff and crew members

Go Yoshikawa (CEO/EDITER ‘Japan Media Create Co.,Ltd.’)

I work whilst also discussing with the directors, so the amount of communication has increased compared to when we were working side by side in the same studio.

For a special production like ‘The Ninety-nine Walls,’ it usually takes about 5 days including the time for audio post production. For the preview sessions (final check), we share the videos on ‘Vimeo’ (video platform) and use ‘ZOOM’ webchat as the main communication tool. By using the preview functions available on ‘Vimeo,’ we are able to share the work with the people who can’t come to the editing office. This allows us for a large group of people (about 30) to check the work together.

■We heard that you send out microphones to narrators?

Yes, this is what it looks like, and the audio quality is good enough. We have this one connected to a narrator’s smartphone, and the recorded audio files are immediately shared on cloud servers. The directors and the editors are also connected remotely online and work can be done simultaneously with them.

Microphone sent to the narrator

■With the ‘Corona Shock,’ the process of remote production has moved forward rapidly, but you were aware of some of the issues associated with editing processes from much earlier on?

From a few years back, I started to think about ways to reform the way we work, as I felt sympathetic for the assistant directors, who always had to be in the editing office for a long duration of time. Their main work is to make sure that all the necessary communication points are channeled between producers, directors and editors. So, I thought, why not use some kind of tool to allow directors and editors to communicate directly with each other. Therefore, we decided to introduce a cloud storage service called ‘JECTOR’ in the summer of 2019.

However, the style of assistant directors always needing to be at the editing office didn’t really change. The COVID-19 pandemic made it compulsory for people to be away from a ‘closed environment,’ and as a result, we were able to move swiftly towards introducing the new system, something we had been preparing all along.

■Are there anything you felt about processes of editing, in the visual media industry as a whole?

A lot of us who work in the post-production industry have to work in a ‘closed’ environment with hardly any windows. With all this talk of avoiding the ‘Three Cs’ (closed spaces, crowded places, close-contact settings) do you think the staff members will want to be working in these kinds of environments? This is why I think that we should promote a remote working style.

In addition, even if the state of emergency is declared again, we need to be well prepared, so that we can protect the precious works of our ‘customers’ (producers and directors etc.) and also our very own work too. For that reason, I think it’s important to create an environment where we can respond to any sudden situations in the future.

However, we can’t create the environment on our own. It can only be made possible, when the producers, directors, and assistant directors all say, ‘let’s all work together.’

■Finally, what changes do you think will occur in the coming 10 to 20 years?

As far as the way the industry works, I don’t think it will change too much, but the process of remote production will continue to take shape, and in these respects, since everyone can now work from anywhere, it should shift towards a much healthier working style.

Also, another thing we have to consider is sending out the recorded tapes. Last year, I visited a TV stations in Taiwan for study purposes. During that time, they posed the question, “why are you still using tapes for recordings?” They were suggesting that it’s not good for the environment.

I heard that productions in Taiwan have shifted to a way in which they are not using storage mediums anymore. This kind of drastic action may be necessary at some point in the future.

There is no doubt that remote forms of recording and production is leading to a dramatic transition for production in the TV industry.

■Japan Media Create: