The Super Bowl Halftime production is simply like no other. Imagine taking most of your tried and true production practices and chucking them out the window. You know, things like days to set up, rehearsals, tweak cameras and lighting and all of those good “normal” practices that you have done for years.
Fast forward to Super Bowl Week and let's not even talk about COVID ok? Limited rehearsals, minutes to set up, and one chance to get it right. NO pressure at all. Did I say this was all live? Anyways, in the middle of it all was one company I was able to catch up with before and after the Super Bowl Halftime—RailCam Robotic Systems. The smartest guys who came in and executed at the highest level.
One of those really smart people was Brian Sheid, partner of RailCam Systems, who was on site for the entire production sequence. This included everything from getting the systems to Tampa, as well as being responsible for the very first unloading of the systems and getting them up and running flawlessly, to the rehearsal, and of course the halftime show. Brian was a wealth of technical and practical knowledge about the RailCam Robotic Systems. It was great that he took a few minutes out of his crushed schedule to fill us in.
PH: Tell me a little background about RailCam Robotic Systems, how you got started and some of your bigger jobs..besides the SB.
Brian Sheid: RailCam Robotic Systems started with three guys who saw a hole in the market. There was a growing demand for high-quality and reliable robotic camera systems from a company that was not only an expert in the field, but also flexible and easy to work with. And that’s what we are. We work tirelessly to provide the whole package to our clients. We were already known in the business as technicians who could get the job done, and people have always called us when they want things done right.
Our company supplies only superior equipment from top-notch manufacturers. There are a lot of people making robotic camera equipment, and the quality is definitely not all the same. The manufacturers we work with are masters of their craft with brilliant engineers. We can't go to a job and say "hey, it didn’t work, but we’ll give you your money back." We work in live TV, so the experience has to be excellent every single time; it can’t fail. From the production’s perspective, the cost of a rental is insignificant when compared to the price of the opening shot of the halftime show. You’ll never get a second chance at that.
PH: How long does it take to set up a typical (if there is one) RailCam Robotic System and how does it all work?
Brian Sheid: It’s always different! When we entered the concert touring business, we started really optimizing for speed. We had to completely rethink how these systems traveled. On the Beyonce tour, we had two RailTowers (a RailCam with a 12 ft. telescopic tower) with 150 ft. of track with internal cable management, one RailArm (RailCam with an arm that lifts the camera up and down for optimal height range) with 50 ft. of track, and a robotic-stabilized head at center stage. Our fastest time was 45 minutes from start of wrap to closing the truck. For perspective, that’s an entire 53 ft. tractor trailer of equipment. But we have all types of different systems with different setup requirements, and we work within the needs of the production. We try to pre-build as much as possible in the shop before it even heads out to the show. It saves time and stress for everyone.
All of our RailCams are fully captured on the track, meaning the wheels wrap the top and bottom of the track and can’t drive off or tip over. This is really important for safety, especially when you start lifting a camera up on a tower or arm. They are built by a German company named “RTS" and have a TÜV certification, which is a stringent third-party safety certification. The same system we use on the ground is approved to hang overhead above people. It has a proprietary internal cable management system inside the track, which hard wires all the equipment. It doesn’t rely on wireless radios or a drag cable that can get snagged, stepped on, or run over.
PH: What kind of staff do you need to have on location and is it all you guys or is it some local people too?
Brian Sheid: It really depends on the piece of equipment, and we have a decent variety. Some small, simple systems can be setup by one person who can also run the camera. For the SuperBowl, we will have four technicians to run five robotic systems. Oddly, each one of those five systems has two or three completely distinct robotic components made by different companies. When you break it up that way, we have twelve separate systems that are assembled to make five different camera positions.
PH: The SB halftime is usually a moveable stage setup. How is that going to work for you guys?
Brian Sheid: We had to rethink our track connections for this setup and engineer a fast solution. Our RailCam track is built by RTS in Germany and is really designed to be assembled one piece at a time. But we love these challenges. We redesigned the track connection so that it can connect large segments of preassembled track in seconds. The RTS tracks all have internal cable management, too.
PH: Is your setup all programmed or is there someone that can "joystick" on the fly?
Brian Sheid: It’s a funny thing about programmed moves. Everyone thinks it’s a great idea until the artist walks faster or stops for a second and the camera keeps on going right past them. It’s all possible to do, we’ve just never really had to. We hire very talented camera operators who do this a lot. The magic behind a robotic camera not looking too "robotic" is to have a human operate it. A person can pan and tilt with one hand, zoom and focus with the other, and drive left/right or up/down with their feet. They can even drive left/right with one foot, and up/down with the other, or sometimes they’ll have a focus puller and a dolly grip driving. It all depends on the demand of the show and their personal comfort.
PH: What was the "connect" for you to work the SB? Did you know someone or did they know you? Was there a bidding process?
Brian Sheid: A lot of shows are run by the same freelance individuals. I think we have a pretty good reputation in the business, and we work very hard to keep our clients happy. Naturally, there is a bidding process.
PH: Does audio follow video on your setup? What are the cameras/lenses?
Brian Sheid: Audio occasionally asks us to mount a mic on the camera, but it’s not that common. I’m not sure if I can share camera lens choices. I don’t know why I couldn’t, but I’m not sure what information is meant to be shared and what isn’t.
PH: Do you need that info in advance? Do you bring them or does the truck/network provide them?
Brian Sheid: We always need to know the camera and lens setup in advance because it greatly changes the type of equipment we use. Every camera is a different size and weight and requires different cables and power. We use a lot of gyro-stabilized robotic heads for operating the camera, so everything has to be balanced properly for the motors to perform well. Stabilized camera systems let us give the director all the lens they want, and never have to stay wide because of a shaky shot.
One of the funny things about cool technology? Sometimes you never really see it.
That was the case here! I was really watching for it too! But all of the moves looked “real” if that is a thing. I did wonder how everyone was keeping up, it was a really high energy show. Hats off to the RailCam Robotic Systems crew for an amazing job!