Hollywood on the Delaware' brings new channel online
MT. LAUREL, N.J.
When the NFL Network makes its mid-season debut Nov. 4, the 11.4 million DirecTV homes receiving the newest sports channel will have access to round-the-clock news and programming from the vaults of NFL Films, including some live, pre-season games. But if that initial potential viewing audience is limited (cable deals are said to be following in the near future), backing the new channel will be a facility aimed squarely at the future.
Officially opened in September 2002, NFL Films' 200,000-square-foot, $50 million television and motion-picture production complex in southern New Jersey will serve as the script-to-screen cornerstone of the new network. Already a busy 26-acre production facility responsible for several football-oriented series and national commercials, the facility is set for the challenge, says Cory Laslocky, communications manager for NFL Films. "We're a throwback to the old studio system," he says. "You can walk in with an idea and walk out with a finished product and you can't really do that in too many places with this level of sophistication."
Since its launch, a massive project was undertaken aimed at updating the facility's nonlinear editing systems. "We have 60 producers actively working on programming at any point in time," explains Jeff Howard, VP of Operations and Engineering.
Upgrading meant migrating from the 48 Avid Media Composer Offline ABVBs and two Avid Media Composer 1000 ABVB systems to Avid Meridien-based systems, which currently consist of 49 Media Composer Offline XL systems, three Media Composer 1000XLs, three Media Composer 9000XL, five Media Composer Xpress systems (all Mac-based), and 10 Media Station PC-based systems.
In addition, two Avid Unity Media Manager asset management systems were installed, one of which-a 7.4 terabyte, fiber architecture system-was designated for supporting offline clients. "We wanted to make that jump to Meridien so that we could attach [the producers] as Ethernet-attached clients as opposed to fiber-attached clients, because you have a limited number of fiber clients that you can attach to a system like the Unity," says Howard. The 50 clients are attached to a total of five port servers, which in turn are attached to the Unity via fiber.
The transition was part of a 60-day shakeup of the workflow. "We went from working entirely off of tape, with each producer individually digitizing material, to having access to material for the Unity, and it changed the way we do things," says Howard.
The Unitys see heavy turnaround action on weekends during games. Feeds from network trucks are brought back on fiber and directly ingested into the Unity, from which the in-stadium highlights are created. "Seven times throughout a Sunday, we ship them back to the stadiums, where they're put up on video boards at quarter breaks," says Howard. "We're ingesting as many as 11 or 12 games simultaneously."
All 170,000 feet of film produced on a given weekend is transferred en masse into the Unity, where it is made available to the offline clients.
As part of that process, film is converted to tape via a six-unit telecine department consisting of four Thomson Spirit Datacines and two Sony Vialtas. Two of the Spirits, as well as both the Sony Vialtas, sport daVinci 2K Color Correctors. All of them are HD-capable.
In designing the facility, architectural, technical, and ergonomic solutions were considered, alongside the need for future-proofing the facility to anticipate upcoming innovations, says Russ Berger, president and CEO of Dallas-based Russ Berger Design Group, the architects and acousticians for the facility. "They had to resolve what they currently needed and what they were headed towards, and required a program that would allow them to accommodate later technologies, five or 10 years later," Berger said.
Future-proofing a facility can take many forms, says Howard, considering logistical as well as electronic concerns, such as a "freestanding" approach to equipment. "If we need to change out a piece of equipment, we can drag a new console in, change the use of the room, and not do major surgery on the cosmetics or acoustics of the room."
In designing the facility, which currently houses 300 employees, wire management became a core theme "more than can be imagined," says Howard. "The director of engineering and the chief audio engineer were turned loose to do whatever they wanted to with wire management, so we always have enough capability to do whatever is needed," he says, adding that the access boards in the floor are nearly 24 inches deep. "Tiles pop and engineers crawl out! We have places with more PVC than concrete in the slabs," he jokes.
Despite the advantages offered within the digital environment, some benefits are still retained within the analog platform. As a result, Studio A, the facility's naturally lit main scoring stage, which has accommodated large-scale orchestras of more than 70 musicians, sports an SL 9000 J Series SuperAnalog Console by Solid State Logic. "We are trying to capture organic things, strings and brass, and an orchestra can be captured better on an analog console," explains Jerry Mahler, VP of audio. "We capture it in analog and mix it in digital." Having turned to Solid State Logic exclusively for its record/mix facilities, an SL 8000 console resides in Studio B, while an SL 6000 services sound stages.
Music composition suites feature 64-channel Digidesign Pro Tools MIXPlus post-production workstations with Pro Control as well as 72-channel Fairlight Quad Digital Channel (QDC) systems. "All the rooms operate individually, but they all feed the mix room by either router or by the Fairlights," says Mahler.
In contrast, Studio D, which functions as a dubbing studio and was designed around a theatrical-style mix environment, sports a 48-fader Avant Digital Post/Film console. "That studio cements our claim to 'Hollywood on the Delaware'" says Mahler.
In that situation, says John Herman, product specialist with Solid State Logic, the setting demands a digital approach. "There it's about taking stems and mixing elements and mixing stems -- music, dialogue, and effects -- and re-mixing them. A digital console allows for that remix of things," he says.
As might be expected, the new facility was built to anticipate HD requirements from the outset. "For example, our entire soundstage and soundstage control room is HD and SD," says Howard. "We looked as far down the road as we could. Every cable length was designed around serving uncompressed HD whether that cable is carrying it today or not, with the expectation that as we migrate we are going to need to move more HD gear in here." Currently, Sony HDC-900 and HDC-950 cameras reside in the two shooting stages. (Arriflex SR-2, SR-2 Hi-Speed, SR-3 and SR-3 Hi-Speed, and Aaton XTR Prod A-Minima cameras film the action on the field.)
A step towards streamlining, says Howard, will be evident this fall when film is transferred in both SD and HD as a one-step process. "In the past, we've transferred the SD and then gone back and transferred again in HD. While it gets on the shelf, it's not terribly efficient. So this year we'll be doing both simultaneously. It will allow us to deliver HD footage to our broadcast partners and makes it available for any of the shows."
As the network prepares for its fall deployment, it also is aligning itself with partners for the future. In late July, a three-year agreement with IBM was announced, with the goal of enhancing NFL Films' asset management capabilities in the form of a consolidated digital asset warehouse across the league's clubs, properties and partners.
"Right now, NFL Films has a great asset in its current indexing tools, but our network partners and the teams have footage, so we want to look at ways to store all of this and parse it out to the various locations that require it," says Peter Brickman, senior director of broadcast operations and technology for the NFL.
"The NFL has a hundred years of assets going back to 1894," says Keith Myer, marketing management executive for IBM Digital Media Group. "They want to look at that dormant asset and activate it, as well as look at their business operations and figure out where they can be more efficient in terms of the ways their different constituents have access to current and archived materials."
Initially, IBM's business consulting services will study the NFL's assets and business processes and operations, and assist them in effectively integrating their divergent assets. These efforts will include the IBM DB2 Content Manager and Universal Database software for managing and logging content, its Tivoli Storage Manager software running on IBM eServer xSeries and pSeries servers, and Ancept media server software (a strategic alliance partner of IBM), which will provide the application layer for interfacing with various digital assets. (In addition, IBM will advertise for the upcoming network.)
With NFL kickoff just weeks away, and the scheduled launch of the network to follow on its heels, Howard is enthusiastic about the challenges ahead. "We built a lot of capability into the facility to serve our normal production needs, but the investments will really pay off with the addition of the network, because of the capabilities we put into this place. I think we are going to shine as we are doubling and tripling the amount of work we have."