Craig Johnston /
08.08.2007 12:00 AM
Live Earth Concert Reaches Out in HD
WASHINGTON

The Live Earth internationally televised concert event was truly worldwide, utilizing high-definition video from 10 venues spanning six continents, plus a garage band of polar scientists who shipped an HD tape of their performance off Antarctica for inclusion in the 24-hour Live Earth world feed.


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Sting from The Police entertains as part of the Live Earth HD global broadcast on July 7.
“This was kind of unprecedented,” said Andre Mika, Live Earth executive in charge of production, “in that we actually produced in HD in countries that don’t even broadcast high definition yet.”

ACCOMODATING FORMATS

The world feed was distributed in multiple frame rates in high definition, as well as standard definition PAL and NTSC formats to match the broadcast infrastructures of countries around the world demand.

Where its 2005 predecessor, Live 8, came together in fits and starts, Live Earth’s venues in New Jersey; London; Tokyo; Hamburg, Germany; Johannesburg, South Africa; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Shanghai, China; and Sydney, Australia; were set months ahead of time. (The only last minute adjustments were feeds from Washington, D.C. and Kyoto, Japan.)

That amount of lead time was necessary. Mika, who directed the 2004 Athens Olympics in HD for NBC, called the Live Earth production “the biggest Rubik’s cube I’ve ever seen.” He noted that at least the multiple venues of the Olympics are situated surrounding a single city. “This was a much bigger bear. The variables were much harder.”

First of all, they needed a truly international broadcast center for a base of operations. Another factor also had to be considered. While the United States and a few other countries originate and distribute at a 29.97 or 30 fps rate, most of the world runs its SD and HD acquisition and distribution at 25 fps.

MAKING IT ALL WORK

It was almost a forgone conclusion that the BBC in London, with its massive 25 fps infrastructure, would be home base. But how to get feeds from around the world into the BBC in the proper format, and then deliver them back around the world?

To use a musical metaphor, courtesy of the Beatles, Live Earth was able to pull it off with “a little help from its friends.”

One of those was Intelsat, the commercial global satellite communications company. “With 52 satellites, seven teleports and lots of fiber, you can do a lot of things these days,” said Mike DeMarco, Intelsat vice president for video services.

Utilizing their array of satellites and teleports, Intelsat can transport video between any two places on earth with a maximum of two satellite hops. For instance, feeds from the event’s concerts in the Pacific Ocean Region, in Sydney, Tokyo and Shanghai were bounced off a satellite over the Pacific Ocean, down to a teleport in Napa, Calif.

Those audio-video signals were transported across the country via fiber optics to another teleport in Atlanta, where they were uplinked to a satellite over the Atlantic, which then transported them to the BBC in London.

Ignoring the various BBC production processes, the world feed video and other video packages were returned in HD and SD to the POR via one satellite hop to the Napa teleport. From there they were sent up to a Pacific Ocean bird and then on to the various television distribution outlets in that region.

Since the satellite transponders used were limited to 36 MHz of bandwidth, there was no possibility of transporting full bandwidth HD from the venues to the BBC and back out to the distribution chain. However, as Intelsat had donated the space segment, there was no reason to use any less either, according to Robert Adler, whose company, Coastal Satellite, was engaged by Live Earth to provide transmission management. From that point it came down to which compression scheme to use.

“With 8PSK you can actually stuff another 20 Mbps into the same space [as you can with QPSK],” Adler said. “But there were many cases where the equipment around the world didn’t exist in the quantities we needed to do it in 8PSK.”

He chose to go QPSK at 36 MHz and had no problems. In fact, the last-minute addition of the Washington venue had to be done at 27 MHz, as they were running out of satellite space.

Both Tiernan HE4000 HD and SD encoders and Tandberg E5780 series high-definition encoders were employed at the origination sites and at the BBC, with both companies donating equipment for the Live Earth effort.

C-BAND BIRDS PAID OFF

Adler specified the more robust C-band satellite service be used, where possible, in areas where weather could be expected to be a factor. This decision paid off in spades in Shanghai, where it rained pigs and chickens during its concert. It also began to rain in Hamburg and with most of Europe, including Germany, dependent on KU band satellite service, the technical staff in London became concerned.

“We were receiving the Hamburg show on a nine-meter antenna, and we did see some degradation of signal,” said Adler. “But it was well within margins, and by the time we asked for a little increase in power, the rain went away.”

A severe storm warning had Adler’s technicians keeping an eye on the Atlanta teleport, but the weather held in check. As the New Jersey and London venues were critical to the world feed, backup feed paths for both had been put into the contingency plans.

To simplify things in London, it was decided to convert as much of the concert video as possible to 25 fps, regardless of its acquisition frame rate, before transport from the originating site. For this conversion hardware, Adler reached out to For-A, which donated the use of several demo models of its FRC-7000 Frame Rate Converter for the task. Rental units were also used.

The late additions of Washington and Kyoto left the production short of origination point FRC-7000s, so feeds from those sites were transported to London in their native frame rates and converted to 25 frames there with the For-A equipment.

Such frame rate conversions are not always worry free. According to Anthony Klick, For-A Eastern and Midwestern regional sales manager, “If there’s any motion at all, the signal goes right to pieces.”

The For-A FRC-7000 converter is able to cope with such problems. Users can just dial in the amount of motion compensation needed. A readout on the converter provides exactly the number of nanoseconds of delay introduced so that the same amount of audio delay can be provided to retain dead-on synchronization.

Leandro Blanco, director of mobile operations for All Mobile Video, which handled New Jersey mobile operations at Giants Stadium for Live Earth, reported that such signal delay reporting is an important feature in converters and other video processing gear.

“You can’t sit there and be guessing what kind of delay you have, and for the most part, [the equipment makers] know what they’re doing. There’s nothing better than to have them tell you.”

A great deal of attention was paid to lip-sync in the Live Earth production, and it seems to have paid off, as no complaints were reported during the concert’s airing.

“We sent [lip-sync] test tapes to each venue so we could adjust any of the sync back at the BBC,” said Live Earth’s Mika.

They scheduled two half-hour full facility and signal path tests for each venue on the Friday before the production. These tests were extended to an hour each, or longer, if a problem had to be chased down.

The Shanghai venue had power surge problems on Friday. This not only knocked out their test session, but also some equipment as well, including an encoder. Tiernan located another HE4000 unit in China and had it shipped to Shanghai. Other gear was repaired or replaced, and a test window was opened three hours before Shanghai’s scheduled transmission time on Saturday.

“We had all the problems cleared up in a half hour,” said Adler.

It comes as no surprise that with music being the major component of Live Earth, sound quality was a major concern. Each venue’s audio was recorded in Dolby 5.1, but as all portions of the transmission path couldn’t handle 5.1, stereo was used for the world feed. The 5.1 audio mix has been saved for the DVD release scheduled for October.

“We solved any audio issues on test day,” said Adler. “We were very satisfied with our audio across the board. I don’t remember any issues during show day.”

WEB FEEDS PRODUCED

A live stream of each individual concert venue was available on the MSN Web site, but for the first hours of the kickoff concerts in Sydney and Shanghai, the Live Earth crew at the BBC banked their feed material on servers. As the world feed hit the air, that banked material was integrated with short films and other messages commissioned for the production, along with footage sent from associated celebrations around the world.

In addition to the world feed, the crew in London also sent out highlight packages to the venues themselves that could be played on their big screens during band changeovers, making it a busy day at the BBC.

It was a busy day at Giants Stadium as well. All Mobile Video had rolled in three production vans, three auxiliary trailers and four satellite trucks. One of the vans was used for switching the world feed, a trailer programmed video for the big screens and other facilities were assigned for the production needs of Bravo channel’s long day of Live Earth coverage and NBC network’s three-hour primetime Live Earth special, which was all day in the making.

“Everybody did their integration differently,” said Blanco. NBC integrated what they did their way; Bravo did it their way. And the people who did the screen did it their way.”

Because NBC’s primetime special was so heavily edited, they brought in a number of Avid editors. The special was produced in HD, and was aired on the network in both high-definition and standard-definition letterboxed format. Commercials were integrated from network headquarters in New York.

Bravo cut between world feed material they had taped and live elements from Giants Stadium, including many interviews by its talent. Bravo’s coverage closed its last three hours with a repeat of the NBC special.

CNBC, from its Englewood Cliffs, N.J. studios, turned around seven hours of the world feed in standard definition on its cable network. MSNBC treated the Live Earth as news elements during its news programming, bringing in short Giants Stadium live shots to its regular news programming produced from the network’s Secaucus, N.J. studios. NBC Universal’s Spanish language networks in Hialeah, Fla. got in on Live Earth as well, with Telemundo producing a one-hour special. This production cherry picked acts from the world feed that fit their audience. Sundance Channel ran the entire world feed in standard definition, and Universal HD did the same thing in high definition.

INTERCOM IS CENTRAL

To hold the entire Giants Stadium production communication structure together, Firehouse Productions, which mixed the venue sound, monitors, and also supplied wireless microphone, had the responsibility for integrating the entire intercom system.

“With the trucks 1,500-plus feet away, analog intercom systems weren’t going to cut it,” said Firehouse Vice President Mark Dittmar. Firehouse deployed its three Riedel matrix intercom frames, one at the trucks, one at the stage and one at the front-of-house sound mixing location. There were all connected with a ring of fiber-optic cable. Dittmar said that by interfacing the Riedel system with the RTS Adam intercom frames in the trucks, 90 percent of the cabling otherwise needed was eliminated, and clear audio was delivered throughout the system.

ONE SLIGHT PROBLEM

So were there any noticeable technical errors in the Live Earth concert production?

Mika admits to one. Apparently the generator supplying power to the lighting equipment in Sydney ran out of biodiesel fuel before the end of that venue’s program, and the last few numbers had to be done under house lighting.

“The only factors that really changed the look and feel were actually things that happened locally [at the venues],” Mika said. “Our signal was really uniform across the board.”


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