Germany’s ZDF opens virtual news studio with Lawo, Vizrt systems

With the increasing reliance of broadcasters on computer-based graphics and animation, the move toward a “virtual studio” concept might be described as inevitable. Certainly, individual studio events have increasingly taken advantage of such technologies, though concerns about reliability, infrastructure requirements and technical complexity have, until now, kept broadcasters from committing to a full virtual environment for daily live studio broadcasting. But with a 30-million euro budget and a technical vision of broadcasting’s future, a German broadcast company has moved boldly into the future

ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen), one of the country’s two large public broadcasters, recently began broadcasting from two virtual studios within its new broadcast complex in Mainz, Germany. The facility is notable for its reliance on green-screen technology. In producing its five daily newscasts, the only “live” imagery on screen from the studios are the newscasters and the desk they are seated at. The new news studio, one of the most modern in Germany, really consists of two studios: one large, with three cameras, two automated cameras and 200 spotlights; the other smaller, with one automated camera, one studio camera and 100 spotlights.

Visually, the virtual studio system relies on an array of interactive Viz Virtual Studio systems from Vizrt, which enable producers and techs to create dynamic, live interactive graphics that enhance visually striking 3D CG sets. Similarly, the audio aspects of the studio were designed to create a seamless blend of sound with visuals, centered on two Lawo mc²90 digital mixing consoles.

“ZDF’s goal is to become Europe’s premiere news broadcaster, and in an increasingly complex world, 3D graphics, animation and virtual studio capabilities are the key to illustrating and explaining emerging events and issues,” said Armin Kaltenhauser, director of operations for peak software technologies, Vizrt Austria. “ZDF doesn’t just want to present the news; they want to explain the news to better inform the public.”

To enable the moderators to see what they are supposed to explain with an image, it is projected onto the green wall in front of or beside them using a beamer. The sound is also provided to the studio via in-ear monitoring to overcome latency, which builds up due to all image data being supplied through computers. In the main control room, this latency is 80ms (for the monitoring of the studio sound) and 160ms at the show production. Specifically for cases like that, Lawo consoles use Matrix DSP cards on which delay settings can be defined. Because the cards provide up to 600 ms delay, the requirements of the new studio technology don’t pose a problem for the mc² consoles. “This delay performance of the Lawo consoles was one of the reasons that tipped the balance in favor of Lawo,” said Wolfgang Wacker, ZDF planning engineer for the new studio.

As requested by the ZDF, four external bay servers are also used in the audio system. One bay consists of eight channel strips and has its own TFT monitor. The graphical user interface (GUI) and the channel display are shown on the TFT monitor in the central control section as well. Using KVM switches, it is possible to show the internal GUI display and the channel display or external content, meaning that fewer devices and monitors are required, increasing clarity and flexibility. The main mc²90 offers 56 faders, one router with 8000 cross points and 288 DSP channels, all backed up by a fully redundant DSP card with 48 channels. The second mc²90 is identical in design, but with 40 faders. Both are linked and can use the same signals for processing, so a switch between control rooms is possible at any time

Another special feature is the video-follows-audio function integrated in both the Lawo mc²90 consoles. Because the cameras are controlled through the audio consoles via GPI, it is now possible to produce the nighttime news without personnel at the monitors. “During the course of the project, we encountered numerous challenges that were overcome by the joint effort of ZDF and Lawo,” said Wacker, who praised the successful conclusion of the mammoth project. The first live broadcast from the new ZDF facility took place July 17 without any technical issues.