Tapeless action

ESPN's positive experience producing its 11th annual Winter X Games from Aspen, CO, in SD, was more than capturing the spectacle of athletic prowess in the snow. It was a testing ground to experiment with a virtually tapeless post-production environment.

ESPN plans to use this template for future remotes, including the upcoming Summer X Games in Los Angeles. This is no small undertaking, considering that the extra network connectivity will have to be twice or three times the size and complexity.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is putting together a system that equals any traditional all-digital studio environment. The technology — nonlinear edit systems and a shared storage environment — isn't new. But it has rarely been done with such tight integration and technical sophistication.

There is also the monumental challenge of setting up an entire, networked production environment on-site in four days. Lots of fiber will be used for high-speed backbones, as well as miles of copper and coax cabling.

On-site broadcast center

Material from each event will be captured on Sony BVP-900 hard cameras and BVP-950 handhelds, and Grass Valley LDK 6000s with an assortment of Canon lenses at various venues via on-site production trucks provided by NEP Supershooters. This footage will be stored locally on EVS XT servers. Program feeds, wow reels and melts will be transferred via EVS XFile network to the main production truck, which will also serve the anchor elements of the on-site broadcast center. The broadcast center will include a core signal routing framework set up by NMT Productions, with Bexel Broadcast Services providing additional XFile and IP Director facilities within several NLE rooms in the Home Depot Center.

The broadcast center truck will include about a dozen EVS XT[2] six-channel servers that will store and transfer the material as Motion JPEG files. Both clean and dirty program records will also be recorded on the truck's XT[2] servers.

Inside the Home Depot Center portion of the broadcast center, numerous IP Directors and XFile archive devices will be set up in edit bays and screening rooms, as well as at logging stations. These devices serve multiple functions — transferring media between venue mobile units and the central broadcast truck, moving media between the EVS network to the Avid Unity network and logging the raw programs and ISO feeds from the individual venues.

Additionally, these stations will allow the transfer of media between the active EVS storage network and a 9TB Windows-based server with the combined capacity of 10 XT servers. Each server holds six drives at 147GB per drive.

This will allow ESPN editors working in on-site edit rooms (using Avid Symphony and Adrenaline systems) on an Avid Unity server environment to instantly access clips and begin creating finished segments for air. Previously they've had to wait for tapes to be digitized before they could begin working.

Also, prescreened clips can be located and retrieved with ease. That certainly wasn't the case during previous X Games productions.

Edited segments will be pushed back to the XT[2] network in the broadcast truck and played back directly to air or sent to the venue truck's XT network via XFile interconnect if they are being incorporated into a venue segment. EVS servers will handle the bulk of the media while the extended storage array Windows server can be used for accessing offline clips from past events (to include background perspective for segments on particular athletes) and for archiving.

Seamless data transfer

In Colorado, putting together a shared-storage system necessitated interfacing the EVS servers to the on-site Windows server and building an outboard interface between the production trucks and the broadcast center. In Los Angeles, a lot of server support and the interfacing of the systems and the trucks will have to be coordinated between ESPN network engineering and Bexel.

The most significant challenges facing this SD workflow are configuration issues, such as getting all the systems to communicate and work together. EVS has provided a custom application, first used at the Winter X Games, to help automate the file transfer processes between the mobile truck XT system, the broadcast center truck XT[2] system and the Windows server. Such applications will certainly be put into play in Los Angeles.

Part of the solution is to place different production locations as close as physically possible to each other so that cable runs are shorter and signals can be sent and received without implementing complex transport schemes. Gigabit Ethernet connectivity was used for the Winter X Games, but when the event moves to HD (probably for the next Winter X Games), mainly fiber-optic cables and perhaps 3Gb/s technology will have to be used to handle the increased bandwidth needs of passing 16 HD streams through the network. ESPN will use GigE switches and aggregate ports together when necessary, in addition to using multiple network interface cards or Fibre Channel interfaces within the XFiles.

Delivering audio data for multiple platforms

At the Winter X Games, the crew mainly used embedded audio with the video streams (eight four-channel and three eight-channel streams). Looking forward, the network is talking about developing a system of 12 channels of embedded audio plantwide. This will allow ESPN audio engineers to create true 5.1 elements as well as digital stereo mixes. It will also enable them to ensure compatibility with international feeds, which ESPN must address.

With all of the various platforms that ESPN services — TV, radio, Web, cell phones and podcasting — each individual outlet must be sent as a separate audio and sometimes video element or encoded file that matches their needs. One network might be able to run an original piece of music while another might not be able to due to copyright issues, so individual accommodations must be made. And the system has to be able to do that semiautomatically. These separate audio elements are retrieved from the EVS and Avid servers, which are stored there as separate clips linked together via highly specific metadata.

Looking forward

Future X Games events will also include the ability to send material from the on-site location back to ESPN's Digital Center in Bristol, CT. This will allow the network to take full advantage of the ongoing event, in real time. Currently, boxes of tape are shipped back at the end of each day. Some day, the material stored on the servers will be shipped back and the files integrated automatically, with significantly less human intervention.

Developing a tapeless workflow clearly brings many advantages, saving the production considerable time and effort overall while bringing edited segments to air faster. ESPN has been doing X Games since 1995, and in that time it has learned a few things. The network's engineering team is up to the challenge and, once the dust settles in Los Angeles, it will have some valuable data transfer lessons to benefit from.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.