It is an interesting time to be in local news. I remember an old-timer telling me more than 15 years ago, “Just you watch: TV will be going the way of radio.” Many years ago, it took a whole crew to create a radio program. Now that's not the case: With broadcast automation, that old-timer's statement is becoming a reality. Production automation is basically a system created to automate and facilitate the execution of a show, such as a newscast. What used to take a team of people can now be performed by a few people or even an individual.
There are three companies (as of the writing of this article) that have created an automated production system: Grass Valley Group's Ignite system, Ross Video's OverDrive and Sony's ELC (Enhanced Live-production Control system). I direct with both the Ignite and the OverDrive systems, and am familiar with the ELC. The steps of automation are the same in all three: training and setup, coding, and execution.
Training and setup
To keep the language clear, let's call a show element an event. In a traditional control room, the director calls each event, and the crew creates that event on the fly. With automation — because there is little to no crew — each event has to be premade so it is available to be recalled for a show. Automation systems do not come with premade events; users need to build and customize their own events. Ignite has a type of event called a TMX, OverDrive calls an event a Template, and ELC calls it a Cue. I like analogies; they can make the comparison of complicated concepts more manageable. Let's use a pizza analogy to demonstrate the differences between a TMX, Templates and Cues, where an event is like a pizza. Building a TMX is like making a pizza with the type of dough, crust, sauce, cheese (the base), and all the toppings you want on it, and then putting it in the refrigerator ready to cook. When building a Template, you only make the base and put it in the refrigerator. It is only before you're ready to code that you put on the toppings. What are the toppings? The toppings are devices with multiple settings, namely camera shots and audio. With Cues, you make the whole pizza, but you can change the toppings and the base.
Let's use the example of a dissolve to camera three on a two shot with anchor mics. When building a TMX or a Cue, the event will include the transition, the dissolve to camera three, camera three set to a two shot, and the anchor mics will open. When building a Template, you build a camera three Template. Everything but the transition is determined during the coding process.
In order to prepare a show, the director first codes the show. Coding enables the system to create a list of events in the correct order. Coding with OverDrive or ELC involves, on the whole, dragging and dropping. Coding with Ignite involves typing. ELC and OverDrive require coding at the script level. From the rundown, you open the story displaying the script.
For OverDrive, a plug-in tool is opened displaying a list of numbered picons (picture icons for identification). Picons are square images with a few descriptive words associated to a specific Template. The desired picon — in this case the camera three picon — is dragged and dropped into the script. The picon is replaced by two elements in the script: A grommet (a small character of text) appears on the right side of the script, and a MOS ID along with other information appears on the left.
Returning to the pizza analogy, this is where the toppings are added. The camera three Template is modified to include the two-shot camera setting, along with the desired mics and/or music. Coding for the ELC is similar: opening a plug-in tool, and then dragging and dropping a Cue into the script. However, if the Cue has a wrong element (i.e. a wrong mic) you can edit it, or any element of the Cue, for that specific story. No other cues will be affected. When using Ignite, a show is coded at the rundown level. Codes are placed in a specific column of the rundown. Using the same example (a dissolve to a two shot on camera three) you could type “d2-3,” “d2shot3” or “dissolve2-3” depending what you decide will be the code. There can be multiple codes for the same event. This would be analogous to having multiple names for the same type of pizza. Duplication may result in thousands of codes. For all three systems, the refrigerator has limited space. A benefit of not having totally finished pizzas is that fewer pizzas are stored, and because there are fewer pizzas, it is easier to find the right pizza.
Master rundowns can be precoded with reoccurring events, reducing coding time. If the same event occurs at different times in the show, you can copy a grommet or copy the code and paste it in the script or rundown as often as the event occurs. This can speed up the coding process. But coding at the script level has a drawback: You must look inside each script to see if the story has been coded. Other users such as a writer or producer may accidentally erase or add grommets. Hidden codes in blank lines of the rundown might go undetected. When coding at the rundown level, you can see at a glance if each story was coded, and codes are less likely to be changed by others.
A playlist is a list of events. ELC and OverDrive have a vertical playlist. The on-air event is shaded one color with the next event in another. Ignite has both vertical and horizontal playlists. The horizontal playlist displays the TMXs. Your place in the playlist is marked by a vertical line, where the next event is located to the right of the vertical line.
Keys on a regular keyboard are used to perform a show with OverDrive. Transitions such as a cut, dissolve, or any transition listed from a drop-down window, can be chosen on the fly. Lower thirds are added and removed by hitting an assigned key on a keyboard. Because transitions are determined at the coding level when using Ignite, you can hit a single button to play each event. There are many options to play an event: You can step on a foot pedal, click a virtual or physical button or hit alt+spacebar. Lower thirds are added by clicking on a virtual button on the virtual switcher or hitting a customized physical button. Transitions are also built into Cues so an event is played by hitting a physical button. When changes are made with ample time to recode, the OverDrive or ELC playlists update as soon as the cursor is off the storyline in the rundown. However, once an event is in preset, the event will not update. With Ignite, you must wait for an indicator button to light, indicating a change. Hitting that same button updates the playlist. Both update situations have their advantages.
A main concern when switching to an automated system is breaking news. But what is breaking news? It's an unexpected added story. All systems can quickly add new events as fast as hitting a button. By design, there are buttons customized specifically for breaking news that can be easily accessed. For any automated system, a master or shell rundown can include precoded elements regularly used during breaking news at the bottom of the rundown in a floated state. These can be moved up and unfloated to the appropriate position. Time might be needed for an animation to cue, but that delay would happen with or without automation.
Many issues or mistakes are blamed on the system that are unwarranted, especially in the beginning months of using the system. Automation systems do work. Adjustments must be made when switching to an automated system, just like adjustments were made when switching from manned to robotic cameras. Not everything done previous to automation will stay the same, and work patterns will need to change by more than just the director. As a director, asking which system is better is like asking which pizza is better. It all depends on your taste.
Gayle Galvez is an automation consultant and television director.
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