IT moves Olympic graphics forward

Operators in Athens use Pinnacle Deko character generators to prepare Olympic graphics.

As director of graphics engineering and operations for NBC Olympics, Philip Paully has almost seen it all. Over four consecutive Olympic telecasts that span back to the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain, Paully has seen NBC's Olympics graphics production department progress from a logistical nightmare to this year's well-oiled machine. It's been a gradual learning experience, making the transition in technology from large, dedicated hardware boxes to open, IT-based networks and production devices that streamline the creative process and get elements to air faster than ever before. For example, in 1992, it took NBC from 45 to 60 seconds to produce a frame of animation. Today, with significantly improved processing machines and networked efficiency, the network can produce 30fps video.

After manning the ninth floor of 30 Rockefeller Center at NBC's New York headquarters for about a year, Paully supervised the transportation of his 25-person team and all of its related equipment to Athens, Greece, to set up NBC's graphics at the International Broadcast Center on site. His team created most of the complex, prebuilt, 3-D graphics clips with subtly animated backgrounds and uniquely styled statistics in New York well before the August start date of the Summer Olympic Games.

Behind the scenes

To create the majority of the clips and animations in New York, the graphics team used a variety of paint/compositing systems, including a Discreet flame compositing system running on an SGI Octane2 workstation and an SGI Tezro system running Alias Wavefront and Maya software. They needed this horsepower to create the multiple layers and 3-D elements that make up this year's vibrant, eye-catching colors and subtle background changes. Because these systems are format-independent, they allow the team to produce graphics in both SD and HD to feed the network's dual video-distribution platforms. This multiformat design also enables NBC technicians in Greece to crossconvert between PAL and NTSC, and convert from analog to digital and SD to HD. All of the graphics production equipment can share AVI, Targa and QuickTime files.

A significant amount of footage for the graphic elements originated as 720p HD masters from international freelancers using Panasonic's AJ-HDC27 multiple-frame-rate VariCam HD camera. NBC's HD format of choice is 1080i, so crossconversion to 1080i/50 and 60fps will play a big part in this year's Olympics coverage. Sony's HDCAM VTRs will also play a big role. Most of the graphic elements were shot in HD for clarity and will be downconverted for the SD telecast.

The infrastructure set up this year between New York and Athens is decidedly different in that there will not be a full-time, dedicated LAN between the two sites. This time, the team will create graphics locally.

FIgure 1. This diagram show the workflow of the Olympic graphics, from creation to playout. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

Gigabit networking

Figure 1 shows the entire graphics workflow, from creation to playout. This is the first Olympics for which the network has established a 1Gb network, sometimes transporting 18K jumbo packets at 6x to 8x real time. At this speed, a 60-second clip will arrive in 10 seconds. For this year's Athens network, several NBC departments are using and sharing Cisco 3750 and Cisco 6505 switching/routing equipment. Once the team has completed the graphics elements, they will upload them onto the network and send them to multiple networked Pinnacle Systems Deko character generators — FXDeko II for SD and HD Deko500 for HD — which will electronically fit the files into custom templates. Pinnacle Thunder servers will store some of the graphics before they travel to Athens for real-time playback. The team will play the majority of the graphics in real time with live data from the Dekos. NBC uses Deko's file-association and macro capability to display customized graphics without having to physically create each separate file, saving both creation time and operator training. The team plays out animations and over-the-shoulder graphics directly from the Thunder broadcast servers.

In Athens, a large Blue Arc 8300 server with 2TB of storage and a sustained 45Mb/s throughput serves as an on-site graphics library. The team sends finished graphics to the server and places them in a specific folder dedicated to individual pieces of equipment on-site in Athens. Every member of the Olympics graphics team has a customized mailbox togo to whenever he or she needs something related to the graphics production.

“We've gone from pushing and FTP'ing files, recording stuff in real time, and ‘sneakernetting’, to a more simple drag-and-drop workflow that serves the interests of the network so much better,” Paully said. “We don't have the delays that we used to get.”

To ensure against system failure, the network has set up three methods for moving graphics files around. It can route to a device with live video, network it between two individuals, or use the old standby sneakernet with files burned on a CD or saved to videotape.

To save space on the main server, where 20GB equals about 30 minutes of HD material, NBC is spreading material across several different storage devices. Storage consists of two Sony AIT drives linked to two Quantel EQ systems, and several Apple Xserve servers tied into a 3TB Xraid array. The system allows editors and graphics artists to begin working on a project as soon as the first frame of new full-resolution material uploads onto the server.

Streamlining the build process

NBC has also streamlined its operations to the point that it now transports 10-RU, prewired systems, called short rack-in-the-box (RIBs) to Athens. These RIBs are more compact than the 20RU RIB systems that were carried to the past five Olympics. The new RIBs slide into 40-foot containers for ocean shipment to Athens. Each RIB contains a specific production subsystem, such as routing, distribution, transmission, videotape and communications.

The team is doing more work this year with a smaller budget and less equipment than ever before. Paully decided to use off-the-shelf Macintosh and PC platforms, not necessarily because of cost, but primarily due to the functionality and flexibility they offer. The platforms allow the staff to use a variety of Adobe, Apple and other common graphics programs, because the Deko and Thunder on-air systems can easily import and play back those files.

In Athens, NBC has replaced a traditional $350,000 graphics system with a $40,000 SuperMac workstation equipped with a dual-processor G5 computer, Xraid storage array and Final Cut Pro editing software. The team created most of the bumpers, tags and station IDs on a Mac.

“For the more complex work, with up to 100 layers, there's still no substitute for the high-end Dicreet Logic Flame or Quantel eQ systems,” Paully said. “However, in the next few years — probably by the Turin, Italy Olympics [2006 Winter Games] — we'll be working predominantly on Macs and PCs and creating even more work than we are doing now.”

Paully said that all of the graphics-equipment vendors involved in this year's production have been helpful in customizing their respective devices to fit NBC's workflow model. To NBC, its entire Olympics graphics production team and veterans of multiple Olympics, that's progress.

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