Opening Europe's first high-definition production studio was a transatlantic design and implementation project involving The Hospital in London and Vulcan International in the USA. The first phase, the studio, is equipped to suit many productions, including talk shows, interviews, TV commercials, music programs and live performances. And it's designed to be a multiformat haven anchored on high definition.
At the heart of the audio system in the studio’s production gallery is a Solid State Logic Aysis Air Plus console with surround sound monitoring, Genelec speakers and a Dolby multichannel audio tool.
HD in Europe
HD is no longer an orphan in Europe. There have been a number of hi-def OB trucks operating in Europe and the UK shooting sports and concerts. And now there is The Hospital in the heart of Covent Garden, a purpose-built HD production facility for broadcasters and commercial producers ready to adopt hi-def. Based on experience gained from HD facilities launched by Vulcan, the below-ground-level studio has 250 square meters of floor space and can typically accommodate an audience of 75 people.
The biggest challenge, according to Vulcan, is being first as an HD facility. There was no learning curve around how to build and equip a studio. The challenge is how to be first in a market and help educate people as to why HD is an important standard when not a lot of producers in the market are familiar with it. The learning process is going to take some time, but it does not limit The Hospital from doing non-HD work in the meantime. The Hospital has benefited from the core of operators and technicians who have cut their teeth on HD in the last few years on the OB trail.
The studio, which is 4.5 meters high to the underside of the lighting, features three Thomson LDK 6000HD cameras and can be expanded to six for larger productions. Each camera is fitted with a Canon 11x and 21x HD lens, as well as BDL 12-inch flat screen prompters.
The 72-square-meter production gallery, adjacent to the studio, contains five Barco iSTUDIO 67-inch rear projection displays for the monitoring wall and a Thomson Grass Valley Xten DD-54 input production switcher with 3 M/E. Hi-def graphics equipment includes a 4-channel Accom Dveous/HD DVE and a dual-channel Pixel Power Clarity HD character generator/still-store supported by an all-digital infrastructure.
Also available are two HDW-2000P Sony HDCAM recorders with multi-playback, one HDW-F500 Sony HDCAM recorder, one DCR-960P, one DSR-2000 professional DV recorder and one TTV-2000MP IMX recorder with SX/SP/DigiBeta playback. There are also six VHS recorders. At the heart of the audio system is a Solid State Logic (SSL) Aysis Air Plus console with surround sound monitoring, Genelec speakers and a Dolby multichannel audio tool.
An integral aspect of the overall design was how to integrate multiformats, not only in the production studio downstairs and the broadcast control room, but throughout the entire Hospital facility. That's reflected in the fiber-optic network installed throughout. Thus, the integration process went across formats and across the facility itself, so that people, regardless of where they are at or what they are doing, have access to all of the tools in a way that promotes the collaborative part of the facility's mission.
The studio features three Thomson LDK 6000HD cameras and can be expanded to six for larger productions. Each camera is fitted with a Canon 11x and 21x HD lens, as well as BDL 12-inch flat-screen prompters.
The mission, of course, was to be the first purpose-built HD production studio in Europe, to encourage hi-def growth by providing a resource for clients creating content for those parts of the world that are on the HD track (Asia, North America, Australia). All of the hardware, internal communications, both wireless and fiber, as well as the software driving the systems were vetted for multiformat integration. Every floor has fiber-optic and camera jacks so that any part of the facility can become in effect a video venue. A number of facility panels allow the studio cameras to operate anywhere in the 7-floor facility. In addition, a fully portable kit comprising lighting, audio, and an LDK 150 DVCPRO 50 camcorder is available for these shoots.
The Hospital is neutral on the issue of tape versus tapeless; it has tape recorders in the gallery and Thomson Grass Valley Profile HD servers for whatever the client demands. Everything goes on to the server as back-up insurance, but normally the output goes on to HDCAM tape. In addition, the Barco rear projection digital displays in the production gallery can be configured by computer control as a bank of individual monitors for control of specific shots or bound together for one big image.
On the audio side, the idea was to have a state-of-the-art control room with familiar trappings so that sound engineers could mix for 5.1 Surround Sound or stereo with all of the automation features in the digital domain. The 42-square-meter music control room and the broadcast control room can communicate and share audio sources through the SSL hub router. Because the desk in the music control room is an Axiom MT Plus with 48 faders and 96 digital channels and the broadcast console is an Aysis Air, they are able to access the same audio sources and send and receive feeds back and forth. This arrangement allows the music control room to concentrate on creating quality mixes using the tools normally associated with digital audio mixes and allows the broadcast control room to add to the mix announcer feeds and remote feeds.
David Dysart, director of studios for Vulcan, explains that he chose the Axiom MT Plus because it was designed as a surround mixing console and, therefore, easily handles mixing formats from mono to 5.1 simultaneously. The main monitors are PMC BB5s (LCR) with MB-2As for the surrounds. It is also capable of having another set of 5.1 passive or active monitors. The console is completely automated so that all functions can be locked to a time code.
Cameras have pan and zoom control from the gallery, but they are not robotic since most producers prefer to have operators. By the same token, a full-fledged virtual studio is not in the plan. Dysart explains that a virtual studio does not fit the target clients — music videos, corporate commercials and theatrical producers — adding that the concept may be explored down the line.
According to Chris Collingham, director of facilities for The Hospital, there have been no major issues with the equipment. He points out that HD technology is no mystery, thanks to the hi-def trucks already in service. The major difference is that the studio shoots exclusively in 1080/50 HD. If the client wants SD material as most will initially, the material is down-converted at the end. He explains that it is “incredibly complicated” to make everything switchable — the mixer, the monitors, the routers and everything else. Therefore, it is easier to be HD throughout.
Initial reaction has been encouraging. Both NHK from Japan and the BBC have come forward to do HD productions. For NHK, there was an interview conducted in the studio. It linked the interview to Japan in SD for review, but recorded the shoot in HD, then shipped the tape to Japan for final editing and transmission. Vulcan expects to build momentum as other segments of the project come on line. It attributes previous experience with HD facilities and previous vendor relations to getting over the hump of a launch some 8000 kilometers from its Seattle, Washington, headquarters.
One of Collingham's non-technical concerns is access to the studio. Because it is below ground level, access is by freight elevator that cannot accommodate an automobile, as some clients have requested. There are also limitations on scenery storage.
He stresses that the decision to go HD was the right one. A lot of commercials in the UK are being shot in HD, and almost all TV dramas are done in HD (on location).
As for the future, that is, keeping up with the introduction of new digital systems, The Hospital will depend on what the clients want. Dysart observes that it's expensive to stay out on the leading edge and business has to support it. The key is building a modular, flexible infrastructure that can handle upgrades with a minimum of retro-fitting. The infrastructure has been designed to deal with multiformats for the long term.
But in the end, upgrades will depend on what producers are willing to pay. In Vulcan's view, by working with leading-edge clients, the path ahead is easier to accommodate leading-edge systems.
Collingham adds that The Hospital is really not in the business of being leading-edge. What the clients are paying for is service and reliability. What they are renting is a dependable, reliable facility with people who can make it all happen. He suggests that anyone who is producing anything that might end up on DVD ought to be shooting in HD with surround sound now.