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Winter Olympics go HD

The Winter Olympics is a quadannual event that allows nations to highlight their best winter sports athletics. Those events are highly desired images as countries are anxious to bring the action of their athletes back home. U.S. network NBC saw this year's broadcasts as the perfect opportunity to bring the Olympic gold metal competition back to its viewers in vivid HD. And with these new images was a requirement for modified workflow, along with some new technology.

Although some images from the Summer Games in Athens were captured in HD, the 2006 Winter Olympics marked the first time virtually all of the events were captured and delivered to a nationwide audience in HD.

Although technical changes are made to the NBC Olympics broadcast facility for each new broadcast, often they are limited to new camera technology or perhaps a new recording format. However, David Mazza, vice president, engineering, NBC Olympics, notes that he doesn't like being first with anything.

“We're not trying to be new,” he says. “Covering sports is always tough. You get only one take and with the Olympics, the risks are even bigger. This isn't the place to experiment.”

And, buying new for newness sake is a sure path to disaster, according to Mazza. This means he has to walk a path between new and unproven, and older but well-known and reliable solutions.

The challenges of HD

So, what were the challenges of producing the Olympics in HD? First, NBC's portable Racks In A Box (RIBS) facility infrastructure couldn't handle HD bandwidths. To avoid having to build an entirely new, and expensive, 1.6Gb/s infrastructure, the solution was to use Avid's DN×HD processing technology. This technology reduces HD bandwidths so the images can be handled by a standard SDI infrastructure. Most important, DN×HD enabled high-quality HD images to be passed through the network's existing SD infrastructure. This allowed the reuse of most main backbone systems.

The next major production issue was that of aspect ratio, which turned out to be more difficult to solve.

While the capture, graphics and production was going to be handled in HD, most of the audience was still watching in SD. This meant using center cuts, shooting in safe areas and preventing aspect ratio production mistakes with technology where possible.

The solution included using the Sony HDCAM VTR output to automatically generate a 4:3 center cut image. The graphics were composed in HD, but centered for SD display with edges extended out to 16:9 frames.

Embracing an HD workflow

The actual workflow wasn't greatly different from that used in previous games.

“You can't upset how people do things,” Mazza says. “With less than a week to train folks, this isn't the time to introduce entirely new workflow practices. Yet with HD, some changes had to be made. I couldn't change the workflow rapidly. The NLE conversion has taken about 10 years. Because we are such a short-term event — only seven to 10 days — our ability to exploit some NLE changes are harder for us to do. I'm also a firm believer that you can't just impose workflow on your people, your producers and creative guys. Sure, you may have to get people to change the way they do their work, but you can't impose workflow without listening to what they're trying to do.”

Graphics solutions

The area that most embraced a new HD workflow was graphics, which was headed by Phil Paully, director, graphics engineering and operations, NBC Olympics. Paully says he did change how things got done.

“Our lesson from Athens was that we routed no video between an Avid edit session and a graphics session,” Paully says. “We do all graphics in 16:9. If we need a 4:3, we do a center cut. All production is done here in 16:9.”

Echoing Mazza's point of listening to the users resulted in a simple, but effective, new procedure in storing images.

“At Athens, we came up with the idea of using a single graphics folder per day,” Paully says. “We have folders for each day, one per day for the 10 days leading up to the games, and one folder for each of the 17 days of the games. This means everyone, including the audio guys, know where to drop their work.”

An Avid-centric workflow

The NBC graphics department is responsible for all the moving transitions, bumpers and openings — the eye-candy seen during the games. To make this happen, Paully's department relied heavily on Avid technology, primarly Avid Adrenalins. A total of 47 formed the backbone of the graphic and editing platform.

New for this Olympics was Avid's just-introduced Infinitely Scalable Intelligent Storage (ISIS) system. Operating with Avid's DN×HD 120Mb/s signal, the SAN provides a highly scalable, self-balancing distributed architecture, which was just what Mazza and Paully were looking for to implement HD production.

Because HD files are twice as large as SD files, they needed twice as much storage as in Athens, just to stay even. And because graphics was the biggest user of storage, the team decided that Avid's ISIS would give them biggest bang for their HD buck.

Inside the ISIS SAN

Images are stored in 8-bit 1920 × 1080 sizes at 120Mbs. The NBC Olympic installation relied on a pair of ISIS SANS. Based on an 8TB, 4RU rack structure, an ISIS can be scaled up to 64TB of storage. A 40TB ISIS was used in graphics, which provided about 380 hours of storage. A second 24TB ISIS supported the videotape room and three NBC Trusty Ol' Edit Suites (TOES).

Mazza's belt-and-suspenders approach is well-supported by the ISIS architecture. Multiple levels of redundancy exist on each server. Each of the four bays of drives, which make up the SAN, has its own backup drive — six drives form the basic storage module, with a seventh drive being a RAID spare. Should any problem develop, the spare drive automatically kicks in, and the system immediately begins rebuilding itself in the background. No images or time is lost. Each ISIS is equipped with double-power supplies, dual-power feeds with auto switchover. Any type of system alert even sends an e-mail to Paully.

Outlying seats could connect into the ISIS system. Users could point over to the graphics ISIS and select the desired elements, which were then transferred via GigE to the seat's local storage system for use.

On-site NBC network users, such as Access Hollywood and Telemundo, also had access to the ISIS SANS. While both networks operated in SD, the same storage served both HD and SD production needs because the SAN doesn't care whether the images are SD or HD; it's just data.

“We are very excited about ISIS,” Mazza says. “We couldn't have built the graphics suites without the Avid ISIS system. The Unity just wasn't big enough. We had between 12TB and 16TB of storage at Athens. Here, we're at 40TB. Classic Unity tops out at 20TB to 24TB, so we physically couldn't get enough storage for HD with classic Unity. We had to have ISIS.

“We also win on the dollar side by combining users rather than having separate storage systems, separate media managers, separate index servers and various bits combined together. The risk may go up slightly, but that's a balance we try to keep in check”.

Fully digital production platform

NBC created the Olympic graphics on Avid Deko/Thunders, with all images saved as QuickTime files. QuickTime Movies become the basic file exchange format for Olympic graphics.

“The term still store is obsolete,” Paully says. “There are no more stills. Everything moves.”

The graphics stations were Macs running Final Cut Pro for ingest. Over-the-shoulder shots were managed by After Effects. Paully noted that all graphics and edit suites were the same, so operators didn't have to train on multiple setups. All suites had identically loaded and configured software. Each edit station was equipped with 6GB of RAM, dual processors complete with HD I/O. Two graphics suites had what he calls “Super Macs,” each with 3TB of external storage and all connected to the local SAN.

Venue ingest was handled by six Avid workstations, connected to the primary graphics ISIS SAN. These stations processed the live venue feeds into the ISIS. At the end of each day, every venue created a highlight reel. The reel was then transmitted to the NBC facility and ingested into the ISIS. With six venues and six ingest stations, multiple feeds could be handled simultaneously.

The typical NBC Olympic edit suite consists of two Adrenaline Media Composers with DN×HD I/O. Miranda processors were used to embed and de-embed the audio from the SDI stream.

Each production suite had two Sony HDCAM VTRs, a router, HD LCD monitors, a Tektronix WFM and Dolby decoder, plus four powered Genelec speakers for surround monitoring. Two edit suites were also equipped with Panasonic DVCPRO HD decks.

Flexible graphics production

The Olympics broadcasts place unique requirements on the graphics department. Not only are there thousands of graphic elements, but also it's impossible to plan for every contingency.

“Things change, so you need people pushing buttons,” Paully says. “If the director says drop cut seven and insert cut six, automation can't do that. Sports is seat-of-the-pants operation. For instance, we don't have a graphic for someone breaking a leg or falling on the ice or ski jump. If that happens, we need a custom graphic. You have to be able to change on the fly.”

Transferring moving graphics was another issue that had to be solved. The Avid Deko graphics platform provided the solution through Make Deko Movie.

“Every single graphic that we make is a movie,” Paully says. “We don't make still graphics any more. Backgrounds move; heads animate. There's always motion in a graphic.”

The Make Deko Movie is any information that an artist creates. It can be a clip, CG or whatever. Once an artist saves it as a Make Deko Movie, the graphic can be shipped or just dragged and dropped and rendered on any Avid desktop.

“Our workflow had to change because we can't tie up 14 edit rooms trying to time graphic changes to video. Now we have four operators, and when they're done, they can leave,” Paully says. “Now we can pre-build images and let the Avid render it at the desktop. We'll do a QuickTime MXF transfer and simply drop it onto the timeline. We proved this works at Athens.”

The bottom line for Paully is that he was able to create a flexible and fast graphics and editing platform at a cost he could afford. Use of the Max/PC/Linux platforms allowed him to go from using custom, proprietary hardware that used to cost €350,000 per room to a room that cost €40,000.

“Now I can buy eight rooms worth of equipment based on what one proprietary-based video platform would cost me,” Paully says. “If it wasn't for the Avid, Pinnacle and Mac, I don't know how we could do it.”

Proxies and metadata

The workflow at the Summer Games in Athens relied on MXF proxies generated by Sony eVTRs. Because that feature hasn't been implemented yet on the HDCAMs, a different solution was needed.

Forty MOG Solutions proxy encoders were used to generate the 16:9 MXF proxies. The real-time MPEG-4 proxies were generated for each venue feed to support desktop browsing at both Olympic suites and back in the USA.

The proxies were handed off to a Blue Order MAM system, which, among other chores, added scene transitions information and generated a storyboard. In addition, during live events, operators manually inserted dynamic metadata such as race results.

Editors could access the proxies within seconds after the ingest started. The proxies were searchable locally and via IP through Internet interfaces to multiple remote locations. The system allowed graphics artists and editors to quickly find the footage they needed as well as the tape reel that contained it, all without tying up a lot of network bandwidth.

Last, but not least: audio

Audio is a huge component of any HD broadcast, and NBC didn't short-change this effort either. Most venues created six discrete audio channels. Once they were returned to the NBC broadcast facility for post production, the discrete channels are encoded into two-channel Dolby Pro Logic. This turned out to be key to moving some 80 channels of HD video around the facility with accompanying surround audio.

By re-encoding the original six channels into two channels of Dolby Pro Logic, the NBC infrastructure had to handle only two channels of audio. (The studios still monitored discrete surround.) However, in order to maximize the benefits of capturing in discrete six channels, Dolby modified the encoding software slightly to spread the center image somewhat for decoding in viewer's homes. The result was a wider aural image that reinforced the HD video.

The IKON solution

At NBC, the graphics department handles all the sweetening for bumpers, promos and teasers. Therefore, along with the HD upgrade, Paully and his crew needed a different audio mixer. He selected Digidesign Pro Tools driven by an IKON digital console control surface.

“This Mac-based console interfaces seamlessly with the Mac-based edit stations,” Paully says. “Although the console also comes in a PC flavor, the majority [of our audio engineers] prefer the MAC version. This is what the talent is used to. If you're going to be in the high-end pro-audio sweetening business, you have to have a Pro Tools setup.”

That's a wrap

Broadcast Engineering last interviewed Mazza at the Salt Lake winter Olympics in 2004. At that time, he compared the Olympic production to doing 16 Super Bowl games — all at once.

When asked the same question again this year, he says, “The Olympics is a giant remote. We still do everything in a temporary fashion; we just do it in a much bigger way. We have a lot more risk, we're on more nights, and we have more stuff and people. But, at the end of the day, we'll do whatever we have to do to stay on the air.”

So is it worth all the effort? Mazza quickly says “yes.” His only disappointment was that despite all the effort of his network and crew to produce pristine HD images, 90 percent of his audience never saw them. Most Olympic viewers were still watching in 4:3 and analog NTSC.

Oh well, there's always next time in Beijing. Stay tuned.