Going tapeless

UK studios are refitting for HD and tapeless shooting.

Many productions have outgrown the space of traditional TV studio facilities, as the trend to facilitate large audiences of 1000 or more means large, 15,000sq-ft stages together with ancillary facilities/locations for behind-the-scenes filming. With growth in scale, there is new technology, and there are several technical factors that are now considered standard.

The refitting of studios with HD infrastructure continues to have the biggest technical impact on the sector. But, a simultaneous demand from broadcasters to produce arena-style, light entertainment “event TV” has opened the door to larger studio spaces and placed greater demands on multi-camera, multi-format productions.

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Backstage production areas like the one for “The X Factor” (shown here) are home to large-scale shifts to tapeless workflows in the UK.

The vast majority of broadcast studios worldwide are now HD ready or live, and the new ones due to come online will have HD from day one. Nonetheless, the transition to HD continues to drive investment, not least because HD images require a matching increase in movement quality and lens motion control.

Camera manufacturers do still have SD models in their catalogs. However, there is no premium for buying HD cameras, so, as studios are re-equipped, they will naturally be at least HD ready. In some markets, there is huge investment in wholesale HD conversion, while in others, it will be a gradual transition as equipment becomes outdated.

Buying HD cameras is just the tip of the iceberg. HD is demanding of all the ancillary products around the camera. Any disturbance to the stability of the camera looks like an earthquake in HD, so users also need to upgrade pedestals, tripods and heads. Deficiencies in lighting are also glaringly obvious in HD, so more care needs to be taken to ensure illumination is powerful, even and focused.

Because of the detail required of the HD picture, studio sets have to be either basic, or relatively easy to maintain or virtual. So, the drive towards virtual sets is driving encoded pan and tilt heads and pedestals, both manual and robotic.

Switching the pedestals and heads to manual mode means more than just allowing experienced camera operators to drive the production. The positional detectors still report the location of each camera, meaning that virtual reality graphics systems can perfectly align computer-generated worlds with live action. So, a studio used for an election night special could, during the day, for example, be doing something as different as a children’s fantasy.

Pinewood Shepperton has used robotic cameras in its presentation studios for years, but it is starting to see robotic heads used more in positions that have limited space or access for operators — particularly in “beauty” positions located high up in the grid.

Shows & camera movement

With the move to larger TV studios or film stages, camera movement is being addressed with alternative mountings from stabilized rigs and Furio dollies to Technocranes and Jimmy Jibs.

Endemol’s “The Voice,” produced by the BBC at Elstree for a live Saturday night slot earlier this year, featured 15 cameras mounted on MovieBird, Jimmy Jib, Technocrane, stabilized rig, seven camera peds and two fixed cameras front-of-house with several high wide remote cameras. This is comparable with productions the scale of “The X Factor.”

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BBC’s “Sports Personality of the Year” is one of many shows now housed at the new MediaCityUK Studios in Salford.

Where such “shiny floor” shows once used to train cameras on the stage with an occasional audience shot, producers now are shooting larger sets in almost 360º. The space has to be designed to shoot from almost any angle. Hiding rostrums behind the stage trained on a judging panel is an example. Additional cameras are provided in many backstage locations, including the pressroom and green room, which creates a richer viewing experience.

Positioning cameras further away from the presenters places additional demands on the prompting system. The autocue screens for the judges on “Dancing on Ice,” for example, are located out of necessity on the other side of the rink from the judges’ seats. This makes large, high-brightness, 4x3 monitors a must for easy reading.

Dedicated TV studios like Fountain TV (home of the UK’s largest TV studio and host to “The X Factor,” “The Cube” and “Britain’s Got Talent”), are built with laser-leveled floors. But, in other spaces, notably sound stages, flooring (often wooden) is variable.

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Extra care must be taken with wooden flooring, such as what is shown here on the set for “Dragon’s Den” (produced by BBC Entertainment) as it can cause issues with providing a level surface for cameras.

To generate smooth movement, especially for formatted shows that require repeat moves, tracks can be laid to emulate pedestal movement.

Producers are taking individual shows out of purpose-built spaces altogether. The 2011 UK final of “The X Factor,” for example, was staged at Wembley, while the BBC took last season’s final of “Strictly Come Dancing” to Blackpool Tower Ballroom (where it was also shot live in 3-D).

Elstree Studios’ MD Roger Morris notes that, unlike broadcasting “The BRIT Awards” or “The Country Music Awards,” there is no direct and profitable revenue from ticket sales for most live TV productions. Technical costs are far higher in such large venues, and production problems such as acoustics are far more daunting, he says. Unless a show is stripped across a week, then the cost of a single set standing could be astronomical. The conventional, fully-equipped TV studio is fairly dead cost-wise, he believes, with set standing and OB trucks or de-rigs a more
practical solution.

At the same time, there is rising demand to house complex sets with large audience numbers on stages in excess of 10,000sq-ft. It’s one reason why Pinewood Shepperton (majority owned by Peel Holdings) has spent heavily on a new 30,000sq-ft facility (which housed “Got To Dance,” “Love Machine” and “The Magicians”) and committed to a “transformational digital investment program” for TV.

Re-launched in September, its TV facilities feature a new “super gallery” housing production, lighting, vision and audio control areas for use by either of its upgraded two TV studios. The sound control room will be based around a 64-fader Calrec Artemis Beam mixing console.

Tapeless components

Videotape recording is almost gone as many clients switch over to Sony’s XDCAM or other server-type devices, and record on to transportable hard drives or drive arrays.

Typically, OB suppliers are purchasing XDCAM decks, AJA Ki Pros or other similar free-standing, file-based recorders, or using Grass Valley K2 and EVS LSM servers with transportable drive arrays like X-Fly or Sony’s new optical disc array. In some cases, files are transported over public Internet or private intranets between the OB unit, providing gallery facilities to the four-waller and post-production facility.

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Workers ready the set for a scene in the situation comedy “In with the Flynns,” a BBC production.

In a typical studio production workflow, line cuts and iso feeds of every camera are recorded to Sony PDW-1600s XDCAMS or transportable drives. Full advantage is taken of the multichannel embedded audio support on these devices. Editing usually happens off-site on Final Cut or Avid.

MediaCityUK Studios, in Salford, promotes itself as a campus-wide facility for end-to-end digital tapeless production. Also owned by Peel Holdings and managed by SIS Live, its seven studios range up to 12,500sq-ft and cater for BBC Sport’s “Football Focus” and “Sports Personality of the Year,” as well as “Mastermind” and children’s shows such as “The Rhyme Rocket.”

All of the studios are integrated with post-production suites, production offices and galleries on-site by fiber network. All studio cameras, for example, can be recorded on Avid AirSpeed Multi-Stream and made instantly available to post, via fiber, on shared Avid ISIS 7000 storage and asset management system InterPlay.

One of the benefits of ingesting directly from a studio into post is the save on time and cost by being able to edit a program almost live. If a shot is missed, direct connection with the studio means pick-ups can be captured as necessary.

MCUK commercial manager Ian Munford calls this “virtualized production,” where clients can book a studio and access multiple post companies on-site, as well as various specialist editors. Or, they can simply buy a license for the duration of the program to use secure Avid editing and Isis asset management available from desktops across the campus.

Pinewood’s investment is fully HD, but with the flexibility to ingest and convert any format to or from the studio floor using Harris Broadcast equipment. Its installation of an eight-channel DVS Venice server system, connected to two DVS SpycerBox storage servers in the Digital Content Services department, enables clients to record directly to post production, providing a seamless delivery from studios recording to editing.

A similar OB arrangement (as was used to broadcast the BAFTA Awards from London’s Royal Opera House in February 2012) might deploy REC2Post, a set of EVS solutions based on its XS high-speed studio servers. Capabilities include the remote production of multicam feeds and file recording with automatic-backup streaming on portable storage; live multicam productions with on-the-fly timeline editing; and multicam recording control/logging for post operations.

Linking to OBs

Virtually every large LE production is now “location shooting” behind the scenes and away from the studio. This requires fast turnaround and delivery of edited material to an OB via file-based, traditional tape or tapeless workflow. Pinewood says it is providing the space, facilities, resources and connectivity right next door to the OB to create the right working environment for producers and directors to be in one place. This means physical movement and time spent in-between areas to approve material is kept to a minimum.

“Big Brother” is perhaps the most high-profile event show to have gone HD in the past year. Tapeless in SD since 2006, the switch of the show from C4 to Five (but retained at Elstree Studios) prompted an HD upgrade.

Acquisition is from 40 HD iso feeds, mixed to eight feeds on to EVS, then ingested as XDCAM media on to a petabyte of ISIS Unity storage. Acquisition and ingest is managed by OB service Roll to Record before editing into a daily one-hour program on-site by post outfit DDF, which uses Retrieve, its own bespoke logging software.

Since most multi-camera shows switched out of OBs also record in the OB, wireless connections are not as important for logging. Operators can, however, use tablets to log on to the XDCAM decks. If K2 or EVS systems are in use, the logging stations are IP-based and on the server network.

For the Academy Awards 2012, where the OB was provided by NEP Visions, a rather elaborate second-screen app was created that allowed home users to have their own virtual monitor wall on their iPads, or a floor plan showing camera locations. They could select the camera views they wanted to see, essentially directing their own show.

The rise in second-screen technology also demands closer integration between set design, lighting and graphics, since what may look great on a 50in HDTV screen may not necessarily work on a tablet. Essentially, this means designing the set while being cognizant of various distribution channels and simplifying on-screen graphical and real-set elements to keep visuals clean of clutter.

The design of a production is now just as important as the content, states Simon Honey, Head of TV Studio Operations, Pinewood Shepperton. LED technology has enabled designers, LDs and studios to not only create globally recognized brands, but be cost-effective when it comes to power consumption, lamp hire and purchasing in the long term.

“For us,” says Honey, “this means greater development and investment in cabling networks via fiber, etherCON and CAT6a, plus additional hard power connectivity in our lighting grids and studio floor, rather than conventional DMX and XLR. We have to make it easy for clients to simply ‘plug in and play.’

“We work closely with LDs and Lighting Suppliers to ensure we future-proof our facility in the direction the technology is evolving.”

Client demand for second screening means facilities like Pinewood need to provide not just traditional HD lines for TX broadcast, but secure, fast IT connectivity. The studio recently worked with Sky to locate web streaming equipment and personnel on-site and adjacent to the stage to improve process efficiency.

Sony suggests there is interest from the producers of studio-based reality shows for XM Pilot, the remote logging system originally intended for journalists and works in-conjunction with XDCAM cameras.

In general, IP-controller technology means a single laptop can program and control most things on a production. This gives an operator the flexibility of not necessarily being next to the equipment that needs to be altered. In some cases, this means a problem can be resolved off-site via log-ins instead.

UK productions go large

The popularity for arena-style shows has coincided with a period of major restructuring in the studio market.

The BBC’s impending sale of Television Centre will leave a gap for many shows previously located in the capital. A new enterprise primed to capitalize on this is Wimbledon TV and Films Studios, which opened 18 months ago and, at the start of 2012, launched a new 8,000sq-ft HD studio aimed squarely at LE productions.

The studio cost €253,180 in partnership with Roll to Record, which provides and installs a flyaway package particular to each production. For TwoFour’s “The Angel,” for example, the infrastructure includes HDC-1500 HD cameras, BRC Hot Heads, a Calrec sound desk, EVS hard disc recording and a Grass Valley vision mixer. Roll to Record has further future-proofed the complex with a fiber network and 3G/3D-ready Evertz router.

Meanwhile, Warners Bros. poured €120,327,300 into Harry Potter’s former home at Leavesden. Spanning 170 acres, the site houses nine soundstages, production-rental outfits and an extensive backlot.

While studio space in the UK is increasing, it is the service level and location, not just the space itself, which is the USP. Factors including security, access to production accommodation, audience facilitation and, increasingly, options to ensure efficient all-format data management are all crucial to book regular business.

Adrian Pennington writes about broadcast technology.