HD editing on a Mac adds flair to live sports production

Two years ago during the World Series, FOX Sports pioneered the use of a Mac with Final Cut Pro HD and an AJA video card to create HD edits during a high-profile live broadcast.

At the time, Tom Meegan, production freelancer, consultant and president of Woven Pixels, was working the EVS during that production. Meegan became enthused about the possibility of editing HD for live television with such a setup and focused his efforts accordingly.

Today, Meegan frequently works for FOX Sports, CBS, NBC and regional sports networks on the highest profile sporting events, including the World Series and the Summer and Winter Olympics.

HD Technology Update caught up with Meegan last week in Las Vegas at the C4-Sports show and discussed the world of sports, editing, the Mac and high definition.

HD Technology Update: The theme of your presentation at the C4-Sports show in Las Vegas was live HD sports editing with a Mac and Final Cut Pro HD. What tips can you offer to succeed when using them in a live HD environment?

Tom Meegan: If you are going to work in a live environment you have to understand that what you are editing has to be immediately available for air. What that means is you have to anticipate needs, prepare yourself properly so you can meet those needs.

HDTU: Doing that with a personal computer like a Mac for HD with its high data rates seems amazing. It wasn’t that long ago that the effects and transitions you’re using would have required long rendering times.

TM: What’s really interesting about this is the world of live, especially high definition, sports. It’s a world of a lot of proprietary black boxes. And there’s a reason for that. These are very effective, efficient boxes. They do one thing really well.

What characterizes a personal computer is you just load different software on it, and it will do lots of different things, but it may not do them quite as quickly. But with the changes in processing power and the changes in add-ons, such as with the AJA and Black Magic Design boards and the ability to offload some of the processing to those hardware boards, we’ve gotten to the point where personal computers can integrate really well in the highest level live environments to do some editing with very little rendering time.

So you can quickly turn around something that in the past would have required waiting for a very long time on a personal computer. Today, I can take something that I have edited, layer several effects on top and hit render. It will be finished rendering in three to four minutes, and then it can be dumped to the EVS and air within five or 10 minutes of when I actually finished the edit. That’s simply remarkable.

HDTU: Could you give an example of how you have actually used this HD editing in a live sports production setting?

TM: For FOX Sports we do bumpers and teases and re-teases and rollouts — the things you see at the beginning or end of a segment that kind of reintroduces you to what’s happened or introduces you to whatever we’re going to talk about next.

Going into the fourth game of the [American League Championship Series] last year, the pitchers for the Chicago White Sox had been doing very well — particularly the starters. We had discussed that we wanted to make a big deal out of that, especially if the starter for Game 4, Freddy Garcia, had a good game.

At some point in the game, the producer wanted something more than a simple graphic. So, in a very short amount of time — about 30 minutes from start to finish using Final Cut Pro HD and leveraging its strengths against those of the EVS server — I was able to put something together that was very stylized and really showcased the abilities of those first three pitchers and then add some shots of Garcia from the game currently being played.

HDTU: What are your thoughts about the arrival of the Intel processors for the Mac and how they will impact editing HD for live television?

TM: : They haven’t arrived yet on the desktop, but already we are seeing the laptop MacBook Pro is performing comparably to a G5 2.0 tower. Think about that. You’ve got a desktop computer that was close to the top end not that long ago, and a laptop with this chip is performing equivalently to it. That’s unbelievable. I’m having trouble imagining how fast the Mac-Intel Desktops are going to be and what a difference that’s going to make.

Today, sometimes I will begin to render something and realize this is going to take a little too long. That forces me to make some sort of compromise. I think the further we go along here, the fewer the compromises I’ll have to make.

HDTU: One reason you’re able to use a personal computer for editing HD sports is all the other technology available on the teleproduction truck. So, using Final Cut Pro HD, while relatively inexpensive, won’t be as affordable for others who can’t rely on such a huge production infrastructure.

TM: Yeah, basically you have this nonlinear editing system hanging off millions of dollars worth of equipment. And you can do all kinds of neat things with the video in that system and then bring it back, and you can do it all by yourself.

Basically, in that box you are able to do all of the things that in a live situation you’d use — the technical director to do the DVE effects and transitions and the graphics department to do the graphics and the audio engineer to do the mix. There is just tremendous hardware and software and human resources being brought to bear.

Inside of a nonlinear editor, all of those things are compressed. You can do them all. You can’t do them live, so to speak. But you can do them quickly enough that it’s usable live. This allows you to take some of these things offline.

HDTU: True, but there’s much more to it than the Mac, Final Cut Pro HD and the AJA board.

TM: To address more of the equipment side of it, if you were building a post-production suite, you’d have to have scopes, tape decks to deal with all the different formats and monitors, not to mention test signal generators, sync generators, routers and the rest.

A high-end HD monitor can cost as much as $30,000. There are some LCD solutions that are $5000 or $6000 that are very good. But if you look at the Final Cut Pro solution that is HD capable with an AJA board and the right amount of RAM and all of the software loaded, you’re talking about $15,000 to $20,000. Perhaps it could be as much as $25,000 if you really push it by buying some more software and upgrading the hardware, especially the storage.

Just to monitor, I am going to pay three times as much, or at least half as much again, just to look at it? Then you start to get external scopes, which will run you a tremendous amount of money if you want to look at the actual high definition signal. So, the thing to keep in mind, I guess, is that while you can get there, while you can edit it, the actual output into a broadcast space and being responsible to what that means requires some additional equipment.

HDTU: How has having the ability to delegate the creation of these HD edits for live sports production to the Mac-based Final Cut Pro HD system impacted traditional sports production workflow?

TM: SSince the EVS became a part of the mobile unit tape room, there’s always been a lead EVS operator who’s had tremendous editing and playback loads. As we move forward, that will lessen.

Two things happen when you get a nonlinear editor into the system. No. 1, your ability to do a more sophisticated edit is there. No. 2, you can take some of that load off the EVS person, or set of people, and allow them to focus better on doing replays and focus better on doing straightforward highlight packages.

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