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Oscars Glitter in 720p

HOLLYWOOD

The 75th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, the first Oscars broadcast in HDTV, was one of the most elaborate live high-definition productions ever attempted.

Broadcast simultaneously in 720p format and NTSC from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood March 23, the gala was seen by 62 million viewers in the U.S. on analog sets. But ABC offered no count of its high-definition audience, leaving unchallenged the quip from host Steve Martin: "Now that the Oscars are being broadcast for the first time in high-definition television, I'd like to say 'Hi' to the three guys watching it down at Circuit City."

AND THE AWARD GOES TO...

ABC's owned and affiliated stations currently broadcast DTV in 79 markets, covering 69 percent of the nation, with 65 of those stations sending out HDTV. Nevertheless, broadcasting Oscar's diamond anniversary in simultaneous HD and SD was a prestigious goal for ABC. "As far back as 1998 ABC has taken a leadership position in providing our audience with HDTV," said Preston Davis, president of Broadcast Operations and Engineering at the ABC network. "And we have continued that tradition with this year's Super Bowl, the NBA Final Four games and now the Academy Awards."

From the earliest planning stages, ABC decided that to provide the best 720p signal all the production elements would also have to be created in that format. "Progressive pictures are more pleasing to the eye," Davis said. "So to preserve that image quality we decided that the actual production would also have to be in 720p."

Because nobody had attempted as elaborate a production as the Academy Awards in 720p high-definition before, this presented multiple levels of technical challenges that needed to be solved by Engineer-in-Charge Tad Scripter and his team. "Previous live shows shot in the native 720p format, such as this year's Super Bowl, might have involved up to six cameras," Scripter tells us. "But to shoot the Oscar presentations, director Louis J. Horvitz wanted to use 19 Grass Valley LDK 6000 mk II WorldCam multiformat cameras. So we had to develop many new solutions as we went along."

PRE-PRODUCTION

To begin with, the only production truck previously available with 720p capabilities could not handle enough cameras or graphics systems for the 75th Academy Awards. So the newly completed SS20 HD production truck from NEP Supershooters was brought to the Hollywood location. In fact, NEP eventually had three production units on-site housing two Grass Valley XtenDD HD switchers, three GVeous HD digital video effects systems, monitors displaying both the 16:9 and 4:3 images and the wiring and infrastructure for all 19 HD cameras.

Then, three weeks before the airdate, Scripter discovered that the FT (Frame Transfer) sensors in the LDK 6000 HD cameras could not properly record the backgrounds from the 20 Texas Instruments DLP light engines projecting onto the stage. It turned out the cycle rate of the DLP's digital micromirror devices conflicted with the LDK 6000's shutter speed causing severe chroma quantizing. The result was, for example, that the black-and-white film projected behind U2's music set would have been picked up as a rainbow of colors.

"Eventually with the help of Texas Instruments and Thomson Grass Valley engineers, we increased the frame rate of the projectors to 70 Hz and boosted their blanking time by 15 percent," Scripter says. "And it worked. But even though the manufacturer's cooperation was the best I've seen in 30 years, the problem required hours of engineering time to solve."

Of course, as many of the show's elements as possible were built ahead of time. Douglass Stewart, owner of DMS Production Services Inc. in El Segundo, Calif., was the nomination film supervisor, responsible for providing all the HD packages used to illustrate the nominees when walking up to the stage or after receiving their statuettes. All the major studios provided him with 1080i clips struck from their 24p archived masters, which DMS Productions offlined on several Avid Media Composers sharing storage from an Avid Unity MediaNetwork.

Stewart's DMS Productions then handed the finished EDLs and their offline cut along with the selected 1080i footage to the Chainsaw post house in Santa Monica for online mastering and conversion to 720p.

Chainsaw's editor, Mike Polito, who also served as A/D during the live Oscar broadcast, began discussing the Academy Awards show with producer Michael Seligman and Scripter last July to determine how best to produce the dual 4:3 SD and 16:9 HD version of the packages. Eventually, the SD variety came out of Chainsaw's Avid Symphony; the HD from their Avid DS.

The graphics and background plates intended both for Chainsaw's composited packages and also to be inserted live during the Oscar broadcast by TD John Field were created by Bob Gautieri and Kelly Shelly, partners at Design on the Fly in Burbank. They began working on the titles, graphics and lower-third CGs last January using a combination of a Macintosh workstation running Electric Image, an SGI platform with Softimage software, and PC rendering machines. Altogether, Gautieri and Shelly created 116 packages to identify each of the potential winners and 24 full-frame graphics to label individual categories.

ALL IN THE TIMING

ProQue Industries had been contracted to handle the dual-format on-air playback of pre-edited packages and the graphics elements from the SS20 HD production truck. They intended to roll them in from four Grass Valley PVS 2000 Profile XP Media Platform servers for the high-definition material and at least that many PVS 1000 Profile servers for SD, each with approximately seven hours of attached storage. But since many of the graphic elements contained key signals to serve as mattes over fill material fed from another server, keeping multiple Profiles in-sync was crucial. It turned out that maintaining them in lock step using 720p material required considerable input from Grass Valley engineers. "Eventually we made it work," Scripter says. "But it took a lot of creativity from the boys in Beaverton to accomplish it on time."

Scripter also found the Chyron Duet character generators began to stumble when treading into 720p territory. "Chyron's engineers thought you should use 60 frame timecode for their embedded VTR control reference," Scripter says. "But that doesn't exist. Even with the 59.94 frame rate you still use 30 Hz time code and simply deal with the fields as frames. So, again, Chyron had to come up with a custom software solution for the Oscar broadcast."

ABC's desire for a single format in all the HD production elements also affected Mickey Mouse, who was asked to present the Oscar for "Best Animated Feature Film." It was only the second time Mickey had been rendered in 3D (the other is in a Tokyo "Seven Seas" theme park) and the Disney animators had to figure out how to render him to look best in 720p. At 60 fps, the mouse's motion appeared too fluid, so the Disney studio eventually provided Mickey in 30 fps to bring him closer to the conventional frame rate of film.

Scripter says problems like these should be expected when breaking as much new ground as this Academy Awards presentation. "These were simply situations equipment manufacturers and systems integrators had not encountered before," he said. "Our demands greatly exceed those of most markets so we had to be inventive to make the systems work together."