UFC delivers the ULTIMATE HD experience

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, combining the beauty of martial arts with the raw power of boxing, wrestling and kickboxing. Twenty times a year, fans attend UFC events to experience the intensity up close and personal. A worldwide fan base watches the action via pay-per-view and free broadcast television. Ensuring those fans feel as close to the action as possible is a concern that constantly drives us forward in terms of innovation and quality. That's why this year we made the leap from simply producing the events in HD to distributing them in HD as well.

The goal: HD distribution

In June 2003 we began producing all UFC events in HD. However, because of bandwidth limitations, we were restricted to distributing those productions in SD. We wanted to distribute in HD so that we could bring the full beauty of HD images to our home viewing audience.

We reached that goal in February 2007. Of course, more bandwidth on the distributor side helped, but the key enabling technology was the Avid DN×HD 145 codec, coupled with the company's Media Composer Adrenaline systems. This setup allows us the ability to work efficiently in HD and provide viewers with the ultimate in broadcast quality. In addition, the production team appreciates the space-saving advantages for long-term storage provided by the DNxHD codec. (We also duplicate every tape and store them in a secure, off-site facility for long-term needs.)

Coordinating dual HD/SD operation

When we first began discussing a move to HD, our goals were clear: to replicate the SD workflows we use for the skillfully orchestrated TV production. Unlike wrestling, there is no fake drama; the action is real. UFC productions require a great deal of coordination. Video and audio elements need to be preproduced; high-end graphics and effects need to support multiple video formats and standards; lighting and staging must be set up properly; and, of course, flawless capture of the live event is crucial. Finally, there is the additional need to store the content for reuse on the Web, other original TV programs and home video.

Avid delivered a one-two technology punch that has helped us make the move to HD without leaving the SD audience behind. We now rely on a nonlinear editing department that is completely based on Avid systems and a 32TB Unity MediaNetwork shared-storage system. We also have two Mac-based Media Composer Adrenaline editing systems, six Media Composer software applications, two Mojo SDI hardware accelerators, and a Deko 3000 hybrid on-air graphics system.

A strength of the systems is their ability for dual, simultaneous HD and SD operation. For example, the Deko can handle files created in both a 4:3 SD window and a 16:9 canvas flawlessly. That's particularly useful when creating an SD file with Adobe After Effects and then using it for the HD telecast. By simply telling the Deko the program is in HD, the SD image is ready to go.

Preproduction elements

Each UFC event begins with putting together scripted feature segments, clip reels and interviews with the fighters. Curtis Edge, editing director for UFC's parent company Zuffa, begins working on each three-hour pay-per-view production in his Las Vegas-based editing suites.

An assistant editor and freelancer prep pretaped elements using Media Composer Adrenaline systems in the primary editing suite, and two workstations equipped with Media Composer software and Mojo SDI hardware in a secondary edit suite. These elements include fighter clip reels, historic event footage and prevoiced features to fill in graphics templates.

Those systems tie into the Unity MediaNetwork, where show templates are accessed and additional pretaped elements are assembled. Material stored on the Unity system is also easily reused in other programming, including in teasers, on venue projection screens or on the UFC Web site.

While Edge and his team work on the video elements, UFC graphics designer Howard Zryb and his team assemble multilayered graphical information bars that are placed over the live action. PhotoShop files are placed into the Deko system, where Zryb integrates them with text, background video clips, fighter stats and bio information, and other elements.

The hybrid system's interoperability with third-party products makes our jobs a lot easier. The ability to work with Adobe, for example, lets us read complex files natively, which is important in maintaining the highest level of image quality possible. In addition, the system's ability to read information from Microsoft Excel means that a fighter's name, weight and age can be imported automatically. Along with saving time, this feature also greatly cuts back on embarrassing input errors making it to air.

Once pre-assembly of elements is completed, the editing team exports the media to a Digidesign Pro Tools system and adds sound effects to the template. A music mix and voice-overs are also laid down. Audio producer Mike Sak, owner of Kill the Messenger studio, does all of the sound design with Pro Tools. Those completed elements are then loaded into an EVS XT2 server for playback during the live event.

Even after loading the completed elements onto the server, the Media Composer systems' work is not done. A copy of all show packages is transferred to the editing workstations for last-minute editing on the day of the fights. Depending on the show, we will rent as many as five additional Media Composer Adrenaline systems to use in the live broadcast edit facility to handle the workload.

Here again, the third-party integration is a key benefit. At any point during a live match, a producer can call for any of the files to be played out from the server. The editing systems then allow for elements to be dropped into those prerecorded segments to make them appear as if they are live.

We can also input and output in both HD and SD formats simultaneously. Not having to input and create content twice introduces time and cost savings because it doesn't require a second staff. In addition, it allows us to serve SD viewers in an even better way because the image quality from HD ensures the SD image is as great as it can be. Using 4:3 center cutting of the action, we can deliver perfect HD and SD content.

In the ring

When it comes to capturing the action on fight night, directors switch between as many as 11 Sony and Ikegami HD cameras, eight of which may be recording at a time.

By show time, our staff has grown from approximately 15 in preproduction to 80 strong. Our facility company, Concom, which is based in Bloomfield, CT, subcontracts the mobile production needs to Game Creek, ensuring we have top-quality vehicles on-site.

During the actual event, the seamless interoperability between the Media Composer Adrenaline systems and the portable Media Composer software stations allows for anyone involved in the content creation — whether they're sitting in the live truck, the secondary edit suites, or in the new media department where the Web site content is managed — to edit in HD. This is a big plus for an event and production team that is always on the move.

The video and audio are clearly important parts of the broadcast product, but without quality SD and HD graphics, our broadcasts would only tell half the story. Graphics are an essential storytelling device for sports programming. For a sport like UFC, where some of the competitors are not widely known, the ability to provide background information via graphics is a necessity.

The Deko 3000 hybrid system is operated in the production truck and provides up-to-the-minute, fact-based scrolls and lower thirds packaged with dynamic, eye-catching graphics. This setup enables Zryb to enter new text as needed to capture the live results in real time.

Deko's motion effect features are a production team favorite, allowing Zryb to add visual impact to text by animating it with such graphics as flares, lightning bolts and flashes. Edge, in fact, says that the system is as important as the cameras because it is actually on-air from the very beginning of the broadcast to the end credits. It keeps working until the last credits roll. The files are then stored in the Unity system for use on future shows.

To fully optimize media assets, UFC shares its multilayered, pay-per-view footage across departments — and with the producers and editors of those future television shows — using the Unity MediaNetwork shared-storage setup.

In addition, the Unity system allows storage of hours of HD preproduction video and graphics online. If anyone involved in a production needs to find, for example, a shot of a specific fighter executing a specific technique or move, it can be found instantly.

The system also allows us to more easily supply content to Zuffa's new media department. The department uses four workstations loaded with Media Composer software plus one Mojo SDI hardware accelerator to input media for conversion to Web formats with a high degree of portability. With the use of SDI inputs and the right decks, almost any format can be ingested.

The next move will be equipping the Unity MediaNetwork with Unity TransferManager software. This will streamline production even further by transferring preproduced media directly to the server rather than laying it back to tape.

Protecting the UFC brand

The move to HD has been a rapid one for UFC. Two years ago we had one Adrenaline system and Xpress Pro software on a laptop. As our popularity has risen, we've become increasingly protective of our brand. That's why we expanded our Avid solution to a full-blown setup in early 2006, giving us the total creative control we need.

Tim O'Toole is director of production for Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Design team

Curtis Edge, editing director

Tim O'Toole, director of production

Mike Sak, audio producer and music supervisor

Howard Zryb, graphics designer

Technology at work

Adobe After Effects software

Deko 3000 hybrid HD/SD graphics system
DN×HD codec
Media Composer Adrenaline editing solution
Media Composer software
Mojo SDI connector
Unity MediaNetwork storage
Unity TransferManager software
Xpress Pro software
Digidesign Pro Tools audio system

EVS XT2 server

Ikegami HDK-70 cameras

Microsoft Excel software

Sony HDC-1500 HD cameras