It’s never been done before. Not in America. Not in Canada. Not in Europe or anywhere else. But that didn’t stop John O’Connor, the now retired Vice President of National Broadcast Engineering for Canada’s Global TV, from going forward with an idea he was sure would work and which might even revolutionize the production of local news broadcasts.
Mr. O’Connor (now on board with Global TV as a consultant) and his team spearheaded the move to change the manner in which local newscasts were produced and controlled. His vision was to create a system of four regional production centers to produce and control the various newscasts across the country.
Previously the 14 Global stations, located throughout Canada in markets ranging from major to mid-sized, ran autonomously and all produced essentially the same format – news, weather and sports. Under the redesign, the local stations have maintained their anchors, reporters and editors but production functions (cameras, switcher/vision mixer, audio, graphics, lights, etc.) are controlled remotely using industry leading camera robotics systems from Telemetrics.
“The on-camera talent clip on their mic and then the Vancouver production center takes over, controlling the studio lights, camera and robotic control, mic level control, local station router access and teleprompter feeds,” said Mr. O’Connor. “Basically the local station is a green box chromakey environment, making the control room’s physical location irrelevant. For instance, our newscasts for Nova Scotia and the Maritime provinces are done from a green box studio in Halifax while production control and VR generation are in Vancouver which is on the opposite side of the country – over 6000 kilometers (about 3900 miles) away. It’s all transparent to the viewer, making even our small market stations look like large, American-style news broadcast facilities.”
Global TV’s remote production of virtual studios, like the one in Nova Scotia, is accomplished with the help of Orad’s ProSet SD/HD virtual studio application, which as O’Connor explains, allowed Global TV to centralize its production facilities and control its cameras from 3900 miles away. Relying on Orad’s HDVG video graphics rendering platform, ProSet is equipped with unmatched rendering power that allows Global TV’s most complex virtual sets to run in real-time. Both applications are located in the network’s main production center.
The Telemetrics robotics system in place allows Orad’s Proset to gather the exact position and view of each of the cameras in real-time. A key success factor in this project was Orad’s unique ability to marry between the camera tracking data and the video signal at a frame accuracy; transferring it via a separate MPLS network from the remote studio to the main center where the incoming feeds are decompressed to SDI and coupled with the virtual background rendered by the HDVG. The ProSet software translates the data and seamlessly moves the virtual background with the real camera movements.
According to Mr. O’Connor, the Telemetrics products were the only systems on the market capable of meeting their unique requirements. In particular, the company’s H-frame elevating belt track camera positioning system with X and Y axis and virtual set capability was ideal for their application. “Using the Telemetrics H-frame positioning system, we can start off with a high shot on the anchor desk and then move down. The broadcast looks as if we have a full camera crew on the floor but in fact everything is done remotely and with minimum production staff,” he said. “We looked at other competitive products to do the job and also at alternative ideas such as a jib, but none of those plans appealed to us the way the Telemetrics solution did.”
Global TV is a wholly owned subsidiary of CanWest Global Communication (CanWest) and is Canada’s largest communication company. The newly centralized production facilities will be brought on line in a three-phase operation with the first phase having been launched in the spring of 2008 at CHAN in Vancouver and at the national newscast center in Ottawa. Phase two will launch in the fall (September 2008) when CITV in Edmonton and CICT in Calgary are scheduled to come on line and the third and final phase will be the Toronto production center (CIII).
Mr. O’Connor explained that in order to achieve coast-to-coast control and to prepare for the eventual HD environment, a VPN (virtual private network) was established as the backbone to support the operation. The network build was started about three years ago for point to point usage and was later expanded to include a hub and spoke architecture to allow virtual studio remote productions from one, central production center. From this main location, one person can operate any camera, in any city, allowing for continuity between shows and across the Global brand.
Once the network backbone was in place, next on the agenda was a proof of concept. As Mr. O’Connor reiterates, to their knowledge, this new workflow concept of centralizing production equipment and crews while using remotely controlled cameras with virtual backgrounds over long distances had never been formalized anywhere, by any broadcaster. Also as proof of concept, Global TV needed to test the integrity of the VR tracking data and to evaluate the quality of the MPEG compression required to transfer video from place to place over long distances.
“We set-up a test virtual reality set in a production center in Toronto to make sure the concept would work,” said Mr. O’Connor. “Telemetrics and two of our other key vendors provided the equipment for the test and, aside from a few apprehensive moments, the tests went as expected and we had our proof of concept. All along, Telemetrics has been integral to this project and was always very responsive to our needs. They even made modifications to the software per our requirements and have been quick to provide custom tailoring.”
While the studio components may vary slightly from station to station, each of the 14 studio locations (will be) equipped with the Telemetrics H-frame Elevating Belt Track System, in either the floor to ceiling version, model BT-TRK-010, or the wall mounted version, model BT-TRK-008. Those that are deployed in the virtual studio locations will additionally include built-in X-Z position encoders which will send the camera positional information back to Orad’s ProSet in the main production center.
The HDVGs supply virtual studio backgrounds for the newscasts. ProSet gives the network’s production team the ability to integrate multiple live video streams and video clips into each telecast, laying them seamlessly over the 3D virtual studio background. Global TV deploys ENPS software to produce its telecasts. ProSet has an interface that allows the news producers to easily add or change virtual set elements in the show in ENPS. This allows the producers to control the show and make decisions quickly and “on the fly.”
The Ikegami HD cameras used with the Elevating Belt Track System are mounted on the Telemetrics LP Pan/Tilt device, model PT-LP-S4, which is also configured with the virtual studio option. The encoders are incorporated on the pan/tilt axis of the PT-LP-S4 and the outputs are combined with the lens zoom and focus encoders. The positional data is processed into serial data format and sent to ProSet. The resulting background generated by the HDVG is keyed over the green set making the newscast appear to be in another separate environmen