New Trucks Fine-Tune for the Future, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

Another major trend among the HD trucks launched this year: 3-Gbps routing infrastructures (either full or partial). Going 3-gig means that a truck could support the uncompressed 1080p/60 production format, which could eventually be the gold standard for sports production (although there are significant doubts about whether 1080p/60 will actually get transmitted to the home). A 3-Gbps infrastructure also means that a truck can seamlessly handle the dual 1.5-Gbps streams generated by stereoscopic-3D camera rigs.

Both of Game Creek’s new trucks feature Evertz EQX SD/HD/3-Gbps high-density routers. That’s because both ESPN and YES mandated that the trucks be capable of producing in 1080p/60, although they don’t have any concrete plans to do so in the near term. Future 3D support was also a consideration.

Evertz has been gaining significant traction in the mobile-production space with its EQX router. Part of the appeal of the Evertz system is its tight integration with the VIP multiviewer through Evertz’s Xlink technology, a high-density interconnect that carries a large block of signals over a single connector and does not use up standard router outputs. With Xlink, a 576×576 EQX router will still have the full 576 outputs while supporting more than 200 additional outputs to Evertz multiview processors like the VIP.

“It provides connections to the multiviewer cards and essentially doubles the crosspoints of the router,” says Taubman. “It allows us to do a lot more monitoring than we could before. We can monitor all of the inputs to the router on all multiviewers. We have on the order of 400 inputs to each router for both trucks. The Dynasty YES truck has got about 1,400 outputs, and Larkspur is 1,056 outputs. Previously, you would not have been able to fit a router that had that crosspoint size into the truck; physically, it just wouldn’t have fit.”

Dome, too, is using the Evertz VIP in its new truck, feeding a variety of flat-panel displays. Echo is actually the first Dome truck to have no CRT monitors, which Dome has typically kept in the video area for quality control. It uses LED monitors throughout the truck and three 17-in. OLED monitors in its audio and engineering areas, says Johnson, noting that the truck’s Sony cameras have 7-in. OLED viewfinders.

Dual Duty
Since 2004, Mobile Television Video Group (MTVG) has pioneered the concept of using one mobile unit to produce both home and away feeds for regional-sports-network (RSN) customers, dramatically cutting down on both production costs and logistical challenges at tight venues. The company now has 16 trucks outfitted with dual-feed capability, says MTVG owner/GM Phil Garvin, who estimates that 50% of the 4,000-odd events that the company handles each year are now dual-feed productions. He notes that Grass Valley’s latest production switcher, the Kayenne, has helped contribute to a steady increase in dual-feed gigs.

“A Kayenne doing a dual feed for the home side is the same power as a full Kalypso [Grass Valley’s previous-generation switcher] doing a single feed,” says Garvin. “So, if you were happy with a Kalypso on a single feed, you will be equally happy on a home feed with Kayenne [in a dual-feed scenario]. If you’re the visitor feed, you’re definitely giving up something. But can the viewer at home see it? No. You would have to be an experienced eye to pick up that they don’t have this or that particular effect. In fact, with dual feed, all the stuff the home show is doing, you have access to. So you have more power than you would have in a small, single-feed visitor truck.”

MTVG has also been investing in the same type of ultra-high-frame-rate cameras that national networks use to deliver more-dramatic replays than can be achieved with traditional 3x slo-mo cameras. It now has nine Vision Research V640 cameras modified to its specs — it calls the systems Ultra-Mo to distinguish them from Inertia Unlimited’s X-Mo product — and expects to have more next year.

The use of SMPTE fiber to backhaul feeds from the X-Mo camera, eliminating the need for extra communications lines, has made them easier to work with, says F&F’s McKechney.

“X-Mo cameras seem to be finally getting to the point where they’re stable enough for everyday use,” he says. “The frame rate, and the visual you get from it, is just outstanding. There are a couple different providers, and we’ll use what clients want.”

The Graphics Challenge
Vendors say that graphics systems continue to be a challenge, because the software-based systems require frequent updates and sometimes the generic computer hardware isn’t up to the rigors of the field. Graphics gear often tends to be devices that don’t sit on a truck and instead get shipped from venue to venue. Clients will ask the vendor to make it work, which means that truck personnel might spend a couple hours opening up a machine and fixing some loose processing boards.

“Graphics are a pain,” says Alliance Productions GM Craig Farrell. “I think any engineer will tell you, if it was just cameras and EVS machines, life would be a lot easier.”

Some clients bring their own graphics systems and operate them. ESPN, for example, hires Reality Check Systems to run its Vizrt systems. But, for Fox, which moved to Vizrt this year, Game Creek purchased the Vizrt systems and operates them on Fox’s behalf. The supplier also operates Chyron Duets for several clients.

“For the Duets, we still maintain multiple software versions and, additionally, just keep the things up and running as they bounce down the road,” says Taubman. “That’s the biggest challenge. I would say, every day, I have a call to somebody to get something ironed out.”

Jumping Into 3D
Managing graphics software and hardware might seem relatively straightforward compared with the complexities of stereoscopic-3D production, which requires precise calibration of the dual-camera rigs to achieve the proper 3D effect. With the business model for 3D still uncertain, most mobile vendors are taking a wait-and-see approach.

But a few have jumped in with both feet, including two that aren’t traditional sports-truck providers. New York-based All Mobile Video, which specializes in entertainment production, is hoping to broaden its horizons with its new 3D truck, Epic, which is equipped with 3ality Digital 3D rigs and has already been used to produce dual 2D/3D shows for several concerts.

“We’re comfortable doing 2D and 3D from the one truck, and we think it’s a good economic model to follow,” says AMV President Eric Duke. “Hopefully, that application will work for certain types of sporting events.”

Equipment-rental and broadcast-services giant Bexel has gotten into the 3D business by collaborating with Panasonic to rent 3ality Digital rigs equipped with Panasonic cameras and developing a mobile trailer to support them with a 3D-capable routing and distribution infrastructure. So far, the Bexel Super-B unit has been used to produce one 3D event, the Pepsi 400 NASCAR race for Turner in July, although it has also been used for non-3D gigs.

Bexel Broadcast CEO Jerry Gepner is quick to point out that the company has no intentions to compete in the mobile-truck business. Instead, Bexel had been working with both 3ality and PACE for some time through its core rental business and developed early 3D expertise. The deal with Panasonic was a way to keep abreast of the latest technology and offer customers flexibility, including the option of renting a single 3D camera on a standalone basis.

“Bexel has a reputation of offering the latest technology,” says Gepner. “Panasonic doesn’t have all its eggs in our basket. But we’re in the basket, and that makes us viable.”

The company with the biggest current 3D stake is NEP, which launched two 3D trucks worth about $10 million each in the past year. SS32 is dedicated to ESPN’s new 3D channel, ESPN 3D, and is equipped with a range of PACE 3D rigs that include Sony cameras and Fujinon lenses. NEP’s second 3D truck, SS31, replaces the SS3D truck that ESPN used to produce The Masters golf tournament in 3D last spring. It is viewed as NEP’s ad hoc 3D truck but is staying busy producing events for DirecTV’s n3D channel.

Hoover says the biggest difficulty with 3D trucks is, you “have two of everything” with a left and right signal of every source.

“It’s organized as a true stereo workflow; it’s not camera one through 10,” says Hoover. “The monitors are all fed discrete left and right, the audio tracks are left and right.”

While the video-processing equipment for the 3D rigs is located in the SS32 A unit, workstations for the stereographer and convergence operators are located in the B unit. That is necessary simply to have room for the extra personnel.

“There is no signal processing in that truck,” says Hoover of the B unit. “That’s part of our design with the 3D trucks, not to have equipment in both trucks so there is not so much interconnecting.”

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to 3D is the labor cost involved in setting the rigs up and having dedicated convergence operators for each camera. But NEP has dramatically streamlined the setup time from its first 3D experiments.

“I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it works, and the pieces are there,” says Hoover. “You can roll up Friday morning and do a college football game on Saturday, and no one is losing their mind. A couple of years ago, you had to spend several days setting up, and you were begging and borrowing equipment. Now you show up in a finished mobile unit, and it’s relatively painless. You’re focusing on the art and craft of 3D, not struggling to make the technology work.”

(Continues in Part III)