IBC2012: Behind the Groundbreaking Tech at the London Games

The London Olympic Games set a new technological watermark for the live-production industry: they marked the debut of the Super Hi-Vision format at theaters around the world, were the largest 3D sports event ever, and offered one of the most advanced HD productions to date. At IBC2012 in a Saturday session titled Olympics Broadcast Tools and Technology, executives from Panasonic, NHK, FORscene, and EVS provided an inside look at what went into this undertaking.

Whatever You Call It, It’s Breathtaking
The London Games served as the coming-out party for Super Hi-Vision, an 8K format developed by Japan’s NHK that offers 16 times the resolution of HD and 22.2 channels of surround sound. NHK worked with Olympic Broadcast Services (OBS) and the BBC to produce dozens of hours of Ultra HD content and distribute it to three theaters in Japan (a total of 209,000 viewers attended), four theaters in the UK (4,000 attendees), and one theater in Washington, DC (500 invited guests).

To make viewers feel as if they were at the Olympics, the production philosophy called for fewer cuts, wider shots, and slower camera motion, as well as an immersive “3D” sound experience and the absence of commentary.

“This is a very different type of production from what is currently being done in the broadcast industry,” said Kimio Hamasaki, senior research engineer, NHK. “The current production model provides the image that the producer wants to give to viewers. But this concept gives freedom to the viewers to see what they want and observe what they want. Audio is also very important to create that experience. The impression of ‘being there’ is the concept of Super Hi-Vision production.”

Live production was handled out of two production trucks — one for video and one for audio — at Olympic Park (Opening and Closing Ceremonies and Athletics), the Aquatics Centre, the Basketball Arena, and the Velodrome (cycling); postproduction and transmission to UK, the U.S., and Japan were handled at the BBC TV Centre.

The Super Hi-Vision production team deployed two cameras for event coverage and an extra fixed camera for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The production trucks featured a 2K-to-4K converter, a switcher with slow-motion and superimpose capability, Super Hi-Vision recorders, and a DWDM transmitter.

The audio side of the production deployed a 22.2 multichannel one-point microphone, and inside the truck were a digital mixing desk with 3D panning, MADI router, and digital audio workstation.

After the video was captured, the footage was downconverted to HD for HD editing. Then the EDL data was turned back into Super Hi-Vision video and audio formats and distributed out to theaters. Each day, live production took place from 5 p.m. to midnight, postproduction from midnight to 8 a.m., transmission over fiber to Japan from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and transmission to the UK and U.S. from noon until completion.

According to Yoshiaki Shishikui, head of Advanced Television Systems Research Division, NHK, the success of the Olympic Super Hi-Vision production — audiences logged an 82.8% satisfaction rating, according to NHK’s study — gives NHK confidence that it will be able to begin broadcasting the 8K format “in the near future.” NHK has even moved up its projected Super Hi-Vision launch by four years to 2016, largely as a result of the technology advances made for the 2012 Olympics.

Panasonic Key to 3D Olympic Efforts
Panasonic provided the majority of the gear — three OB trucks, 20 3D rigs, and 30 ENG cameras — and a wealth of insight for the OBS 3D production. In all, OBS produced and delivered 300 hours of 3D programming to 20 countries, making it the most widely distributed 3D television event ever.

Even though Panasonic had only 18 months to develop the production plan with OBS — which was producing 3D programming for the first time — the coverage was widely praised and highly viewed, with 1.6 million people tuning in around the world. During the IBC session, Panasonic showed an extended sizzle reel of the 3D Olympics coverage, including aquatics, athletics, and the awe-inspiring kayaking competition, which offered a multi-layered setting that demonstrated the power of depth of field in 3D.

“In the end, it was quite successful,” said Panasonic CTO Eisuke Tsuyuzaki. “Getting camera positions was the number-one issue because we were always third in the pecking order, but that actually ended up getting some really good and creative positions.”

EVS Everywhere at Broadcast Center
If there was a single ubiquitous technological presence at the Olympics International Broadcast Centre in London, it was EVS. With 250 XT servers used by OBS and rightsholding broadcasters at the facility (totaling about 1,500 channels) and dozens more aboard the 52 production trucks on hand, EVS seemed to be everywhere. Although broadcasters may have been using the same EVS gear, they often had very different needs.

“[From] NBC bringing 2,500 people on-site to some broadcaster just receiving one feed back home, their requirements are very, very different,” said Luc Done, head of APAC, EMEA & Events, EVS.

He described the three models that broadcasters adopted at the Olympics: producing everything on-site, with little work done at home (Australia’s Foxtel/Channel 9), producing very little on-site and sending feeds back to a home broadcast center for editing and manipulation (Sweden and dozens of others), and a hybrid of the two (NBC). While all three models have pros and cons, Doneux sees the off-site production model growing as the cost of fiber transport continues to become more affordable.

“Broadcasting is getting more complex. [Broadcasters] spend more and more money to get these rights, and then they have to deliver much more [content]: live TV, streaming, VOD, second screen. So what do they do? Do they stay at home? Do they go on-site? What are the benefits and inconveniences involved? It all depends on their specific needs.”

Olympics via the Cloud
No IBC2012 session would be complete without mention of “the cloud,” and the Olympics Broadcast Tools and Technology session was no different. The London Games served as the first major sports event for Forbidden Technologies’ FORscene cloud-based video platform, which allows access to review, assign metadata to, log, edit, publish, and host content and to distribute it to broadcast, Web, and mobile.

For the Olympics project, more than a million hours of content was uploaded to the platform by various rightsholding broadcasters, including NBC. The FORscene platform encoded video in the cloud and allowed NBC’s London- and New York-based staffs to complete frame-accurate edits of proxy video remotely. FORscene then automatically connected the clips in Full HD and transcoded H.264 versions for delivery to YouTube (which handled NBC’s streaming efforts on both YouTube and NBCOlympics.com).

“The Olympics was one of the big growth areas for Web and mobile distribution, and we think that will continue to grow,” said Forbidden Technologies CEO Stephen Streater. “It’s just a question for me of how many people have a laptop here [in the session]? How many people have a mobile phone? Now how many people have a television with them? It’s the convenience factor that has resulted in people increasingly using multiple platforms [to consume video].”