Shooting the breeze

The filming of last month’s National Topper Championship at Jebel Ali Sailing Club, Dubai saw two world firsts. Not only was it the first live sporting event to be captured direct to disk but it also was the first end-to-end location production completed without the use of tape. What's more the event also saw the regional debut of the Polecam system. Digital Studio dons its trunks and reports from the coastline.

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By  Marcus Webb Published  February 24, 2003

I|~||~||~|“A smooth sea never made a skilful mariner,” or so the saying goes. “The storms of adversity, like those of the ocean, rouse the faculties, and excite the invention, prudence, skill and fortitude of the voyager.” Clearly someone at Sony Broadcast Middle East has taken this pearl of wisdom to heart, because when choosing a platform to launch their DSR-DU1 disk recorder into the region, they shunned the usual controlled environment of an exhibition and instead opted to deploy their latest kit to capture the National Topper Championships in Dubai. “In a controlled exhibition setting, sceptics will always say that everything is staged,” explains David Castle, marketing manager, Sony Middle East. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating and this is what we hope to demonstrate here. This is real; we have deadlines and huge expectations. We have to deliver.”

The DSR-DU1 is a DVCAM video disk unit that employs a 2.5” hard-disk drive with 40GB capacity to enhance the DVCAM production chain. According to the advertising blurb: “The DSR-DU1 offers workflow innovation by providing production efficiency and flexibility, allowing instant content checking, EDL creation and quick start of editing, as well as acquisition in both media (hard-disk and tape).” But, as Castle rightly points out, users do not want to read the blurb they want to see the thing in action and that is where the Topper event comes in.

“What better way is there to demonstrate that the system works?” asks Dave Shapton head of operations, MVS who are partnering Sony in the event.
“We could have set up a carefully controlled exercise in a studio, with actors, props and plan it all to the last detail but what’s the point in that? What we have actually done is work with children on boats in the Gulf. What worse conditions could there be apart from out and out battle scenes?”

As the hoards of highly competitive Popeye wannabes take to the water, out-and-out battle scenes seem one bad tack away and indeed it is hard to imagine a more challenging introduction. This is the first time that a live sporting event has even been covered by multiple cameras straight onto hard disc and the entire production end-to-end — from acquisition, through the editing process to distribution whether it be on video tape, DVD or over the internet — is based on hard disk recording, there is no tape anywhere.

“Disk is already more reliable than tape,” explains Shapton. “Tape can twist, snap or dropout, because tape is essentially a fragile medium. Hard disks are robust and remarkably reliable but, until now, they have always been prone to sensitivity of handling. Previously, if a disk was in use you wouldn’t want to move it. The beauty of the DU1 is that you can throw it around without thinking about it.” And throw it around the crew certainly did, over the course of the four-day event the DU1 was submerged underwater, sent out on a boat and strapped to a pole-cam, all without drop-out.

||**||II|~||~||~|Although this durability is a major benefit over tape, it is not, according to Castle, the key improvement over analogue technology. “The major advantage is speed,” he says. “With disks there is no rewind time, longer record time and once you’ve finished you can drop it directly into the network and the material is instantly available. Put yourself in the position of a news production unit, the moment you’ve got the footage, you are editing, the moment it is edited it is on its way whether it is over the internet or over satellite. It’s unbelievable.”

Despite these advantages, neither Shapton nor Castle can see disk technology completely replacing tape, not yet at least. “I think at the moment you are talking about disk systems complementing, rather than replacing tape,” says Castle. “Most broadcast developments go in steps and we are all wary of change, so here is an example of it being put to the test. As more and more users jump on the bandwagon then I think you will see usage escalate.”

To enable the full broadcast of the Topper championship, Sony deployed its complete DV station. Housed on site in a rustic barasti hut, the DV station contains everything the crew needs to ingest, edit and distribute the footage. At the heart of the DV station is a network-attached storage offering half a terabyte of storage with an attached ingest. The entire system uses a gigabyte Ethernet system with a managed hub. “This system allows us to capture the images directly onto a hard disk,” explains Castle. “The data comes off the camera directly onto a computer network where the material is available to all the editors. Once the edit process is complete the material can go directly out to the internet, to a broadcast station, to a DVD or even, as in this case, to a plasma screen in a shopping mall, all without ever going to tape.”

Editors are the first to feel the benefits of the new system. “The system has made our life so much easier,” says Karen Clague, one of three editors working on the project. “We no longer have to worry about ingest time, we just plug the DU1 in and boom away we go.” According to Rajan Swarmy, demonstration and training manager, MVS, the DV station also benefits editors, even when using a laptop. “Obviously using a notebook has limited storage,” he says. “But being on the network gives me access to all the material. Even with three editors thrashing the system to meet deadlines the system can cope.”
“People can be watching the production on the internet virtually the moment the editors finish,” adds Castle. “The Sony Encodestation can encode a broadcast signal and stream it on to the internet all in real time.”

||**||III|~||~||~|Another “extremely clever” device at work during the event was the NSP 100, which allows broadcast quality signals to be transmitted directly over the internet to a plasma screen despite bandwidth limitations. “The NSP 100 works by receiving trickle-fed DVD quality MPEG-2 files across a network — including the internet,” says Castle. “It sits at the back of a Plasma screen allowing us to send material — and playlists — to any display, anywhere in the world. The DV looks after all the transcoding from DV to MPEG-2 making the whole process remarkably quick and simple.”

Shapton sees the deployment of disk and network technology radically changing the entire mindset of broadcasters. “The major difference between tape and disk is that previously material has been associated with the medium,” he says. “For example, you buy a VHS tape or a CD and that would be the thing in itself. Now we are moving over to the idea of media as data, media as files, and files can exist on any kind of IT infrastructure. Now that sounds scary but you only have to look at editors here to see how quickly they have taken to it: they are doing things they’ve always wanted to do and they are doing it straight away. Networks are all about communication, the more people communicate the better they work together.”

The DV station was not the only solution pushing the boundaries of production at the Topper event. Making its Middle East debut, the Polecam was on hand to add an extra dimension to the footage being captured. A portable single operator jib arm and camera system, which bears an uncanny resemblance to MAX from Flight Of The Navigator, the Polecam provides a reach of up to 20 feet.

“We decided to bring Polecam to the Middle East because of a desire to add an extra dimension to the stuff we were filming,” says Nick Davidson of the film production company Alchemy. “In the past I have enjoyed shooting extreme sports and I read that the Polecam can be used in the water, out of water, underwater and it sounded too good to be true. Now I’ve invested in it I’m delighted with it, it’s just as good as I had hoped.”

||**||IV|~||~||~|Invented by Stefan Hewitt a UK-based developer who, according to Shapton, is “just the right side of eccentricity,” Polecam incorporates a Sony DXC-C33P camera with a micro Fujinon lens. The 3-chip, 800-line resolution mini-camera is mounted on a self-levelling, miniature pan and tilt unit and is controlled by a joystick. Viewing of the camera picture is by means of a high quality TFT LCD monitor mounted on the boom and the camera.

“This is the first shoot I have used the Polecam on and it is certainly a learning process,” says Davidson. “I am already getting some stunning shots, you can switch from being 20 feet in the air to being right down at water level, swing it 270 degrees around the bow of the boat, it's amazing. As I get used to operating a camera via a joystick I am sure the footage will get even better.”

Weighing a maximum of 20 kilogrammes, the device is surprisingly light and can be packed into two bags. “Essentially it’s a broadcast crane which you can pick up and move,” says Davidson, as his associate Craig Secker buzzes the machine over our head. “I’m planning on using it on as many shoots as I can, I’m sure it will be great for getting crowd shots at tennis matches and we hope to use it on the Dubai Open shoot, because you can operate it on a harness you can get anywhere and everywhere with it.”

The system certainly caused quite a stir at the championship with everyone queuing up to have a go on its impressive length. What's more it proved totally compatible with the DU1 “The disk unit works very well on it,” says Davidson. “Usually the Polecam uses a DSR 50 DV cam recorder, which adds a great deal of weight to the back of it. The DU1 weighs very little, so we simply velcroed it to the back, strapped the remote control to the boom and away we went. It is very practical.”

“The beauty of the Polecam is that it gets you where other cameras cannot reach,” concludes Secker from behind the controls. “In fact that is what this whole event has taught me, you are no longer limited by technology; you are only limited by your imagination.”

Watching the day’s action later that day at the Wafi centre, there is no denying the quality of the footage regardless of the speed of the turnaround. The fact that the action had occurred earlier that morning was quite astounding. The storms of adversity seem to have done it again.
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