High Fliers

Although broadcast systems and film equipment are getting more sophisticated, they are mostly designed for shooting on land. Filming an air race and telecasting it live to a global audience poses a completely different set of challenges as Digital Studio discovered at the Red Bull air race in Abu Dhabi last month.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  May 3, 2005

I|~|werner.jpg|~|Broadcast director, Werner Eksler was in charge of the camera setup|~|On the afternoon of April 8, 2005, 150,000 odd spectators gathered around the Abu Dhabi corniche to watch nine pilots execute breathtakingly beautiful aerobatics as they manoeuvred their aircraft through obstacle poles and sped through the sky at 450 kph to compete for the title of the ‘fastest, boldest and most versatile pilot in the world’. Even as people stood to watch the first round of the Red Bull Air Race World Series 2005 that was held in the UAE capital, a whole team worked behind-the-scenes to bring that same action live to viewers’ homes worldwide. Two months ahead of the event, Werner Eksler, director of the air race and the man in charge of the camera setup, came down to Abu Dhabi for a location check. He rode the course on a helicopter and marked out ideal locations for camera placement. “Nobody has much experience filming plane races,” says Eksler. “Since these planes are moving in the air, you don’t really have proper reference points. So like in a soccer game, we went on the helicopter, got an impression of how the pilot is going to be moving in the area and got master shots, wide shots etc. Then we went a step further by flying at about 20 to 30 ms, which is the level at which the planes would be flying and from here, we looked at potential backgrounds such as the skyline of Abu Dhabi,” he adds. For lack of many precedents, one of Eksler’s biggest challenges was to get the right systems in place and to ensure that they got the best shots on camera so that people could experience on television what spectators could feel from the ground. Additionally, the team was also providing extra footage and glimpses of the pilots on giant screens at the corniche for the spectators. To make all of this possible, several specialised broadcast and production teams flew in from different parts of the world. Eksler himself hails from Austria. Joining him was the Alfacam crew from Germany; the Skylink team from Switzerland, which did the onboard-camera installation; and Riedel Communications, which took care of the entire internal communication circuit. Based on Eksler’s study, 14 cameras were placed around the site — two were mounted on the poles (commonly called gates) to cover the planes as they roared past within a hairbreadth of the pylons and the rest were positioned at strategic locations on the ground. The 14 cameras — all from Thomson Grassvalley —included normal cameras on tripod, one on the Hilton roof with 100x lens for close-up shots, wide lens cameras, a couple of handheld cameras for stage interviews, sports cameras and slow motion cameras. Placement of cameras was one significant concern for Eksler’s team. Camera installation on the gates, for instance, needed to be considered carefully to address safety issues. “This one was especially tricky because these obstacles are just air-filled pillars. If we placed the cameras right at the top of the pillar and a pilot crashed into it, he’d hurt himself. So we placed the cameras a little lower than the highest level so that the chances of hitting them were a lot lesser.” Likewise, in a vast area, where planes were moving between 1.5 kms to about 600 ms, choice of lenses was also crucial. “One problem was getting proper close-up shots. Because of security reasons, the camera had to be set about 100 ms away. So we had to use long lenses to get close-ups,” he adds. ||**||II|~|peterbesne.jpg|~| Hungarian aerobatics world champion Peter Besenyei won the race in Abu Dhabi|~|Choice of on-board cameras for the aircraft and their placement was equally crucial. For one, it was important to settle for a light-weight camera because of G-Force. For instance, in a situation, where a pilot is taking a close curve and the radius is low, he experiences a pressure that could go upto G-Force 8. “This means that if the pilot normally weighs 50 kgs, under G-Force 8, his weight will rise to 400 kgs and his face would be stretched and tight. Likewise, a 0.5 kg camera would weigh about 5 kgs and might be dangerous if not safely installed. In some races, these cameras are also installed on the pilot’s head and safety is crucial. So, it was very important to install a light-weight camera and fit it in a way that allows you to get good shots of the pilot without compromising his safety,” explains Eksler. Owing to the fact that this was a tricky issue, the on-board installation was handed over to Skylink, a Swiss company. “We settled for lipstick cameras from Sony for the aircraft but we modified them substantially to adapt them to the system,” explains Skylink’s Marco Biner, who oversaw the installation of the on-board cameras. “For instance, we had a software adaptor put in the camera and the recorder so that when it boots, it also automatically begins to record. You cannot ask the pilot to manipulate the position of the camera or start recording when he’s flying. So, we just have to ensure that when the camera switches on, it also begins to record at the same time. Likewise, we have made some other changes to the system as well,” he adds. Interestingly, the only visible part of the camera on the plane is a tiny viewfinder, the size of a lipstick. The rest of the electronics of the camera is placed in a box with the recorder at the back of the plane. “This kind of electronic equipment is not designed to go up in the air. So we fixed it inside a box so that in case of any accidents or because of the G-Force, it does not become a potential hazard,” explains Biner. These cameras were placed in each aircraft in different positions such as the cockpit, out on the wing or on its tail to get various perspectives of the pilot as he did a nosedive, a gate approached with hair-raising speed, and the horizon spun in front of his eyes. “Getting onboard cameras for a live transmission was a significant challenge,” explains director Eksler. “Formula One onboard cameras are not easy to procure either, but to make them work on planes, especially when doing manoeuvres such as looping, is especially difficult.” Skylink is known for offering video relay services including live digital or analogue video relayed to a ground receiver via an all-weather PILATUS PC-12 plane. It supports video feeds from multiple, mobile independent transmitters via this single high altitude platform, providing robust video links in all weather conditions and over any terrain. For this purpose, each aircraft was also fitted with two antennae — one on top of the aircraft and one, below. “The reception is on the ground. So, if the plane turns in the air as it does sometimes, there’s always one antenna pointing to the reception in the ground,” explains Biner. ||**||III|~||~||~|All of these cameras — onboard as well as the 14 others — were eventually linked to Alfacam’s outside broadcast (OB) vehicle on site. This truck, which handles the camera feeds, the vision mixing and the audio, is equipped with Thomson cameras and routers, a Studer audio desk with Sennheiser mics and Crystal Palace ‘Big Ears’ directional mics for ambience as well as three plasma screens from Pioneer. “There is a master mix of all the cameras in the OB van. The mixed signal includes graphics, running time, slow motions as well as stereo audio, which is delivered via uplink to 25 TV stations worldwide and from them, to their respective audiences,” explains Eksler. Belgium-based company, Alfacam, which provides TV facilities to broadcasters and production houses, covered the technical facilities of the air race under the supervision of Imre Sereg, business manager of Alfacam. The company was responsible for the uplink of the feeds to the 25 broadcasters worldwide. A special domestic feed was also made with Arabic commentary for Abu Dhabi TV. Alfacam had 10 Sony VTRs on site to record feeds and used EVS Broadcast’s XT network systems for slow motion and highlights packages. “Each of our XT machines runs six channels. They were also networked, which means our operators could work from any one of these systems,” explains Sereg. An Avid Adrenaline was also available on site to cut feature stories and highlights. In terms of audio, Eksler required microphones that could get clear sound despite the planes being about 800-1000 ms away. For this, two people followed the planes with microphones called Big Ears from the ground. Big Ears have a working distance of 600 metres and are known to reduce the surrounding noise and focus on the point in which direction the antenna is linked. Eksler’s team also used a Local Position Measurement (LPM) system to keep time and get data in real time. “We needed a system that could measure time. With the LPM system, we can measure not only time but also speed and G-Force. In future, it will also be able to measure the heartbeat, power of the engines and flight-levels in real time. With such a system, we can get two planes to fly together and better understand the mechanics of flying and also gather data for future analysis,” explains Eksler. The event in Abu Dhabi, which saw Hungarian aerobatics world champion Peter Besenyei emerge as the winner of the race, was produced and broadcast in standard definition although Alfacam was fully equipped to provide High Definition (HD) signals. “At this stage, link systems for HD are not working well enough. There is a considerable delay time, so we cannot use it for live transmission,” says Eksler. “Several vendors such as Thomson and Sony are working on providing wireless HD cameras. Once this is done, Red Bull will switch completely to HD. We are ideally working towards producing the air race from the middle of the year in HD.” From mid-2006, the Red Bull Air Race TV-helicopter, which currently sends SDI signals, will also begin to provide footage in HDTV format via a brand new Cineflex system, utilising a Tandberg technology based transmission system. ||**||

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