Learning curves

After working out of a makeshift studio and post production facility for the last few years, students at the Dubai Men’s College now have a modern production unit that is designed to prepare them for the professional world. Digital Studio takes a close look at the facility.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  December 2, 2006

I|~|college2.jpg|~|Although the studio walls have been acoustically treated with black fabric panels, additional curtains with acoustic fabric have also been included to enable students to record a small live orchestra if the need arises.|~|The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) has been running its Media Production programme for the last decade and students at Dubai Men’s College have been exposed to production and post production as part of this course. However, UAE national students who are now studying at the college will have a significant advantage over their predecessors because the makeshift studio and post production facilities that served them until now have been replaced by a brand new purpose built facility that is truly state-of-the-art and designed to prepare them for the professional world. Plans to build such a facility were first started three years ago by the Dubai Municipality along with HCT. The design of the building was also started many years ago but underwent significant variations along with the media courses offered by the college. However, one point was always kept as a guide, says Paul Herspiegel, who was the former broadcast engineer at HCT, and oversaw the design, planning and installation of the new facility from scratch. “Our main aim was to ensure that the graduating students were exposed to as much current technology and practice as possible and understood the real expectations within a commercial production environment,” says Herspiegel. “The intentions in building the facilities were to create a setting where professional production work and traditional classroom learning could happen at the same time. This included several purpose built spaces including a professional TV production studio, an audio studio acoustically treated and large enough for a small band, a radio/voice-over room large enough for a two or three person interview situation but intimate enough for clean voice-over recording, a lab for graphics related activities as well as a lab for multimedia and web-related activities. Each of these spaces includes appropriate control room areas and hardware to support the activities,” he adds. The TV studio is 12 X 18 metres with the grid fixed at a five-metre height. There is a set of studio black curtains that can enclose up to 80% of the walls, a set of chromakey Blue curtains that is 12 metres long and a soft cyclorama curtain, also 12 meters in length. All the curtains are floor to ceiling height in the studio. The space is set up as a black box studio with multiple wall box connections to the control rooms. The studio is easy to configure for a normal multi-camera live broadcast or television news style production and can also be quickly turned around for traditional single camera dramatic or cinema style shooting. Currently, this is a three-camera production studio with the capability of adding a fourth and fifth camera when needed. The studio also has the capability to broadcast via satellite over the E-vision network. In fact, the TV studio and the radio station will be able to broadcast via both the intranet and the internet, and can be accessible from the Comm Tech web site located at http://www.commtech-dmc.com. The sound isolation and internal noise from the A/C balanced with efficient cooling and air handling at the studio was also carefully considered. “In fact, the completion of the studio was delayed by over a year because of problems with the initially installed A/C. The wait was worth it though as we were able to achieve extremely good noise, isolation and air handling results. We achieved approximately 70db of isolation from the control rooms and 54db of isolation through the large studio door that leads to a storage room and access to the outside world,” explains Herspiegel. The doorway to the facility is large enough to allow driving vehicles into the studio for deliveries or for production work with video or photography. The sound generated within the room with the AC full on reaches an NC30 rating, which is extremely quiet. The studio walls themselves are acoustically treated with black fabric panels but because the room is quiet and large enough for potentially recording a small live orchestra, the additional curtains were all specified with acoustic fabric to help tune the room in these situations. A flexible lighting grid system was installed because unlike most TV station studios, the college generally does not have sets fixed in the studio for long periods of time, says Herspiegel. “It could have several students shooting different segments of very different style productions on the same day. The flexibility of the adjustable grid system allows them light and prelight for several different shooting sequences and sets,” he adds. Most of the lighting instruments are Arri and range from 6000W to 5KW intensity. There are also cool light daylight corrected fluorescent fixtures and a complement of 150W, 650W, 800W and 1K location light kits. 5K is the largest fixture the college can support with the dimming system. The Arri instruments offer very reliable instruments with easily obtained lamps and spare parts. The grip equipment is primarily a mix of Arri and Manfrotto with a large variety of stands, flags, gel frames and clamps that would be required in any film or television studio or location. A Strand DMX lighting control system with 150 channels of control was installed for several reasons. It is used widely in the television and entertainment industry; it is reliable and, more importantly, although it can be programmed for very complex lighting cues, including timecode driven effects, it is straightforward enough to be taught to students without having to make basic lighting a course of its own. ||**||II|~|college3.jpg|~|The VOR can accommodate three people and is also intimate enough to enable clean voice-over recording.|~|The dimmers are not SCR or switching dimmers. Rather than hard digital switching, they work by accurately varying the amplitude of a clean high frequency sine wave. The advantage is that the fixtures do not tend to buzz or hum as they do with the switching controllers. As is found in all professional studios, each circuit is labelled for easy access and, for safety, each circuit has individual circuit protection. For connection to the control room, there are Triax, BNC, microphone and audio tie lines and patch points available within the studio. The video tie lines are made with digital video cable to provide a simple migration from the present analogue to digital HD video. The audio tie lines and connections are fully balanced for clean signals throughout. At present, the video control room uses the equipment that moved with the department from its old premises. It is configured for analogue video. However, the building was built with the future in mind. The network infrastructure is 1Gb Ethernet and there is allowance for 2Gb fibre connection between the production and some presentation areas. The plan was to be able to produce a live programme in the studio and present it in full uncompressed HD on the five-metre projection screen in the auditorium with 5.1 surround audio or to link up for public satellite broadcast and live internet streaming. The audio control room has a small mixing desk and a Protools HD system to support both live audio production in the large studio as well as audio postproduction for larger projects. The Protools system is configured for 16 channels of analogue and digital I/O at bit rates up to 96K, and, very importantly, has a SyncI/O for lock of the digital audio to house sync and timecode chase/lock for synchronising recording and playback during production and post. The room is large enough for a number of students and instructors to be in production and teaching situations comfortably. The room is a totally floating room-within-a-room design for isolation and is acoustically treated. The monitoring system can be configured to playback and mix in 5.1 surround audio. The two smaller audio rooms are equipped with Protools LE for production. One room uses the DIGI002 interface and the other is a simple MBox. This maintains compatibility and consistency within all the production rooms including the video editing systems. This also allows for importing and working with files from any video system that can export or transfer OMF session files directly. The AV department at Dubai Men’s College uses an Avid system for preparing instructional materials and this allows the students to do special preparation and packaging of audio files that they use in their productions. Although there are several digital audio workstation packages available, the college chose Protools for a number of reasons. “One of the main benefits is that it is a very intuitive software. If you can imagine working in a very ‘old school’ method with physical multitrack tape machines and analogue mixers, the Protools environment is very much like this,” says Herspiegel. It has a recording/editing interface and an intuitive mixer interface. It is simple to understand the workflow in a multimedia production environment. It also supports direct playback of mpeg video from the editing timeline so when doing complex editing, scoring, dialog work or mixing, it can all be done directly synced to the picture. Markers and time cues are supported and if MIDI is required for the score or the soundtrack, it is also directly supported, even in the smaller systems. So with a dual display configuration, all of the audio work can be done on one machine with timecode lock and almost any format of audio file support. The audio files and session data from our video editing systems are directly compatible in this system. The video editing is handled on MacG5’s running Final Cut Pro (FCP). A long time ago, almost all of the production work was still linear based on BetaSP format and SVHS for some of the location work. The college did have an older Soft Image DS system but with the number of students and the lack of storage space on the drives at the time, only a select few final year projects were able to be edited on the system. “Seeing that this was troublesome, the department urged the college to move to a non-linear editing environment even if it would incur much higher costs,” explains Herspiegel. “To reinvest in non-supported or passing technology would have been a big mistake at that point, and with the popularity of the programme rising, the department needed additional support, regardless. So the search for a feature filled, somewhat stable and affordable edit system started back then,” he adds. Of the choices available at the time, FCP was far beyond the capabilities of the other affordable systems, according to Herspiegel, and it matched or outperformed all of the popular edit systems available then. In addition, with the appropriate selection of cameras and feeder decks, very little hardware was required to set up a working edit station. With a simple Matrox video card, students could also support real time playback on a regular broadcast monitor for colour correction, compositing and effects work. “Over the past few years, the college has kept up to date with the version releases and at this point, FCP still maintains a feature and performance edge over the directly competing systems. The students generally find it easy to learn and because they are taught the concepts of editing rather than the editing software specifically, when they graduate, they find it easy to migrate to just about any other system their employers are using.” With the additional features in the FCP studio package, the students are exposed to concepts and techniques used not only for editing and production but also for DVD authoring, programme packaging and producing for multiple delivery formats. The department primarily operates in a Mac-based environment. The Mac operating system is technically better suited to media work than a Windows based machine. Even the new Macs running on the Intel hardware platform manage media files differently and more efficiently than Windows. Both the video and audio file management and delivery methods are more accurate and more robust than their Windows counterparts, and in general, if a user operates the MacOSX 3.X.X or 4.X.X, their overall system is extremely stable and far less prone to viruses and hacking because of its UNIX base. For production, students have access to Sony PD150 and PD170 as well as large format Sony DXC Analogue three-chip cameras with DVCam and BetaSP backs. It was hoped that the move into HD production would have started with the move into the new facilities but the reality of costs versus budgets – a problem with most academic institutions — forced choices to be made. With the number of students requiring access to equipment, the department needed to increase the number of cameras, location kits and support equipment beyond what was possible with a move to HD. So for now, the students continue to produce in broadcast DVCam format with discussions and presentations on technical and production aspects of HD. One final plug for Final Cut Pro is that as soon as the college is able to make the move to HD, the editing facilities will be able to support it directly. In terms of location equipment, the students have access to a full range of lighting kits varying from 150W Arri fixtures up to 1K Ianero Redheads, a range of grip stands, clamps, flags, and light gels, scrims and diffusion. There are a number of shotgun microphones, radio microphones, handheld and tabletop microphones, boompoles, table stands and floor stands. ||**||III|~||~||~|Another important area is the graphics lab, which features a skylight for true daylight analysis of colour and presentations. The computers are Mac G5s loaded with current versions of graphics software that is used everyday in the industry. The next area is the multimedia lab, which is equipped with a mix of G4 and G5 computers loaded with a variety of industry standard software for web-based work. The students have access to a wireless network so they can access the net for research, uploading their web sites, wireless printing to a number of laser printers throughout the campus and keeping in touch via email. The glue that was intended to tie all of these varied production areas and activities together was a broadcast media server and storage system, according to Herspiegel. “The initial specification called for an Omneon server system with of storage connected via fibre network to the production areas. This was to include a later addition of a Mac XSan storage system with an additional two terabytes of storage. At the time of planning, Omneon was the only manufacturer that natively supported FCP and would have provided the capacity for ten edit stations able to work in place directly on the server,” he says. “The great aspect of this was that the storage, production and playout was all physically in one location and the department would be able to store and deliver the finished content in multiple formats without any major storage or loading headaches. It would also allow for intelligent asset management and repurposing of content virtually, on demand. Unfortunately, budget constraints have kept this plan on hold but this will be considered again in the future.” All in all, the students at Dubai Men’s College have the makings of a wonderful facility that has the potential to be one of the best outfitted teaching facilities, in the region. Herspiegel says the facilities are up to professional standards and will hopefully be pushed to their limits. “One of the intentions in making sure the standards were kept as high as possible was the plan to open the facilities for commercial use. This would be a fantastic learning opportunity for the students to be able to participate in a commercial production assisting and learning from production craft specialists. The things a student can learn by watching and interacting with a seasoned Director of Photography or director for example would be invaluable to their future career.” The college could also potentially benefit by generating revenue from its facilities. With the present situation where most of the working studios in Dubai are heavily booked, this may be an opportunity for the college and producers to have some point of mutual benefit. “As the costs of education climb, the size of available funding for equipment and infrastructure additions or changes continues to decline. It would be great if a situation arose where the programme could use the facilities to help offset some of the hardware costs. This may turn out to be the only way that the true capabilities of these facilities are realised,” explains Herspiegel. The college is constantly working towards achieving 100% integration at its facility. “The intention of the facility is to provide a high quality learning environment offering students the opportunity to enhance their skills in TV and news production,” explains Blake Chamberlain, faculty member at the Communictions Technology department, Dubai Men’s College. “Our goal is to have all areas including audio recording, the radio station, the TV studio and the editing facility integrated where possible and make all areas broadcast capable. Once the upgrade is complete, further capabilities will be added to the facility including the ability to produce musicals, sitcoms, talk shows, variety shows and news programmes.” ||**||

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