Remote Sports Production Engineering Report: Awaiting the 4K Revolution, Part 1

The men and women behind remote sports production — specifically those who run the companies responsible for rolling out the 53-ft. production trailers that are the heart and soul of the industry — always keep the technology horizon in view when building a new truck. Technology evolves. Clients have new needs. Equipment manufacturers create new workflows. Keeping up with all three is the nature of the business.

Six years ago, future-proofing a truck meant HD and 1.5 Gbps infrastructure. Then two new buzz-worthy formats, 1080p and 3D, increased that 1.5 Gbps infrastructure to a 3 Gbps infrastructure.

And that brings us to 2014. There is much to consider for remote-production companies looking to build trucks that will be road-worthy for seven years. The buzz around 3D and 1080p never moved beyond the noise stage, and 2014 promises to have 4K creating a buzz.

“We are forward-thinking,” says Mike Johnson, director of engineering at Dome Productions, “and that means integrating for 1080p and 4K services, although 4K will operate in more of an island [early on].”

NEP Corplex Engineering Manager Dave Greany notes that 4K is the 800-lb. gorilla when it comes to figuring out what to do with respect to truck builds. Clients are still unsure about their 4K plans and, in some instances, are willing to hold off on asking for new builds, instead keeping their current facilities.

“There are still a lot of budget-conscious clients who want to do a good show without breaking the bank,” says Greany. “So they will have a technology upgrade somewhere down the road, with options for technology upgrades and the ability to revisit things in three years.”

Regardless of whether 4K is going to become a commercial reality, everyone is making the move to at least 3 Gbps infrastructure. That move alone is a big step towards 4K-compatibility; 4K workflows to date have involved slicing the 4K screen into HD-resolution quadrants and then transporting them as four successive HD signals, which are then reassembled as a 4K image.

Along with 3 Gbps, there is also a lot more integration of fiber both inside and outside the truck. “That is impacting design, with less weight being one of the big advantages,” says Johnson. “And, as the need to support SD goes down, fiber accessibility is replacing that as a need.”

But, while the industry mantra is “more fiber,” there is still a need for triax connectivity. First, not all cameras are compatible with fiber, and, more important, many venues have not put down a fiber infrastructure.

“Smaller venues often don’t have fiber, and they are cost-conscious, so we need to use what is there,” Greany explains. “The latest Ikegami and Grass Valley cameras have elegant triax and SMPTE solutions, [with] both available in the same base station. Triax isn’t going away, especially for anyone who is buying 30-40 cameras a year for trucks.”

Reports Jason Taubman, VP of design and new technology, Game Creek Video, “We thought this might be the moment for no more triax, but, after thinking about it, [we concluded] we needed to support both SMPTE fiber and triax. And, because we overachieved in cutting down the weight of the truck, we can carry both sets of cables.”

The fiber movement is also going hand-in-hand with a move toward packetized routing and the promise of seamless integration between the studio and the field. But 4K, according to Greany and Taubman, has slowed down that movement.

“Packet switching is at 1.5 or 3 Gbps, so those conversations blow up a little when we are talking about 12 Gbps, which is what 4K [will eventually need],” says Taubman. “You can use quad link [to move 4K over 3 Gbps], but then there are problems with timing and integration.”

Adds Greany, “Baseband routing is going to be around for a long while, and, once some standards are set, the move to packetized routing will be back.”

He also says advances in archive workflows for EVS are moving ahead as well. “A lot of entertainment and concert work used to mean walking away with a stack of tape, but now content is laid off to several RAID arrays, and clients are interested in that solution. That also means no need to ingest as files are already built and wrapped for editing.”

Client Needs Today
The 4K movement will no doubt heat up following this week’s annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which saw a number of 4K-related announcements. But there are still plenty of technical issues to be sorted out before sports networks and facility providers can move forward with live 4K sports production.

“The 4K imagers are still Super 35mm, and they just don’t have the sensitivity and depth of field that is going to have a direct impact on live sports production,” explains Greany. “If we use that imager, we need to change the way sports are covered.”

Adds Johnson, “Lensing is also a challenge. And it also diminishes our resources, as needing four HD inputs for a 4K signal impacts our routers and production switchers.”

Today, that impact limits the use of 4K to technical islands that marry a 4K camera with an EVS or Evertz replay server so that the HD production team can zoom in on a 4K image and extract a close-up that has Full HD resolution. Camera options for 4K today typically revolve around the FOR-A FT1, Sony F55, and Canon C300.

And what about building a new truck specifically for 4K? The problem, according to Taubman, is that the equipment is still not available to make such a move.

“If 4K kicks off, it is going to have be done on a 3 Gbps infrastructure,” he explains. “We will have to see what develops with our clients, but we will likely not retrofit the infrastructure for six to eight years.”

In addition, there is still plenty of engineering work to be done with respect to production switchers and replay devices. For example, current solutions require four HD inputs and outputs on a device to be dedicated to each channel of 4K. Reducing the source capabilities of a production by 75% has a negative impact not only on the production but on costs and space requirements as well.

That technical gap means that many new trucks are built for future flexibility more than for, say, 4K.

“The two trucks we just built are evolutions of previous trucks and not too radical,” Taubman says. “We refined the monitoring with more multiviewing and an increased router that has a little bit of headroom. And we turned the production room sideways and tweaked the tape room to make it larger.”

Stitching two or three 4K cameras together is also seen as a way to lower the cost of smaller productions: it could reduce the number of required cameras for an HD show. The cameras are stitched together to provide an 8K or 12K image of the complete field of play, and then an operator can “pan and scan” across the image to extract a 1080p image that can then be the core of the HD broadcast.

“The rationale behind it is economic,” Johnson points out. “It is more economical for a high volume of productions as you don’t need eight cameras.”

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