Viacom’s Atlas Truck Carries the Weight of MTV’s VMAs, Enables New File-Based Workflows

Truck which debuted at Fox’s Grease Live!, serves as production hub for first VMAs at MSG

While heavy-hitting pop icons Beyoncé and Rihanna stole the show on stage at MTV’s 2016 Video Music Awards on Sunday, another heavy hitter made its VMA debut behind the scenes: Viacom Media Network’s Music and Entertainment Group’s massive, 4K-capable Atlas mobile unit. The truck, which debuted in January for Fox’s Grease Live! telecast, served as the production hub for the first VMAs at Madison Square Garden, powering one of the largest and most complex shows on the annual live-production calendar.

“Every time we do this show, we think it can’t get any bigger, and then, every year, it gets bigger,” said George Epley, SVP, technical and production operations, Viacom Media Networks Music and Entertainment Group, prior to the show on Sunday. “It just keeps growing. This is my 27th VMAs. Things have changed an awful lot since 1989, and, once again, this is the biggest one we’ve ever done.”

Viacom’s Atlas truck worked its first VMAs on Sunday.

Viacom’s Atlas truck worked its first VMAs on Sunday.

In addition to the live linear telecast, Atlas produced MTV’s red-carpet preshow, a streamed behind-the-scenes show, and a rooftop performance outside MSG, as well as a four-camera postproduced 360–virtual-reality show that will be made available on-demand. On top of that, Viacom Media Networks continues to ramp up content exchange between the truck and its Times Square production facility to streamline its postproduction and quick-turnaround VOD operation.

“When I started working on VMAs 10 years ago, we had two feeds leaving the building: transmission and backup,” said Jeff Jacobs, SVP, production planning, strategies, and operations, ‎Viacom Media Networks Music and Entertainment Group. “Sunday, we have 46 feeds leaving the building, including transmission and backup, preshow transmission and backup, digital behind-the-scenes show, Facebook Live, Twitter, Snapchat, and 30 other multiplatform distribution sites. Ten years ago, the only real way to get out was uplink and fiber. Now we are using IP to push our content and deliver it to fans.”

Atlas’s acoustically treated audio-mixing room features a massive Lawo audio board.

Atlas’s acoustically treated audio-mixing room features a massive Lawo audio board.

A Wholly Tapeless Workflow
The two-trailer Atlas mobile unit is built around a Sony XVS 8000X switcher and a Utah 3G 1156×1156 Scientific 400 series 2 baseband router (Epley and company have opted not to go with an IP router until the technology matures further). Inside the B unit’s custom-tuned and acoustically treated audio room sits a Lawo mc²66 MKII featuring 80 faders, intended to provide “a real studio mixing environment,” according to Epley.

Most notably, Atlas features an entirely tapeless workflow with 10 Sony PWS-4500 production servers and 24 channels of Pronology mRes multiresolution encode/record systems (soon to be expanded to 32). Running on the Pronology media-asset–management (MAM) system, the mRes records an uncompressed high-res file, an edit proxy, and a live-web-streamable proxy in real time for each SDI input channel. These proxies are fed to the postproduction team at MTV’s facility at 1515 Broadway, streamlining the editing process. The high-res files are recorded to Small Tree TitaniumZ-5 40-TB hard drives, which are transported manually to 1515 Broadway, so that the proxies can be replaced with high-res content.

The Atlas mobile unit houses Pronology MAM and 24 mRes multiresolution encoder/recording systems.

The Atlas mobile unit houses Pronology MAM and 24 mRes multiresolution encoder/recording systems.

“The integration with postproduction is key,” says Epley. “We send low-res proxy, so they are editing the first act by the time we get to the second act. This is a completely file-based workflow, delivering the low-res proxies as the show’s going on to post and then walking away with multiple 40-TB hard drives.”

He adds that, within the next two months, all Music and Entertainment Group trucks will be using Pronology mRes as its primary record workflow.

“[Previously], our normal protocol was [to record] clean program, dirty program, backup, and then iso every camera; that would be 32-33 tape machines for this show,” says Epley. “Now we are in there doing hundreds of streams in different file formats. The file-based workflow wasn’t something that slowly ramped up; it changed everything immediately.”

Beyond Atlas: Plenty More Trucks, Live 4K Cutout
In addition to Atlas, which served the MTV linear telecast, Viacom rolled out its Nereus truck for the red-carpet VMA preshow and Magnus for the MTV digital and behind-the-scenes streaming production. Also on hand was Audio 8 (featuring two audio consoles) to mix the sound for multiple stages simultaneously, as well as the 24-ft. Local truck to help cover Nick Jonas’s live performance outside MSG during the show.

In all, MTV’s linear telecast deployed more than 30 cameras: 21 standard cameras for the primary show, an additional eight for the Jonas performance, and several POVs. Also inside MSG were a Cablecam aerial system, a Towercam, a rail-mounted camera system on the stage, two jibs, two RF Steadicams, and several robos.

The streaming behind-the-scenes production featured its own complement of 22 robos and POVs stationed throughout MSG.

MTV’s secondary compound featured Viacom’s Nereus and Magnus trucks powering the red carpet and streaming behind-the-scenes shows.

MTV’s secondary compound featured Viacom’s Nereus and Magnus trucks powering the red carpet and streaming behind-the-scenes shows.

For the first time, the production team deployed a 4K-cutout application (using the Sony PWS-4500 server and HDC-4300 camera) live during the VMAs to provide more flexibility in its coverage.

“4K cutout gives us some different camera options,” Epley pointed out. “Because of the nature of the 360 set, you get into some limitations of viewing angles and how many cameras you can put out on the floor. So it’s just given us the opportunity to cover things differently with one camera. Spike Sports has been using [4K cutout] on the tape-playback side, and, certainly, you see it a lot around [the industry], but this is the first show we are actually using it on a live-camera side.”

With no traditional host at the VMAs this year, MTV deployed a primary set featuring masters of ceremony Key and Peele (as social-media-influencer characters @TheShamester and @LizardSheeple), as well as a variety of quick hits from correspondents Nicole Byer, DJ Khaled, and Jay Pharoah from throughout the arena.

File-Based Workflows Open New Postproduction World
However, the production scale of the 2016 VMAs goes well beyond Atlas and the action inside MSG, as Viacom continues to grow its extensive multiplatform content distribution to fans, as well as content exchange between the remote and its production facility.

Key and Peele rehearse for their role as VMA masters of ceremony.

Key and Peele rehearse for their role as VMA masters of ceremony.

“When you look at how we are sharing and distributing all this content to so many platforms, it’s absolutely unbelievable,” says Jacobs. “We don’t have edit rooms on-site. Instead, we have 10 edit rooms back at 1515 Broadway, and we are pushing all file-based [content]. From those edit rooms, we distribute to 30 different multiplatform entities from Twitter to Snapchat to Facebook Live and more.”

MTV had a temporary 700-Mbps fiber pipe linking its primary MSG operation and 1515 Broadway; its digital operation was linked directly to the Viacom network. MTV sent 21 proxy feeds of each iso camera, as well as high-res feeds of the clean and dirty program. This allowed the postproduction team to start assembling content during the show and then replace the proxy files with high-res files once the Small Tree drives arrived after the show.

“The big thing that changed in 2016 was, our trucks went tapeless, which opens up everything,” said Jason Pattan, senior director, content management and production technology, Viacom. “This show last year, everything was HDCAM; when the show ended, someone took a box of HDCAM [tape] and drove it over to the post house, and then they ingested for 14 hours. This year, it’s all files.”

Although MTV has deployed Atlas for other shows, including the MTV Movie Awards, Pattan says the VMAs marked the first time his team is fully utilizing the potential of file-based workflows.

For example, as the proxy feeds and file transfers came in to 1515 Broadway, a dedicated edit team immediately began cutting the evergreen version that will be rebroadcast on MTV in the future.

MTV’s content-management team also had a small dedicated trailer with DIT stations where ENG crews delivered their content to be ingested and transferred via accelerated file transfer technology to 1515 Broadway. Two channels of live ingest were also sent: a feed of the red-carpet fashion camera and a red-carpet interview camera during the preshow and, once the VMAs began, a feed of the step-and-repeat and an interview position in the press room. Two editors located at 1515 Broadway were tasked with clipping up that content, exporting it, and sending it to MediaSilo for metadata entry, after which it was made available to media outlets via an electronic press kit (EPK) site.

A camera mounted on a rail helped cover the VMA stage.

A camera mounted on a rail helped cover the VMA stage.

In addition, the VMAs marked the first major live production in which content was automatically ingested into the Viacom Music & Entertainment Group’s digital archive. The group is currently in the midst of a massive digitization process (even more imperative now with the relaunch of MTV Classic earlier this month), and Atlas file-based infrastructure allows seamless integration from live to archive.

“As far as archive goes, we’ve never had this kind of opportunity because it’s always been on tape,” says Pattan. “The tapes go back after the show and get barcoded, and then they go to on a shelf. [For] the first time, we’ve got files coming from the truck directly into our Alias enterprise asset-management system. … And, by the end of the day on Monday, every iso from the VMAs will be logged and ready to go if people need to grab content.”

Click here for a report on the Viacom/MTV’s virtual-reality effort at the VMAs.

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