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Sat 24 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Designing OBs for sport

Stephen Burgess, Megahertz technical director, looks at the special challenges of designing outside broadcast vehicles for sports production.

Designing OBs for sport
Steve Burgess, technical director, Megahertz Broadcast.
Designing OBs for sport
Megahertz has now built six large trucks for SIS LIVE.
Designing OBs for sport
Once the equipment layout is established, cabling has to be considered.
Designing OBs for sport
Focus first on the people when designing a truck.

Stephen Burgess, Megahertz technical director, looks at the special challenges of designing outside broadcast vehicles for sports production.

With the ever-increasing number of television channels, many of them devoted to sport, there is an equal increase in the requirement for outside broadcast units to capture the action. As one of the leading systems integrators working in OBs, Megahertz Broadcast Systems has developed a good understanding of the special challenges in building trucks, and what follows are just some thoughts on the questions to be asked and the problems to be solved.

Size matters

The first question, inevitably, is size and, while biggest might seem to be best, it is not always the right answer. Where will the truck be used? If it is exclusively for sport then a full length, double or triple expanding trailer will probably not be a practical problem, even though it might be too big for some applications.

But if it is likely to be used for other applications then its size might be an issue. Several OB contractors work as much in music and theatre as in sport, and parking a triple expanding truck outside, say, the Royal Opera House in London or La Scala in Milan is simply not possible. And of course using a 30 camera capable truck covering a sport - snooker, say - which does not require more than six cameras is not a cost-effective use of resources.

Better to start with the practical requirements and that will, in many cases determine both the nature of the unit and its layout.  Most OBs are now owned by specialist companies who rent them to broadcasters or producers on a day by day, event by event basis. That sets certain requirements and expectations.

Design

The cosmetic design of the production area gets a lot of attention, because that is where the client sits and the contractor would like the client to be happy. Excellent finishing and comfortable chairs are important, of course, but there is also the need to set it apart, which might bring that customer back regularly.

We have now built six large trucks for SIS LIVE - the most recent, OB1, went into service at this year's University Boat Race - and one of the most striking design features (as with the  previous two trucks) is the extensive use of sound-proofed external windows, allowing natural light into the production area.

No-one had thought to do this before: it was felt to be too difficult to maintain acoustic isolation and to keep distracting reflections from the monitor stack. But SIS LIVE is absolutely convinced it is a worthwhile addition to the comfort level, reducing stress in a live event, and we were happy to develop the solution. It is particularly appreciated by the operators during rigging and de-rigging.

Layout

OB operators may have a clear idea of layout, but my strong advice would be to think of the people first and we will fit the equipment around them. How many people do you need in each operational area? Where do they need to sit relative to each other? What monitors do they need to see? Which other people do they need in their eyeline? What controls do they need to access?

Finding space for all the technical equipment in a truck is always a nightmare jigsaw puzzle. But there is no point even attempting to solve it if the working environment does not make producers want to work in the space. So focus first on the people.

We can give a degree of flexibility and add to the comfort once the core layout is defined. Monitor stacks can be hinged, allowing for wings to wrap in or high level monitors to tilt forward. Multi-viewers of course mean that monitor layouts can be instantly changed as required, with set-ups stored for instant recall later, on the same truck or one with a compatible design.

The availability of very high quality, affordable displays from the IT industry means that screens can be added to help operators. We have used the Apple 23" Cinema Display extensively in trucks, for instance.

Many jobs require the truck to do much more than cut the event live and send it off to the broadcaster. Sports viewers now expect multiple replays of key points of the action, some in live slow motion and one or two events in ultra-slow motion.
So the truck has to be capable of supporting multiple record and replay channels. The traditions of the business mean that we still call these VTR areas, even though in most cases they actually rely on video servers. Live replay areas tend to be noisy, with operators shouting what they have available, so they are normally in separate, isolated areas. Some operators prefer separate trucks, and this is certainly the best approach where there are a lot of live replay channels.

At the same time, there may be a requirement for rapid turnaround editing on board. Many broadcasters call for a highlights package the moment the final whistle blows for half time or the end of the football or rugby match, or immediately a cricketer reaches his century. So linked to the replay area, and with access to all the server content, will be an edit work-station.

An increasing requirement is for a second production area within the truck. This might be for local and multi-lateral feeds, for on-air and in-stadium versions, or for completely independent outputs, perhaps for broadcast and online coverage.

In some cases this can be achieved with a second, plug-in panel for the main production switcher and some additions to the monitoring, but in a recent large truck we built the customer specified a second, independent production control room.

Associated with that was a second audio room. Audio has compounded the complexity of building trucks since the coming of HD, because of the expectation of good quality 5.1 surround sound processing and monitoring, and the need to provide at least the capability of 5.1 feeds to other parts of the truck.

Few subjects in our industry arouse quite so much passion as user preferences for audio consoles. Some customers insist on specifying traditional audio consoles with a fader per channel - on the entirely reasonable basis that it gives the operator immediate, intuitive, tactile control under pressure - but physically fitting it into the truck layout can be very demanding.

Equipment

Having decided what the truck should do and who will sit where, the remaining space can be given over to equipment. Even that is not quite as simple as it seems, as there are important design constraints which limit the layout.

Ventilation is critical. A director charged with bringing all the excitement of a major sporting event to an audience measured in hundreds of millions, maybe billions, will have enough to worry about. It is entirely reasonable that the air conditioning should keep the director and team cool, without irritating whirring fans. Which means equipment in general needs to be in an environmentally isolated space wherever possible.

The next challenge for the designer is what happens when the vehicle is on the move. If the equipment is confined to one part of the truck does this mean it is unbalanced? Will the vehicle be difficult to drive because all the weight is on one side?

Once the equipment layout is established, cabling has to be considered. The idea of two  audio rooms has already been mentioned: linking the tailboard to first one and then a  second audio desk with 80 or 100 individual twin and screen audio cables adds a huge amount of weight, not to mention bigger cable ducts than can readily be provided.

Where practical the systems integrator has to specify audio multiplexing. The team will also work with cable suppliers to get the lightest possible co-ax cable which will provide the required HD performance.

Some equipment may be routinely added or removed from the truck. Larger operators will have a core stock of cameras and CCUs, VTRs, server channels and drives, and graphics and edit workstations, which will be loaded onto a truck as required. The balance of the requirement will be rented in as necessary. The location of this equipment has to be readily accessible, from both front and back of the rack, to allow this to be done quickly.

In conclusion

This has just been a flavour of some of the perhaps less obvious issues involved in specifying, designing and building an OB truck, particularly at the bigger end of the scale and aimed at the sports market. All of these challenges can be resolved - we have happy customers who can testify to that - but I hope it is clear that the best way to achieve a successful result is through collaboration, and by starting not with some standardised technical blueprint but with an understanding of the operational requirements.

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