Laura Pausini's 'Io sì'

If you have had the opportunity to watch Edoardo Ponti's latest movie 'La vita davanti a sé' (The Life Ahead) with the always beautiful Sophia Loren, you may have heard Laura Pausini's rendition of the Dianne Warren song 'Seen' (Io si) at the conclusion of the film. Hearing the talented Laura Pausini took me back to 1993 when the singer was only 19 years old and she had a hit with 'La Solitudine.'

I had the pleasure of working with her when she performed on the European Lottery, a LIVE show watched by over 100 million viewers through Eurovision (the same organisation that broadcasts the European Song Festival). Almost thirty years have passed, so I would probably make some other choices now, but it's great to see how the camera loves this star.

1993 European Lottery. Live television special produced by Ivo Niehe Productions for AVRO/Eurovision.

Hans van Riet
Los Angeles
25 November 2020

Looks like we're back in business. Sorta. Kinda.

After a long COVID-19 caused hiatus marked by remote directing and editing, I finally had an opportunity to 'sit in the chair' again. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses will not hold a globally broadcast Rose Parade on January 1st, 2021, but will instead air a commemorative special featuring Tori Kelly and Mickey Guyton amongst others. I was tasked with directing and switching in the COVID-modified M11 truck, normally used for PAC12, and had the pleasure to work with executive producer Bob Holmes on this project.

NEP Truck M11
NEP Truck M11

Rose Bowl Pasadena
Rose Bowl Pasadena

Hans van Riet
19 November 2020

COVID-19 has changed the television production landscape forever.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented stay-at-home measures have television production professionals around the globe scrambling to find new ways to create their content. In late January 2020, as I was travelling to Miami to work on a Super Bowl LIV related event, it became clear to me that there was something going on in the world that could potentially have great impact on the way we produce TV shows. While sitting at the gate waiting for my flight, I noticed an extraordinary number of travelers, arriving from Asia, wearing protective face masks. This observation proved to be a harbinger of a changing world. When governor Gavin Newsom issued a protective stay-at-home order for California on March 19th, and television production in the state came to a grinding halt, the usual methods of production instantly became obsolete. The virus forced us to change television production workflows.

Bud Light Music Fest
TV Compound at American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL

The SMPTE 2110 standard, describing media streams over Internet Protocol (IP), was widely embraced at the 2017 IBC in Amsterdam, and the use of IP in production became a fact. Manufacturers and vendors quickly dreamed up innovative ways to internet-connect the hardware used in then usual workflows, and it became unnecessary to have the event, operators, and creatives on the same premises. The control room as we had known it for decades, started to change. The sports world was first to seize this new opportunity. With crew, cast and staff at a central location, instead of at a remote venue, they were able to cover multiple matches per day. This increase in efficiency through Remote Integration (REMI) production, combined with a reduction in travel and lodging costs, was a major boon for the industry. When quarantine unexpectedly hit the entire industry, this new workflow seemed perfectly suited for remote production of other content as well. But while we were vacating sound stages and production trucks, it became clear that there was not enough capacity to fulfill the demand. As fast as webcams became sold out at online retailers, hardware used for REMI production became backordered. As that happened, a myriad of other work-from-home (WFH) solutions popped up. Without claiming to be complete, I’ll take a look at a few of those solutions. Broadly, we can put the new workflow solutions in three categories each having a fair amount of overlap; the Do-It-Yourself solution, the Cloud Computing solution and the Modified Control Room / truck solution.

IBC Amsterdam 2017
IBC Amsterdam, 2017

The easiest way to remotely produce content is with hardware and software readily available to producers. In the simplest form this can be a recorded Zoom conference, ideally supplemented with locally recorded video on iPhone or prosumer cameras. This can be a satisfactory and cost-effective solution if the show is going to be edited, but more demanding productions will quickly discover its limitations. The next step up is using the power of NewTek’s Network Device Interface (NDI) together with an application like Skype. Participants on a show can easily Skype in, and there’s a wide range of software solutions that support NDI. This enables us to record ISOs by using software applications like Softron’s MovieRecorder, the free OBS Studio, or Telestream’s Wirecast. Some of these packages will additionally provide the possibility of a return feed and playback of packages. NewTek has a hardware product called Talkshow that’s developed to ingest Skype calls and provide mix minus and return feeds. Although all these solutions may prove to work well for some productions, the video and audio quality are generally hampered by Skype’s limitations, and the software is often limited and not very flexible.

Elastic Cloud
Not depicting elastic cloud computing, but much more fun, just go with it.

To make a production scalable, we can put elastic cloud computing to work. By utilizing platforms like Amazon’s AWS or Microsoft’s Azure, we can run video production software in the cloud and easily add to the capacity of our virtual machines as demand increases. This way, we can decentralize operators who will have access to the production tools from their own location. The cloud can even record media for us, so no worries anymore about shipping drives to your editors. Technical directors around the country are operating this way, like Madison, WI based Michael Lange who has successfully deployed vMix live production software in the cloud on shows for clients including Amazon Live. This solution is not for the faint of heart as it requires vast knowledge of IP protocols and mastery of AWS and Azure. Besides, vMix still requires third party software for features as essential as IFB and communications. So, naturally companies are trying to soften the blow by coming up with off-the-shelf solutions. Some relative unknown entities in this segment are Grabyo and Simply Live’s ViBox. The first is a software only solution with the known limitation that it can’t record ISO’s, although a spokesperson has guaranteed me that their engineers are working on that. ViBox is a combination of hardware and software that looks very promising.

NEP Group released their own solution to the problem; a studio in a box, fittingly called NEP Home Studio, which is a plug and play solution. One just needs an internet connection and power and they’re connected to the NEP servers, ready to go. A company that surpassed everyone’s expectation in the realization of the latest iteration of Hollywood Game Night is Ionoco. Known for their show control technologies deployed on a myriad of prime-time game shows, Ionoco used their proprietary PATH system to get the iconic NBC game show’s social distancing edition to tape. PATH, which stands for “Play at Home,” was originally developed for remote game shows, but quickly reconfigured to support up to 4K TV productions. Ionoco also ships kits to remote talent with simple instructions to quickly get up and running. Lastly, I have to mention another name that’s familiar to everybody in TV production; Grass Valley. The company has developed the Agile Media Processing Platform (AMPP), which is powering the GV Media Universe and forms a complete television studio in the cloud, running on Microsoft’s Azure. AMPP was only recently released, after running a trial with Blizzard, so I have no personal experience with the system, but as it’s a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform and easily scalable to the producers’ needs, I’m very excited by the prospect of working with it.

NEP NCP VII truck, photo courtesy of NEP Group.

Finally, we can’t ignore the massive investments that have been made in production trucks and control rooms. Without knowing how long we’re going to live under social distancing restrictions, we’ll need to find solutions to make the ‘old’ technology work. Market leader NEP Group was one of the first vendors that started to rethink the traditional production truck. Obviously, we can't have 15 playback operators sitting shoulder to shoulder in a truck, nor a front row filled to the last inch. The company swiftly came up with solutions like deploying more B-units on productions, which creates extra operator space, and constructing transparent separators for key positions on the front row (see oicture). Other measures include disinfecting headsets and control surfaces on a regular basis and studying if the airflow in a truck needs to be re-engineered.

Some of us might see these changes as a burden, but we might as well embrace it. We are a group of pioneers, always coming up with new ways to present content to an ever more sophisticated audience. As we find ourselves working within new regulations and restrictions, we might come across workflows that we’ve always resisted, but which once implemented prove to work better than we ever imagined. Many aspects of television production have changed, and some changes are here to stay.

Double Dare
Double Dare, before social distancing.

Hans van Riet
Los Angeles
15 May 2020