Thursday 25 April 2019
by Brian Young, Associate Lecturer in Media Technology
On Thursday 25 April I had the pleasure of taking a party of second year Media Technology students to visit Sky Studios site in West London. I had pre-arranged this with an old colleague of mine, Mike Lethem, now a technical manager in the Sky Production Services which operates the studios.
A group of students from our BSc (Hons) Television Production Technology course arrived at the Sky campus and were met at reception by Mike who immediately took us to Sky Central. This is a huge building that was opened three years ago to house offices, a number of catering outlets, a small branch of Waitrose and even a cinema. There are well over ten thousand people who work on the campus, though not all at the same time, and Sky is keen to help with their work-life balance.
Our immediate target was the 'glass box' studio used by Sky News. The reason for our haste was that it was due to be on air soon and would then be off limits. After waiting while a short interview was recorded, we were welcomed by the floor manager. The most obvious item was the giant video screen used as a universal backdrop. We were shown how rather than pedestals or tripods, the cameras were suspended from a track in the ceiling, to keep the floor clear. The floor manager explained that as the guests being interviewed were often key figures, the studio had been designed to impress them as well as being versatile with a number of different shooting positions.
We then moved to the building next door where Sky Racing had recently started broadcasting from a revamped studio. Mike explained how the decision had been made to use automation to reduce headcount in the gallery. Instead of robotic pedestals, the cameras were mounted on floor tracks which surrounded the presenter desk. Unfortunately we could not look into the studio as it was on air, but we contented ourselves by watching the gallery at work.
Our next stop was the Sky Studios building itself and another Sky News studio. This consisted of a presenter desk in front of a three-sided video wall allowing a massive range of presenting positions and backgrounds to be shot. The other end of the studio was a green box allowing a virtual studio system to extend the main set. This would allow cameras to track a presenter walking from the (real) desk across the studio and seamlessly into a virtual space. The video content of the virtual screen in this area was also projected in green onto the green screen so that the presenter could take an eyeline to the interviewee. Tracking of the camera positions was controlled by a Shotoku system watching a small camera mounted on the side of each studio camera pointing up at the ceiling where a network of unique discs told the system where it was. As in the glass box, we saw the floor managers position where scripts could be printed, phones and tablets charged, and coffees arranged.
Next stop was Sky Sports News. Mike explained how, while Sky News is the flagship channel in terms of influence, Sports News is the biggest earner from advertising revenue, due to its massive viewing figures, mainly driven by screens in pubs and clubs.
As the Sky Sports News gallery is in constant use, they have installed web cameras in the control room connected to a large screen in the corridor, for visitors to watch. We saw each operator at work as Mike explained what each did as part of their role.
While in the studios area we looked at an empty studio and saw not only the technical side of cameras, floor monitors, wall boxes etc… but also the infrastructure including the giant scenery doors to the outside of the building. These had an air gap of almost a metre between them to ensure soundproofing, and for health and safety reasons could only be operated by a key switch.
We then saw a studio with a generic set in place, ie, a set that had the traditional Sky Sports look, with video walls and monitors built into the set, along with large LED lit panels. By changing the graphics fed to the video walls and monitors and the colour of the LEDs the look could be changed instantly from, say, football to cricket or rugby union. The ease of changing a studio between sports without having to physically change a set is a great efficiency saver.
The studio also had an augmented reality system fitted. The camera on the jib crane was fitted with small cameras pointing upwards. It then picked up bright spots and highlights in the lighting grid which it used create a map. The system then used this map to tell the VizRT system exactly what angle the shot was taken from so it could plot out how to angle the graphics it was inserting to look correct. This was used for example, to allow shots of football players to appear to be running into the set alongside a live presenter.
In an empty control room Mike gave the students a detailed introduction to the BNCS control system. Originally developed by BBC engineers, BNCS is a remote-control system that allows a user to control sources and destinations of routers, allows switching of glue products (converters, shufflers, embedders and de-embedder etc.) selection of emergency routing and even control of the studio Red Light TX displays.
Two areas we would have liked to see but couldn’t, because they were being set-up, were the gallery being used for remote production of the Formula 1 that weekend, and the studio floor being set for Thronecast, a fans programme that follows the transmission of Game of Thrones.
We then took a breather over lunch.
After lunch we returned to the world of Sky Sports News seeing the newsroom with the presenter area. Mike pointed out the desk where the floor assistant, the lighting operator and the robotic camera operator (the cameras are robotic, not the operator) all work together. An element of multiskilling means they cover each other’s jobs when necessary. The presenter desk is designed to be shot from 360° with a variety of newsroom backgrounds. Two radio connected cameras can be used to reach other areas of the news room, for example when discussing social media posts, a presenter can walk across to the desk where these are dealt with and a radio cam can shoot them there.
Off the back of this area is the technical equipment room for the studios. This is a massive room running down the spine of the building with all the studios hardware and much else besides. Mike took the students through one studio’s bays pointing out TSGs, CCUs, Vision Mixer hardware, router hardware, EVSs and emergency switching. We looked at how the studio floor wall boxes connect video and cameras to the galleries and the routers that interface them, allowing any studio to use any gallery (with a couple of exceptions).
Changing tack, we moved to the third floor and the enhanced control rooms or ECRs. Mike explained the operation of these production control rooms as being like studio galleries without a studio. Furthermore, instead of one or two outputs to viewers via transmission, they had up to nine outputs shared between the two areas. These are multiplexed via the Sky satellite platform and decoded by software in the set-top box when the red button is pressed. While we there one of the control rooms was being used to transmit a second golf tournament alongside (or behind really) the main tournament being broadcast on a main Sky channel, so that the avid golf fan viewing would have a choice of either venue to watch. The other control room was being set up ready for the Grand Prix interactive coverage. This allows the viewer to access all the statistics and car data, while watching the race, along with a choice of on-board cameras and live track position maps.
Mike also showed us a new area, next to ECR, that was used for gallery only transmissions. In these a feed of a sports event comes in to Sky, usually with commentary from site, although this can be added at Sky. The gallery operators then add titles, graphics and any other necessary ingredients, then liaises with transmission to count in and out of commercial breaks. This reduced crewing offers a considerable saving over a fully crewed studio, when there is no call for a studio floor.
Next to this is a development area where new ways of working with new technology are trialled to see if they would be useful addition to the arsenal. Being trialled while we visited was a system called Vi Box, which was basically a vision and audio mixer controlled from a touch screen, making operation exceptionally simple.
Our last stop was the top floor where we looked at the transmission area and master control, as well as the content handling section where studio outputs and incoming feeds are ingested (recorded) into the media asset system (MAM) for future use.
All that was left to do was a quick photo op beside the Ocean Rescue display on the way back to the carpark.