Systems. Now for me, the word ‘systems’ conjures up images of either wizard-like gadgets all working mysteriously together to get a Mr B. Aldrin near the moon, or those nebulous things which are to blame when your card won’t cover the restaurant bill.
The world of the system is strange and otherworldly to us, intangible and yet at the same time attractive. I mean, stick the word ‘system’ on just about anything and it instantly becomes somehow better, more niche, more desirable. For example think of the raise in cred of some pimply yoof who pops out to spend his uni grant on a telly and comes home with a ‘cinema system’ – or the uber-cool of owning a VHS ‘home video system’ back in the day, where you rented the latest blockbuster and happily sat watching hazily indistinct figures trying to tell you something vitally important through a blizzard of snow. But who cared? It was a system. It did stuff. It was cool.
And that was until very recently my entire take on systems, which is unfair considering that a plethora of increasingly complex and clever systems have doubtless contributed to my media career when I think about it. Sitting in OB trucks I never once wondered about the technology allowing me to call up cameras, minicams, radio cameras, packaged VT from networks hundreds of miles away, clever graphics from a truck down the road somewhere, and slo-mo replays of action that had literally just happened. Yet all these tools, all these ‘systems’ enabled me to deliver my part of the job – the fluffy, much more important creative end. I’d take to the chair with scant idea of what I was going to do, to find that the systems wizards had already out-thought me.
My ponderings on this have led to the realisation that there must be a real synergy between the creative end product, whatever it might be, and all the gadgetry that makes it possible. And that somewhere, there must be some very clever people whose job it is to fathom out the blue-skies vision of the creative, and interpret, devise and commission a system that will deliver the dream. I needed to know more, so I climbed into my personal repositioning system and drove to Brentford to meet CVP’s Head of Systems.
Philip Hatch doesn’t look like a Head of Systems, there’s not a trace of a pointy hat or wizardly beard, and neither does he look like that guy with loads of ‘A’s and ‘Y’s in his name from the IT crowd. He’s basically a cool dude – he doesn’t even speak in binary code. But as I quickly learned, here was a cool dude who knew his stuff. And to illustrate the totality of a systems project he took me to meet one of his clients, Philip Thickett, Head of Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University.
Thickett comes from a long career with the BBC spanning operational technical roles through to exec producing the World Rally Championship 4 years running and pretty much everything in-between, so he has a firm grasp of how technical interfaces with creative. And when he got the opportunity to overhaul the University’s media production facilities, he had a clear idea of what it needed to do. So, over a series of meetings and long conversations, he emptied his head in the direction of CVP’s systems guru.
What he wanted was a complete rethink of the technical facilities to professional broadcast facility standards – the sort of thing his students would realistically find in the real world, looking like, feeling like and actually operating exactly like a network studio. A big ask for an educational establishment, but there was method behind the thinking. With the exodus of facilities from Birmingham in recent years meaningful placements for students and commercially available studios for programme makers were a rarity. Thickett identified an opportunity – make the University facilities so technically, aesthetically and creatively aligned with current and mid-term future studios that commercial clients would make use of the facilities, opening up opportunities for students to observe and work alongside real productions as well as on their own projects. An environment where synergy could thrive. It could be a real win-win. But it would be complex, and there was not an open cheque. Over several vending-machines worth of coffee the vision was drawn, and the basic technical requirement set out:
High definition throughout (1080i50), 5.1 audio. All areas integrated and able to collaborate on a production.
3 x broadcast standard TV studios of varying sizes, each with dedicated control rooms and local equipment rooms, 2 with dedicated 5.1 sound control rooms.
Integrated server channels in each studio for capture and replay, integrated with post production storage.
20 x basic (iMac) Avid edit suites, all connected to the shared storage.
1 dedicated ProTools 5.1 audio suite with hardware controller desk and dedicated V/O booth.
6 radio studios designed for self-driven operations and guests.
Central Technical Apparatus room to link all areas together.
The systems alchemists, in close collaboration with the university, began their work. A list of specified equipment was provided by the university, from a previous exploratory look at the project. As the plan began to take shape, CVP were able to advise on alternative and more suitable key equipment, often working directly with manufacturers to create partnerships enabling, for example, better vision control equipment than specified at a more advantageous cost, freeing budget which could be applied to other key areas such as media storage.
One major factor was in achieving a common workflow and compatibility, and Sony’s XDCAM 422 was the chosen production codec. Media Asset Management is via a Geevs and Editshare Xtream server solution with 92 streams capacity in XDCAM 422, and a storage capacity of 1824 hours. The system serves 20 basic Avid MC suites (iMac), 3 full ‘craft’ Avid MC edit suites, a Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve grading suite, and 4 Protools suites. The three studios each have their own control rooms with control of 1 record and 2 replay channels.
The studios are impressive. The main studio has 6.1m floor to grid clearance and a double cyc track. The floor has 5 Sony HXC-D70 HD cameras with EFP kits on Vinten pedestals, together with talkback, and there are three Autocue on-camera units. Floor and gantry level wallboxes provide comprehensive tie lines, and there are two ‘security’ cameras on the grid which are matrixed into the main system. A full lighting grid is present, there is floor monitoring for audio and video and there is a complement of microphones including vocals, lavaliers and IEM’s. The production control room is spacious and is built round Sony’s MVS 6530 3ME control panel. Picture monitoring is via 2 x 55” multiviewer displays plus preview and TX monitors; as well as the MAM operator there is a Clarity 3000 dual channel graphics engine, Autocue station, an engineering station with programmable matrix selector and RCP1000 camera remote panels, and an Avolite Pearl Expert lighting desk. The associated sound control room has a Studer Vista 5 digital desk with 5.1 surround and near field monitoring, protools, effects, and multiviewer screens emulating the main control room displays. Finally there are racks for the equipment local to the studio, and connectivity to other areas.
The other studios are similarly equipped, although with 3 camera channels and Sony MVS 6520 2 ME panels. And all of these areas, including the 20 iMac based Avid ‘basic’ suites, geographically spread across a huge footprint and several floors, are linked by mile upon mile of cable – and unlike the back of my desk where 20 feet of cable looks like some sort of nautical knot
exhibition, they flow beautifully from area to area. And actually, as I walked round, I felt that that was the point. On the one hand the array of equipment alone was mesmerising, but the real beauty was in how it was all linked and worked together, and the possibilities that that would open up at the creative end. When you start looking at it like that, the finished project really does qualify as awesome.
But has it lived up to Thickett’s expectations? “I’m really pleased” he understates, barely masking a huge grin. “What we’ve achieved here is absolutely at the upper end of my dream list.” And in what he calls an ‘exquisite collision’, other areas of the university such as fashion, art, even engineering make use of the facilities in collaborations which might for example see a fashion show staged and simultaneously webcast as a 5 camera production before an edited highlights package is produced. All of which interests people like Sky TV, who snap up many a BCU postgrad and report back that BCU students are normally streets ahead of the competition. “We have a fantastic environment here where students can grow, take risks – where alliances can be forged across the campus and into the commercial broadcast world” says Thickett.
Looking at the buzz around the studio facilities it’s not hard to agree. And I made a mental note to buy a hat so I could take it off to the systems alchemists, the shadowy ones whose existence I’d never contemplated, and whose craft is directly enabling young talent to thrive and excel – keeping our industry alive, feeding the next generation of professionals.
“When I first spoke to CVP,” says Thickett “I said that I had no idea what the students output would be but that I wanted the biggest palate to stretch the students capabilities. I had a clear vision of what I wanted the facility to deliver, and a fixed budget that was going to make the challenge interesting. From the very first meeting I had confidence that CVP would deliver. They got me, they got what I wanted to achieve. And they managed the project very skilfully.”
It would seem so. But for me, I think what happened here illustrates more than effective project management. It’s much more about the initial fact find, the getting into the clients head and poking around, the translation of a blue-skies brief within a budget, delivering outstanding directly as a result of understanding. And that’s no mean feat. Because let’s face it, systems is a comparatively tiny word for an extraordinarily large subject.