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Experience Is The Key
Quick and Easy
Out Of The Shadows
Money Saving Scenario
2D and Free-D

Virtual Sets Get Ready For Takeoff

by David Fox

The vast majority of studio programmes are produced using real sets, but virtual studios are increasingly being accepted by producers. The technology is still expensive and systems are not always quick and simple to run, but users maintain that the gains now outweigh the agonies, and that the current, third generation, systems are a lot easier and more reliable to use.

At NAB [2000], virtual studios took another leap forward, but if you haven't already taken the plunge, what system should you buy? We talked to users across Europe, looking at all the main systems currently being used for production to define the reality of virtual sets.

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SZM Climbs New Peaks

SZM Studios has considerable experience in creating virtual sets. It's been using them for five years and is now on its third system. It originally developed the world's first fully interactive virtual studio gameshow, Hugo, where a videogame character could be controlled by viewers phoning in. This set was created using Vapour, which is still in use as a "secondary" system, most recently for an election and a science magazine show, although SZM hasn't upgraded Vapour since version 1.4. According to Christian Richter, SZM Studios' supervisor for virtual studios and real-time character animation, version 2.0, created after Vapour moved to Discreet Logic, was "not so stable".

However, Vapour 1.4 is still useful because it is so interactive, as it can be directly programmed in OpenGL code, whereas RT-Set doesn't have so many options for making changes once it is in operation. SZM has used RT-Set Larus for three years and Gert Zimmermann, head of SZM's animation and visual effects department, is very satisfied with it, calling it particularly "comfortable" to work with.

Its third generation software is Peak Systems Everest, which is also used for on-air graphics. Richter particularly likes its ease of use, with drag and drop and a "very good" graphical user interface which speeds up workflow. It is written by the three creators of Vapour and is similar in many respects, but with improved user-friendliness, better library functions and "every layer is its own scene and can be manipulated separately," he says.

SZM bought Vapour because it had a show to make and at the time "the only really good software was Vapour," says Richter. Orad and Elset were the sole alternatives then, but he didn't like them as much.

Once Vapour was sold to Discreet Logic, SZM moved to RT-Set, to obtain more speed and better support. The alternatives then, Brainstorm, Orad and Elset, he says were more complicated and didn't have such a usable GUI.

Its interface has been overtaken by Everest, and Richter says "working with the program is absolutely easy. You can use it like Word. It's very, very easy to learn, very well structured, and has very good external control." The Sherpa module, which controls transformation and animations and allows creation of macros, makes real-time use particularly simple. The new software, which SZM currently has on trial, is being used on a news magazine show which previously existed in a real studio. Indeed, nothing has changed - as far as the viewer can tell.

"We rebuilt it in the virtual studio because we are overbooked in facilities," says Zimmermann. "We showed two tapes to the client, one from the real studio, the other from the virtual studio, and they didn't get the difference." This allows SZM to have a couple of daily shows in one studio. "It's more economic for us," as the "real" studio has been freed up for other clients.

Zimmermann says that one problem with virtual studios is the limited image resolution. While this is usually good enough for most productions, if a producer wants a particularly realistic set, it can't be done - at least live.

This is why SZM is working on a camera motion recording system which will allow the computers replicate all camera moves, zooms, and focussing in post, when it can add a rendered image for "a very high-end look," says Zimmermann. The moves are captured by its Thoma tracking system from three cameras (one on a crane) and SZM already has a render-farm to produce the images. He believes it would be possible to make one highly realistic virtual show each week, which will overcome some client's objections to working with VS. However, he says most feedback from clients has been "really good".

At present it has two permanent shows using VS, but with Everest he hopes to get more clients to work with the technology, especially for on-air graphics, news and trailers.

One of SZM's specialties is using virtual characters, starting with Hugo, which was developed using Alive from Protozoa, with the character keyed into the virtual scene. This was necessary as the performance of the Onyx was too low to build both the scene and the character in one machine.

As Larus could use plug-ins, SZM developed its own software, and Richter says "the drawing of the figure was allright, but the movement was not so good." As the legs and arms moved separately from the body, like a string of sausages, it was known as "Würstel Technik".

Performance is still a problem with the latest software it is testing, the Typhoon real-time animation system from DreamTeam, but Richter blames that on the lack of power of the Onyx 1 machines. "Because we want the character directly in the virtual scene, to take account of the different layers, the character and virtual set are running on the same machine and it can't draw it fast enough at 50 frames per second. At the moment we only have 25 fps" - using the Würstel Technik it runs perfectly but he would prefer a seamless character. This will probably mean SZM has to buy more powerful processors (especially as the character is being drawn fast enough on DreamTeam's own Onyx 2 computer), although DreamTeam is also adapting the software to make it even more efficient.

Other than this problem, he says the system "looks perfect." SZM chose Typhoon because "it is very good to use and it's easy to learn and the normal graphics guys can work with it" as Typhoon is GUI-based, unlike its previous system which was completely script based. Although designed for live use, it can also be improved by post-production rendering. To control the characters its two actors/puppeteers use cyber gloves, slider boxes and joysticks. They are also currently testing automated lipsync systems to see which is best.

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Experience Is The Key

Molinare bought its Orad system two years ago, at which time it also investigated Elset, MindSet, Vapour and other systems. "We chose Orad because it was the only system that fulfilled all our requirements," says technical director, Darren Woolfson. "We wanted a true 3D system, but we didn't want electromagnetic sensors because we are in central London [near underground trains] and such sensors were prone to interference [although he says they've since been improved]. They also required fairly long and arduous calibration."

He also wanted the system to support multiple cameras and to allow handheld work. Only Orad allowed that at the time, but he says he would "definitely" make the same choice today. "It's a great system. It lived up to all our expectations and based on what I've seen around, I still don't think there is anything better than it."

He admits the BBC's Free-d works "reasonably well", but believes the Truematte reflective surface demonstrated with it doesn't give as good a key as bluescreen. "If any of our clients came away with a key like that I think they'd be terribly dissatisfied." Of course Free-d works with conventional blue screens, but he wonders how Free-d will like the extra lighting that requires.

Although it is not easy to extract a good key from Orad's patterned blue background, he says they get "a marvellous key" using Ultimatte 7, but it requires an experienced operator. There also has to be at least a metre between the walls and the talent, so presenters won't be overlit. Orad recommends users adopt Kino Flo cool lights, but Molinare used its existing tungsten lamps, mounting the patterned backdrop on boards so it won't be affected by the heat. Although tungsten has a large infrared component, which could interfere with what the spotter cameras can pick up on their infrared sensors, he says it hasn't proved a problem they couldn't work around.

Molinare has used the Orad system for a wide variety of work, from magazine and sports shows to news and children's programmes. He says it is particularly good for showing data visually.

"A lot of the stuff we do does push it to the limits, as the SGI Onyx has to render in real-time. So you are limited to what you can have in the set because the computers are not infinitely powerful." They often use textures rather than polygons to reduce rendering and have devised various tricks (some similar to those used by computer games programmers) to get the most out of the system

The system has been reliable, but when something goes wrong it can be difficult spotting the cause as so many different elements are involved. This improves with familiarity, but he says there was an "unbelievably sharp learning curve" initially.

He says many facilities and graphics companies, like Molinare, will see virtual studios as an exciting new area to move into, but "it is important to be well prepared and know what you want" as all the alternatives "had excellent features" so it took a lot of research to discover which suited them best as several of the systems would have done much of what they wanted very well.

Molinare has two studios and uses the smaller one for virtual production, making it look "unbelievably large." It can use up to four cameras, but three is the norm. He says virtual sets can be photorealistic, but most producers specifically don't want it to look like a conventional studio, favouring a cartoon, computer generated or hyperreal look, which is why he doesn't see VS replacing conventional studios.

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Quick And Easy

As a specialist in creating virtual sets, French consultant and producer, Marc Pasini, of MP Productions, has used all the main virtual studio systems over the last four years, but the one he intends buying is Getris Image' new Psy-Set, because it is fastest and easiest to set up. "I have studied every technology and I have used a lot of them, and this is why I've chosen Psy, it was perfect for my type of production," he says.

He has used the NT-based 3D system six times so far, for three tests and three news programmes for TV Info, where the hired system was used in a small bluescreen studio (8m x 8m) with three cameras. He has been so pleased with the results that he intends to buy his own Psy-Set in the near future. Pasini, who is creating a new company dedicated to virtual studios, is just waiting for Getris Image to enable the software to import images from his favourite Softimage modelling program (and from Maya, which he also uses), instead of being constrained to using 3D StudioMax.

"I am looking for the system which can be used very quickly, very easily and for quick installation and, for me, some big systems take too long to set up." On the most recent production, they had just two hours to set up the system and five hours to produce the show. For such productions, he believes Psy-Set is the simplest to install. "For us, it was the best because of the lack of time we had. The producers are very satisfied with the result. We didn't have any problem, except for the chroma-key (the engineer in charge was ill this day)," he says. Of course, which virtual studio system to choose depends on the type of production you are doing, but for what he is working on he says Psy-Set is "very good."

As a someone, with an architectural background, who creates "very realistic 3D images, very concerned with details," he says Psy-Set finally delivered "the quality of my images in the studio."

He adds: "We are at the beginning of the utilisation of this type of technology, which is going to develop with the users and their needs. [...] Some technologies [which are] too restricting are going to disappear, and to me, virtual studios and virtual sets must answer a simple equation: quick installation and utilisation, reasonable price and the guarantee of a realistic set. For this type of live programme - like the news on which we worked - we have really seen a very big difference."

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Out Of The Shadows

The only Evans & Sutherland MindSet user in Europe [at the time of writing] is Virtual Video Studios, London, whose managing director, Les Young, chose the system partly because it could show real shadows, which he believes are essential to make a virtual set look real. With pattern recognition he says users have to tune Ultimatte so finely that they lose the shadow. This can be overcome with an computer generated shadow, "but electronic shadows look worse than no shadow," he says.

MindSet can't (yet) cope with handheld cameras, but 90% of productions don't need them, so that was not a concern. He also liked that E&S makes both hardware and software, the only manufacturer to do so, which he wanted "so there are no arguments over whose fault any problems are." He is not worried that E&S is new to TV, because it is huge manufacturer of flight simulators, which use similar technology. "They've written programs which are very good and did a lot of research with TV producers to make sure the program did what people wanted," he says.

Looking at showreels created on various VS systems he found them weakest creatively, which is why he brought in the renowned designer Pat Gavin as creative director. The first production they did was a BBC ballet documentary, where Gavin created three virtual stage sets for performances of three famous roles for which the real sets would have been far too expensive. The production paid £3,000 per set, less than cost as VVS hopes to recoup the full cost over time through building up a library of sets for hire to other productions, and so "open the market to more producers who couldn't afford anything else," Young explains. He says producers are "a little afraid" of the technology and need to be persuaded.

For an ITV Christmas Day production, the team created a Dickensian London set, a Panto Land stage set and an Ice Palace. The director wanted someone to walk through a real door and go into a room which could be seen through bluescreen windows (giving a virtual set inside a virtual set), something Young claims no one had done before. "It looks terrific. You wouldn't believe the guy is going into anything but a room that is physically built."

A real Dickens' set would have cost £100,000 and three days in studio. "We built it for £12,000 and took three minutes to load it into the computer," he says. "They give you enormous production quality and value for very little money." As lighting the set is done in the computer, only the subject has to be physically lit, which meant they could shoot on three sets in three days to record 40 minutes.

They've used MindSet for six months, the first three on a trial basis. "We haven't had any problems, other than inexperience. Both productions went smoothly. Nothing broke down." For the first show, they built the sets in the US, under E&S guidance. The next time an E&S engineer also assisted, but as its staff are now trained they are doing everything else themselves.

He has two productions lined up: a music production; and a pilot for an Italian soap opera, which will involve bringing the MindSet to Italy - which is possible as the system is already in flight cases, which was useful as both earlier productions needed large studios.

The system, which also does 16:9 production, can use as many cameras as needed. VSS currently uses two cameras with one Ultimatte, but would need more Ultimattes for extra cameras. Iso recording [on one VTR per camera] would also require one MindSet per camera.

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A Money Saving Scenario

Cost was key for Andrew Sumner, managing director, Andrew Sumner Associates, when he bought Radamec's Virtual Scenario 2D system. "I didn't look at anything else, because there is nothing else in that price bracket," he explains. The system cost about £80,000 complete compared to about £250,000 for other systems doing real-time rendering.

He has a three camera system, using two Radamec robotic heads (the third usually locked off for a wide shot). Being a 2D system, it can't do tracking shots. "It is very simple, but quite effective." It is being used regularly on a BBC music video show and a late-night TV review/preview show on ITV supposedly set in a huge warehouse.

"Both shows have something about them that gives them an edge [visually]," which he says is important as more channels clamour for the attention of surfing viewers.

As owner of a small digital studio in Manchester, he decided to invest in VS to differentiate himself from the marketplace. "It gives you something extra," and from a business perspective he believes it was a wise choice. It also means that having editing facilities, etc., he can now deliver a complete channel, because with only 15 minutes required to change between sets, the studio can cope with almost continuous use.

Since installing the system some six months ago, he says demand has increased, but "because it is new technology people need to see others using it. They have to be convinced they are not taking a gamble" - which is why he had to.

He believes the biggest strength of VS is its ability "to make programmes which look different. So, you don't need it to be photorealistic. I don't see the point. Why would I want to pretend I was in a real studio?," he asks.

The system is "very robust" and largely problem free. One board did fail, but that was quickly replaced. "There is not much to go wrong with it. It's just two DVEs." He hopes to buy a third robotic camera head, and to replace the over-powerful Sony 7250 mixer (which is mainly used for keying and could be used elsewhere) with a smaller one and do the keying with Ultimatte or similar.

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RTL Storms To Election Victory

Finding a system that lived up to its promises of reliability and ease of use was vital for RTL, Cologne. It wanted a virtual set for its weather forecasts, which are broadcast several times a day, and called in a local design company, Cutup Vision, which had been involved in VS productions since 1994. Together they examined various VS systems, including Orad, Accom and RT-Set, but the system which most impressed them was Brainstorm's Estudio, which they saw working at Antenna 3, Madrid, concluding it was the best solution for their needs.

The weather forecast went on air almost two years ago, and the system has since also been used for extensive election coverage. The 100m sq greenscreen studio has two cameras using Radamec robotic pedestals, which studio systems engineer, Andreas Groell, likes for their precision and ease of set up. Indeed, he says "the whole system works very well" together, and takes very little time or manpower to set up for each broadcast. The cameraman needs just a minute to set up the robotic heads, while the Onyx and Estudio takes about two minutes to set up, plus a further minute or so to load the specific set. The virtual studio is integrated into the digital production environment, with three SGI Onyx graphics workstations and Ultimatte 8 chromakey

"When you use it every day, it is important that it needs only a short time to prepare the virtual set for recording," says Groell. He says the system has proved to be reliable. "You start the system and you relax. It will work."

Groell says producers like the opportunities the software allows for creating new decorative elements. For the election, RTL used Brainstorm's Datos plug-in which enables real-time data display, such as election results, using the VS system as an interface to all the information. As the green studio is part of the newsroom, the presenter could walk between the two, which helped make it more realistic.

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BBC Picks Mix Of 2D And Free-D

The BBC not only uses virtual studios, it has developed its own systems too. Its low-cost 2D system, Virtual Scenario, is built under licence by Radamec, which also uses its Free-D tracking system, while Truematte is the BBC's reflective alternative to bluescreen. All three were devised because there was nothing similar on the market and the BBC needed them.

Virtual Scenario has been on air for more than two years and technical development manager, Danny Popkin, says "it's proved to be very reliable. We've never had an on-air failure. As it uses video signals, it is very easy to plug into an existing system, and very simple to run as you don't need programmers or SGI experts."

Few conventional studio productions need tracking cameras - which is why they created Virtual Scenario. "Shows which require extensive use of tracking or handheld cameras have generally been single camera shoots," says Mike Jarvie, manager virtual reality development, BBC.

He points out that most of its regular VS programming, especially sports production in London (which is all VS), doesn't need real-time 3D graphics. When they do need real-time, they have Accom's Elset and RT-Set, but they have only been used occasionally, mainly for inserts in election, science and children's programmes. It has only recently started shooting its first 3D VS series, a children's gameshow.

Free-D is in use in two studios, one of 70m sq, the other more than 800m sq. "The size of the studio doesn't matter to Free-D. It had to cope with our largest studio," says Popkin. They had tried Orad there "and found it didn't work. There is a finite distance over which a camera can resolve information." However, the smallest distance moved in any studio is usually height, which is why Free-d uses ceiling-mounted targets. At NAB it will be shown with just one frame delay (down from 2.5 frames), so that in a worst case a complete signal chain for 3D should be three frames delayed (typically just 2 frames).

Besides Radamec, Free-d is being adopted by Evans & Sutherland, Brainstorm and Accom. The BBC uses it with RT-Set and Elset, both of which offer different user controls. "If you want to do more motion things on set or make changes later use RT-Set. If you want to do more photorealistic things you would use Elset, but both are very similar," says Popkin. What limits them is the power of the Onyx, but there isn't enough VS work to justify buying an Onyx 2. "In the UK, almost all VS programmes use 2D. Except for Molinare, hardly anyone is using 3D regularly. I think a lot of people don't want to take the risk and pay the additional cost of going 3D."

The BBC has been using Elset since working with it on the EU's Mona Lisa project. "We find Elset an exceptionally useful tool. The quality is very good. It's quite a powerful piece of software," says Jarvie. "It's flexible, and it certainly does what we ask of it."

It can have as many cameras as wanted, but it needs an Onyx for each one. "We've got two Onyx machines, and find that most shows can get by with one tracking camera, perhaps two, and the rest are virtual scenario cameras, but we can hire in more Onyxs as required."

It uses Alias Wavefront to build all its models, but one difficulty in designing a model for 3D is taking account of the system's limitations so as to make the most of the power available. Because each system is different, a model can't be used on both Elset and RT-Set without being reworked

Jarvie believes VS is best used to create the illusion of space in a small studio, or for huge video walls or for fast scenery changes or animation. As the systems become cheaper and more powerful, he expects the cost of building a virtual environment to become less of an issue. All that is needed is for producers who are willing to push it to its limits and be adventurous. "It can achieve almost anything when you think about it. It's quite a powerful tool.

"You should use technology to its best, and its not meant to replace scenery. It has other qualities it can achieve," he says. "If productions require photorealism, you'll never get that from a computer." The most photorealistic they have obtained has been by scanning photographs onto a wireframe model.

If he was buying a new system, Popkin would look very seriously at Brainstorm. He rates its latest software as "very good", especially as users can link almost anything in the set to almost any output. "It's a very, very clever way of doing it." Accom will also be one to watch, he says, as it will be relaunching with a new, almost completely rewritten system at NAB. He also looks forward to prices coming down if systems are developed around machines like SGI's new NT range. Other than Orad, he believes most high-end systems are very similar, with price and support being the most important differences.

The next project the BBC is working on is a way of capturing depth information so that actors can walk around a set as if it's real and have objects go in front or behind automatically. At the moment this must be done manually, "and that's very limiting," says Popkin. Chromakey is another limiting factor. The BBC uses Ultimatte, but is also testing Crystal Vision Xkey and Questech's new QuiCK. He says Ultimatte and QuiCK are difficult to drive. Xkey is quicker and easier to set up, "but its results are probably not as good as the other two. The Ultimatte will do a very good key if you have the camera angles and lighting right."

© 2000 - 2010

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David Fox