Nick Ross

video. audio. design. live production.

CitrusTV Video Wall

Walk into nearly any television studio (local news, network news, sports, etc.) and you'll see video walls are staple of television production in 2017. Theses large displays (made up of many smaller televisions) are used to play video, display graphics, or become interactive elements of a telecast. As the general manager of CitrusTV, I'm always looking to the industry to see what trends are taking hold and how we can best prepare our members for what they'll experience in the workplace while simultaneously upping CitrusTV's production quality.

The vinyl "night" backdrop left something to be desired...

Originally, I intended to replace one of our aging standard-definition flex plasma screens with a new 70" LED TV. This would certainly have improved things by itself, but I quickly realized this new monitor would still be placed in front of our "B" set which is used for interviews and other segments that don't wind up on the desk. This "B" set used a backlit vinyl backdrop which was originally stapled into place but later made into a velcro removable vinyl which could be swapped between a morning or night skyline scene. This left something to be desired and looked, frankly, horrendous on air. You could clearly tell it was a wrinkled vinyl and despite much fiddling and cursing, we could never seem to get a satisfactory look with no wrinkles using the velcro method.

Immediately my thought went to a video wall. This way, it could serve as a "monitor" into which we could display video or graphics as well as solve the issues with the backdrop. As I began planning and sketching what this could end up looking like, I ran into a few problems.

  1. The "B" set sits about 6 feet away from the nearest wall. This was originally done to give space for the fluorescent backlights for the vinyl backdrop as well as to allow for storage space for cases, shelving, etc. in the studio. This space gap meant that all of the monitors in the video wall would have to be ground supported or flown from the grid above rather than being easily wall mounted.
  2. The opening where the backdrop sat was 94" x 47". If you're good at math, you'll know that that's not even close to a 16:9 aspect ratio meaning I had to get creative with with the configuration of monitors. (If you're keeping score at home, it's actually a 2:1 aspect ratio). This meant that using four, or even six TVs arranged in a horizontal grid would be problematic and not adequately fill the opening without losing a ton of screen real estate on the top and bottom.
  3. I needed to be able to feed the display with a simple AUX bus from our video switcher without the need for any sort of controller software or any need to create video content specifically for the wall. In other words, if I wanted to roll a video on the air or roll it in the wall, I should be able to utilize the same piece of video.

With those goals in mind, I began looking at cost. I quickly realized that so-called "video wall displays" which have bezels only a few millimeters wide would be prohibitively expensive. With panels ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, such units would be difficult to fit within my limited budget. Plus, I had to keep in mind my odd dimensions where video wall panels are typically designed for normal landscape orientation.

I began looking at who made a television with the smallest bezels. I found some consumer-grade panels from Samsung, LG, and the like, but I also wanted to consider longevity. Since these would be used in a broadcast environment, I wanted to ensure that whatever panels we used would have good guarantees and appropriate duty cycles. After careful consideration of dimensions, I figured out that the best thing to do would be to use three large televisions mounted in portrait orientation. The panels I used are NEC 65" TVs which are commercial grade panels (albeit at the lower end of NEC's line) with a decently narrow bezel for the price. With the panels picked, I had to figure out how to give them signal and mount them. The dimensions of the televisions actually meant that when it was all said and done I overextended the opening by about 2 inches on both the left and right and about 5 inches on both to the top and the bottom.

As mentioned previously, these panels could not be mounted flush against a wall; they had to be freestanding. This meant I'd have to anchor them to the floor or fly them from the grid overhead. I quickly ruled out flying the panels since I'd have to use impossibly long poles to get them close to where they needed to be coupled with the fact that the spacing of the grid put the nearest possible hanging point about a foot away from where the wall needed to sit. I instead went with the floor mounting option. I'm a Chief mount guy through and through (always well built, easy to install, easy to adjust) so I looked there first to see what options they had. Chief makes a number of multi-display mounts which support various configurations of video walls. They did have a 3x1 configuration (which would have worked with my design), but it was more than $2,500. So, I elected to use some Peerless A/V mounts wherein I'd be mounting each TV individually and then the TV would mount on poles. This worried me a little bit because if I didn't space the floor pieces exactly right, these mounts allowed for no lateral movement. I could easily move them up and down on the poles, but if I was even a little off when I bolted the mounts into the concrete floor I'd be in for a lot of headaches.

Thankfully, finding a way to drive the wall was much easier than physically putting it together. My requirement for controlling the video wall was I didn't want to have to have a complex process to drive the wall. In other words, I didn't want to have to make graphics and then have to rotate them to fit the portrait orientation or worry about using a specific piece of software to drive the wall. I wanted to be able to send it a simple AUX bus from our switcher and roll whatever content we wanted in the wall. I found a neat little device from Black Box Networks called the VideoPlex4. It takes any standard video signal in and allows you to display it on up to four monitors. Each output can be independently cropped, rotated, and positioned. You could duplicate the display four times, crop it into four even pieces and more. I was able to use it to chop the images into three pieces, rotate to portrait and account for the bezel widths (more on how I did that later). The VideoPlex is a cool device because it can actually take a 4K signal, so if you were splitting in the input into four pieces it wouldn't have to upscale the image at all. In our case, we're sending it 1080i, so it upscales the image to fill the monitors.

Installing the wall went better than expected. I used a Hilti hammer drill to drill 18 holes into the concrete studio floor. I was concerned about cracking the tile, but with a sharp bit, the holes were clean and precise. I used a shop-vac next to the hole to keep the dust to a minimum and kept a bucket of water to cool the bit. After some careful measuring, everything ended up lining up pretty well and getting things leveled turned out to be pretty easy. The biggest problem was actually that the studio floor turned out to be just a little bit out of level on one end, so I shimmed it with a few washers under the front side of the floor plate.

Photos above during the install process.

Using the vertical pattern to compensate for the width of the bezels.

Once the wall was installed and cabled, I had to set up the controller. This required a little bit of math, but essentially I used two patterns to aid in setting up the wall. One that has lines every 10px horizontally and the other that has lines every 10px vertically. This way, I could see exactly how much of the image I had to lose to make everything line up in one seamless image. Then, I could simply enter coordinates into the video wall controller software to make the images match.

I also used the 10px patterns to see how much of the wall I was losing on the top and bottom as well as where the individual displays lined up. Using this information, I created a Photoshop and After Effects template with guides to show where to build graphics. Our sports department, for example, created a cool graphic to compare three players where each one appeared in each physical monitor and as they talked about each the other two were blown out of the space and video took over the other two panels. It looked very cool and it added a neat visual element to their show.

Overall, I'm thrilled with how well the wall came out. It came in well under budget and added a tremendous amount of value to our shows. It looks better and performs better than walls I've seen that cost well in excess of $100k. 

The finished wall

The finished wall

BTS: Big Fish

As part of my job with Event and Technical Services at SU, I had the opportunity to run FOH for the First Year Players' show Big Fish. This was the biggest show to date I'd engineered myself in terms of the number of inputs. It was a very long week, but I thought I'd share some of my approach to the show this time around. While not my first theater show by a long shot, I did implement some techniques that I hadn't before.

Line by Line Mixing

Most of what I know is self-taught either via hands-on experience or the thousands of resources available online. I had stumbled across some videos of different people mixing shows of varying levels (some amateur, some professional) and many implemented a technique called line-by-line mixing. Essentially, only the microphone of the person(s) currently speaking is on at any given time. For instance, if three people are singing onstage, but not at the same time, only the microphone of the person currently singing would be live instead of all three. This results in a cleaner sound, fewer phasing issues, and a reduced chance for feedback.

Planning

If you don't do a ton of planning up front for a theater production, you're basically screwed from the start. I start any production like this one by making an input list:

Click for PDF of Input Sheet

Click for PDF of Input Sheet

The input list is always the first step for a number of reasons. First, it requires you to lay out on paper all of the equipment (mics/wireless) you'll be using. By doing this, you ensure that you have enough mics for everything you need to deal with. Second, with the prevalence of digital mixing systems, you can take your input list and create a show file for your console of choice to make setup easier.

In my case, we were using the Soundcraft Vi3000. I used the offline editor and a copy of the script to create all of my scenes and VCA assignments well in advance of the show. When tech started, I could simply load my show file via a flash drive and I was ready to go.

Mixing the Show

Each time I hit a scene on the board (of which there were 140+), the correct mics would be turned on and off and get assigned to VCAs. This way, I could keep my fingers on the eight VCA faders. If there was a group who sang together, they'd all become one VCA. If they then spoke separately, that would be another scene and they'd get split back out into their own VCAs. I kept all of the wireless on the first layer on the console and then the band and everything else went on the lower layers. Once everything was dialed in during soundcheck, I rarely had to venture to the lower layers and could instead use the "band" VCA which contained all of the pit orchestra.

Overall

The show run was a long week, but things went about as well as they could have. The PA in the auditorium leaves a lot to be desired, but things still came out pretty nicely. Below, I'm attaching some photos of the setup at FOH as well as a GoPro video with board L+R audio. Enjoy!

BTS: The CitrusTV 2016 Election Special

I was stressed leading up to the election. Stressed, not as most Americans were about the outcome, but stressed about the production of what would be a first for CitrusTV: a three-and-a-half hour live election special. This would not be the first election special the station had done, but it would be the longest and the most involved. From my perspective there were two distinct moving parts.

Live Hits

As we look to stay competitive with other college television stations across the country, we see who's winning awards and what they're doing. We had a one-hour special in 2014 for the mid-term elections, but that broadcast didn't receive a single nomination for any of the awards we submitted it to. It wasn't a bad broadcast, but there were other election specials from other stations that did win awards. A common theme we noticed was live hits. Pulling the coverage out of the studio into the field makes it more immediate and more representative of what's actually happening. With such an historic election, the pulse of the nation on election night was definitely an important concern. Our live infrastructure has long been a stumbling block for us. We've used Streambox for some time (and still continue to do so), but I've always been disappointed in its reliability, stability, and complicated UI. After spending many hours tweaking streaming settings, I finally got what I thought to be a usable image out of the unit. When we did a dry run the Sunday before election night, we experienced almost a 10-second delay bringing me back to the drawing board for my encoding settings. After tweaking more, we got the delay down enough to be usable. The issue then became talent cueing. Streambox does not have a built-in IFB solution unless you use their IFB server which we don't own. So, we had the talent plug a standard IFB earpiece into their cell phone which we made a phone call to and sent a mix-minus feed down the line so they could hear program. The drawback becomes no ability for the producer to cue talent, but as long as they could hear the toss and any questions from the in-studio talent, it worked just fine.

It would be all well and good if we had more than one Streambox encoder license, but we had only one and the producers wanted four live hits in the show. One each for the Democratic and Republican HQ's in Syracuse, one at a polling place on campus, and then the reporter at the polling place would go to a campus (non-partisan) watch party after the polling place closed. Fortunately, we'd made some investments in live remote infrastructure earlier in the year by setting up a dedicated computer to receive video Skype calls. I, like probably everyone, have a love/hate relationship with Skype but it worked alright for this purpose. That Skype machine has no video return, but does receive a true IFB feed (in that it is interruptible by the producer) with mix-minus program audio. Again, we ran into trouble with Skype because we only had one Blackmagic UltraStudio MiniRecorder which we used to get an HD-SDI feed from our cameras into a computer via Thunderbolt. Thus, the last remote hit would have to be done via an iPad on Skype. The issue with an iPad becomes audio (both audio from a "real" handheld microphone and IFB audio through an earpiece for the talent). IK Multimedia makes as device called the iRig which lets you plug an XLR mic and standard headphones or IFB into an iPad. It costs about $150 and because I'm cheap I figured I could build my own iRig. While it wouldn't have a pre-amp, I figured I could get enough gain out of the iPad's pre-amp itself to at least be usable. After some Googling, I figured out those old RCA camcorder cables that you could use to plug a camera into your TV actually used a TRRS connector (the same as the iPad) and that the yellow and white RCA's were audio right and left out of the iPad and the red RCA was microphone in. I just so happened to have one laying around and after trying it out with some adapters and having success, I cut the RCA's off of the cord I had and soldered on a female XLR for the mic and female unbalanced 1/4" for the audio out. It would have worked great if not for one minor mistake I didn't know about until after the special was over. When the remote reporter took the iPad out, they neglected to take the case off of the iPad. Because of the case design we have on our iPads, it doesn't let the connector seat fully meaning we got the internal microphone back on the iPad. It wasn't the end of the world (I always say, I'd rather have something that's ok than nothing at all) and we still got through it. The whole Skype thing was something of a pain because I had to keep connecting and disconnecting the two people who were on Skype -- we only have one computer set up to be a Skype endpoint, but at least we still had both Skype reporters.

Photos: Stills of the live hits from the night. Rob is on Streambox, Jamie and Nicole are on Skype calls.

Overall, the live hits performed flawlessly. No awkwardness, we could hear everyone, they could hear us or at least get a cue and one of our live reporters even got a live one-on-one with the Democratic candidate for congress from Syracuse's district. Not something that happens every day on student television. 

Graphic Design

I knew that we needed to develop a distinct graphics package for the special. Our normal graphics are newscast-specific so I elected to design a new package. We took inspiration from NBC News' election package and used our election theme from 615 Music (part of their Right Here, Right Now package). Originally I wanted to have a ticker at the bottom of the screen that would display races as they were called. My idea was to have the data for the ticker pulled from a DBLinked Excel file and have that message be persistent in the Chyron. The issue was I couldn't figure out a good macro that would keep running and keep updating the ticker while other things were going on, so I scrapped it. It was a good thing, too. Our Chyron began having issues the week before the special and we ended up running with only one channel of output for our graphics which would have made a persistent ticker rather difficult.

A "Too Close to Call" fullscreen from the election package.

A "Too Close to Call" fullscreen from the election package.

The most involved thing I did do was create fullscreen graphics for each state that could be used to call a race for either Trump, Clinton, or be "too close to call" if we just wanted to look at a state without calling it. The fullscreens gave a nod to our News Angles package from our News Live at 6:00 shows which I also designed and the election fullscreens came out looking pretty nice. I obviously didn't want to build 150 separate graphics for each eventuality and each state, so I got creative with macros and DBLinking. I built an Excel file that had the right data for the fullscreen in it (percents, votes, etc.) and a special field called "call." In this field, the newsroom would enter either a 0, 1, 2, or 3. They would enter 0 if the race had not been called, 1 if for Trump, 2 if for Clinton, and 3 if the race was too close to call. Whenever the message was recalled in the Chyron, an input box was used to allow the operator to select the right row from the Excel file (1 through 51 for each state and D.C.). That updated all the DBLinked fields with the right information including a "blind" field which contained the "call" field. Then, the macro looked at the blind field (so called, because it doesn't display onscreen) and had conditional statements to show or hide the three groups of the fullscreens which contained the fields and images for each eventuality.

In my testing the macro worked great and updated correctly every time. The issue was that I didn't have the fullscreen done by our tech run-through. That meant I didn't get to test in the exact way it'd be implemented on election night and a couple of things failed. First, I didn't carefully test all the fullscreens, so I had one field mapped incorrectly for one of the eventualities. That meant the wrong percentage was going to the wrong place and the wrong thing was showing up in the data. This was quickly fixed once I figured out what was going wrong, but it was still a simple error that could have been prevented. Second, the computer in the newsroom the staff was trying to open the Excel file on had an odd issue with locking/permissions. Every time they opened the data file, it thought the same user was already editing the file and tried to open as a read-only file. It also somehow corrupted the file when it opened the first time. I had to re-create it and use a different machine. The different machine was a Mac which seemed to have some issues with locking in the Finder. It didn't always let the Excel user save the file immediately (they sometimes had to wait 15-30 seconds) so this slowed production. Third, we never explicitly established the workflow for calling states. This sounds so simple, but we had called races coming into the control room where the data hadn't been entered or saved in the newsroom. Thus the control room would call up a fullscreen for a called race, and it'd be blank. This was a personnel error and could have been corrected with more forethought and planning.

The massive team that worked as talent, crew, researchers, and more.

The massive team that worked as talent, crew, researchers, and more.

Overall

Overall, things went extremely well. I watched other student-run broadcasts that were riddled with errors, technical glitches, and more. Above all, talent and content was the biggest issue. There were others that I thought had better graphics or the like, but we had so much better talent. Our moderators provided insight instead of just facts, we explored issues around the world, we explained common questions voters might have, and the broadcast was extremely well-produced as a whole. I couldn't be prouder to lead this station during this once in a lifetime experience and I'm proud of what our team was able to accomplish.

 

Breaking News

We hear breaking news all the time nowadays. CNN has more "breaking news," "happening now," and "developing story" graphics than you can shake a stick at. Most local news stations actively promote their breaking news coverage and why you should choose to watch their broadcast over their market's competitors. Most simply, people want to be informed. No one wants to seem out of the loop and when an organization can bring that to the people for which it matters most, that's important.

Bringing the news to the students of Syracuse University is exactly what CitrusTV News did on the night of October 14th, 2015. At 8:29 p.m., I received the Orange Alert e-mail that DPS was investigating an off-campus incident that was believed to be a shooting. The campus was to shelter-in-place. I immediately called our news director Lauren Anderson and began tweeting the information we had. Neither she nor I could do much since we were both in our residence hall, but she began making phone calls and trying to learn new information as I monitored social media. Since CitrusTV broadcasts on OTN, we wanted to get a live broadcast out as soon as we could. Sports shows were in production at our studio and OTN was already taking the Watson Hall fiber feed from one of Z89's shows. Sports was able to quickly get some news on the air by switching the feed and breaking in with our coverage. They produced the following brief update:

After that broadcast, we quickly hit a wall as the Z89 programming expired and no one from OTN was in their master control location to allow us to continue broadcasting on the campus cable system. Lauren and I met up in our dorm while sports made do using Periscope to keep bringing updates and information while I continued to monitor five different streams via TweetBot and kept tweeting the latest information we had. Then, we started getting pictures and video from one of our anchors and reporters, Hunter Sáenz, who lived close to where the incident happened. At that point, Hunter sent us the media he was able to gather and rushed to the studio. He had a friend of his stop by my dorm and take both Lauren and myself to our studio where we began to make preparations as the situation continued to unfold.

I immediately began thinking of the fastest way I could get us live on the internet. I thought I remembered that CitrusTV had a Ustream account, but I couldn't find anything at all. Then I remembered YouTube live streaming. I quickly downloaded the free version of Wirecast from YouTube and (mercifully) found that YouTube had made getting a stream up much easier than before. It's no longer necessary to create an event and set encoder settings, YouTube just listens for your encoding software (in our case Wirecast) to stream live, and then it turns on the broadcast. One of our computers in the control room was still equipped with a (unused) BlackMagic DeckLink SDI capture card. I was able to take an SDI program feed from our distribution amp into that machine and use it as a source in Wirecast. Thankfully, everything worked and we began a live broadcast.

Hunter (who was back in studio by this point), Seth Quam, and Gabriella Rusk anchored an hour and seventeen minutes of live coverage throughout the night. The YouTube realtime analytics showed that over 1,300 people tuned in during the course of the broadcast and that's not counting locations like the Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse where our broadcast was being streamed to several hundred students. Lauren was incredible at her job and produced amazing coverage as members of our sports department filled crew positions. I continued to monitor Twitter and tweet new information. Others at the studio worked with Lauren to call police, DPS, students at various locations across campus, and more. This is the full archive of that live broadcast:

The next day, we didn't stop our coverage at all. Carling Mott, executive producer of our Thursday News Live at 6:00 show, planned an amazing broadcast. Lauren had gone earlier in the day to a DPS press conference, so we had good sound and confirmed information to report. Max Darrow (one of the Thursday anchors) and Gabriella were live from Hope Ave with Hunter and Mike Riccardi field producing the coverage. Their report was absolutely amazing. Not only did our remote live-hit software perform flawlessly, Max broke down a full timeline of events and Gabby expanded upon exactly what a shelter-in-place really meant. We created custom half-screen graphics for the layout of the timeline of events and rolled in great video where we had it including reactions from Scott Shafer and students who lived closest to the area where police had established a perimeter. Jessica Mendelson (our other Thursday anchor) anchored the entire show solo tossing to various interviews and segments. Another of our reporter/anchors Jacob Reynolds was also in studio doing a live interview with members of the Syracuse Youth Development Council about events that tied into the situation that had just unfolded the night before. The entire broadcast is here:

Later that Thursday night, we decided to create a promo that could run on our shows and the web promoting our breaking news coverage. It aired during the Friday news broadcast.

We've put a renewed focus on our news department's coverage this semester, branding ourselves Your Campus News Leader. I am unbelievably proud to work with such an excellent network of talent, producers, and crew members who produce the news each and every day at CitrusTV. I can't wait to see what we'll do next...

Behind the Scenes at the Carrier Dome

I like to blog when I get to take part in something cool and new, and today I did just that. Through the BeIT undergrad program at SU, a tour of the Carrier Dome with the incomparable Jeff Rubin was offered and I had a lot of fun taking a behind the scenes look at the Dome. I took some photos and learned some cool stuff that I thought I'd share on my blog.

The Carrier Dome opened in 1980 and has served Syracuse University as its primary facility for home football, basketball, and lacrosse games. The dome hosts many other events (as you'll see in the photos) throughout the year and is truly a very versatile space. But, being built in the '80s, it's showing its age and talks are currently occurring about its future. The biggest issue facing the Dome right now is that the current roof (more on that in a minute) has exceeded its expected life span. Jeff said nothing's been ruled out or set in stone, but possibilities include building a new stadium or replacing the existing roof with a fixed or retractible roof. 

The roof itself is probably one of the coolest parts of the dome. If you don't already know, the dome is air supported. That's the reason every door that can be opened has an air lock and all the doors that the fans use are revolving. It's pressurized at about 4 PSI of pressure to keep it inflated and domed. 18 fans can run at any given time based on pressure outside or which events are taking place. These allow the control crew to keep the dome at peak inflation no matter what the weather is doing at any given time. Stadium control is staffed round the clock 24/7/365 to make sure everything is operating as it should be.

Snow presents an interesting problem for the dome. Since it's air supported, the weight of heavy snowfall obviously can't be allowed to accumulate. Crews are hired to go up on the roof with hot water hoses to basically spray down the snow so that it melts. Snow shovels would obviously be disastrous with a cloth roof, but the water allows them to keep things from icing up or creating too much weight on the dome. When the dome is going to get more than 4 inches of snow per hour, they go into "Snow Mode." They crank the heating inside to where it gets up to 120 degrees at the roof (heat rises, after all) to help melt the snow upon contact with the roof.

Another interesting thing I learned was how the game photographer gets those awesome aerial crowd shots you see during basketball games. If you look at the dome roof, it's separated into panels. If one of these panels happens to collapse in from the weight of ice or other factors, there are two small plugs in the panel which work almost like a bathtub drain. If the panel deflates, they can pull the plugs causing pressure to be quickly released to "pop" the panel back into place. To get those great shots, the photographer has to go up onto the roof during the game, (in whatever Syracuse weather happens to be doing) pull one of the plugs, and put his camera lens through the hole to shoot the shot. Jeff says he hates doing it, but it's a fantastic photo to be sure.

After learning a little bit about the roof itself, we saw the athletic director's and chancellor's boxes. They're very, very nice and some of a few places where the dome is actually air conditioned.  They're naturally stocked with coolers of water, soda, wine, and beer but also feature televisions and scoreboards so that the people inside can see exactly what's going on from anywhere in the box.

We got to take a look at in-house video control which was near and dear to my TRF heart. This is where all the video graphics you see on the video boards and TVs throughout the stadium is switched and generated from. They're using a NewTek 3Play instant replay system to put plays on the board after they happen and they're also cutting highlights as the game happens so that the highlight reel is done immediately after the game ends. The newest thing for the dome is a partnership with ESPN 3. The dome spent almost $300k installing new video hardware in order to provide video for any game that happens in the dome that isn't men's football or basketball. This way, ESPN can pick up the fiber feed from SU (which runs from here to NY then is sent over to Bristol) which allows them to broadcast any game that the dome puts on without having to spend the nearly $25k per day to bring in a mobile production truck.

After the video control room, we ventured inside scoreboard control. This is Jeff's area since he deals with some of the live social media and out of town stats that you see (especially on the video strips around the edges of the dome) during the game. He said that the software that runs it is actually pretty antiquated in terms of how it all functions. For out of town stats, for instance, they have to pay quite a bit of money to subscribe to an XML feed that really doesn't give them much flexibility. It's actually a little amazing just how not cutting-edge some of this stuff is.

We got to take a look inside Club 44 which is a sort of "VIP" area where fans who buy tickets to it can go before and after the game as well as during half-time. Since Club 44 is separated from the playing field by a concourse, you couldn't really go there to watch the game, but people obviously use it to socialize. Jeff talked a little bit about how things have changed since stadiums were designed in the 1980s. Club 44, he said, is 2015 stadium design, the crowded concrete concourses are 1980. Everything now is about the experience.

The Carrier Dome is super unique, it's the only college facility that hosts both football and basketball as well as (at some times) lacrosse, hockey, and even softball. We had the chance to hear from John DeFrancisco who serves as the dome's Facility Systems Specialist. He's responsible for a lot of the infrastructure that goes into the dome and it turns out that the dome is so unique that a lot of what they have (from scoreboard configurations to basketball court setups) are actually totally unique. Those blue mats you see them put down on the field for basketball? Those are actually military helicopter landing pads and cost more than the football field underneath that they're protecting. It's kind of crazy.

During our tour, the dome was prepping for Monster Jam, the touring monster truck rally. To make this event happen, they lay down plastic sheeting over the entire football field then lay on two layers of plywood in alternating directions. Then, nearly 200 dump truck loads of dirt are brought into the dome and bulldozed into place. Further complicating things is the fact that you are literally dumping 40,000+ yards of dirt into a stadium which means that everything is going to get dirty. Everywhere we went (press box, video control, locker rooms, etc.) plastic sheeting was covering all the floors and carpets as well as most TVs and furniture to protect everything from damage.

The following are some photos I took during the tour for your viewing pleasure. I probably got a little more of Jeff than he would have liked, sorry about that Jeff... Thanks again for the awesome BTS look at how the Carrier Dome makes it all happen.


A Look Back at 2014

2014 is coming to a close. Now, it's time to tweet about how we're going to be better people because we got a new calendar and a cookbook called Love at First Bite: The Unofficial Twilight Cookbook (Think I'm kidding? It's all too real...) and this year's really going to be "your year." Yeah. Ok. 

When I started thinking about what 2015 might hold for me, I couldn't help but think about what happened in 2014. If I had tried to think of all the things I was going to do this year on December 31, 2013, I wouldn't have gotten even half of them correct. So, with this nostalgic air about me, I decided to blog about what 2014 turned out to be.

North Hills High School Lip Dub - In the great scheme of things I never thought I'd do, this ranks pretty high up. By now, probably anyone who's found my blog knows about the lip dub. It's one of my proudest achievements and I'm always surprised that nearly a year later, people still tell me that they watched it and how much they enjoyed it. If there was any experience that was going to tell me whether I was on the right career path, this made me certain.

42nd Street - This year also marked my final high school theater production. We performed 42nd Street in April and it was just awesome. Truly one of the best shows I've ever been a part of. Since getting involved at the high school when I was only in 7th grade, (they needed boys for Oliver!) it's been weird this year not starting another production in the fall. The people I got to work with doing that show are truly some of the best people in the world and I really miss them.

Disney - What senior wouldn't want to take a week off school and go to Disney World? No one. That's the answer. For choir, we got to sing in Epcot and attend one of the Disney Music Workshops. That's fun and all, but let's be honest, we all went because it was Disney. Getting to spend a week with some of my best friends at a place like Disney was pretty awesome. Definitely one of the best school trips I've ever been a part of. And the first time I'd been to Disney World. So, that's pretty cool too.

Graduation - As much fun as high school might be, graduation was pretty great too... Another thing I never really thought much about doing was speaking at graduation. I was honored to be selected to give an introductory speech for our Commencement Ceremony in which I presented to my fellow graduates what I called "Life Advice You'll Soon Forget." I don't really remember what it was about...

Syracuse - As I thought about college today, I thought back even further than last year. All the way to my sophomore year of high school. At that time, I thought I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, commute to school, and study computer science. Yeah, ok. Anyone who tells you you need to make up your mind early on is an idiot. Now, I'm majoring in something completely different and going to school almost six hours away from home. And, I couldn't be happier. Syracuse is awesome in every way and I love going to school there.

Juiced Magazine - Not too long after coming to campus, I heard about an opportunity to work on the all-freshmen magazine, Juiced. I interviewed and was offered the position of Web Developer. It's a lot of fun to put together a good looking website full of awesome content. Plus, I get to work with some of the coolest people as part of the Juiced Staff who are all pretty awesome at what they do.

CitrusTV - If you read my previous blog post about Citrus, you'll already have heard me talk at length about what it is and how cool it is. I include it here because as a freshman, I was told I wouldn't have any opportunities and would be at the bottom of the totem pole for quite some time. That didn't happen for me at Citrus. Now, that's not a pat on the back for me, but rather a commendation for Citrus that they're such a cool, welcoming, experience focused organization that they'll let even freshmen jump right in.

So that's my 2014 highlight reel. I feel like I could probably list a ton of other things in here that have been really cool to do, but I'll spare you all that reading. My point in posting all of this is that at the beginning of the year, you really have no idea how things are going to turn out. It's a little like this quote:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.
— Steve Jobs

We have no idea where we'll be next year. Here's to 2015. Stay fresh.

See Something Different

Hey there again. Writing is hard. No one tells you that when you have the unfortunate idea to start a blog on your website. However, when something big happens for me, I still like to take the time to come here and share it with everyone. The last time I posted, I had just been accepted to the position of Web Developer for Juiced Magazine. Serving in that role has been awesome and the rest of the staff is just the best. Now though, I'm taking on another new position that's even more in tune with what I hope to do in my professional career.

CitrusTV is the on-campus, all student-run television studio at Syracuse University. They produce nearly 15 shows per week covering everything imaginable including daily news, entertainment, sports, and food. With close to 350 members in the organization, it's one of the largest student groups on campus. After applying, interviewing, and being accepted, I'm excited to take on the position of Operations Manager for the upcoming year. What does the Operations Manger do? Well, kind of everything. It was described to me that "if it uses electricity, you help make it work." That basically means everything including broadcast technology in the studio, cameras in the field, IT/server-side applications, workstations, editing computers, audio systems, and lots more.

If you know me well, you know that this is what I love to do. For some reason, I love tech problems and love figuring out how to solve them. I think my general anal retentive attitude and (often excessive) attention to detail help to make me good at this type of work. Among other things, I see this as a chance to improve what I'm already good at and to always continue to better myself. I've not even been with Citrus for a full semester and I've already learned so much. I don't anticipate that learning will stop.

There's a great deal of talent at CitrusTV. Both on-air and off, people have some incredible skill and I hope to be able to support that. When technology works, it makes creating all the great content we produce so much easier. My goal is always to make sure technology gets out of the way. When it doesn't work or people don't know how to use it, that stifles creativity. The cool thing about CitrusTV is that since we're entirely student run, students are free to explore new things. My goal for the next year will be to make sure that the tech we have on hand supports their vision as much as possible.

Well, that's about it for now. See you all in another month when I decide blog again. Maybe before then. Who knows?

Stay fresh.

Freshly Squeezed

This will be my first blog post at Syracuse! Woohoo! It only took a month... For those who don't know, I'm attending the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University to study Television, Radio, and Film. It's the top school in the nation for communications and I couldn't be more excited for what's to come. I wanted to make a brief post and share one of the cool things I'm a part of here at SU.

Some of you may have seen my posts on social media about Juiced Magazine. Juiced is an on-campus publication that was founded in 2013. The idea at its core is simple: a magazine FOR freshmen BY freshmen. The only people who work on the magazine are freshman which makes it a great way for students to get involved right away unlike other publications which are typically run by upperclassmen. After applying and being interviewed, I was selected to take on the position of Web Developer for Juiced. In this role, I've already re-designed their website and will continue to update it with new content on a daily basis. I'll also be maintaining and adding to the functionality of the site as well as exploring new interactive elements on the site. You can check it out at juicedmag.org. It's pretty good...

The thing that struck me (as well as others on the staff) immediately was everyone's competency. That might sound a little odd, but let me explain. Most of us come from high schools where we were the kind of students who always did everything. We were people who constantly put out really good work, but did so in a vacuum. No one else really did the same kinds of work as us. At Syracuse, all of those kind of people come together and on the staff of Juiced, I get the opportunity to work with some of these exceptional people and I couldn't be more excited. The energy and the level of work I've seen on the staff so far is something I'm really looking forward to. I can't wait to see what new and awesome things I get to be a part of not only at Juiced but at Syracuse as a whole!

Keep it fresh.

Sound Design: The Wizard of Oz

Among the many jobs I do, sound design is probably my favorite. Having been on both sides of the stage, (tech-ing and acting) I can say for certain that running live sound for a theatrical production is at least 10x harder and more stressful than being on stage. The amount of focus and planning and preparation necessary for such a job is really astounding. Perhaps the stress and constant pressure is why I enjoy it so much.

For the past 2 years, I have served as the sound designer for the North Hills Junior High (now NH Middle) School’s winter musical. This year’s show was The Wizard of Oz and I took a slightly different approach to how I planned and prepared for the show this year. All in all, the preparations I did this year made for a much smoother show than I’ve ever experienced.

Planning Will Set You Free

Last year’s production was the first year that I had the opportunity to mix the show on the Allen & Heath iLive system. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t care for the iLive, but I personally found it to be very flexible and usable once I got the hang of it. As part of its software suite, Allen & Heath provides the iLive Editor which allows you to create offline show files without being connected to the console at all. This allowed me to sit at home with the software loaded and setup my patching and busing structure and, more importantly, my scene recall. The obvious reason for going with a digital console like the iLive in theater is the ability to recall scenes depending on which mics need to be on and so forth. By going through my script and marking entrances and exits, I was able to setup every mute recall and mic change necessary. All of this without ever having seen the show. Then, when I was ready to watch a rehearsal, I virtually recalled all of the scenes on my laptop during their run through to be sure everything matched up. Why was all this work on the front end so awesome? It meant that despite all of the issues we had with weather during the run of the show, I was one step ahead already.

Having Great Partners

Last year was also the first year we partnered with Electrisound to utilize their full rental services. We again this year had them provide our iLive console and Audio-Technica wireless rental which worked amazingly. At Electrisound, they focus on drop down integration into existing systems making it incredibly easy for us to drop in fully prepared flight kits of mics and patch them directly into the iLive and then into the system all in a matter of hours. Plus, they took the time to do all of the frequency coordination for me so that I had a pre-designed list of clear frequencies to use saving me the hassle of having to scan and figure it out myself. They also were able to quickly recall the room tuning they used last year making our system sound a whole lot better than we’re used to. They even built us a custom snake to run from the first electric down to the Mix Rack off stage making loading in for the show each year that much easier. Chris and Liam always make sure we’re taken care of at North Hills which honestly makes all the difference when, especially for the Junior High, the tech aspects of the show go together in about a week.

Keeping Organized

If you saw my last post about organization, you’ll know how much easier this made my life during the run of the show. By going into the run having everything organized, when I quickly needed to set something up it was all right there. In addition to physical organization, I also got organized digitally. For every show, project, concert, or whatever I do, I always make patch charts. They’re super useful for both setup and tear down as well as spotting potential problems before you even arrive. In the past, I would created them in Numbers on my Mac, print them out, use them, make changes during the day on paper, and then put the changes into Numbers later that night. Then, I’d print a fresh copy for the next day. Needless to say, this caused a lot of hassle. This year, thanks to iCloud and Numbers on the iPad, I was able to always have the most up to date patch charts digitally on my iPad and was able to cut down on all the wasted paper. Plus, if I needed to, I could quickly send someone a PDF copy of the patch chart with a few taps.

Geeking Out

In addition to the practical improvements I made, there were also some downright nerdy things I did to make things easier and, of course, more fun for myself. A unique part of the Junior High’s shows is that they use a performance CD of backing tracks and not a live orchestra like most theatrical productions. Last year, I began using QLab to run my tracks since it’s designed for live performance. This year I found out a clever way to fire my QLab cues from the iLive surface. After reading about Mike Sessler’s obsession with MIDI-fying everything over at ChurchTechArts, I decided to see what the iLive could do. Allen & Heath makes a TCP MIDI driver which basically allows you to send MIDI commands over the network. I installed this driver on my Mac running QLab and on the iLive surface I setup one of the custom soft keys to be a custom MIDI string. The string sent the GO command to QLab which fired the track. This allowed me not to have to worry about touching the computer at all during the show and being able to just focus on the iLive surface. It’s pretty nerdy but it worked really well. The only drawback was the lack of an ability to either send the MIDI command or fire the soft key from the scene recall so that I could just keep hitting GO on the scene recall portion of the iLive. Hopefully, Allen & Heath will add more advanced scene recall in future versions of their firmware.

So, did all of this nonsense described above actually help the show? Yes, it did. This is the third show I’ve done sound design for at the Junior High and by far the best. As with any live production, there were of course mic glitches and the like, but nothing as major as in past years. Below I’ve included some nice shots of all the gear in place for your enjoyment. A link to photos of the show itself can be found HERE. Perhaps in future posts I might dive a little deeper into how I actually set things up for the show, but that gets a little dull even for me. Let me know what you’d like to see in comments.

Zeitgeist 2013

This short video is a year in review piece for 2013. Each year, we air a year in review piece the day before Holiday Break at NHTV. Google creates one of these videos each year, however we prefer to spin off some of their concepts to instead use our own choices of the year’s events. This video didn’t turn out quite the way I would of liked, but I ended up having to put the whole thing together in basically one night. I was, however, pleased with its effect. Hope you enjoy.

A Holiday Greeting from NHTV

The NHTV team put together a little holiday greeting. The idea was inspired by Film Riot’s Holiday special, which we spun off of. As you might guess after watching the video, no script was involved whatsoever. Props to Mike Joos who had the original idea for the short, shot it, edited it, and allowed David Haddad to have an open flame in his living room. Enjoy.

Imagination

The impetus for this video was a need for the promotion of art and creativity at North Hills. Every so often, departments in the school go to curriculum council to ask for new funding to replace textbooks, equipment, supplies, etc. This video was incorporated into the art department’s video which, among other things, encompasses the TV Production and Filmmaking classes at North Hills. The vision for this video came from Mr. Bellissimo and was designed with a similar feel to Apple’s most recent “reflective” style advertisements. The video was shot by Mike Joos and myself. The voiceover was incredibly well done by Bo Barker, who really did a fantastic job and brought the whole thing together. Overall, the goal was to showcase art, creativity, and imagination and the need for them to be a part of the education that public school provides.

Copyright 2017 by Nick Ross