Nick Ross

don't watch tv. make it.

Filtering by Category: Tech

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. These 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

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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2018 by Nick Ross