High-definition broadcast and production trailer gives “SportsZone Live” high mobility

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Elizabeth Lamark/ETC Photo

Mark Fragale, foreground, and Steve Czompo, of RIT’s Educational Technology Center, at work inside a new state-of-the-art HD production and broadcast trailer.

Staying at the forefront of technology doesn’t always have to come with a high price tag. Sometimes, innovation—and hard work—can take a dream and bring it to life. At Rochester Institute of Technology, a handful of students and staff built a cutting-edge high-definition production and broadcast trailer in only four months—much less than the industry standard—and at a third of the cost.

The HD broadcast trailer is a full production studio and the only one of its kind in upstate New York. It’s currently deployed at RIT to broadcast SportsZone Live—a cable sports TV show covering RIT’s home games. But there’s talk of expanding SportsZone Live to cover away games next year and even renting the trailer to other universities.

What makes this project special isn’t just the state-of-the-art technology that the team at RIT put together in a few short months. It’s that students were largely responsible for planning and building the trailer—and for running the show during live broadcasts—all of which gives them invaluable industry experience that they just couldn’t get anywhere else.

“The knowledge from the work that our students have received from this is changing and molding their whole careers,” says James Bober, lead engineer at RIT’s Educational Technology Center Engineering Services. “What students learn in a classroom can only take them so far. What we provide is a down-to-earth application that gives them the edge. They walk out of here with the practical experience they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The genesis of SportsZone Live

Since 2003, RIT, in partnership with Time Warner Cable and ESPN, has aired SportsZone, a weekly half-hour show that showcases the university’s athletic programs.

“For the past couple of years, Time Warner has asked us to provide more content for their sports cable network,” Bober says. “RIT has grown in sports—we’re now a Division I school in hockey, for instance. Time Warner has been interested in covering and broadcasting the games live, wanting to partner with RIT for us to provide the content.”

To do so, RIT needed a production studio. The choice, then, was whether to create such a studio in standard definition or high definition. When discussing how to make it a reality, James Watters, RIT’s senior vice president of finance and administration, chose to fund building the trailer with high-definition capabilities—giving students an unparalleled educational experience, both in building it and running the show.

Building the broadcast trailer

From there, a team of two RIT staff—Lead Engineer James Bober and Media Production Engineer Chuck Canham—and two co-operative education students went to work, planning and designing its needs over the course of the summer. “We set upon our task of designing and implementing a mobile production trailer after graduation,” Bober says. “We had four months to go from concept to completion—normally a nine-to-12-month process in the broadcast industry.”

But the team had an on-air date to meet—the first men’s hockey game on Oct. 17.

RIT student Darren Hansen, a graduate student in network systems administration, worked with Bober over the summer to plan and design the trailer and its components. “I spent all summer doing plans—with layouts and diagrams for the wiring.” Hansen also researched the specific equipment they’d need for each component of the production studio, such as the switcher, soundboard and cameras.

After Labor Day, they were ready to begin building. That’s where fifth-year electrical engineering student Andrzej Lubaska stepped in. “They handed me the drawings they’d done so far and said, ‘Tell us what we’re missing.’” The first cable was cut mid-September and it was all done by the first week in October. All told, that took more than 17,000 feet of cables and wires, each hand-terminated and accounted for, and meticulously labeled.

Due to the project’s frugal budget, switchers, cameras and other components weren’t just purchased off-the-shelf. Instead, by examining what they really needed each one to do, they were designed and customized—at a much lower cost. The trailer itself came as an empty, carpeted shell. Even the circuit breakers needed to be upgraded, with many more outlets than the original two that it came with.

Those customizations took innovation and effort, but also came with benefits. “We could have chosen a different camera system, but the Panasonic HD cameras that we chose were less expensive and ended up providing a lot more functionality,” Lubaska says. “For example, they can be used as standalone Electronic News Gatherers as well. It gives us more flexibility to use the equipment in other applications.”

Another example are the camera remote control units. They were not designed to be used in a console, but rather in the field next to the camera operator. However, the team built a custom tray for the controllers and mounted them to the desktop in the trailer. Even the plasma screen mounts needed modification to be attached to a rack—not something they were originally designed to do. The two Panasonic 50” Plasma screens, used as a monitor wall, can be reconfigured for each event using, showing different inputs that are digitally resized, positioned and labeled for the crew—rather than plugging and unplugging cables into CRT screens. This was made possible by the donation of an upgraded 32-input Harris Predator II multiviewer by Harris Corp.

Hansen designed custom patch bay panels for the side of the truck, which were engraved by Clark Wire and Cable. He also came up with a customized circuit for each of the field cameras allowing them to receive return video and tally signals from the trailer. Lubaska used skills from his Electrical Engineering education to finalize the design into an easy-to-implement box. Because the RIT staff members leading the project had industry experience and maintained their connections with others in the field, they were able to provide expert advice on who to turn to when selecting components and working with vendors.

State-of-the-art technological education

For the students working on this project, the experiences they’ve had are ones they wouldn’t otherwise get. “It’s been awesome, being part of such a legitimate broadcasting experience,” Lubaska says. “This is a professional scale project and we, as students, got to design and build it.”

Hansen agrees, “This is a rare opportunity. How many broadcast trucks are build in a year—one or two in the country? And we were students building this one.”

It’s not just the students who built the trailer that benefit. Student workers on SportsZone Live are also getting a meaningful education.

“SportsZone has been so successful in teaching our students about broadcasting. Some of our students have gone on to work at ESPN.” says Mark Fragale, digital media producer/editor and director of SportsZone Live. “I hear reports back that our students are well prepared from their work on SportsZone. However, we haven’t been able to give them live broadcast TV experience. SportsZone Live fills that void.”

To get the show up and running, several industry freelancers have been filling in, manning the controls in the trailer. Currently, 15 RIT students work on the show, including Amanda Wade, the timekeeper. Wade is responsible for counting in and out of commercials and being constantly in communication with Time Warner, the referee and Fragale to make sure there’s never a second of dead air.

“As we move further into it, more of those positions will be filled by students as they become trained by working with the outside professionals,” Fragale says. For the women’s hockey game in December, students will run the show—operating cameras, graphics and instant replay. The show’s audience is close to 1 million.

Students are involved on camera as well as behind-the-scenes. Sophie Scillaci, a third-year advertising and public relations major, conducts on-air interviews with the players and coach at the end of the game. She’s also the host of the taped SportsZone show.

“It’s all completely live, which is new to me and which is awesome.” Scillaci says. “SportsZone is the most valuable part of my education. It’s given me a talent reel, hours of footage of myself and experience in how to do the job that I want.” Scillaci plans to pursue broadcast television and on-camera hosting. She works with local sports commentators Gene Battaglia and John DiTullio.

“It’s live, there are no takes,” Fragale says. “It’s a lot of pressure and responsibility. I take it for granted after a while because they do so well.”

A tour of the trailer

The broadcast trailer is 24’ long with two separate areas—an 8’x17’ main production area and separate 8’x5’ audio area. It seats 10 people. It runs on 3-phase 60A 120 volt service and has three zones of 45,000 BTU cooling.

On the front wall of the trailer are two Panasonic 50” Plasma flat screens and a Panasonic BT-1760 HD reference monitor. They are run by a Harris Zandar Predator II dual output 32-input multiviewer.

At the front desk are the shader, director and technical director.

The shader controls the camera color and brightness, using Panasonic AJ-RC100G remote control units, along with a Panasonic BT-LH1760P reference monitor and a Harris VTM-2400.

The director watches the monitor wall closely, and communicates with the rest of the crew via a four-channel Clearcom Encore system, choosing cameras, talking to the talent and directing camera operators.

The technical director creates effects and transitions, operating and programming a 24-input GVG “Kayak” 150 HD-SDI switcher.

Behind them sit the “tape” operator and slow-mo operator. They are responsible for keeping track of time codes when events happen for instant replays. However, there are no tapes in this production. Instead, they use four Panasonic AJ-HPM110P P2 decks and a AJ-SD93 DVC-Pro deck for backup. Time codes feeding these decks are synched to a GPS satellite clock. Slow-mos are prepared and played back via the DNF 4-way ST300-T slow-mo controller.

In the third row is the graphic operator, generating graphics overlays and inputting player statistics. He operates a two-channel Harris HD Inscriber G3 with full option set and HD clip playback.

In the back corner is the time keeper, who assists the graphics operator and communicates with the broadcaster to keep track of commercials, counting in and out and interfacing with the director.

On the audio side, the audio technician works on a Yamaha M7CL 40x16 digital mixer with 8x8 channels of AES audio with SDI audio embedding and de-embedding. For reference, there are two JBL LSR6325P powered speakers and metering by Wholer. A CD player and iPod dock are used for playback. A Mackie 1402 mixer is wired in and ready to go, if a backup board is needed.

The audio technician is also in charge of the Clearcom PIC-4702 Program Interrupt Controller with two Clearcom AB100 stereo IFB boxes and three Sennheiser HMD280 announcer headsets. Microphone selection consists of nine Crown PCC 160s, four Sennhiser K6 series “shotguns” and two Shure SM63 interview mics. Lavalier, wireless and table microphones are also available.

The engineering station, right behind the audio technician, is equipped with a Panasonic BT-1700 HD reference monitor and a Harris VTM-2400 waveform/vector monitor for checking on the (20) Grass Valley HD-SDI distribution amplifiers, as well as configuring the (five) NTSC to SDI frame synchronizers. The Evertz dual HD-SDI / SDI closed caption encoder and corresponding decoders can also be accessed from the engineering post. The engineering crew also is responsible for setting up AJA up/down converting and ensuring the Ensemble Designs BE-55 Sync Gen is properly configured. A Grass Valley HD protection switch with automatic switchover to an 8x1 HD-SDI backup switcher ensures a continuous broadcast.

The camera crew inside the ice arena capturing the game uses five Panasonic AG-HPX500 P2 HD cameras on Vinten Vision 11 and Vision 100 tripods. Each camera can be equipped with a Panasonic BT-LH80W HD LCD monitor on a MagicArm mount. The cameras are connected to the trailer using a Telemetrix Coax-Link system with an HD-SDI option. If the shoot requires it, three of the Fujinon 17x7.6 lenses have 2x extenders and Fujinon HD 0.6 wide angle adaptors and Fujinon HD 1.5 telephoto adaptors are available. The crew is also prepared to make use of two Scorpion pods.