Thursday, June 25, 2009

The light at the end of the tunnel

For the last 3-4 weeks I have been keeping myself very busy working on rebuilding my video production equipment rack.  “What is that?” you might ask?  I’m glad you did. 

There are two primary ways that video is created.  There is taped video production, and live video production.  Most of the people that I know that work with video do taped production primarily… making movies, commercials, and the like.  Each shot is planned out ahead of time, shot multiple times from different angles. Video made this way can take a long time to create.

The other is live production, where a crew of camera operators, a director, and other technical crew members will setup multiple cameras at some type of event and switch between the cameras live.  A director sits and monitors the different shots from the various cameras, selecting different shots to go out “live,” and giving instructions to the camera operators on what shots to get to make the video interesting and flow naturally.

I love working with video, but I’m not a huge fan of the editing phase, so focusing on live video production interests me more than taped production.  Not only that, but there aren’t very many people that do live production, so it’s a relatively easy market to create a niche in, especially for lower budget productions.  So I have concentrated on building an arsenal of equipment to handle live video easily.  It’s a lot more of a financial drain than taped production, as it takes multiple cameras and very expensive live switching equipment at a very minimum.  I have 7 professional quality video cameras (5 HD), and sometimes even that doesn’t feel like enough.

After a technical disaster I had shooting the graduation of a local college recently, I decided it was time to rebuild my existing rack of video production equipment.  We were having issues with the video from different cameras cutting in and out, problematic communication equipment, just to name two of the major issues that came up.  When I found out that my stake is having another conference a few weeks after that (this coming Saturday and Sunday) my pace for rebuilding was picked up drastically.

IMG_0034 The 48 cables removed from the previous video rack.
These are NOT going into the new rack.  Good riddance!

This was also a great opportunity to upgrade the capabilities of my equipment.  The focus of the new setup is a 64x64 video router, which has inputs for 64 different video sources (like cameras, DVD players, etc.) and outputs for 64 different destinations (like DVD recorders, video monitors, etc.)  (For comparison, my previous router had 16 inputs and 2 outputs.)  I have had this thing for about two years but it has been sitting idle waiting to be used.   The router itself can be seen in later pictures; it’s the big blue thing on the back side of the rack, or the device with tons of blue wires coming in and out of it in the “inside” pictures.  Here’s a screenshot of some software I threw together to control the video router during the testing phase.

IMG_0052I had used some inexpensive cables in the old rack, and this was causing at least some of the problems I was having, so this time around I spared no expense on cabling.  I used extremely high quality video cable, with the best connectors available on each end.  Each cable was cut to the exact length needed, and the ends were crimped on.  Here’s an example of what a completed cable looks like:

IMG_0033 I had to make about 80 of these cables in various lengths from a few inches to a couple feet.  Each one takes about 5 minutes to create.  A few shots of some of the cable after installation…

IMG_0013 IMG_0006



I especially like that last shot.  The 16 short cables all lined up like that are kind of pretty.  :)  But even with those, it still doesn’t look like there are 80 blue video cables in there… but there are!

The making of cables didn’t end there.  Because my rack also processes and mixes audio, I had two panels of various audio connectors, and a pile of cables to create for integrating an audio mixer.  The connectors in the next shot were particularly time consuming, as there are six individual wires that need to be attached to each one, in a relatively small space.

IMG_0026IMG_0029IMG_0027Instead of being crimped, the audio connections all must be soldered… on both ends.  That took quite a while to get all of that done.  I spent several days sitting at my workbench soldering connectors.

The rack also houses communication equipment.  A sort of intercom system that allows communication between the director and the camera operators.  None of that is visible directly here, but it took nearly as much time to wire as the audio connections did.

Those of you with a keen eye will notice that there is a considerable amount of twisted pair (CAT-5) cable in the rack.  This is because my former roommate Brad and I developed a system about 5 years ago that sends all of the audio and video signals over a CAT-5 Ethernet cable (one per camera).  Each cable carries two video signals (one from the camera, one to the camera), an audio signal from the camera, bidirectional intercom audio, and tally (the red light that lights up on the active camera).  An Ethernet cable is run from the back of my equipment rack to a small box of electronics at each camera.  Yes, we did build these from scratch:

IMG_0012 This makes setup much easier, as once the production rack is setup, it’s just a matter of running a single Ethernet cable to each camera to get things going from there.  Much faster than running four or five cables to each camera, though I still do have that option if I choose to exercise it.

So here’s the finished rack…

IMG_0035IMG_0056 IMG_0036One thing obviously missing is a video switching console.  I may be one of the only people on the planet that does video switching that doesn’t use a conventional console to do so.  I have come up with something much more innovative and easy to use.  It’s all done on a computer with a touch screen monitor.

One of the pieces of equipment in this rack takes up to 16 of the 64 video sources and compresses them down into a single signal that is sent to my laptop.  The laptop then displays these sources in a 2x2, 3x3, or 4x4 grid (depending on how many cameras I might be working with at the time), then the touch screen of the laptop is used to select video sources.  So all I have to do is touch the video I want to be “live” and the computer sends out the signals to the equipment in the rack to re-route the signals as needed to make the transition to the new video source.  I’ll try to remember to get some screenshots while I’m using it for conference this weekend, but it’s very slick (though VERY unpolished at this point).  It only takes about a minute to train people on how to use it, which is certainly not the case with conventional video switchers.  My system also announces (verbally) the typical instructions that directors give (“Ready 3…. Take 3…. Dissolve 2”) automatically over the intercom, freeing me up as a director for other tasks, like monitoring all of the cameras and giving meaningful instructions to the camera operators.

One other innovation I have come up with, and has been made possible by using the huge 64x64 router is the ability to send different video sources to the different camera operators.  Each operator has an LCD monitor mounted on top of their camera so they can see the live video that is being broadcast or recorded.  With this new rack of equipment I can now each allow operator to select which video source they want to see on their monitor, whether that be the live program feed, the preview feed (the next source about to go live), the feed from another camera, their own camera, or even a script or set list coming out of a computer somewhere.  But as of now I can also send a combination of these things.  Each camera operator can now see which video source is live, plus all of the other cameras at the same time should I choose to send it to them.  An example may help to illustrate:


This isn’t exactly what an operator will see, but it gives you the idea.  The top 3/4 of the screen show the program feed (active video program), and the bottom row shows feeds from three cameras (the same source is being used for all three here, but normally these would be different), and the preview feed.  So each camera operator can see what the others are doing, and know which source is about to go live.  That makes my job as a director a lot easier, as a good camera operator will make sure to give a different type of shot than everyone else, and especially different than the live feed. 

Another example of what can be sent to the cameras, this time using color bars:

IMG_0019 Even though the rack is finished I’m still not done with the project.  I need to spend a couple days working on my switching software to make it work with the new setup, and take advantage of its capabilities.  Hopefully it will all go smoothly.  And if I remember I’ll post some screenshots to show just how easy to use this system is.


Anonymous said...


As always, I am very impressed with the things that you come up with! Very awesome (and yes... even pretty on the wiring) configuration! Be sure to patent the things that you innovate (it's the prospective lawyer in me talking)!

James McCubbins

Anthony D said...

Very impressive setup! If you're short on camera operators I could potentially help.

Google Search