Upgrading the Video System

Last week was a big week for us in the tech department. The system that has often been treated like the red headed stepchild was finally given a complete overhaul. Video has been on my list of things to upgrade for three years now (since I arrived here in 2009). But, budgets are what they are and we had other, more pressing needs. Finally, I scrimped and saved enough in my budget to buy that one big piece we needed for the upgrade, the video switcher. 

The finished product is looking pretty good.

Here is a rundown of the equipment we had:

  • (2) Hitachi Z-4000W cameras
  • (2) Sony Z1 cameras
  • Panasonic MX50 switcher
  • (2) Christie DS+5K projectors for IMAG
  • Misc. DAs, RF modulators and RF distros

So, the big item that had to go was the switcher. However, it was not as easy as pull out the MX50 and drop in a Ross CrossOver Solo. The real issue was that none of the cabling would pass SDI signals. So that meant we had to run all new coax. And they didn’t give us nice, convenient runs of conduit between the stage and the tech booth. So we had to get creative.

First, we spent a good half-day searching for conduit runs. We eventually found a couple that led to a trough, and if we re-routed some other conduit, we could get coax to the house left side of the stage and that projector. My ATD Jon and our intern Matt spent most of the day pulling four runs of Gepco VPM2000 cable up there. Yeah, it was not a fun pull.

The house right side was fairly easy. There was an existing 1” conduit that went from video control the projection room. Again, we had to re-route a few conduits, and extend some runs, but we got there. That pull only took about an hour to get four runs in there. At this point, we have new runs to both projectors, plus 5 camera positions on stage that we can hook into.

Then there was the mess of old cable. Because pulling cable through conduit is hard, most people don’t like to do it. That’s how we end up with this:

A bunch of unlabeled cables coming in from all over the place tied together into a big rat’s next on the floor. It all had to go. We decided to run all new com lines as well as video—first because we needed them, and second because we knew the only cables we’d need are ones we ran, and thus anything we didn’t run we could cut out. We probably pulled a good 500-700 feed of various lines out last week alone, and there's more to go.

Once the cabling was cleaned up, we started on the layout. I’ve never liked the layout of our system (and I’m sorry I forgot to take pictures of the “before”). There was a equipment rack to the left of video where we housed preview monitors for the camera. Since we were going to use the multiviewer, the preview monitors wouldn’t be necessary. The rack was moved to the left, at the end of the booth. This pushed video over closer to presentation, which is good because once we start bringing graphics into the video, those two will need to talk.

We also freed up a lot of desk space for the FCP capture/edit station that also lives at video world. The edit station had two monitors originally, though we added a third using a Newer Technology USB to DVI adapter. The third monitor is to the right of the multiviewer, and will display a waveform monitor from Scopebox. Since our CCU remote units are right in front of the scope monitor, it will be easy for either the director or a shader to adjust the iris for our main cameras. I should note that right now we are feeding Scopebox with the program feed; but as soon as my new Decklink card comes in, it will get preview. 

The multiviewer has been our biggest challenge. I bought a commercial display from a friend and planned on using it with the DVI input (that I would convert from SDI to HDMI to DVI). Looking back on it, it was a flawed plan. The problem is the monitor is expecting an RGB DVI signal, and the SDI to HDMI converter puts out a YUV signal. So I bought a fairly inexpensive LED LCD display with a straight HDMI input. That worked fine, but it’s overscanning too much and cropping my signal. I think I’m going to bite the bullet and buy a production display with SDI inputs from Panasonic for use as my multiview. I was going to use the production display as a preview monitor, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Plus, it has blue-only mode and will (finally) give us a calibrated display in the booth.

Other new parts of the system include an OpenGear frame and a few cards. If you’re not familiar with OpenGear, I suggest you look into it, especially if you’re buying a Ross switcher anytime soon. If you buy a switcher and an OpenGear card, you’ll get the frame for a buck. Not a bad deal. With the frame, you can insert all kinds of cards into it and convert, distribute, embed, de-embed and route video all over the place. There is a card for almost every need, made by 27 vendors as of this writing. We’re using an SDI DA, an SDI to HDMI converter and an SDI to Analog card right now. Though I can already think of a few more that will be handy eventually.

All told, the system conversion took almost 100 man-hours to complete. We build a ton of custom cables (I always build my own) for video, audio and com. We routed all our video cables in neat bundles using TechFlex F6 and labeled everything. 

We still have some issues to work out, such as what format to run everything. I was going to to 1080i (upconverting our main cameras), but our projectors won’t take HD SDI signals (though they will take HD analog signals). The multiviewer doesn’t look great in 480i, so we may end up upconverting that at some point (we’ll see how the new display looks). 

Our projectors are scheduled for replacement in 2015, and the cameras the year after that. At that point, we’ll run the entire system in HD, but until then, we have a fully upgraded backbone that looks tremendously better than the old composite video-based system we used to have. And don't worry, I'll be doing more in-depth write ups of the CrossOver, the OpenGear system and Scopebox as we get a little further down the road.

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