Graduation Live

December saw the filming and broadcast of our university winter graduation ceremonies, well it would have done, but due to significant snowfall on the morning on the first day, the university had cancel the ceremonies, and in the end only one ceremony went ahead. This was a major disappointment, not least for all the students and families who has made the effort to attend, and for all the work involved in setting up for the event. However having spent the entire day at the university packing up, conditions had deteriorated so much, that it would have been dangerous to have so many people on campus, and we would have seen many people stuck at the university by the evening. There was already some snow around, but it began again around 10am, and by lunchtime there was a thick blanket covering the centre of Bradford. Cars were already skidding along Great Horton Road, and the difficult decision was taken around 1pm to close the university.

This marked the eighth occasion we have filmed the ceremonies, and the 47th we have filmed and made available on DVD. Back in the early years this involved a week of rigging the Great Hall with over 1/4 mile of cabling for 4 cameras. Since the refurbishment of the Great Hall in 2008, the venue has been equipped with permanent cabling allowing me to “plug and play” the equipment with video, audio and talkback feeds to all the camera positions, and fibre optic feeds to supply video to the Great Hall. I even have video over Cat5e transmission to provide video assists to the DVD sales stand, the foyer and the Audio team based in the Great Hall’s projection box. Whilst this has simplified the ceremonies over time, each year provides a different challenge as I strive to improve the presentation of the ceremonies and new technology takes over. Since 2009 I have also been providing a feed to the BBC Big Screen in the centre of Bradford via a dedicated web feed.

This year I was able to run with the new Sony HXR-NX5 cameras, brought in to the School of Computing, Informatics & Media to replace the ageing Sony Z1E. These have allowed better coverage as they operate with a 20x optical zoom compared to the 12x on the Z1E. They are also equipped for High Definition – and can give a HD-SDI (High Definition Serial Digital Interface) feed output. One thing we have to watch out for is the fact that they use a CMOS chip rather than a CCD chip. Due to the progressive nature of the output, images can suffer when exposed to bright flashes of light – e.g. from still cameras, and we have had to be careful to avoid shots too close to the official photographer!
As a backup, we have always shot in camera as well as vision mixing live – this gives us backup recordings that could be used should anything go wrong with the master video mix, and allows us to replace dodgy shots if we miss a graduate handshake with the Chancellor for example; and would even allow us to perform a complete multicam edit in post-production should the live mix fail – an unlikely occurrence these days, however we have had a few close calls in the past with problematic FireWire devices and even doors being slammed on cables in the days before we had a permanent rig!

The NX5 cameras are solid state and this had added an additional challenge to the setup. Previous ceremonies were shot onto DV tape in camera and in the gallery. Today, we record the master output in DVCAM onto XDCAM discs – a great cost saving, as these can be captured faster than real-time for editing via USB, and can be reused on multiple occasions without the dangers of worn out tape. However having purchased a hard drive to backup all the solid state footage off the camera memory cards, I realised the additional jobs involved in “data wrangling” – and a few extra hours of work backing up the cards after each day’s ceremonies. Using USB 2 devices proved a very slow process, and those looking to solid state recording should consider eSATA drives and express card readers or USB 3 devices for fast backups, otherwise the cost savings of tapeless workflow are negated by the time costs of managing the data.

With the use of XDCAM recording (via a PDW-F75 deck) I hope the next stage for graduation will be HD recordings. At present we transmit using standard definition component video signals to give the best quality possible, but at some stage I hope to be able to upgrade our vision mixer to enable us to move to complete digital workflows. The jump to digital would allow us to go straight to HD, as the Great Hall cabling installed in 2008 was future-proofed with this in mind. With SDI out on the cameras, and native SDI on our recording decks, the vision mixer is the last, but unfortunately most expensive link in the chain that would need to be replaced. All I can say is watch this space!