DIGITAL STUDIO AWARDS

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More than 300 industry identities participated in the sixth annual Digital Studio Awards that were held at The Westin Hotel in Dubai last month.

This year’s expanded awards programme, which was staged in conjunction with sister titles Digital Broadcast and DigitalProductionME.com, recognised excellence in the Middle East broadcast, production and creative technology sectors.

The winners roll-call recognised a diverse selection of regional projects, leading organisations and top individual talent.

Eighteen winners were honoured from more than 350 nominations. Each winner was selected by an independent judging panel consisting of the IABM’s John Ive; freelance director of photography Paul Mongey, Giorgio Ungania of TEDx Dubai and members of ITP’s Broadcast editorial team.

Joining Digital Studio to support these awards were our sponsors, Hitachi, Newtec, Riedel, Nautel, The Frame, Advanced Media and Arabsat. The awards also enjoy the support of two important industry players namely, the DWTC and the IABM.

Without further ado, we look at the winners of Digital Studio Awards 2010 and why they deserved to win.

Industry Identity of the Year
Winner: Dr. Riyadh Najm

This is Digital Studio’s most prestigious award to date and is reserved for individuals that have been agents of change in the region.

Dr. Riyadh Najm, assistant deputy minister for engineering, fits that bill. Dr. Najm started his career as an engineer for operation and maintenance at Saudi Television way back in 1980. He then worked at the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) in Saudi Arabia. He was promoted to his present post in 2005. He is also the president of ASBU and the chairman of the Committee in charge of laying out audio-visual Broadcast regulations in Saudi Arabia. He is also the chairman of the HDTV Arab Group and chairman of the Technical Committee, World Broadcasting Unions.

What makes him special is the fact that he has used his various roles successfully to modernise Saudi TV and radio, bring digital entertainment to homes in the Kingdom and also, on a more regional level, he has tried to encourage all regional broadcasters to follow a common HD standard so as to enable closer cooperation and integration with each other in the future.

In layman’s terms, he is the man who began the HD revolution in Saudi Arabia. He was also the key to encouraging the country to move to digital terrestrial television. We see Dr. Najm as an inspiration to the region’s broadcasting sector.

Outstanding Industry Contribution
Winner: Dirk Breynaert

This is an Editor’s Choice award and was offered to acknowledge one of the brains behind the MENOS project. This gentleman not only came up with the project’s name, but used his groundbreaking work in satellite technologies and industry standard creation to help create the revolutionary cost-effective IP-based satellite exchange service that is MENOS. To understand why Dirk Breynaert, co-founder and CTO of Newtec deserved this award, we need to go back a bit in time.

In 1999, ASBU implemented the first fully automated digital audio exchange system over satellite, which contained web based reservation, telephony and intranet functionality. In 2000, during the Sydney Olympics, ASBU was the first to exchange video via a digital television exchange network using 8PSK. In 2002, the organisation acquired an IP based training system to enable its members to benefit from distance training. In 2004, the ASBU achieved another first by transmitting, during the Athens Olympics, fully BISS-E encrypted TV signals.

During all those years, the ASBU fully relied on Newtec to help develop and introduce those groundbreaking technological evolutions.

By introducing those services and those technology platforms during those eight years, ASBU began to face many challenges.

For instance, how could ASBU introduce new services that are requested by its members such as file transfer, intranet access, archiving and VoIP? How could it increase its revenues by adding other users to its network while reducing the cost of the satellite transmission? How could a small technical team continue to cope with an increasing number of platforms and technological complexity and how could errors, due to manual planning of the transmissions, be reduced? How could capital expenditure on new technologies be limited? There were too many questions to be answered.

In 2006, ASBU, Arabsat and Newtec signed a partnership agreement to develop and implement a revolutionary cost-effective IP-based satellite exchange service. The goal was to provide one network solution to address all of these challenges.

Breynaert helped translate the business requirements together with ASBU. The idea for MENOS was conceived at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, during a brain-storming session about the future of broadcasting and next-gen ASBU networks for TV/radio contribution and exchange. But Breynaert conceived the name MENOS on the plane home!

Breynaert jokingly calls himself the mother of MENOS.

“Four year pregnancy, carrying the MENOS baby, painful but spectacular birth, our bouncing baby is growing fast, and is healthy and strong”.

The foundation behind MENOS is said to centre around Breynaert’s groundbreaking work in satellite technologies together with the support of ESA (European Space Agency), and his contribution to the creation of numerous satellite industry influential standards (DVB-S, DVB-S2, DVB-RCS ea), of which the MENOS systems reaps the benefits.

Manufacturer of the Year
Hitachi Kokusai Electronic Europe

We had a number of entries for this category this year. Our choice is not just based on how successful a company has become in the region and how many deals it has secured here. Rather, this award is meant to celebrate companies that invest in the Middle East in terms of an office, support staff, training and so on.

This year, Hitachi Kokusai Europe fit the bill. During a recession, it is unusual to see a company expand but this is exactly what this manufacturer did as part of its efforts to show its commitment to the Middle East.

Hitachi has had a lot of success in Saudi Arabia and Egypt over the last couple of years. In Saudi Arabia alone, the manufacturer sold more than 100 camera chains through its local systems integrator First Gulf Company in the last couple of years while it has had equally good success in Egypt.

Thirty Hitachi SK-900 camera chains were part of a broadcast setup to provide the key broadcasts from the FIFA World Cup that were staged in Egypt in 2009.

In return, Hitachi launched a new office in Riyadh recently and also struck deals with local systems integrators in Bahrain, Qatar and Oman to further its operations in the region.

“The office in Riyadh is a sign of the commitment I made in the Kingdom three years ago to increase Hitachi’s support to all of our products within broadcasting,” stated Paddy Roache, GM of Hitachi Kokusai Europe Ltd.

In the Middle East and North Africa, radio and TV is fundamental to the development of the region’s social infrastructure. Here, broadcasting is not just an entertainment medium; it is critical to the education and development of all ages and we want to be part of this revolution,” he added.

Animation of the Year
Quaker Oats: Blink Studios

Although animation has not received its due respect and support in this industry just yet, a small volume of good quality work has begun to emerge over the last few years from different quarters. We had a significant number of entries for best animation this year but the entry that stood out was a 35-second TVC in Arabic from Blink Studios.

The storyline is simple. Egg Boy is innocent and cute but he is also Quaker Can’s worst nightmare.

He wants Quaker, who can do everything related to food, do something impossible. Exasperated, Quaker asks his little Egg friend when he will crack out of his shell.

“One of the main challenges in character animation is creating unique personalities for each character through expression and movement,” stated Hani Kichi, producer and director of the TVC.

”This was created and enhanced in house in order to bring out the humour in the script while also transmitting the brand message accurately and breathing life into the characters. We shot the live action bits on the RED Camera.”

The TVC featured high-quality 3D animation mixed with real background environments. Though the main aim of the TVC was to promote Quaker’s wide range of cooking usages, winner Blink Studios exploited the opportunity to rear a closeness between the characters — Quaker Can and Egg Boy — and the viewer.

“The Digital Studio award comes at time when we are close to launching long-format animated concepts. Though 3D walk-throughs and corporate videos have been part of our company’s portfolio for a long time, animated TV series, animated short films and animated feature films have been a long-standing dream at Blink Studios.

“To be recognised in the industry for producing high quality animation comes at such a fantastic time, when we are so close to realising our dream to produce long-format animation at Blink Studios,” added Kichi.

Distributor of the Year
Advanced Media Trading

When our judges looked for a distributor in the Middle East, their aim was not to reward box shifters or companies that merely represented a lot of brands in the region. Local distributors operate in a relatively unique environment, where most end users are not informed about new technology as often or as quickly as their international counterparts. Therefore, we have begun to favour those distributors that seek to educate and inform end users by investing in training and workshops. No doubt, these workshops will offer hands-on training on brands the distributor represents but they will also aim to educate the end user about some of the fundamentals and trends of a specific technology. We were particularly impressed by Dubai-based distributor Advanced Media that invested in training, workshops and seminars.

The distributor also brought the first 3D stereography workshop to the Middle East. For its efforts to not just sell to but also train and support users over the past 12 months, the judges felt that Advanced Media Trading deserved the award this year.

Studio of the Year
twofour54 intaj

Three fantastic High Definition studios made it to the final round of the Digital Studio Awards. Al Ikhbariya Studio and Dammam TV complex in Saudi Arabia competed with twofour54 intaj in Abu Dhabi for the awards this year. It was a close call but twofour54 bagged the award. Intaj has five fully-equipped HD studios ranging from 60sq.ms to 650sq.ms. The facility has attracted an impressive roster of clients including BBC, CNN, ADTV, FIFA, Endemol, National Geographic, Formula 1, Bladonmore. 200 days of studio time was booked in just the first three months of operation.

Each of these studios comes with a fully-equipped production gallery, corresponding green rooms, VIP rooms, and make-up and dressing rooms. Each client’s individual lighting and studio configurations can also be saved so they don’t have to revisit their settings each time they come to the facility, and having a dedicated production gallery for each studio ensures that the facility can record or air five live broadcast shows at the same time. But it’s not just the facilities that make twofour54 intaj world-class, it the team of dedicated staff it provides to service its clients.

Production of the Year
Boomtown (Dubai Metro)
Real Image Productions (KEC)

Two companies walked away with the award this year. Boomtown Productions won the award for the first 3D production attempted in the UAE and Real Image was recognised for skilfully producing a futuristic concept for Saudi Arabia’s Knowledge Economic City.

The Boomtown project was the first 3D stereoscopic production to be undertaken in this part of the world. With no precedents in the region to follow, the team smartly collaborated with top international experts to produce it.

The technology employed to shoot the footage and then to edit it together was imported into Dubai specifically for this project, while a tight deadline and a variety of locations determined a rigorous work schedule. The final result was a breathtaking 3D journey through iconic sights throughout Dubai, including somersaulting dolphins at Atlantis hotel, exciting downhill skiing at Ski Dubai, and the breathtaking fountains at Dubai Mall, to name a few. This groundbreaking film was used as the grand introduction to Dubai Metro on its opening day before it was screened to the general public in a purpose built 3D screening room at the Mall of the Emirates for weeks thereafter.

Completed well before the recent surge of interest in stereoscopic film making, Boomtown Productions recognised the potential for this medium in enhancing the visual experience and put it to work.

Our second winner, Real Image Productions has been renowned in the past for its post production work. However, we saw just the same commitment to detail for a production work it undertook recently for Saudi Arabia’s KEC project. Whole scenes were shot against a green screen and skilfully brought to life at the animator’s table. This project truly bears witness to the abilities this production house has.

Special mention must also be made of E-motion’s production Mutaheda, a stunning film that was produced to celebrate the UAE National Day. Directed by Bruno de Champris, this film helped train local crew to try novel production techniques and also introduced them to several new kit that was brought into the country for the first time.

Post Production House of the Year
Blackstone Studios

Blackstone Studios, which is based in Dubai Studio City, won this year because of the high level of work it produced in 2009. The company’s showreel received huge applause when it was screened on the night of the awards.

Broadcast Engineer of the Year
Winner: Ihab El Baba

Technical heads are at the core of any broadcast operation and this award is designed for those people who stand at the helm and help steer the ship in the right direction. Our winner this year is a well-known techie, who is much loved and revered in the Middle East broadcast industry for his experience and the know-how he brings to the table.

Ihab El Baba has worked for the last 20 years in technical and project management and is currently gearing up to begin work on a new channel called Alif Alif, prior to which he helped put together the HD operations at Kuwaiti TV channel Al Watan.

El Baba began his career with a ten-year stint at Future TV in Lebanon, before he went to work at MBC, where he helped manage the technical operations while the broadcaster relocated from London to Dubai Media City.

El Baba also helped design and build many TV channels in Dubai Media City, as well as the Jazeera channels in Doha and Orbit in Bahrain.

Systems Integrator of the Year
Sony Professional Solutions Middle East

This is one of our hotly contested categories every year. Every systems integrator in the region has done a significant number of projects and some of them are leaders in the region they operate in.

Take First Gulf Company in Saudi Arabia, for instance. They are the undisputed leaders in the Kingdom and have bagged more than 90% of the projects in the country making them a sure-fire winner every year. Then there’s Salam MediaCast and Tek Signals who are always leading with a number of projects in several countries across the region. In 2009, however, we believed that Sony Professional Solutions Middle East had secured large-scale projects that simply could not go unrecognised. More importantly, unlike most systems integrators in the region, the deals it secures are strictly related to production and broadcast with no civil or telecommunications work involved. Keeping this in mind, Sony won more than $80 million worth of projects in 2009 including twofour54 in Abu Dhabi, Iraqi Media Network, Abu Dhabi Media Company and ERTU.

It is also interesting to note that Dubai Media Inc. had so much faith in Sony’s capability to deliver the goods that it used its new HD vans to cover the World Beach Football championship two days after delivery and later, the official opening of the Burj Khalifa without testing or commissioning and everything went off without a hitch.

Best Technology Implementation
Qvest Media

Al Jazeera Sport has been one of the most successful segments of Al Jazeera Network and it has invested its profits into deploying successful technologies at its facility.

A significant project undertaken recently was the tapeless ingest, editing and playout workflow deployed by Dubai-based systems integrator Qvest Media FZ LLC. The system features an 11-channel playout solution and supports nine of Al Jazeera Sports’ pay TV channels and two of its free-to-air channels. This solution, which included EVS systems, was heavily customised to support the client’s requirements including ingest, editing, highlight-editing and the playout of a 24/7 live operation. The whole installation was configured with a single codec, making transcoding unnecessary.

Young Filmmaker of the Year
Winner: Ali Mostafa

Ali Mostafa is a celebrity in the UAE and rightly so. There were no second thoughts in the mind of our key judge for this category, Masoud Amralla Al Ali, who is also the creative director of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) on who should win this award. Filmmaker, screenwriter, producer and director Mostafa is the first Emirati to make a feature film in the UAE, which lived up to all the hype that was built around it. His film City of Life screened to a packed audience in December 2009 at DIFF.

Besides giving UAE-based production houses an opportunity to work on a locally produced feature, it also showcased what the regional industry could do in terms of developing local cinema.

Most innovative project of the year
MENOS by Arabsat, ASBU and Newtec

There were a number of worthy studios, playout facilities and ambitious archival projects that in other years would have deservedly walked away with this award. However, MENOS was a very special project undertaken by Arabsat, ASBU and Newtec to benefit broadcasters throughout the region – financially and in terms of their own production values.

The scale of the MENOS project and the extent to which it has become a part of so many broadcasters’ workflows in the MENA region could simply not be ignored. The content exchange is the product of ASBU members’ requests to Newtec over the years. The close collaboration between member broadcasters and the frequency with which the same content is delivered to each makes the benefits of a far reaching exchange obvious.

The IP-based nature of MENOS means that as well as providing a platform to move content around, it also allows for all the additional benefits that IP allows such as VoIP and other collaborative tools.

The service has already been opened up to broadcasters outside the ASBU and Newtec is now looking to expand the service’s reach to the African market.

The flexibility of the service versus the glut of satellite bookings that would be required in its absence is not only more convenient but also more cost-effective.

The commercial and operational impact that the MENOS project has had on the broadcasters using it is too large and too far reaching to be ignored by this year’s awrads. The number of technologies and applications involved from the signal encryption to the DVB-S2 modulation and the multiplexing of voice, data, radio and TV signals to obtain maximum efficiency make the development of MENOS as worthy of recognition as the services it enables.

Most innovative broadcaster of the Year
Orbit Showtime Network (OSN)

When Orbit Showtime Network’s CEO Mark Antoine d’Halluin stated at a press conference at the beginning of the merger of the two companies that OSN would seriously address piracy and that the pay TV operator would launch a HD bouquet in six months, many people were sceptical.

But d’Halluin kept his word. Two days after the merger, the broadcaster extended the reach of its channels to each others’ subscribers. In a month, two new transponders were added to the Nilesat position on 7 degrees, which is the home of the OSN platform. This was a massive undertaking in terms of securing the satellite capacity, the mux and encoding equipment for 35 new channels, the channel and schedule information added to the EPG and the channels included in the correct packages.

Playout operations were then split between OSN’s two centres so that Bahrain handled general entertainment (GE), News and the Arabic channels while Dubai played out movies, sport and VOD services.

This entailed the migration of thousands of hours of material with their corresponding metadata and subtitles from Bahrain to Dubai and vice versa.

Shortly after, the pay TV operator announced the launch of its HD bouquet with Dolby Surround Sound. Today, the operator has three HD channels and hopes to add another five by summer. Digital Studio was impressed by how quickly and efficiently OSN had achieved all of this within a short time.

Content delivery service of the year
Du for du TV+

This category was added to the Digital Studio Awards line-up this year by our sister publication Digital Broadcast to recognise the growing sophistication of TV services and content exchanges in the Middle East both for B2B usage and for distribution to viewers.

The quality of the nominations received was a reflection of how far the industry has developed in a very short space of time with FTA satellite channels and previously one-dimensional pay TV offerings giving way to on-demand libraries, online PVR services, HD offerings and more.

The overall winner provides all of these. UAE telco du launched du TV+ in July last year upgrading its existing ‘plain vanilla’ IP-based TV services to a true, two-way IPTV service powered by Microsoft’s expansive Mediaroom platform.

Despite several telcos in the region offering TV services on their fixed line networks these have typically resembled regular cable distribution rather than leveraging the full capabilities of an IPTV service on a fibre-based network. Du TV + is the first large-scale roll out with this level of sophistication in the Middle East.

The software brings many benefits for viewers that were previously missing from DTH satellite services. Instant channel change, an advanced EPG that allows for superior browsing and a search capacity all boost the user experience.

The telco has also added an on-demand movie library and launched a bouquet of HD channels that it intends to further develop as more channels become available in the region.

Following the launch of the new service, du offered existing customers the opportunity to exchange their set top box free of charge and embarked on a major logistical operation to provide all its customers with the new hardware by the end of 2009.

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