Digital Studio looks at the range of specialised production equipment that was used to cover the world's richest horse race in Dubai last month.
Last month, the world's best thoroughbreds were brought together to compete for US $6 million at the world's richest horse race held at Dubai's Nad Al Sheba racecourse.
Dubai TV, the host broadcaster of the event, teamed up with UK-based firm, Aerial Camera Systems (ACS) to cover the action for the first time using High Definition equipment, as Curlin, the four-year-old colt from America, galloped to record victory at the World Cup.
By providing a mix of footage from fixed cams, helicopter-mounted cameras and a tracking vehicle, Dubai TV provided TV viewers with an intimate, yet all encompassing experience of the Dubai World Cup.
While fixed cameras are used to give an overall view of a race to the viewer, today's mega productions are incomplete without an all-encompassing take on the action from a tracking vehicle that drives with the horses, and a helicopter that provides aerial footage.
Specialised camera system specialists like ACS are often called in to provide the 'add-on' to the standard 'manned' camera provision, which, in this case, was supplied by Dubai TV.
At most races today, the tracking vehicle angle has become a given. At the World Cup, the jeep was fitted with two cameras mounted on the roof and traveled ahead of the horses. One camera maintained a wide shot of the race while the other was used to take tight shots of the horses.
"You can almost cover the whole race with this vehicle alone and it has become an essential camera angle for covering racing anywhere in the world because it empowers the television viewer by putting them right there in the midst of the action," says Richard Heaney, operations manager, ACS.
"It may have started out as being a luxury but now, this angle has become an absolute necessity."
Likewise, producing the World's richest horse race for TV without good aerial footage would be a shame, says Heaney, as having an aerial shot from a helicopter or an airship always creates the feeling that it is a big budget event. As well as covering the race itself, it also helps to set the scene and puts the venue within the context of its surroundings.
"This is particularly true of the Dubai World Cup, where you see the magnificence of the Nad Al Sheba racetrack sitting in the desert with Dubai in the background. Without that shot, some international viewers may not have realised that the racecourse is actually surrounded by the desert on all sides," explains Heaney.
On the day of the race, the helicopter followed the horses from a safe height of at least 1500 feet to 2000 feet to ensure that they did not startle the horses.
The pilot, under the guidance of the cameraman, got into the right position and effectively got a nice overhead shot all the way around.
However, on the previous day, the helicopter flew at a much lower level and tried to see everything from a jockey's point of view.
"Flying low is what really adds some excitement to the pilot's job. A lot of their work is pretty monotonous and a lot of their filming is just general shots of Dubai so flying five metres off the ground is what provided the interest for them," explains Heaney.
At the World Cup, the tracking vehicle was mounted with a Gyron stabilised system while the helicopter was mounted with a Cineflex, and a Sony HD 950 was used to take aerial footage.
An interesting aspect of this production was the use of the Iconix HD mini cameras as stall cams.
"The purpose of the stall cams was to provide three full frame pictures of the three favourite horses and also a fourth angle looking across all the horses from the side," says Heaney.
"The challenge, in this case, was to reposition each camera after every race so as to be ready for the next one."
More importantly, it was the first time that ACS was exploring the potential of this camera to be used wirelessly.
"The stall cameras were a complete redesign and although we have been using Iconix HD mini cameras regularly since the 2006 football World Cup finals, we were using them wirelessly for the first time," confirms Heaney.
This meant that ACS had to design a radio-controlled system for remotely controlling the iris on the Iconix cameras and balancing the colours so that the picture from each camera would provide the same shade of colours in their respective images.
This was more easily said than done as there was no available racking kit in the market except for the Sony 950 camera and the 1500 cameras.
"There was no racking kit for the Iconix. As a result, our engineering manager had to develop one in-house a week before the event to control the cameras remotely and enable the exchange of information between the cameras and the outside broadcast van. That was also one of the first things we needed to check when we got to the site because it worked fine at the office in a controlled environment but when you get out on site you can't be sure it will work," says Heaney.
Unfortunately, one of the data converters failed on site and if another was to be procured, it wouldn't have arrived until after the race. In the meantime, ACS' engineering manager, Simon Preston, set up the system at the racecourse with a different data protocol and luckily, it worked.
"When you work with prototypes, you have to think out of the box sometimes," says Heaney.
"In this case, we'd have had to resort to a very low tech and more tedious option if our prototype didn't work. But these are often the kind of challenges we are faced with and we have to come up with solutions on the spot. Because our operators are familiar with the equipment and technically adept, it is very likely that they will be able to resolve the problem themselves if there is a fault rather than get on the radio. Often, it might not be anything great; it might just be some small technical adjustment to bring it back in line with the rest of the equipment whether it is a camera or a control issue but unless you are specialised and know your kit well, you won't be able to resolve it."
Once this issue was addressed, the team used four separate microwave links to transmit the video from the four minicams with help from Broadcast RF.
They then used a standard talkback frequency to transmit from the Outside broadcast to the camera to control the iris and the colours.
Technical and logistical challenges are a part of any large-scale OB project, Heaney warns, and they could occur anywhere. While the ACS team comes prepared for some, others will have to be dealt with along the way.
Equipment overheating, for instance, is a common occurrence on outside broadcast projects.
"We brought a lot of space blankets to reflect the heat away from the equipment and planned our work around the hottest part of the day to ensure that the equipment wasn't cooking. We also try to protect the equipment from sand and dust by enclosing it in fan cooled boxes," explains Heaney.
But there are other challenges that can cause considerable stress. For instance, on the day of the race, one of the mechanics at Heli Dubai, which provided the helicopter for the event, dropped a bolt and couldn't find it. Under normal circumstances, a bolt would have been inconsequential. However, in this situation, it meant the helicopter was no longer fit for flying.
"If there hadn't been another helicopter, that could have posed a big problem. Luckily, Heli Dubai was able to provide us with another helicopter for the event. But again, these are the kind of challenges one has to be prepared for," explains Heaney.
ACS also deployed a VIP camera at the site. "It is very common to put remote control cameras or hotheads in places where cameramen are not welcome such as in areas where VIPs are seated. Often, this is purely on the basis of safety such as putting cameras in inaccessible places, but it can be, like in this case, for security or personal reasons. The system we used here was a Peepod 1000, which takes a full-size triax-based camera system and allows you to control it via a joystick at a remote location," explains Heaney.
Although the firm provided HD kit for production, transmission was done in SD. However, Heaney defends the benefits of using HD technology for all future productions.
"It is always good practice to capture pictures at the highest quality possible as further processing in the broadcast system can only reduce signal quality. HD may be more expensive as the equipment is newer and the signal definitely requires more bandwidth. However, HD gives better picture resolution and clarity and this is the way to go. The biggest challenge we face in this regard is in transmitting the signal with the increased bandwidth. However, we have been working with companies that specialise in microwave transmission for broadcast and these issues have been addressed," explains Heaney.
Despite these challenges, Heaney declares that the event was a great success. In fact, this year marks a significant milestone for the UK-based firm as it now plans to fortify its position in the Middle East by keeping some of its equipment permanently in Dubai and catering to more clients.
"So far, we have been working with Dubai TV for about 12 years on the World Cup as a one-off event run from the UK. We are now making a concerted effort to focus on Dubai and the Middle East generally," says Heaney.
"Having people and equipment based in Dubai makes a huge difference as clients are reluctant to contact us if they think they need to pay huge shipping fees from the UK just to do a one-day shoot. The World Cup is different because it has the budget, but we want to build up a business in the area that can economically service the events that perhaps don't have the same budget, but want to add something different to their coverage."
Hi-Def Cineflex V14
The Cineflex V14 is an ultra-flexible, lightweight, high-performance gyrostabilised camera system. The system comes fitted with a Sony HD camera (Sony HDC-950 or HDC-1500) with various lens options available.
The system can be fitted to a range of helicopters, airships and the ACS tethered blimp as well as CAMCAT and its inventory of Railcam systems. Various recorder formats are available with Cineflex along with HD video links and SMPTE/Triax cable CCU options for live outside broadcast applications.
The Iconix HD-RH1 is a HD 3CCD split optical block miniature camera system. Perfect for a range of POV applications, the HD-RH1 provides impressive functionality and performance in a compact package.
The Peepod 1000 remote head is specifically designed for use with television cameras and offers a blend of precision and performance, that is both smooth and responsive.
Fitted with a full size broadcast camera and a full ENG lens, the Peepod 1000 features slip rings to allow continuous 360° rotation in pan and tilt. The control desk contains features such as stored moves and software end stops.
Typically, the control data can be fed into the Camera CCU, allowing it to be fed up the triax.
Alternatively, a separate cable can be run which can be up to 2000m. The head is powered by 24V either from a battery or mains power supply. The Peepod 1000, which can be mounted in a sitting or hanging position, can be fitted with a range of Broadcast cameras and ENG style lenses.