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OB tech shipshape for America’s Cup

The quest for the oldest trophy in international sport has been brought up to date, 160 years on, with a new format and innovative TV coverage using equipment that has been specially designed to cope with the demanding conditions. David Fox reports.

The quest for the oldest trophy in international sport has been brought up to date, 160 years on, with a new format and innovative TV coverage using equipment that has been specially designed to cope with the demanding conditions. David Fox reports.

The 34th America’s Cup is billed as the third largest sporting event in the world, but in TV terms it, and sailing in general, has yet to catch the wave that might propel it to high viewing figures. However, it is promising to be the most viewer-friendly presentation of yacht racing yet, thanks to multiple onboard cameras and innovative graphics that make the action easier to follow

It started its voyage in the Summer, but the first event at Cascais, Portugal, was hardly the exciting start that organisers wished for, as light winds and a TV presentation that was obviously finding its sea legs failed to make a splash. However, the second leg, in Plymouth, on England’s south coast, more than made up for this. There were plenty of incidents, include capsizes, allowing the onboard cameras to capture far more action, while the graphic overlays were used to much better effect.

It has a growing following, as broadcasters have come onboard (it is now being shown in most European countries) and through live online streaming. About 30 broadcasters, covering more than 170 territories are now showing America’s Cup programming, including live racing and highlights shows. There is also a magazine programme, America’s Cup Uncovered, that goes behind the scenes, with profiles and action on and off the water. Produced by Sunset + Vine, more than 90 episodes will be available through broadcasters and on the website.

“Globally, broadcasters have been attracted to the athletic and competitive nature of the sport, as well as the outstanding production quality of what we believe is the best sailing that has ever been seen on television or online,” claims America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA) Chairman, Richard Worth.

“Audiences are looking for different experiences, so we’ve created a varied offering of television programming to really extend our reach,” he adds. “We’re putting a great deal of time and care into our production to create stylish sporting programming that will resonate with audiences across the globe.”

The ACEA and the expensive broadcast set up it is using have been backed by Oracle CEO, Larry Ellison, whose team, Oracle Racing, won the Cup in 2010 giving it the right to create its own new, much more exciting, near-shore format for the races using rapidly accelerating catamarans.

Complex and challenging

“It is a very complex event,” requiring special cameras and communications, according to David Meynell, managing director of SIS Live, which is providing the broadcast services and technology, as part of a three-year contract, with multiple cameras on each yacht. It was a considerable challenge to provide live links and remote control.

SIS Live has designed all the motorised, remote-controlled HD camera systems that are built in to the ten racing yachts (four per catamaran, plus cameras on the stake, chase and committee boats). Each catamaran has 14 audio channels, using AAC compression, five of which are used to provide surround sound from a specially built microphone that can withstand the corrosive impact of salt water. “There wasn’t a system that was waterproof, so we had to design a waterproof surround sound mike,” he explains.

The compact system currently uses 5.0 audio, as specified by America’s Cup, but could easily be modified to 5.1. The circular casing is milled from aluminium and contains five waterproof omni shock-mounted capsules plus five preamps. The windproofing was custom made by Rycote as an easily removable headband Windjammer. The set up is 48v phantom powered and delivered as five discrete channels for ease of use with any sound desk or recorder. Each crew member also has a personal radio microphone, and there are three spot FX microphones.

The camera positions had to be designed into the yachts, not just to get the best locations while keeping them out of the way of the crew, but also to keep the weight down. SIS will continue to improve and evolve the design of the equipment over the next two years.

For the America’s Cup Finals in September 2013, in San Francisco, which will involve larger yachts (moving from 45ft/13.7m to 72ft/22m in length) there will be more cameras (probably five agile systems and three fixed cameras – plus more microphones as the AC72s will have twice the crew). However, while the smaller AC45 catamarans used in the current America’s Cup World Series has a single design capable of speeds up to about 56kph, the even faster AC72 will be designed especially for each team, so will require a custom integration for all the video and audio systems for each boat.

The IP67 submersible housings contain Sony camera modules fitted with a 10×1 zoom, and are cabled to a hub in each boat. Integral gyros ensure that the horizon remains level, even when one hull is out of the water (as it often is). The two vision feeds per yacht are routed from an onboard mixer, controlled via IP, with sound embedded as an ASI stream.

Each boat has a dual encoder transmitter, a 5W power amplifier and a co-linear Blade antenna mounted at the top of the mast.

This content has to be brought back to the flyaway control room on shore using H.264, from distances of up to about 7-8km, for which it brought in Gigawave (part of Vislink). When the Cup was covered in SD it used a helicopter for the links, which limited transmission in heavy weather, which provides the most exciting racing, so links had to be direct.

Using MPEG-4 “was a challenge in itself.” The system designed for the event used transmitters and receivers with ultra-low delay encoding, with two video channels (one for preview, the other for the on-air signal), plus remote camera control, plus Dolby 5.1 surround sound. There is the added complication of different RF frequencies in the different countries the racing will take place in. Gigawave is also providing the systems for four helicopter downlinks, as well as hand-held Sony 1500R HD cameras on four chase boats, two stake boats, and the committee boat.
During a race, the onboard cameras are controlled by a team of operators using Gigawave consoles that control zoom, focus, iris, white balance, etc., and switch between the four cameras on each catamaran. The chase cameras are also racked using Gigawave CCUs, giving a total of 21 simultaneous HD RF links, captured by the diversity receivers at the broadcast compound.

“I don’t think anyone has ever provided this amount of cameras and RF scale for an event on the water. I don’t think anyone else could have done it,” says Meynell. So far, “the results have been phenomenal. The feedback has been exceptionally positive.”

Up in the air

Further camera systems come from Amis Productions, which invested £635,000 in two Flir UltraMedia HD cameras and three Cineflex V14 HD camera systems to cover the event.

The Cineflex systems, from Axsys Technologies, are being used in the air, and one is fitted with an Ixsea Airins georeferencing and orientation system (developed for high accuracy airborne mapping, even where the aircraft is making rapid course changes). This provide highly accurate data for the live graphics overlays. The other two are conventional helicopter cameras.

The Flirs are being used on specially built twin-hull boats with wave-piercing bows that can fit in a shipping container for transfer between events. The 2/3-inch 3xCCD Flir has a Fujion 84x zoom lens and is similar to the Cineflex, but developed for military use, so it is hermetically sealed and more robust, and while not an underwater camera it can cope with waves, whereas the Cineflex is merely weatherproof.

“Cineflex is the leading aerial camera system. It’s what people ask for when asking for HD,” says Amis Productions’ Director, Simon Aldridge. “We could have bought five Cineflexes, but we had a Flir already and we’re very happy with its performance on boats.”

The aerial cameras are remotely controlled from a laptop in the helicopter, and are fitted in an AirFilm five-axis stabilised mount. The Flirs are in a specially designed mount built for the America’s Cup. All of the systems are using Sony HDC-1500 cameras.

Container-based broadcasting

The International Broadcast Centre is supplied by Presteigne Charter, and housed in 16 12m shipping containers, with the minimum number of cables between them, which can be easily assembled in two or three days into a two-story broadcast compound (half of which is the IBC). After the event, it can be de-rigged in a day and then shipped to the next event along with the yachts.

“Our main challenge was to help design and build a host broadcast TV compound in sea containers that would travel on ships,” says Presteigne Charter CEO Mike Ransome. “We worked with the America’s Cup tech manager to design a number of sea containers that would bolt together to form double width galleries. This formed the basis of the three main control rooms.”

Video comes in from other areas via Evertz Frame Sync cards with external AES audio to allow for insertion and removal of any audio sources. All videos coming through the main Harris Platinum router carry video and embedded audio. An Evertz EMR router with VIP-X multiviewers formed the heart of the video monitoring feeding four control rooms and MCR, and all EVS positions. Presteigne Charter has a dedicated Tech Manger and System Engineer in the MCR monitoring and switching all feeds.

The MCR receives the feeds from the onboard cameras, and includes: a Sony MVS-8000A 4M/E vision mixer, Leitch Platinum 256×256 HD/SD-SDI video router, Lawo MC2 56 audio console and TSL TM2 Tallyman. Two further production control rooms each include a Grass Valley Kayak 2M/E switcher and Lawo MC2 56.

There is a large EVS workflow for ingest, archive and editing with five EVS XT[2] four-channel HDDRs, four EVS XL[2] six-channel proxy servers, four EVS XF[2] archive stores, two EVS XStore [2], nine EVS IPDirectors, two EVS Database servers, and three EVS XHUBs. There are three Avid suites tied to the main EVS Server, plus an ISIS 5000 server and InterPlay media server. Presteigne Charter has permanent tapeless workflow and Avid support specialists on site to ensure the smooth running of these elements, and helping to support the 100-plus production staff.

“We also have a number of transcoding units producing footage for teams and other broadcasters onto multiple media formats,” he says. A fourth production control room transmits four live web streams plus big screen output.
Audio is carried through a Lawo Nova 29 MADI matrix and uses three Lawo Nova 73 HD cores to run the three main control rooms. There is a Lawo Crystal for the fourth small control room.

The IBC is fitted with Custom Consoles’ Module-R studio furniture, including 15 Module-R desks used in master control, production and lighting control, video editing suites and an audio area.

GlobeCast is providing the uplinks, using an HD SNG/Flyaway stationed at all the regatta locations, distributing the world feed.