Cinematic Coldplay: fibre technology helps deliver stunning video

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

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I had used high-end cameras from other manufacturers on these shoots before and it was always a disaster because you’re trying to make single cameras work in a multi-camera environment.

Capturing the magic of one of the world’s biggest bands is a challenge at the best of times. In a major 20-camera shoot at the Coldplay concert in Stade de France in Paris last year, the combination of advanced camera technology and fibre connectivity delivered a visual paradise.

Live events, particularly music concerts and sporting events, are rich and popular seams of artistic and commercial gold for producers, directors and broadcasters. Such events have often suffered restrictions, though, with respect to what even the best cameras could actually capture and deliver in a live, single camera environment, which are typically limited to involving those cameras as a completely separate entity to the main OB shoot.

The ability to integrate a 35mm filmic depth and high dynamic range including progressive and interlaced mode, up to 1080/60 within a live, multi-camera environment, not to mention live painting capabilities, has been challenging at best. Some would say impossible – until now.

ARRI, one of the world’s largest manufacturers and distributors of motion picture cameras and its ALEXA Plus camera models are in use in a huge number of productions worldwide, including television shows, natural history, documentaries, commercials, music videos and, of course, feature films.

However, the ever-increasing expectations of producers, directors and consumers have collectively pushed the bar even higher, and have been the driving force behind the latest development for the ALEXA and ALEXA Plus camera models, the option to deploy ARRI’s new ALEXA FRO (Fibre Remote Option).

In short, fibre connectivity enables live, multi-camera productions to take full advantage of enhanced image quality, which had typically only been available in single camera productions. The ALEXA FRO consists of a small, inconspicuous box mounted on an ALEXA camera that houses Miranda’s Telecast CopperHead 3400 camera-mounted fibre optic transceiver. It is part of an ARRI-tested and certified system that includes the camera-mountable transceiver, base station and CHRCP-2050 remote camera control panel that enables the ALEXA cameras to be connected and remotely controlled via SMPTE 311M fibre.

Proprietary software developed by ARRI for the CopperHead remote camera-control panel makes it possible to control RGB gain, gamma, shutter, iris and all other parameters typically associated with broadcast cameras while retaining ALEXA’s 35mm filmic look. Moreover, the ability to now perform live image painting enables ALEXA users to extend the camera’s image qualities to live, multi-camera productions via the welcome familiarity of broadcast-style joystick and rotary controls.

Tough crowd

One of the most recent deployments of the ALEXA FRO system is highlighted in the Coldplay Live 2012 DVD where the ALEXA FRO was successfully integrated into extensive OB coverage of a spectacular Coldplay concert at the Stade de France in Paris.

The system enabled exceptional dynamic range, latitude, highlight and shadow details, colour rendering, natural skin tones, high sensitivity and low noise to be fully applied to the concert and backstage footage, as it happened, resulting in a significant increase in production values that are readily apparent on the screen.

Following initial in-house testing, ARRI loaned prototypes of the FRO-equipped camera system to Amsterdam-based rental house Camalot and United Broadcast Facilities operations manager Bolke Burnaby Lautier, who was acting as technical coordinator.

According to Lautier, ”I had used high-end cameras from other manufacturers on these shoots before and it was always a disaster because you’re trying to make single cameras work in a multi-camera environment. We did some tests with ARRI’s Fiber Remote Option and it immediately looked like the perfect solution for integrating the ALEXA into a show like this. We decided to go for it and I can only say that it worked flawlessly, almost as though this was a product we had already been using for years. Directors want to have choices – different looks in different cameras and wider dynamic range. This system is an easy way to provide that.”

Four ALEXA cameras were deployed for the shoot alongside 17 other HD cameras as part of a vast OB setup for the Paris concert. Three of the FRO-equipped ALEXAs were positioned to the front of the stage for a master wide shot; behind the band for tracking reverse shots; and in the stage-left pit for artistic close-ups of lead singer Chris Martin and other band members. The fourth ALEXA was operated wirelessly on a Steadicam for roaming shots both on stage and backstage.

Cameraman Nathaniel Hill said, “I knew that the ALEXAs would make a massive difference to the whole look of the production. The shallow depth of field is beautiful and the latitude was a huge bonus, especially as the show includes moments when the only light in the stadium is from the wristbands worn by the audience, yet at other times pyros light up the sky in bright flashes. This would present most digital chips with a real challenge, but is something that the ALEXA has been designed to capture with ease."

Hill added, ”Slow motion was important on this project and we were able to record 50 fps Log C in the camera, while the director, Paul Dugdale, could watch a 25 fps Rec 709 image in the OB truck, giving him yet more options in the edit. The ARRI FRO system allowed the vision engineer to have control of iris, colour balance, blacks, gamma, shutter, knee, gain and detail. This all helped to achieve the desired look of the concert on site and to match the ALEXA image and setup with the additional Sony broadcast cameras deployed on the night. All in all, I am very excited by the possibilities of the system and I have since used it on another, three-camera live concert shoot. Crucially for us and others, both ARRI and Miranda are keen to hear feedback and make the system adaptable to any number of scenarios: studio-based sitcoms, small or large recordings of music events, or even live broadcast.”

Beyond live

The Miranda Telecast CopperHead 3400 itself is specifically engineered and designed to provide a robust fibre link between any camera, truck or studio, simultaneously converting baseband signals from HD-SDI outputs to optical and transferring them over a single, lightweight fibre optic cable to a CopperHead base station to live imagery into any studio or production room environment.

The advantages of a fibre optic system are, however, not limited to live events. The shallow depth of field and excellent colour rendition can now be accessed to deliver higher production values for telenovelas, soaps, sitcoms, events, talk shows, magazines, sport specials and much more.

Marco Lopez, Miranda’s president, said, “The beauty of a fibre-based system like this is that it provides the ability to capture and transmit extremely high quality images, from multiple sources, that are essentially bulletproof. The ultimate advantage, however, is that it enables cameramen, producers and directors to fully realise their vision, and provide news, information and entertainment of the highest quality, yet on time and on budget.”

ARRI has always insisted on flexibility and easy upgradability and the ALEXA fibre remote option is no exception. One option is to upgrade a standard ALEXA or ALEXA Plus camera with the fibre remote box, a monitor mount and a license for the proprietary software. A second option is for a bundle that includes the fibre remote box, software and a stripped down ALEXA or ALEXA Plus camera but without viewfinder, integrated SxS recording module or ARRIRAW recording codec.

For those who want the full package, ARRI offers an ALEXA Cine Upgrade, which upgrades the stripped-down fibre remote bundle into a full blown ALEXA, effectively reinstating the monitor mount, viewfinder, software, SxS card and ARRI’s unencrypted and uncompressed ARRIRAW codec. All three options require Miranda’s Telecast CopperHead system, which is serviced and supported by Miranda.

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