Camera Equipment - Gaining Support

  • With Kevin Hilton

Camera Equipment - Gaining Support

Achieving stable, well-composed pictures is a priority in broadcast television in both the studio and on location. Camera supports are key to this and, as Kevin Hilton discovers, have evolved in recent years to become a crucial element in both sports and virtual production...

Camera support equipment is an integral part of both filmmaking and broadcast production. The difference between the two disciplines is that in cinema, rigging systems for cameras are seen as much creative tools as necessary hardware, while in broadcasting they have largely been regarded as more a practical necessity. While the practicality aspect remains, the ever-increasing need to create a specific look for a programme, combined with the growing use of virtual technologies, is changing the way tripods, cranes and tracking set-ups are used for television.

Over the last 20-plus years, TV coverage of sport has come to rely heavily on both camera technology and the rigs that give it movement. New systems have been developed to bring the viewer closer to the action, with overhead shots made possible by wire systems and, more recently, drones. Stabilised rigs, such as Steadicam, are now standard for following the players in a free moving way.

A leading challenger to the ubiquity of Steadicam is Easyrig, developer of the Minimax, Cinema 3 and Vario 5 wearable systems. The company's Head of Operations, Pontus Jonsson, confirms that broadcasters are not only demanding as much movement as possible from cameras but also unobtrusive methods of supporting them. "Being able to move around freely without hindrance from the support systems is something our users value highly," he says. "Freedom of movement is very important for most users and we are seeing a high demand for stabilisation for both handheld cameras and in combination with gimbals."

Easyrig also sees its rigs - and supports in general - as necessary in making working with sometimes heavy cameras as easy as possible, with the added imperative of easing the strain of this kind of work. "People are taking care of their bodies at a younger age and investing in support systems such as ours," explains Jonsson. "This is a great thing because people will be able to work for longer and not end the day with a bad back, shoulders or arms." Easyrig's most recent product released, launched in the early weeks of this year, is a side pouch that can be fitted on the Minimax vest to hold batteries or an additional lens.

While body-worn supports have made a big impact on TV sports production, particularly for pre-match line-up and pitch-side shots, cable-based aerial camera systems have added a new dimension to coverage. Among the leading developers of this kind of technology is Movicom, which also produces rail systems, gyro-stabilised and remote heads and the high rise Towercam. It also has a range of speciality camera systems, including the Refcam and Earcam wireless wearables for not only officials but also players or even fans. "This system has been modified to be used on hockey helmets, worn directly by referees of basketball and field hockey games, as well as being used for rugby and also worn by fans at basketball games and players during warm-ups," comments Movicom Chief Executive Victor Pakhomov. 

Movicom continues to develop its aerial cable camera systems and has upgraded both hardware and software. While Robycam is mainly associated with outside broadcasts - and sports production especially - the most recent version is a purpose-built studio system featuring a smaller camera dolly and winches. "It is designed with broadcast studios in mind, in particular working with virtual graphics packages," comments Pakhomov.

"We've extended our flexibility to be able to work in the studio environments including integrating automated studio technology." He adds that Movicam has carried out tests to ensure compatibility between its Compass AR (augmented reality) tracking technology and the majority of virtual graphics packages. 

"We are seeing a trend in both Europe and North America to start adding and innovating with AR graphics in all aspects of the broadcast," Pakhomov continues. "There is also demand for more innovative camera options that give viewers access to angles and places broadcasters have not taken them to before. It's a balance between blanket coverage and finding the right view that intrigues the audience."

Another camera support manufacturer that is reacting to the broadcast market's switch to virtual production is Egripment Support Systems. Sales Manager Rick Velthof observes that while the company continues to produce mechanical-encoded products, including telescopic cranes and track systems, it is also catering to the growing market for optical tracking. Velthof explains that the distinction is in how data is fed to VR (virtual reality) engines so they can render an accurate picture.

"Virtual production is all about knowing the camera's position in a certain area," he says. "This can be done using optical tracking or mechanical tracking of the camera position. Optical tracking means it detects its position using an optical sensor, which locates certain reference points to pinpoint the location. Mechanical tracking uses encoders on all moving axes to calculate its actual position. When done correctly mechanical tracking is more accurate because it uses hard data instead of field of view."

Egripment's latest product releases are the updated version of the HotHead remote camera mount, the HotHead 3 now featuring IP connectivity, and the DigiLite system. With the latter, Velthof says the company is "claiming its spot in the easy-to-use robotics systems market" for the events sector, particularly sports. It is designed to work over a single IP cable and has been used at football stadia in the Netherlands. ""Big stadiums want to make as much of seating options as possible so they don't want to lose places to camera positions," Velthof explains. "Consequently, they are looking at robotic heads to the solve the problem. Most sports venues have a future-proof infrastructure with IP pre-cabling on multiple height levels. DigiLite is like a 'plug-and-play' system over IP that can connect to your phone or car kit."

When it comes to camera robotics in TV studio production, news has led the way to a great extent. Many leading broadcasters have now moved to remotely controlled cameras in on-air news studios, which has substantially reduced the number of people on the studio floor. Virtual production and image robotics developer Mo-Sys Engineering's latest product, MoRail, is aimed at this application and has been designed to work not only with new backdrop technologies but also the pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras that are increasingly being used in remotely controlled studios.

"It is primarily designed to be used in newsrooms, which may include traditional studios, green screen and LED volumes with tracked graphics, [plus] broadcast applications and corporate presentations," comments Michael Geissler, Chief Executive of Mo-Sys. "MoRail also supports all major PTZ and ENG camera systems. It can be utilised to transform regular static shots into repeatable creative shots that orbit the presenter and produce controlled parallax movement. The perspective change [that can be achieved] improves on the existing static movement of PTZ cameras, allowing producers to achieve accurate moves during a show without the need to invest in complex and expensive track-based dolly systems."

For many years it was a strict convention in broadcasting that cameras and their operators should not appear in shot. That has now changed in this age of robotic camera productions to the extent that some news programmes, for example the BBC's News at Ten, begin with a wide shot showing the automated cameras on their tracks around the main set with the newscaster.

"Aesthetics are important because the robots are now part of the production for news and other studio programmes," comments Karen Walker, Vice President of Camera Motion Systems at Ross Video. Walker explains that this covers noise levels within the studio and accuracy and repeatability of moves. "We are also seeing an increase of AI being used in conjunction with the robots to maintain the framing. Reliability of the robots is also necessary because most news studios operate 24/7."

Ross Video expanded its robotics and remote camera movement portfolio last year by buying cable camera system specialist Spidercam. Familiar to sports fans, both in the stadium and at home watching on TV, the Spidercam LIGHT system is suspended on four cables, with winches enabling a camera dolly, incorporating a stabilised head, to move in 3D space. The latest incarnation, the Mk3, able to cover an area of up to 90 metres - compared to the previous 70 metres - with high-speed tracking at 9 metres per second (previously 4.5).

Spidercam can be integrated with UHD camera set-ups plus graphics and render engines from Ross, as well as third-party render sets. The system's primary application area is still in the sport and live events sector; Walkers comments that there has been an increase in the use of robotics for these productions, which has reduced the number of crew close to the action and also "provided more creative views".

In general, Walker adds, the demand for camera movement and associated support equipment is growing. "Customers and audiences want to see everything and be a part of the event, ultimately having an immersive experience."

"AR is being used to supplement more live productions and we are also seeing more extended reality productions as well. The use of LED screens provides greater flexibility for creative productions and requires more discrete camera robotics, suspended cable systems and ceiling dollies," Walker says.

With virtual broadcast technologies not only increasing in use but becoming integral to the look and style of TV output, camera support systems will be ever more necessary to ensure stable images and smooth movement. Which is not bad for an area of the market once regarded as merely practical hardware.