Supporting the virtual TV world

  • With Kevin Hilton

Supporting the virtual TV world

Camera support systems have evolved over the years in response to new technologies being used by broadcasters. And as Contributing Editor Kevin Hilton reports, the latest augmented and graphics techniques are demanding a different approach to established supports...

Getting well framed and, most important of all, stable camera shots are the ultimate and expected aim in television production. Even with edgy, hand-held drama or cinema verité documentary, where the camera will move with the action before 'finding focus' requires a dedicated support mechanism to ensure the pictures are level and have coherence despite a degree of - deliberate - 'wobbly-cam'.

The moving camera goes back to the earliest days of cinema, when wheelchairs and roller skates were used to produce both flowing shots and good visual stability. Modern versions of the cinematic wheelchair are still used today, alongside stabilised, body-worn systems such as Steadicam and Easyrig, which have their roots in the 1970s.

A less obviously glamorous but still crucial mainstay of camera supports is the tripod, which has developed by becoming lighter and easier to deploy over the years.

Tripods have also become more versatile and flexible through the addition of other supports, notably the fluid head and, more recently, the slider. UK manufacturer Ronford-Baker is a leading proponent of both and introduces new models on a regular basis. "Our sliders continue to be very popular and widely used in high-end film and TV production, as well as for wildlife programmes," comments spokesperson Ryan Glater. "We recently released our second generation motorised system, which enables moves to be stored and repeated, along with key-stage programming and a time lapse option. It can also run vertically as well as horizontally, with a load weight of up to 35kg."

Other new Ronford-Baker products include: studio wheels for the Bazooka Base that enable it to be moved into position and then jacked down to provide a steady and secure platform for a jib arm; and the Mini Atlas 7 fluid head, which is now out of its prototype stage and was due for launch in March. This compact model is designed for "tight areas", such as inside cars, and can also be adapted to work as a 'low rocker'.

Glater comments that those working on broadcast productions are looking for camera supports to be versatile as well as fast and easy to operate. "Increasingly we are getting requests to modify or create products that can perform multiple tasks or support the camera in different configurations," he says.

Another aspect of the kind of flexibility users are looking for in camera supports is summed up by Elisabetta Cartoni, President and Chief Executive of pedestal, tripod, jib and fluid head developer Cartoni. "With smaller crews becoming the norm, there's a heightened emphasis on lightweight and easily transportable solutions," she says. "Carbon fibre legs have emerged as a must-have, providing both durability and ruggedness." The manufacturer also moved into PTZ supports five years ago, producing tripods, stands, specialised fixing plates and the Lifto 25 motorized vertical column, which allows for an additional camera axis.

Cartoni, like other camera support manufacturers, now has to consider more than just the physical supports themselves, with position data gathering now a key requirement. The Italian manufacturer has been working in this area for a decade, with products including the E-Sensor fluid head, which integrates a high precision encoder. Cartoni's range of encoded heads now numbers 11 models, all featuring high-resolution absolute optical encoders, including the E-Lambda 25 and the E-Jibo. These, explains Elisabetta Cartoni, are part of the company's strategy for virtual production cinematography, with the encoded heads designed to collect accurate camera position tracking data that is then streamed to processors and virtual engines.

Charles Montesin, Global Sales and Marketing Director at Miller Camera Support Equipment, agrees that the tripod and pedestal will always be "the mainstay" of supports, albeit with specialist adaptations and alternatives for applications such as drones or special shots. In general, he adds, users are continuing to demand less weight and, as might be expected, lower cost.

"We can make only incremental improvements as a great deal has been achieved already," Montesin says. "A major leap forward would take place if camera manufacturers were to add an internal electronic zoom that would work in conjunction with the lens controls. This is similar to the zoom people have on their phones. A 4K camera has enough resolution to enable full HD output when zoomed 4-times and 4-times zoom will reduce the size and cost of the lens significantly.

"Imagine an 18-times lens becoming equivalent to a 72-times lens with 4-times electronic zoom."

Miller, which has its headquarters in Australia, recently agreed a partnership deal with Hilversum-based Villrich Broadcast Consultancy & Sales to distribute its products in the European Union. Villrich also handles other support specialists, including Waterbird Systems, known for its sliders, Autopod Elevation Units and Polecam jibs, minicams and remote control systems.

Villrich Managing Director Richard Villhaber highlights the Waterbird MSXL and Polecam AutoPod+ as supports that "continue to grow and develop" through integration with other platforms using the VISCA and VISCA-IP protocols, developed by Sony for PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras. Although smaller than other camera types and usually mounted in a fixed position, PTZ models are now being used for a variety of broadcast applications, which is calling for a new style of support.

"PTZ integration saw massive growth during Covid for obvious reasons," Villhaber comments, "but it is still growing as the quality of the cameras continues to improve as do the accessories to support them, such as Waterbird's MSXL camera slider and the AutoPod+ elevation systems from Polecam. These are becoming a more common way of supporting PTZ cameras to allow remote operation of elevation as well as tilt and zoom. The need for more affordable and lighter systems came when camera manufacturers brought out PTZs and reasonably priced broadcast quality cameras like the Blackmagic Design URSA."

PTZ cameras are being used particularly for TV sports coverage and cart workstation and base station specialist INOVATIV is seeing its smaller Voyager and Deploy carts supporting this style of camera in conjunction with mounting systems. In the last few months the company launched a redesigned version of its Workstation Monitor Arm system and announced the Motorised Apollo cart, which it has been developing over the past year.

Japanese tripod manufacturer Libec introduced an electric pedestal specifically for PTZ cameras at the 2022 InterBEE show. The LX-ePed and LX-ePed Studio enable users to remotely control the height of the camera and are available as both floor spreader and dolly-style models. More recently the company launched the TH-V tripod system, although this is not yet available on the international market.

Most, if not all, upgrades and new developments of camera support gear are based on user requirements, implementing changes and new features that respond to the way they are working today. This is the case with the Egripment DigiLite remote head, which is controlled over IP.

"We noticed that many people wanted to switch to a camera support system with fewer cables," explains Sales Manager, Rick Velthof. "A common request was for a system that is controllable over IP, which enables more capabilities in terms of signal transfer, for example, from wall boxes to an OB truck. Operators can be at a remote location, away from the actual camera position, which is important because, for safety reasons at football games, the TV crew is not allowed to stand in, or next to the crowd any more."

The requirement that is currently calling for new designs, if not a rethinking of how camera supports operate, is virtual production. Velthof acknowledges this has had a definite impact on Egripment's products and product designs in the last few years but that what it is doing now stems from working with mechanical tracking. "It required high precision and accuracy, which was needed for the calibration," he says. "It has been like this for several years and is a major consideration when it comes to the manufacturing of camera support equipment."

Miller, which worked with Egripment on a live remote camera controller based on its Arrow FX fluid head range, introduced products for virtual production relatively early on in the rollout of the technology. "We released the Arrow FX for live virtual broadcasting some time ago," comments Charles Montesin. "This employs a magnetic ring counter, which outputs accurate positioning data of the pan and tilt position of the head. It is being used successfully in coverage of horse racing and field sports for virtual advertising. The key advantage in this kind of application is revenue generation."

Richard Villhaber at Villrich Broadcast calls the integration of virtual production capability into camera supports "essential", if it has not already happened. "For most camera support and robotic products there have been some small changes in general, due to the ease of use of existing optical tracking systems," he says. "Others take a more difficult road by developing their own mechanical tracking system. For example, Miller developed its own encoded head for this purpose, connecting with AR/VR systems making use of the FreeD-compliant command output."

Nick Hayes, Director of Cinema Sales in the US and Canada for ZEISS Cinematography, observes that many live TV productions are now looking for "exciting and innovative ways" to pull in audiences. "Adding camera tracking to a virtual production workflow allows productions to create much more realistic content through augmented reality or virtual sets," he says. "Virtual production has become a common practice for most broadcast and cine productions. This has caused productions to consider how cameras are supported and what kind of technology is needed for smooth operation."

ZEISS added camera tracking to its portfolio of optics and opto-electronic technologies through the acquisition in July 2023 of UK developer Ncam. This merging of specialities has produced a new camera and lens tracking system, CinCraft Scenario, which Hayes describes as a "small, compact system" that does not have too much of an impact on how cameras and support accessories are rigged. "One of its main benefits is that we can track off natural features in the environment," he explains. "This means we do not need to use traditional reflective markers to track a camera. It allows the system to be very flexible and fast to set up. We can also eliminate the need for lens calibration by using ZEISS xD data, which can remove the cumbersome, time-consuming process of manual calibration."

An earlier merging of advanced camera support technology and more traditional broadcast equipment came in 2022 when Ross Video bought Spidercam. The latter's cable suspension systems have been used primarily for coverage of sport, concerts and esports and now fit in alongside Ross' robotic camera pedestals, tracking technologies and graphics and virtual packages.

Karen Walker, Vice President of Camera Motion Systems, explains that Ross' business in this area divides into two sectors: sport and entertainment. For the first of these she says the experience and knowledge of the Spidercam pilots is crucial because coverage is usually directed live without camera blocking, while the second tends to be camera blocked and relies on precise timing.

Of the main requirements driving development of camera tracking and cable systems, Walker identifies improving accuracy and versatility as well as ensuring compatibility with equipment from different manufacturers.

"Traditionally, cable camera solutions were the wide shot but now customers are looking to do more and get closer to the action so the accuracy has to be spot on, especially for graphics," she says. "We now have a more accurate way of telling the computer exactly where our camera is in space as opposed to where the computer thinks it is. The difference [variable] in this is the catenary [curve] of the cables. This is not something our software can calculate automatically, so we measure the dolly at various locations in the fly space once the system is set up. After doing that the computer will be able to adjust the positional data within the fly space to account for the catenary, which translates to a more stable AR image."

Walker continues that virtual capability is a "major requirement" today, with the main issue being to find the zero point for the virtual graphics and maintaining accuracy. "This can be challenging when you are travelling at over 6 metres per second," she says. "Working with cameras where the calibration has already been done makes this easier and quicker for set-up. Spidercam is currently developing several new features, from supporting additional stabilised heads in virtual environments to offering additional safety solutions with our new Heatmap tool, which logs usage and strain on a cable, to additional camera views with 360-degree cameras."

As Elisabetta Cartoni concludes, "The journey of camera support technology is one of continual innovation, adapting to the dynamic needs of modern broadcasting." Virtual production has pushed this necessary, if sometimes overlooked, sector in new directions. There's nothing to show that this evolution will end here.