Mediapro tackles the new LaLiga season with enhanced camera set ups, workflow innovations and more
As Lionel Messi unpacks his bags at France’s Paris Saint-Germain after leaving his beloved FC Barcelona, the top flight Spanish league is set for something of an open competition for the 2021/22 season. Literally, anything could happen.
Bringing this exciting league to screens of all sizes around the world is Mediapro, the production partner of LaLiga. While LaLiga is set to announce its new season’s technical broadcast innovations towards the end of September, Emili Planas Quintana, chief technology officer and operations manager at Mediapro, says: “Unfortunately, I cannot yet reveal what innovations we will be introducing for this season as yet. Some of them concern only technological developments and others will be more visible to the viewers.”
However, there is still a lot going on for Mediapro in bringing this new season to viewers’ screens. Mediapro is the official production partner for LaLiga and as such it produces and distributes the signal of all matches of the competition to broadcasters and rights holders.
“It is our responsibility to work hand in hand with LaLiga and national and international broadcasters to guarantee the best quality standards and improve the audio visual experience of LaLiga fans around the world, season on season,” says Quintana, speaking to SVG Europe.
Yet it is not set to be all smooth sailing this season, with kick off times creating technical and logistical challenges for Mediapro as the competition tightens up. Quintana says: “The simultaneous kick off times in the final weeks of the season pose a technical challenge for us, where we will need to produce more than 57 hours of live match coverage in a single day.
“Every season we incorporate new features in production, both in the number of cameras, the type of support and also in the virtual graphics with tracking. For example, in this season we shall be able to see more drones, more cinecam’s and new AR graphics”
Mediapro produces 2,250 hours of live footage for LaLiga per season, between the LaLiga Santander – 380 matches – and LaLiga Smartbank matches – 468 games. Quintana adds: “In a normal weekend shift we can produce between 27 and 30 hours a day, live.”
Playing with new kit
This season Mediapro is working with some new kit, explains Òscar Lago, head of LaLiga Mmtch production at Mediapro: “As for the cameras, we have definitively incorporated four film cameras on Steady support each match week, of which two are new this season. We have also incorporated the use of drones in six games per match week (four of them are new this season). To this we can add the use of an aerial camera in the majority of LaLiga matches since we have 16 stadiums with permanent installation of the Omni4Sky aerial camera system, and two of these cameras are new in two stadiums this season.”
Mediapro runs three types of different camera configurations for its production of LaLiga matches. Type C has 18 cameras, type B has 20, and type A has 24. However, for some special matches, such as El Clásico or the Madrid Derby, this number increases to 34 cameras.
“We’ve just finished a season in which we had to innovate, adding a different virtual audio in each LaLiga stadium, with realistic reactions from the public in real time. This season, we are reverting to the traditional 5.1 set up and are focused on improving the timing systems of the different commentators, who remotely commentate and broadcast so that fans can select it on their receivers”
Notes Lago: “Every season we incorporate new features in production, both in the number of cameras, the type of support and also in the virtual graphics with tracking. For example, in this season we shall be able to see more drones, more cinecam’s and new augmented reality (AR) graphics. This AR graphics can be inserted on the Omni4Sky (aerial camera), the drones, as well as the usual camera 1.”
On workflow innovations, Quintana says that this season Mediapro has added, “more streams of video-live and files over the IP network, both to obtain the best quality of signals in the centralised production of the new multi-cam feed, and to be able to optimise the use of footage from film cameras in near-live videos”.
RF is the technology of choice to get camera feeds back to the TV compound, but 5G and more are on the way, notes Quintana. “We use RF to receive wireless cameras such as Cinecam, Steady, drone, helicopter and other specialty cameras on site, although we are already working to combine them with 5G and Wifi-6 links as soon as regulations and manufacturers allow.”
Doubling up on remote production
Mediapro is using two versions of remote production, says Quintana. He explains: “We have two different remote production workflows: the one we call ‘remote production’ (REMI) and the one we call ‘remotely operated production’ (producción operada remotamente – POR). We have been operating the REMI model since 2013, which has made it extremely easy to work remotely during restrictions. We are about to celebrate the 2000th remote production for LaLiga. Our REMI model was innovative in 2013; now it is a highly optimised model at the organisational level, since it is necessary to coordinate broadcast crews working remotely and in several matches each matchweek.
“The POR model allows us to operate EVS and camera control posts from our production centers in Madrid and Barcelona, reducing travel risks and increasing interpersonal space within the OB’s. The POR version has been in operation since the end of lockdown. What is new is that we have improved the operation and optimised its use since then.”
He adds: “In the REMI model, we have only the personnel who during production are working outside the OB, plus a support technician posted in the stadium. The staff that would normally work within the OB are in our Barcelona studios. In the POR model, EVS and shading operators are scheduled according to each match. We maintain a minimum of one EVS operator and one CCU operator in the OBs on site, and the rest operate from the centres in Barcelona or Madrid. Any operator can be scheduled to be at the OB on Saturday and in the studio on Sunday.”
Quintana continues: “The POR operation is also an internal development of Mediapro that was launched in record time. We needed to be able to minimise the risks of contagion last year amongst our staff, without lowering the quality of service of our operations during the most critical phase after the look down. Operating remotely, avoiding travel and operation in confined spaces was essential.
“Our engineering and operations teams had been working for months on theoretical models of offshore production,” continues Quintana. “At the time when the need to implement the system arose during lockdown last year, we were evaluating different details related to latency, bandwidth, encoding, etc, but we already had possible operational models. The main problem was to get all the necessary equipment to set up the systems, at a time when mobility was extremely limited.”
He concludes: “Engineering, operations and production departments, both in-studio and outside, were involved in the development of POR, and thanks to the experience in the REMI project, we were able to swiftly roll out and implement easy-to-use and reliable solutions.”
Mediapro uses ultra-low-latency encoding technologies in both REMI and POR, so the feel of a remote operation for crew is the same as if they were working from an OB. “One of the keys is knowledge about IP networks and the configurations of the equipment involved, so that everything is very plug-and-play and that in case of any issues, these are easy to detect and resolve,” says Quintana.
Crowds sounding great
On audio, Mediapro has switched back to using 5.1 after it pushed out the boat in 2020 using simulated crowd sound to bring the atmosphere of a match without fans in the stadium to viewers at home in lockdown.
Comments Quintana: “We’ve just finished a season in which we had to innovate, adding a different virtual audio in each LaLiga stadium, with realistic reactions from the public in real time. This season, we are reverting to the traditional 5.1 set up and are focused on improving the timing systems of the different commentators, who remotely commentate and broadcast so that fans can select it on their receivers. We are also continuing to evolve intercom, commentary and N-1 systems to replace the old ISDN with FTTH.”
On audio challenges this season, Quintana says: “A large part of the challenges in UHD HDR productions is that they are HD simulcast productions, with many simultaneous feeds and different standards. We have a very complex workflow to be able to synchronise all the audio from commentators who arrive from multiple places, with the 5.1 audio and the stereo audio, both in the HD and UHD HDR feeds, taking into account that we also have up to four layers of AR graphics add some latency.
“We resolve issues by implementing efficient workflow design and understanding the latency of each process in each match. The game signal is produced in Spanish and English for LaLiga broadcasters. French translation is also provided for telecommunications operators in some African countries.”
Looking good with AR
The LaLiga studio is also set up by Mediapro for the league. Says Lago: “In the stadiums we have studios for three presenters with views of the pitch, and at our headquarters we have the main studio where the pre and post-match programmes for the national broadcaster with LaLiga rights are produced. This studio is equipped with AR technology and has state-of-the-art analysis tools, including the ability to interview players located in the stadium from the studio in the form of a hologram, but located virtually within the set.
“As always, and this is general in our profession, the thrill and desire to improve take precedence over any difficulties”
“We continue working in VR as we did two seasons ago, and in terms of other technological innovations we are pioneers in the use of 360 replays, using a system with 38 fixed cameras installed in eight LaLiga stadiums, and in the use of graphics in AR with live statistical data in real time during the game,” continues Lago.
WTVision is the graphics provider for LaLiga, both for traditional graphics and AR. Says Lago: “In terms of the graphics for data, we generate data with our own inhouse systems during the live feed and we collect the real time stream provided by the LaLiga Mediacoach system. This data, both tracking and eventing, are processed by WTVision to be displayed in an attractive and easy-to-read way in the transmission. Before each match, LaLiga provides the necessary data to be able to make highlights or comparisons.”
Relaxing into the new normal
On what challenges COVID has posed for Mediapro’s LaLiga productions, Lago says: “We had the greatest difficulty in the first stage of the return to football because of the trips to different stadiums, and the need to ensure the maximum safety measures were in place for all personnel. We adapted the camera positions while games were being played behind closed doors and we were the only league that managed to use a virtual audience in all the first and second division matches, which allowed us to offer a more attractive product to viewers. In record time, we prepared all the tools and technology to insert the virtual audience remotely from our headquarters in Barcelona.”
However, this season those safety measures are beginning to relax. “As always, and this is general in our profession, the thrill and desire to improve take precedence over any difficulties,” comments Lago. “The COVID guidelines, both in Spain and in the rest of the world, are tremendously volatile. This means that we have to adapt quickly to each change without affecting production, which creates a lot of extra effort both in terms of planning and for all personnel on-site. In any case, the Mediapro Group is flexible, and we are especially characterised by our ability to adapt to last minute changes or in short periods of time, so that the quality of the final product has not been affected.”
It feels good to be producing football with a lot less restrictions for this season, he adds: “In part it is a relief for all our people. Although we still have restrictions on production, with all our colleagues vaccinated, we can work and feel relief. It is good to remember that all the people working in OB vans had to constantly adapt to new restrictions that obviously did not help their day-to-day work over the last year, so now we are all happy to get back to the rhythm we had before the pandemic.”
On what have been the biggest challenges for Mediapro in approaching this season, Quintana says: “The main challenges for this new season have been the evolution towards the ‘new normal’, but building on all the good things we have learned during the restrictions phase. As examples, we have optimised the centralised operation of AR graphics, we continue to improve our HDR workflows, and more.”
As to how the season is going so far, Quintana notes: “After a summer with the Olympic Games and all that that means for the companies we have collaborated with, we are happy with the way the season is starting in the different leagues we are involved in. Every season has new challenges, and in this new season everything is working as we expected.”