New Timeline: Inside Europe’s first Ultra HD OB truck with MD Dan McDonnell

Timeline Television is building a purpose-built Ultra HD OB truck in collaboration with BT Sport, which has officially announced Europe’s first 4K channel, writes Neal Romanek. Dubbed UHD-1, Timeline’s new truck has been constructed from the ground up and will feature the highest quality 4K workflow available, including the first deliveries of Sony’s new HDC-4300 2/3 inch UHD 4K camera; Sony’s UHD 4K PWS-4400 server; the world’s first Fujinon UHD 4K 2/3 inch, 80:1 box and 22:1 ENG lenses; a Snell Kahuna UHD 4K vision mixer with Sirius router; Axon signal processing equipment plus Axon Cerebrum control system; EVS XT3 UHD 4K servers; and Grass Valley Kaleido-Modular-X multiviewers.

The truck was born out of BT Sport’s need to capture the best in 4K TV content for the channel, which goes on air at the beginning of August. Content for the new BT channel will include the UEFA Champions League, Barclays Premier League, FA Cup and Aviva Premiership Rugby.

When BT decided it to launch a 4K channel at the end of 2014, there were no trucks available to handle a sophisticated 4K workflow, so the company approached Timeline to build a bespoke truck that would employ best of breed tech throughout.

Timeline Television managing director Dan McDonnell saw a golden opportunity in the proposal: “It gave Timeline and BT the opportunity to build a 4K truck from the ground up and not have to make compromises to make it work in an HD world, or use technology that was already inherent in a truck that you had to add a 4K layer to. And we weren’t constrained by having to use a certain brand of gear.”

Sony 4300 UHD camera: Serial numbers 1 to 12

As proof of concept, the truck’s 4K equipment and workflow were trialled at the rugby union Aviva Premiership rugby final at Twickenham Stadium, on 30th May, using Timeline’s Sony HDC-4300s, and two additional Sony PMW-F55s.

Construction of the truck began at the end of 2014, along with specifying and procuring kit and doing road tests. Most of the gear has arrived and UHD-1 is now being assembled. The truck’s first live broadcast will be on 2 August with BT Sport 4K coverage of the Community Shield football match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium.

McDonnell says it has been a thrill to give teams a 4K production space that they have never yet experienced. “It’s been a really exciting choice for us. No one’s really sat the programme makers in front of technology before and asked ‘How do you want work?’ Being able to show directors and vision mixers the difference in being able to watch things on a big screen, for instance. A 49-inch screen is the minimum of what you want for 4K. It’s important for the director to see what the viewers at home are seeing.”

UHD-1 will be one of the few sources for a complete complement of broadcast 4K lenses and 4K cameras. “The truck will come with the complete end to end 4K production,” says McDonnell, “We’ve taken delivery now of 12 of the brand new 4300 Sony cameras – serial numbers 1 to 12 – which is very exciting. That will enable cameramen to produce 4K on a camera that is very familiar to them. It’s very much like the 2500 in HD.

“Timeline were also one of the first to get Fuji’s brand new 4K box lenses and smaller lenses,” he continues, “So we’ve now got a true 4K 80:1 lense that can fit onto the new Sony cameras. And the pictures through that combination look absolutely stunning.”

Timeline road-tested many different mixers before settling on the Snell Kahuna vision mixer. “The Kahuna has 120 inputs and can do seven or eight 4K keys on one ME. So it’s very high-powered mixer that allows us to make a programme with the same production demands as an HD programme. And that was driving force and our mission from BT – to be able to deliver a product to the same high level that they expect from HD, but in 4K.”

Timeline also worked very closely with Axon to develop the glue for the truck, which had to cope with a variety of challenges, including the complications of Dolby in 4K. Axon also developed new 4K range cards, which will make their debut in Timeline’s UHD-1.

Looking to the future

But will Timeline’s new 4K kid on the block play nicely with others? “One of the exciting things about Snell’s Kahuna mixer, and the reason we chose it,” says McDonnell, “is that it can take in or give out any format. If you’re putting in an HD signal it will up-convert it for the 4K output, but not give it any processing for the HD output. Similarly, a 4K signal will be downconverted for the HD output, but not the 4K. It puts the least amount of processing required into the signal chain, so we can cover an event in 4K and still give a stunning HD output as well.”

“I think 4K is going to be here to stay,” says McDonnell. “Over the next few years it will be more commonplace and we’ll be at the forefront of that. And we’ll be delivering all the new things to 4K – like mini-cams and other equipment that has become the norm in HD, but aren’t yet possible in 4K. Our truck has all the cutting technology as of today, but of course IT technology and editing and post production has also got to fall in line with the new truck.”

McDonnell agrees that the surge of interest in HDR imaging will go hand in hand with the evolution of 4K. He points out that the trucks’ Sony cameras will be able to deliver the necessary colour gamut for HDR. The camera’s support for the ITU-R BT.2020 standard future-proofs it for high dynamic range for some years to come. “Everything we’ve selected in the truck will be able to handle HDR. It’s something that will come along – not on the truck’s launch, but in the future.”

BT Sport and Timeline signed a four-year contract for use of the truck. The truck is not exclusive to BT however. When the truck is not employed in BT Sport programming, it will be hireable by other productions.

“We’re keen to find out from other people where they may want to use this truck when it’s not in use by BT. It may be in non-sport genres, like natural history or opera or factual. We have a very high-spec 4K truck with all of the cameras and lenses ready to deliver exciting things for people.”

The Timeline engineering team hopes to use the experience gained in building UHD-1 to help foster fledgling 4K productions in the future. “We’d love to talk to anybody who wants to add 4K to their production,” says McDonnell, “And we can talk them through it and let them know what is possible.”

In the world of 4K, Timeline has turned the possible into a reality, and with BT sport seems to have made a milestone in European 4K broadcast.

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