Star India goes UHD for Cricket World Cup with 4K channel and Alston Elliot graphics
The recent Cricket World Cup ushered in a new Ultra HD service for Star India, with all the graphics being done in UHD by Alston Elliot. Star India was host broadcaster for the Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and wanted UHD coverage on matches played in Australia involving India, plus the Semi-Final in Sydney and the Final in Melbourne.
It was Alston Elliot’s first foray into UHD, in partnership with Vizrt and Matrox. “Viz were kind enough to loan us a machine – the first time we’ve been able to get our hands on something suitable for UHD – and Matrox also came to the party with high-spec graphics cards. Both of their assistance was invaluable,” said Nick Baily, CEO, Alston Elliot.
“We augmented this setup with an Nvidia Quadro K6000 card, which is basically the best on the market, with a vast amount of texture memory, which is key to running those graphics,” added Stuart Coles, sales director. “We were pleasantly surprised by how it went after that.” Building and using the UHD graphics “went remarkably well”.
Vizrt is Alston Elliot’s “preferred graphics engine. We’ve been using it since 2000 and were among the very first in Europe to adopt it, so the workflow wasn’t very different in terms of working with 4K. It was just a case of making sure that the core elements we put into it were good enough for that resolution,” said Baily. He had been worried that having to increase the resolution by four times would lead to performance issues, “but it performed really well.”
“Style-wise, they were the exact same graphics being used on the standard [HD] broadcast, but the graphics we used on the Cricket World Cup for the world feed were 4:3 safe,” explained Coles, but for UHD the graphics could be re-formatted to 16:9 as no one was going to see them on an old SD set. The extra clarity of UHD also allowed them to reduce the size of some graphics.
“We had heard some scare stories from other suppliers in the industry about when they tried to use 4K graphics, and the difficulties they had had, so initially we were planning to offer quite a scaled-down service in terms of the number of graphics that we’d make available; it would just be the real key graphics that they needed,” he added.
Once they started using them, however, “we were pleasantly surprised that we didn’t need to cut down the range of graphics.” This was partly because the graphics were driven by its own, in-house software applications, which allow it to quickly populate graphics with data and remove the chances of errors. There were also some manual graphics, created using Viz Trio, with these and the software-driven main scene graphics created in different layers on the Viz machine. “Which is something you quite often can’t do because of a performance issue, but even with 4K we managed to deliver both those types of graphics,” added Coles.
Star of the HD firmament
Besides seeing the production live in Adelaide, Baily had been in Mumbai to see the results for himself, and was very impressed with the end-result. “Star were very keen to be right there at the forefront [of UHD] and I think they achieved it,” he said. It was particularly important as the draw of cricket for Indian TV viewers is huge, with an estimated one billion viewers for the India v Pakistan match in February. “Everybody in those countries was in front of a TV set,” even if the vast majority were probably 4:3 CRTs.
The graphics were produced as four quad HD feeds, and Baily had been nervous about getting these synched correctly, but “I was surprised, it was such a smooth process, and NEP Australia (the facilities provider) were impressed by how quickly the graphics worked. They, obviously, had a lot of firsts in their truck in terms of bringing everything together for a live 4K OB,” so it was great that the graphics just worked, “and came together with no real issues,” he said.
Because the decision to go UHD was taken close to broadcast, they didn’t have the creative latitude to go much beyond the HD look. “If you approached this now with a decent lead up time I think you’d re-design the graphics for the 4K feed,” said Baily. “The picture content is so rich, there is so much clarity, you can reduce the size of the graphics. You can think a lot more about the layout, making sure the picture is key and the graphics complement it.”
When Alston Elliot and Star India’s Broadcast Design department designed the style, it had to be legible not only in 4:3, SD, but also in Hindi typefaces, for which there was a slave feed, originated in Mumbai, taking the data from Australia and New Zealand. Hindi text is less legible on screen than English, so they normally make the graphics deeper to make them easier to read. The UHD broadcast was in English, but in UHD tests Hindi was “incredibly legible”.
Baily loved the extraordinary clarity that UHD brought to the pictures, particularly for crowd shots, and full-frame graphics could be displayed without any artefacts in the photos. He believes that Star India may now use UHD on other sports, particularly as it has recently been expanding its coverage into new sports, such as kabaddi, “which was hugely successful last year, and became the second most popular sport in India in one fell swoop,” and the Indian Super League, a Star India-backed football venture that started last year.
“They are a very ambitious company, which is great for us,” said Baily. “We are working very closely with them, and they are pushing us as well. They demand innovation and a high standard from us at all times. They are an exciting client.”
The HD and UHD workflows were similar, although the UHD broadcast had a much shorter pre- and post-game production. In HD for the India-Pakistan game Star India
“Because most of our graphics are driven by in-house applications, the operator operating the 4K graphics would have had the same range of captions available,” using the same software as HD, added Coles. It means the operators don’t have to use anything new just because it is in UHD.
“It’s very similar to what broadcasters did in the UK when 3D was launched. We did rugby and football in 3D for Sky and ESPN, and the match coverage would always be 3D and they would use their 3D cameras whenever they could, but there is very little content around the match; they have no archive footage, so they just go back to the 2D feed,” said Coles.
When the main production moves to UHD, using a slave feed to create separate UHD and HD graphics would be how they would prefer to proceed. For example, on the Aviva Premiership rugby, Alston Elliot generates an un-branded 4:3-safe world feed at every match, alongside its BT Sport 16:9 graphics. It also used slave feeds for the Hindi output for the Cricket World Cup, and for multiple languages for the 6 Nations Rugby, as it will for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup. The UHD feeds for Star Sports could also have been done this way, but the broadcaster wanted the production to be independent, with its own commentators, and the graphics being displayed in response to that commentary. “If it had been a pure slave to the world feed, that would have been easier for us in some respects,” said Baily.
If the Viz UHD machine had failed, Alston Elliot didn’t have a back-up machine, “which is unusual for us, because we rarely go into a big job without redundancy, without at least one hot spare machine we can switch to,” said Coles. It could have used another HP PC and just swapped the cards, and did have tech support standing by. “If it did go bang, we would have got around it somehow,” he added.
“I think the hard thing would have been the cards, which came from Matrox in Canada,” said Baily.
It supplied eight sets of fly-away equipment (with four graphics production teams) for the host broadcast. Each fly-away generally included four Viz engines to supply the main graphics feed, which was completely computer-driven by Alston Elliot software (taking data from other systems, such as HawkEye, as well as its own data; it had a scorer in the commentary box). There was also a secondary feed for the presentation and further in-game graphics, a slave feed on site for Doordarshan (the Indian terrestrial state broadcaster, which wanted an unbranded feed), and an independent big screen/arena feed for the ICC (which had to be more easily legible, with bigger fonts).
Besides Star Sports India, Alston Elliot also worked with: Fox Sports Australia, and provided it with touch-screen systems in studio and on an on-field buggy (which it will also be using on rugby league); Sky Sports (at its Osterley HQ in the UK, where Sky did its presentation, including a touch-screen system); and a similar studio set-up for SuperSport South Africa in Johannesburg.
Unleashing the potential of UHD
If Star India wants to use UHD for kabaddi (which resumes in the Summer) or the Indian Super League (in the Autumn), Alston Elliot will have to invest in new equipment.
“At the moment it would be quite difficult for us to upscale. If someone said ‘we want to do five matches a weekend’,” it would take time to get everything in place. “But that’s not likely to happen in the short term,” said Coles.
“Now it has been proven, been broadcast, and come out of a set-top box and looked good,” said Baily.
The extra power of the machines needed for UHD will also open up new possibilities for HD graphics. “The glass ceiling is always being broken,” said Baily. “Every time we upgrade, within six months our production and creative teams have matched that spec and are right on the ceiling again.” In the past five years, the amount of HD content played through the Viz systems, such as player walk throughs, or as elements or layers in graphics, has increased exponentially. “There is so much more video used in our graphics, and that has a big overhead. As we’ve increased the power of the hardware, the demands on it have always matched that, so that is a constant challenge.”
For the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, Alston Elliot essentially provided the output of its UHD Viz machine direct (four fills and four keys) to NEP, who took care of it, providing both the production and 4K facilities, but as UHD deployment grows it will have to update all the hardware around the PC, including displays, routers, convertors, etc, so that it can deliver the required output, and it will have to look at whether the volume of work can justify this added investment.
“We are so reliant on Vizrt as a platform” in terms of improvements in technology, admitted Baily. “We’re largely in their hands, although in the past they’ve been very responsive.” With 3D, Vizrt were very quick to respond to what Alston Elliot and Sky wanted, and Coles believes that as the standardisation of UHD progresses Vizrt will match its development.
“There is no box to play [UHD] out in the UK yet, but now it has been proven in India and that may very well accelerate the process,” he said. The UHD set-top boxes for Star India were provided by Tata Sky and used Elemental Technologies’ HEVC/H.265 software.
“The Indian market in particular has shown a real appetite for innovation,” said Baily, who feels that it will be one of the main markets driving the adoption of UHD. “It’s great to have customers who want you to innovate and are willing to back you to do so.” Indeed, Alston Elliot has just learned that BCCI intends to include UHD coverage on selected matches at the upcoming IPL, which starts this month and for which it is also official graphics supplier.
“Again, it’s quite a late call between 4K being commissioned and the start of the tournament,” said Coles. “This means that we’re simply not going to have time to design and build a dedicated 4K style, but does at least afford us some room to build some full frame graphics exclusively for the 4K coverage and tailored specifically for that format.”