How Live HD TV Is Made: A Look Inside Sony's Outside Broadcast Vans

sony-ob-van02From the outside, it looks like a regular truck: Your typical Isuzu chassis with a van on the back. If you drove past it on the road, you'd barely notice it. But when you step inside, it's a wonderland of dials, knobs, screens and buttons – a technological nerdgasm – and it's what makes your coverage of live sports events so entertaining. And yesterday at SMPTE09, I got to take a look inside two custom trucks built especially for Thoroughbred Racing Productions (TRP).

It turns out that outside the ABC, none of the free to air TV networks actually own an outside broadcast (OB) van. So third parties are subcontracted to film live events. But where do these third parties get their vans from? The answer is both logical and surprising: Sony. The electronics giant has a special branch based at North Ryde where they build and customise trucks for a whole range of companies. At the SMPTE09 show, they were showing off two out of three trucks they'd custom built and designed for TRP.

sony-ob-van09 The main van consisted of four separate sections. Up the front, facing a wall of 12 HD LCDs, is the visual section of the truck. It's here that all the video feeds from the different cameras are controlled and mixed together. Among the various other technologies in this section are a pair of Bose speakers and an HP Touchsmart PC. sony-ob-van07

Behind the visual area is the audio section, where a Yamaha deck controls all the audio feeds, and outputs in stereo sound. Nick Buchner, who's the Senior Product Marketing Manager for Content Creation at Sony was keen to stress that even though Sony actually built the truck, they customised it to the purchasers specifications, which often means using other companies' products, like the Yamaha deck. It's for that reason, the van only output in stereo sound rather than 5.1, because it was all that TRP required. sony-ob-van08

The next section in the van was specifically designed for slow motion replays, which is especially important for horseracing coverage. From this section of the van, controllers can send slow motion replays, directly to the course, to the broadcast and to the horse racing stewards for adjudication of a race. What's more, they can do it moments after the race has finished thanks to the powerful dedicated servers in the truck. They've also got the ability in this section to burn content to DVD immediately. sony-ob-van06

Finally up the back of the OB van is the engineering section. This is both where all the power behind the van is really held, as well as where all the equalisation of the video happens. It's an interesting fact that none of the cameras used to film the sport actually does any white balancing or controlling of exposure – it's all controlled back in the van so all the cameras being used can maintain the same quality.

The smaller van on display at the show - which is for smaller regional races - was just like a reduced version of the main van. sony-ob-van05

Some of the kit powering the van is pretty amazing – the slow-mo servers alone are worth about $400,000 each. But they're needed – they render HD video in slow motion at bitrates around 400Gbps, and considering how important slow-mo is to racing, they're worth every penny. In fact, the whole truck is pretty pricey – TRP's big truck cost somewhere in the order of $3-4 million to build and customise, including all the special hardware inside. It takes about 6 months for the crew at Sony to actually build the truck, but the overall process of determining exactly what each client needs and the build takes about a year.

And as a guide as to what kind of stuff the vans comprise of, here you go:

28 x HD cameras 76:1 Stabilised lenses 42:1 stabilised lenses 2 x Phantom V10 Extreme Super Slo Cameras 2 x HD PW700 XDCAM Camcorders 8 x EVS XT2 12 x HD XD-CAM Disc Recorders 3 x Gigawave HD Link Systems 8 x Digital Link Systems HD 3D Graphics, Virtual Graphics and Virtual reality

It just goes to show that even though we reckon our consumer-level kit can be pretty awesome, it's still miles behind what the people in broadcast get to play with. Lucky bastards!