Advances in technology mean that operational staff need to know more – not less – about the tools used to create and deliver TV, says John Maxwell Hobbs.
As production has moved to digital formats, there has also been a move to the use of tools and protocols from the world of computing and networks.
First, the move to file-based storage and PC-based editing, then from tape to cards, and now the transition from SDI to IP (Internet Protocol) connectivity.
There is beginning to be significant effort put into recruiting and training engineers who can support this new working environment.
What is being overlooked, however, is that a significant amount of troubleshooting and workarounds during production are currently handled by crew members, not engineers and technologists.
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Adaptability across the workflows
Computer-based kit requires an entirely new approach to configuration and troubleshooting, and most production crews do not have training that supports that approach with modern equipment.
The initial shift from analogue to digital tape formats, from D-1 through Digital Betacam, had very little impact on workflows. The storage format was digital, but the cameras functioned in the same way, and editing was still accomplished tape to tape.
A production person with skills learned in the analogue world had no problem adapting to the new equipment – the knowledge gained from a long career in production was still useful in keeping a production in motion.
This began to change with the introduction of digital non-linear editing systems like Avid/1, D/Vision, and the Video Toaster Flyer in the 1990s – these systems were PC-based and approached editing from an entirely different paradigm. Unfortunately, the skills of an editor well versed in tape-based editing would be of no use if anything went wrong in this environment, and IT literate engineers had to be recruited.
The change we are now experiencing is about much more than the way that pictures are captured and stored – it is a change from an electromechanical world of purpose-built machines made of gears, flywheels, and levers, to a world of multifunction devices made of processors and software.
Problem-solving in an age of change
The electromechanical world was satisfyingly tactile – often the best way to repair a malfunctioning piece of kit was to drop it onto a bench from a height of two feet.
Unfortunately, software bugs are not so easily eliminated – sometimes problems arise from the interaction between several different applications, all of which are flawlessly doing exactly what they were programmed to do – it’s just the interaction between them that is causing the problem.
“The change we are now experiencing is about much more than the way that pictures are captured and stored.”
Solving those sorts of problems often requires more than one engineer even working under idea circumstances; a single camera operator or sound recordist working under production pressures will have a much harder time of it.
Things that were best practice in the past can often be exactly the wrong thing to do in a new environment.
Trial and error
I had first-hand experience of this at one of my previous employers who had just moved to file-based recording. We kept experiencing problems with the ingest of a studio show – the workspace allocated to that production kept falling over.
Upon investigation, we discovered that all the storage allocated for a full week’s shooting had filled up in two days. We could find no technical fault that would explain this. Upon further investigation, we located the cause – the recording operator had been simultaneously ingesting two identical feeds – one main and one safety – just as he had been doing with tape decks for his entire career.
It’s easy to make light of this, but he was just following what had been good operational procedure. Although he had been trained in the operation of the ingest system, he had been given no training in how RAID storage worked, and the implications that had in the resiliency of the new storage medium. Why would he be trained in the technology of spinning disk storage? That’s the purview of engineers, not ROs. But this example shows that it is now the purview of operational staff as well.
In an effort to ensure that new the new systems can be used by experienced crew, many user interfaces have been built to mimic older systems.
This may get people up and running quickly, but it can provide a false sense of security – this looks and works like the old kit, so everything music be the same. We are now seeing the introduction of cameras that use IP instead of SDI.
This change will be invisible to camera operators in most cases. But imagine a very common situation – a camera has failed in one studio just before airtime.
A camera from another studio is brought in and plugged into the cable that had been used for the faulty unit. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the replacement will immediately show up in the right place on the vision mixer – after all, that’s the way it works with SDI. But no – the new camera is still showing up on the camera channel it was assigned to in the other studio.
Patching in the world of IP is virtual not physical. Suddenly, we need an engineer in the studio just to make a simple camera swap.
Unless we want to increase the number of engineers on standby for productions, what’s required is in-depth training of operational staff in IT topics.
They will need to understand operating systems, storage arrays, IP communication, and more. Just as a good DOP understands the optics of a lens even though they’re not a lens grinder, everyone needs to have a solid understanding of the components of their tools.
It’s not enough to simply know which buttons to press.
As well as being a music producer and composer, John Maxwell Hobbs is a course leader at the National Film and Television School, media consultant and the former Head of Technology at BBC Scotland.
Read more from John Maxwell Hobbs: From cinema to online: Delivering the arts to new audiences