Outside broadcast and facilities company Timeline Television is expanding, with new studios and production facilities near its home base in Ealing, west London.
“The Ealing Broadcast Centre is the next phase in Timeline’s studio and production gallery offering,” according to David Harnett, its Head of Operations.
The large triple-row gallery in Timeline’s new Ealing Broadcast Centre
In the basement there is “a 2000sqft studio, with a 4.5m-high lighting grid, that’s supplemented with four dressing rooms, VR room [because it’s got a big virtual studio element to it], and a vision and lighting control room”. To add to the flexibility, the dressing rooms can also be used for voiceovers.
On the third floor there is a large triple-row gallery, a spacious production office, eight edit suites, a Master Control Room, a VT/replay room, edit support room and two voiceover booths.
The expansion has been driven by demand for large-scale studio shows. “We were turning down quite a lot of work over previous years where we didn’t have a large studio facility this side of London,” he explains. While Timeline runs BT Sport’s technical facilities in the Olympic Park in east London, and have been using those studios for third-party clients, not having anything in its Ealing centre “was causing us some commercial issues”.
Timeline is based at Ealing Studios, but it was difficult to get to use those studios because they are so busy doing feature films, and trying to fit in a sports show over a weekend isn’t really commercially viable. Timeline needed greater flexibility and to be able to bring a show in on a Thursday, out on a Monday, “and that’s where the virtual studio side comes in really nicely.
Hard sets always take quite a lot of time to rig, and while we can absolutely do hard sets, we’ve designed the studio to do both hard sets and virtual studios, but the offering we feel is better for the market generally is a virtual studio.”
Timeline doesn’t do virtual graphics so partnered with Moov, which has installed the Mo-Sys StarTracker tracking system, calibrated all the lenses, and put in Unreal Engine and Brainstorm InfinitySet.
“They do some fantastic design and development, and they did the BBC Olympic set and they’ve done Wimbledon, so they’re able to produce some really amazing content and we have built the studio around that,” says Harnett.
The studio “will work really nicely” as both a green virtual set or a hard set, “but one of the real significant upsides of the virtual set is you can just turn it on and we’ll have it all rigged, ready to go and we can change the sets. We can roll people in and out, and all you’ve got to do is move the desks in and out.”
However, Timeline’s investment in the Ealing Broadcast Centre (EBC) isn’t just to give it more studio space. “With an increasing number of remote productions coming in, we’re finding that we were running out of space rapidly at Ealing Studios [where it has five galleries].
”We’ve expanded a lot in that site and it’s been a fantastic home for us, and we’ll still continue to be there in some form for a while, but we needed larger gallery spaces. We needed big production offices and lots of edit suites, and we also wanted it to be contained in one building”, as it is now spread across several buildings.
“One of the other major advantages [of the EBC] is we’ve created a data centre where we can expand up to something like 60 racks in the space that’s there.” It has significant uninterruptable power supply infrastructure, including generators on the roof. “It really is at the cutting edge of redundancy and backup technology,” he adds.
The EBC had to be built more quickly than initially planned as during the build Timeline was contacted by Channel 4 and Whisper Films needing to do the Paralympics in Britain having originally planned to go to Tokyo. “As a result, we had to accelerate our timescales, so a lot of the infrastructure was about what we had, as well as what we could get with the long lead times. But we still created an absolutely fantastic system,” says Harnett.
The centre is built around an Axon (EVS) Cerebrum control system, with Grass Valley Kahuna vision mixers, Grass Valley Sirius 840 hybrid/SDI matrix, Calrec audio and Riedel talkback, and EVS servers.
Timeline’s David Harnett in the new studio which can do virtual and hard set productions
“Eventually, we’ll almost certainly go IP here as we grow. That’s the benefit of the 840 – you’ve got the flexibility to add IP, for easy migration,” says Bradley Woollett, Lead Broadcast Engineer, who did most of the design work.
Ideally the EBC would have been IP from the start, but the timescales were too tight. “We’ve obviously got a large footprint in IP builds and infrastructure already, but it does take a bit of time, both lead time ordering the kit, but also the development and installation time, which takes more than an SDI infrastructure – and the testing as well.
”You’ve got to test everything significantly more than we would with SDI. So, for now, we’re SDI. But there’s an upgrade path to go into an IP environment on the talkback, because the Riedel Artist 1024 can go natively into IP,” while all the video and audio systems also have a path to IP.
“All the decisions we’ve made have got that in mind,” he adds. “But, because of the timescales we’ve had to initially go with the 840, which is a fantastic product. It works really well for us. It’s kind of above and beyond what we need at this moment,” but as the EBC will be the main hub for all of Timeline Ealing going forward, “it’s likely that we’ll run out of space on that before we know it”.
Building work started in May and the Paralympics gave a hard deadline of August. “Thankfully the data centre was already done by this point, so Bradley was able to start wiring and getting the data centre designed and wired and then we were just waiting for all the walls and floor to go in before we could run in the cabling,” recalls Harnett.
“We were working evenings and nights to get that cabling in around the building work, so it was almost a 24/7 operation during the build. It was very intense,” adds Woollett, with five wire installers on the technical side working around numerous builders. Having a blank sheet to build from (there was just concrete floor to ceiling everywhere) and designing everything from scratch “does have its benefits, but obviously it does also increase that lead time trying to deliver stuff, and there’s worldwide shortages of just about everything at the moment, so that was quite interesting as well. But it came together really nicely by the time Whisper moved in and we were in a really good position.”
The Paralympics thoroughly tested everything. “You’re expecting there might be issues here and there, but actually we went on air and everything was really, really smooth. There was no technical fault for the whole 12 days and we were doing some really adventurous stuff,” says Woollett.
The EBC was linked to Channel 4’s studio in Leeds, which was run from the gallery in Ealing thanks to BT Media & Broadcast quickly putting in some ad hoc lines to carry all of those feeds to/from the studio.
Timeline also had to put in talkback and VoIP connectivity, while the presenters linked to the sport from Tokyo over BMC lines using two diverse 10GBps circuits into the EBC, to bring in 16 video feeds and send back multiple return visions.
Timeline often works with BMC, but in this case BMC had already been contracted by Channel 4 directly to supply connectivity for the Paralympics, “and it just so happened that we were already going to use them to put in our initial connectivity here, which we’re now layering with normal BT Tower lines as well as NEP Connect and Tata, so all those different platforms are covered,” says Woollett.
“Connectivity is key in these remote production workflows and we need to be able to be across multiple providers to be able to deliver it properly,” adds Harnett.
Everything was linked together by the Channel 4 gallery in Ealing and Timeline also had a truck parked in the car park, which was needed for additional coverage on More4. As this use had been planned for, the truck (UHD2, Timeline’s biggest) had UPS backed three-phase power with fibre connectivity up to the data centre.
As the truck is IP “we were able to then just drop an IP frame into the data centre which is on the Grass Valley IQ infrastructure and that interleaved perfectly into the infrastructure here and you wouldn’t know that was a truck”, says Harnett.
The EBC can also work with its galleries in Ealing Studios, with eight MBC tie lines in each direction, and lots of overhead to add more as needed, “but the hope is that we will bring more facilities from Ealing Studios to here anyway, so that the need for those tie lines will decrease”, he adds.
The excellent connectivity also means the EBC could run the Ealing Studios MCR or vice versa, depending on requirements, which is ideal because its engineering team is split between the two sites. “We can work from either site and do pretty much anything we need to remotely,” says Harnett. This does increase the redundancy it has on the sites, although as both are already fully diverse and redundant that hasn’t been a driver for it, but with Covid it could mean that Timeline could have a gallery on one site with a team that doesn’t need to cross contaminate with a team in the other.
One new system Timeline has installed is NDI IPTV for all monitoring in production spaces and even dressing rooms, using units from Newtek and BirdDog for encoding and decoding. “We’ve got all of our programme sources, off-air sources, our production multiviewers, as well as tie lines to the SDI matrix,” says Harnett. “Coupled with this remote control system, you can seamlessly route to any of these monitoring destinations without actually realising it’s an IPTV system, and that also brings flexibility.”
For the Paralympics, the production office wanted 20 different video monitors. “With a traditional SDI or even an IP system you’re going to have to have those spare outputs from your matrix or spare IP conversion cards, whereas for this we literally just had to run in a Cat5 to a switch, put the IPTV box there and we have monitoring to this whole room, with NDI decoders on pretty much every desk. It was a real success,” he adds.
Although Timeline has used NDI extensively for remote production it has not deployed it on such a large scale at home – indeed, Harnett believes it is one of the biggest such networks built so far. The implementation went “remarkably smoothly” and was tied into Cerebrum. “The layout of the room was mapped out on a touchscreen and you could route to your monitor, or everyone, from several Cerebrum terminals in both offices.”
It was “a big leap of faith” because “it was such cutting-edge technology that we could only do limited testing before deploying it. We had a backup plan, but it went really well,” he adds. It also allows users to easily route material from Ealing Studios to a monitor in the EBC.
The EVS network is similarly flexible, so that operators can move between gallery, edit suite or VT room. There is also a large Dante network so voiceovers or commentary can be added in an edit suite or even the dressing rooms.
“You can sort of dynamically use any room for pretty much anything you want, without lots of thinking and re-plugging,” he says.
“That brings the flexibility needed for the sort of remote productions and ad hoc productions we’re doing, where requirements can change on a weekly or per-show basis.
”That means that rig time and setup time are vastly reduced because you literally just have to plug your equipment into a switch and that position can be operational. That all feeds forward into the bigger video-level IP upgrade because you’ve got the NDI network already doing the IPTV side of things.”
The EBC building has considerable scope for expansion, if Timeline wants to use it, as it currently only uses two of the seven floors. Long term, Harnett hopes that the EBC will become Timeline’s main facility, although there will probably still be galleries and edit suites in Ealing Studios. “We seem to never be able to have enough edit suites for what the customers want, so we will be building as many as we can possibly fit in,” he adds.
“But also it is just an organic growth issue that we have at Ealing Studios that we weren’t able to expand any further. It’s a wonderful site, but the next stage for us is to get it all into one building and have a much clearer offering to our customers,” says Harnett.
The building was originally built to be a data centre, which means it has high ceilings, which Timeline just couldn’t find elsewhere. “It’s very hard to find a nice glass office building that also works for the broadcast market, unless you purpose-build the whole building and so this was a fantastic find, and being able to create the studio space in the basement… I couldn’t believe it when we first went down there because they had these cavernous areas with six-and-a-half metre ceiling height.”
It also helps greatly that the EBC is only a short walk from Ealing Studios, and surrounded by good restaurants and cafes. “I’ve always said that the main reason that people like to come and do remote broadcasting at Timeline is because of the cafes and things around it more than the technical side itself.” There are also hotels nearby, including one in the same building as the EBC.