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Live From the FIFA World Cup: HBS CEO Dan Miodownik, CTO Christian Gobbel Reflect on Efforts Thus Far

Enabling new workflows and flexibility, IP tops the list of innovations deployed

It’s the first rest day at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and HBS CEO Dan Miodownik has one goal for everyone involved in producing the World Cup coverage: rest. “We talk about FIFA World Cups and the intensity of the games,” he explains. “With the way the quarterfinals are lining up, everyone has to refocus because every single match becomes more important every single day.

Christian Gobbel (left) and Dan Miodownik of HBS inside the main equipment room at the 2022 World Cup IBC in Doha

HBS is at the center of the production efforts, a role it has performed since 2002. The company coordinates the technical facilities, technology providers, production personnel, and much more. And it produces not only the live coverage of the match but creates thousands of hours of content around the event: multi-feeds offering various clips around a match to scenics, social-media and digital content, and much more. HBS also manages the IBC and fulfills requests from rightsholders for everything from ENG needs to studio space to commentary positions and, of course, IBC operations.

This year’s FIFA World Cup has introduced more innovation than any previous Cup: the move to IP, a single-layer production standard based on HDR, and, of course, new digital services and feeds like the Fan Feed, which have been big hits. As with any event, though, innovation comes with challenges. Topping that list this year is the move to IP, which has opened up new workflows and flexibility.

IP is making a difference, enabling remote production for match-day–minus–one operations, 32 cameras providing four-camera coverage of eight team training sessions per day across 32 training sites, and 24 fully remote-controlled cameras for unilateral services around live match coverage. In addition, all cameras with remote heads (two tactical cameras and the beauty and the tunnel cameras) at each match are operated from the IBC.

“That’s a perfect example of what it will be in the future,” says HBS CTO Christian Gobbel. “You will only deploy cameras; you compress them and have a center where you have shaders and, then you have virtualized galleries.”

Most important, creation of the multi-feed offering, which complements the main live match feed, can be handled at the IBC instead of having to be deployed at each venue. For example, a multifunctional gallery handles training-ground and press- conference coverage, and four galleries are focused on creating the multi-feed offering.

“We have 14 galleries at the IBC sharing three Grass Valley K-Frame switchers,” says Gobbel. “We have up to 14 hardware or virtual panels on those three K-Frames. And then we kind of virtualized the whole operation and utilize the hardware in a more efficient way.”

Adds Miodownik, “Technically, that’s really impressive and truly multifunctional as we are utilizing our infrastructure in a way that is as flexible as possible. From a product point of view, we have greater consistency because we have the same team working consistently [as opposed to different teams at each venue].”

The coverage from the 32 training grounds also benefits because there are just two technicians with four cameras who can drive around Doha without the need for a production truck.

“Having multi-feeds is allowing us to be much more focused on editorial matters,” says Gobbel. “For instance, [with] our new clips-compilation workflows, we can connect the venue network back to the IBC so the operators at the IBC are working on the same network. In the past, they had to mark clips and push them via file transfer; that meant a delay of two minutes. Now they have access to everything, and they can prioritize the best angles and push them forward on the playlist.”

Rightsholders also benefit in a variety of ways. For one thing, a unilateral service offering allows them to hire a technician and one or two cameras and move them between locations, providing only talent and a camera operator.

The move to IP has created lots of new ways to work, but the road has had its share of nerve-wracking bumps.

“Some of the technical suppliers have done a fantastic job and are moving IP forward in a meaningful way,” says Miodownik. “But there are areas that they would admit simply weren’t managed as well as they would want, and that presented us with some challenges we did not expect. Also, some persevered longer than we anticipated. It was the butterfly effect at a reasonably large level and is something I don’t think we’ve been used to in the past with the older technology.”

As for solving some of the issues, Gobbel says there needs to be more work on standards and interoperability, not only between manufacturers but sometimes among their own products.

“I think interoperability is the key thing in a real-world ST 2110 and 2022-7 implementation,” he adds. “The standard needs to mature to operate equipment over a more standardized SDN control and having it control not only flows but also the endpoints. NMOS clearly has its limitations in a large facility like the one we have built. There are a lot of customized work-arounds required at the moment, when there is no real solution to specific problems.”

The Evolving Compound

The shift of unilateral and multi-feed operations from the venue to the IBC has meant that the compound and space for HBS operations are a little bit leaner.

“Basically,” says Gobbel, “we have a main gallery, audio gallery, the shader room, graphics, and slo-mo replay, and that’s about it. Rightsholders just turn up with a flight case and get a 1- or 10-GB connection for their unilateral needs. Also, there is less use of the presentation studios and more use of the announcer platform and pitch positions, which they can do with one or two cameras for their onsite presentations.”

As more and more rightsholders get comfortable with remote production, broadcast-compound infrastructure begins to shrink. That’s the case at several venues in Doha. A handful of broadcasters are continuing practices developed over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All the tricks that people have learned throughout COVID are being applied here,” notes Miodownik. “Whether it’s the ability to go remote or semi-remote or it’s trusting in bonded cellular, they want to be nimble and agile with their technology.”

Despite these pockets of change, HBS remains bullish on having the bulk of staff onsite instead of opting for a full remote production. To capture the smallest details that pop up during the day or to shift gears and cover a more pressing topic for a particular match on a particular day, sending crews to the stadiums and the IBC in the host country makes complete sense. It’s important to have individuals on the ground to fix any problems that arise, but it’s also critical with broadcasts, featuring commentators in the booth, on the bounce back.

“There’s this desire to be pitch-side or within the bowl to connect with the viewer and be as close as possible,” adds Miodownik. “That puts a lot of pressure on event operations from a technological point of view because they’re handling a lot more equipment.”

If providing the foundation of the linear feed weren’t enough, HBS is working alongside FIFA to augment the fan experience even further with the introduction of new data-infused graphics and visuals. With content produced after the match, near-live productions, and a stronger push for engaging detail content through every broadcaster, fans can be immersed in this global tournament from sunrise to sunset.

“Broadcasters want to get as much value out of this event as possible,” says Miodownik. “The pool of content can take a fan from breakfast to bedtime, so you need a variety of material to do that.”

While broadcasters entertain fans and provide them with a deeper context for a match, he is pleased with the way that semi-automatic offside and the way it is presented give more clarity to tight decisions throughout the course of play.

“It’s popularly received because it ends the conversation,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree. It says the true outcome in a simple and definitive way.”

Improving HDR Workflows

A lot of energy went into development of an improved HDR workflow. First, FIFA and HBS created their own LUT (Look Up Table), which Miodownik says is similar to other World Cup–scale events, such as Olympic Games, and Gobbel says the goal was to have a LUT that would convey the HDR look to SDR.

“When there are parallel workflows,” Gobbel notes, “the SDR outputs of the cameras are used, and that is always a compromise. From the beginning, we were aiming at a full 10-bit single-layer HDR workflow with shaders viewing the pictures through the reference LUT at the point of creation, a process described as closed-loop shading. We don’t use any SDR outputs of the camera, and that is maintained throughout our workflow as we don’t want to compromise on either the HDR or the SDR deliverables.”

He says a single-layer workflow is the best approach because every attempt that has been done to do dual-layer, running both HDR and SDR, always ended in a compromise. “In football, we have all these funky colors of the jerseys that are outside the REC.709 spectrum. If you are not shooting in BT.2020 wide color gamut, any upconversion might look slightly different.”

Odds are, this will be the smallest geographical footprint for any World Cup for quite some time. And that small footprint has had its pros and cons. From a logistics standpoint, there is only one place for equipment to arrive, whether air freight or sea freight. A traditional World Cup, spread across a country, offers multiple entry points, which can alleviate delays. On the flip side, if equipment is delayed or lost, it is easier to simply borrow it from another venue or facility.

“I would say that we did underestimate the intensity that having everything so centralized would put on the IBC,” adds Miodownik. “Without training on match-day–minus at the stadiums, the IBC went to being active every day for everything the whole time; we had four matches a day and 24 training camps, etc., etc. I think we underestimated the impact of that from a staffing perspective and from a technical point of view because it meant every button was being pressed the whole time.

Improving Match Coverage

The shallow–depth-of-field craze is still playing a role in live sports production, and networks and broadcasters are becoming more aware of when to use it and when not. Some are also mixing in their own philosophies to dictate the opportunities when these cinematic cameras are used. HBS has learned that these shots need to be implemented at a certain time in the match because, over the course of 90 minutes, fans get accustomed to the look provided by the full complement of game cameras. To avoid interfering with the viewer’s perception of the match, this equipment should be used when it offers the best production quality.

“We want to give a special feel to instances like the teams walking out of the tunnel or crowds in the stands,” says Gobbel. “It’s a bit jarring when [the camera] suddenly gets a different depth of field.”

Aside from cinematic cameras’ making a difference during intimate moments, the production-services provider would like to go behind the scenes to bring fans where they’ve never been before: for example, to the dressing room or to the referees’ quarters to take a look at preparations.

“The more you’re inside these places and feeling like you’re giving the fans privileged access, the better,” says Miodownik. “We’d like to show these intense and passionate moments anytime we can.”


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