ASG Responds to Pandemic Restrictions with Remote Production Solutions for Clientele

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By Dave Van Hoy, President, Advanced Systems Group

While the past year saw endless obstacles to traditional video production and presented just as many business challenges, at Advanced Systems Group we created a mutually beneficial approach by developing remote production solutions. Our new Virtual Production Control Room (VPCR), a cloud-based production service, and our customized remote production kits enabled our clients to create content despite social distancing requirements and limited resources.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite daunting social distancing restrictions, content creators still needed to produce programming. At ASG, we observed that for many operations, making content was more important than producing content at a given production value. 

With traditional productions limited during the pandemic, we realized most clients would not have the budgets to procure new systems. Instead, ASG focused on maintaining existing systems and helping content producers adjust to at-home production, which became the norm for several months, by developing remote production kits. 

Different clients had different priorities, which is why we ended up with so many variations. Some only cared about webcam-level production, while some wanted to produce content that was as high quality as possible. So, our production kits had to be tailored to those client requests. We shipped more than 500 remote production kits between March 2020 and March 2021. Now, demand has shifted to our cloud-based remote production solution, which we refined during the lockdowns.

ASG’s VPCR supports real-time, broadcast-quality coverage of live events and other programming, complete with switching, audio, graphics, and more. Powered by Google Cloud, the cost-effective remote production service features cloud-based production tools from established industry vendors that communicate on a standard, unified signal. 

Remote production did not start with COVID-19. Producers were already exploring how to use the cloud to reduce costs. The pandemic just accelerated the process. Cloud-based virtual production is here to stay, and our investment in the VPCR will literally pay off for our clients for years.

ASG has managed to survive and even thrive through three recessions and the pandemic, because we’ve been able to adapt to new market conditions. Whenever you’re dealing with adverse economics, it’s really about being able to pivot – quickly. Another secret to our success during the pandemic was that we’ve earned the role of a trusted advisor to our clients. Some companies just sell products – but at ASG, we help our clients develop solutions.

ASG Personalities: Steve Young

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In November 2019, Steve Young joined Advanced Systems Group as head of system design and integration. He is based in the company’s main office in Emeryville, CA. The industry veteran spent more than 15 years with Sony Electronics. As the director of system solutions, he managed the Sony Professional Solutions Project Delivery Group. He also spent two years as COO for David Carroll Associates. 

Q: How did you become interested in systems integration?

A: I have always been a builder of things. I had a soldering iron by the time I was 10, and I would build things with switches and lights. When I started my career, I was on the operational side of the business, working with different artists in the recording industry. That’s when I discovered there was a whole industry dedicated to building and designing the systems I was using every day. When the recording industry started shifting to low-cost digital recording, I moved to system design and integration. 

Q: What were some of the interesting projects you worked on during your career?

A: My first project for Sony was project manager for a facility they were building in Tokyo. It was an urban entertainment complex featuring interactive gaming and a lot of AV. The project took a year and a half, and I served as a liaison between the Japanese workers and the U.S. designers and systems engineers. 

When I returned home, I started as a project proposal manager with Sony’s systems integration group, which was primarily focused on the major broadcast networks. I learned a lot there, because their standards were basically setting the standards for the broadcast integration industry at that time. I also had the opportunity to work on the system design and security protocols for Sony’s very first digital cinema systems deployed in theaters. 

Q: What do many people misunderstand about systems integration?

A: The order of operations – how you move from a concept to a conceptual design and budget, then move forward with a more detailed design, follow that with a project plan, and conclude with delivery and installation. When people don’t follow the process, the project becomes more challenging than it needs to be. That’s why you need a strong relationship with a company like ASG. We manage the process and keep the order of operations intact. 

Q: What are some of the new trends you’re seeing in the industry?

A: The most obvious trend over the past year has been remote production. Clients are trying to figure out what operations can be done remotely versus what has to be done on site – and what does that mean for physical plant design? Right now, it’s less about 4K or HD and more about how to adopt remote production workflows and maintain a limited footprint in the studio. Not only can we help answer those questions, but ASG now offers our Virtual Production Control Room, so our clients can produce real-time coverage of live events with no on-prem services required. 

Q: How can ASG help organizations looking to build new facilities or refresh existing systems? 

A: There is so much new technology out there, from cloud solutions to video-over-IP, and all of it is relatively young in its lifecycle. Selecting the solution that is going to meet your business needs and be reliable requires experience and due diligence. ASG’s approach is built around both, with the goal of establishing lasting partnerships. With so many different workflows to consider, this is not the time to choose a company that just wants to deliver and disappear.

Maintain Master Control with Proper Heat Management – Editorial by Dave Van Hoy, ASG President

Heat kills broadcast and IT equipment. When the heat builds, it can damage the various components you need to run your station, deliver presentations in your classrooms and auditoriums, or provide access to content for your post-production needs. Most master controls don’t have an ambient temperature that supports IT or broadcast equipment, of course, so you’ll need more than the integrated fans in your equipment for proper heat management. 

Much of today’s IT equipment is designed to operate in warmer temperatures – between 78 and 80 degrees – which means less cooling is required. For most broadcast equipment, however, the optimal room temperature is 68 degrees, because of temperature-sensitive components that are different than what you’d find in a typical server or switch. 

Need to move master control to a new area of an existing building? Avoid spaces with exterior windows, which essentially act like solar heaters. Also, if you have a choice, a bigger space is always better. With a smaller space, there’s not a lot of margin for error. If the AC fails, the smaller room will get hotter faster, which means the risk of damaging your equipment gets much higher much faster. If you are stuck with a compact space, consider a self-contained rack enclosure system with integrated cooling, which can act as a primary or secondary cooling alternative. 

Remember, you need to both cool the room and remove heat from the equipment in the room. One time-tested equipment layout technique is the “hot aisle/cold aisle” layout, which uses air flow management based on your equipment’s interior cooling fans. Basically, you face multiple racks away from each other, and direct the exhausted hot air from the back of all the components to the room’s AC return vent. Studies have shown the hot aisle/cold aisle layout can increase AC efficiency by up to 20 percent, which can result in significant power savings. 

Still have questions about proper heat management for your facility? Let the experts at ASG install and design a system that will keep your equipment cool without requiring your engineering staff to wear a parka in master control. 

COVID-19 Affects Projects, Promises Lingering Industry Impact – Editorial by Dave Van Hoy, ASG President

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been staggering, causing significant and lasting changes throughout the vertical markets of the professional video industry. During these first few months, we’re seeing what I call cautious turmoil – while there has been little change in most projects, we are expecting to see change. 

Why the delay? Clients are still trying to figure out what to change. At a minimum, there will be pivots in how we approach different aspects of various projects. Some will certainly be scaled back, but others will be expanded, though in different directions than originally planned. 

Our industry’s technological solutions are based on the three-legged table of speed, quality, and cost. Some of our clients are compromising different elements to achieve short-term goals. For example, some are spending money just to stay in business, while others are compromising quality in ways that would not have been previously acceptable in an effort to deliver content. I expect priorities will continue to shift as video professionals adjust to social distancing and COVID-19 safety requirements. 

With smaller or even non-existent physical audiences, there will be a greater emphasis on packages and other supporting production elements for live broadcasts this fall. You’ll certainly see changes in award shows and political debates, but the biggest impact may be in sports coverage. How will content producers incorporate remote attendee feedback? If they can access fan reactions from across the country, will they add a “cheer track” to the broadcast? Will they play reactions on loudspeakers in the stadium for the benefit of the players? 

Meanwhile, let’s give credit to the broadcast technical community. They have provided some very creative solutions that have enabled at-home productions to deliver content to audiences. We’ve all learned a valuable lesson about reliable internet connectivity, but we’ve also seen the importance of professional cameras, lighting kits, and high-quality microphones for at-home productions. 

To that end, ASG has been working with our clients to deliver more than 175 customized remote production kits since March, which have been built to meet the workflow requirements of specific production team members. For now and in the future, it’s important for broadcasters and other content creators to be ready to support on-camera talent and others with at-home solutions. And it’s not just about the technology – there also needs to be adequate training so the non-technical team members can be their own production support. 

RELATED INFO: ASG SHIPS REMOTE PRODUCTION KITS AS CLIENTS FACE AT-HOME CONTENT CREATION CHALLENGES

Helpful Industry Resources

Advanced Systems Group hopes you and your family remain safe and healthy throughout this challenging time in human history! Below, please find some information resources that should be helpful, thought-provoking, educational, or at least entertaining while we all get through this crisis together.

ASG is operating at 100%, and we’re available to help with your needs seven days a week. Contact us!

Avid Offers Free Temporary Licenses: Media Composer, Pro Tools, and More
VIDEO: Behind the Scenes on BT Sport’s Dencentralised Remote Production Channel Operations
SMPTE Webcast Schedule
Silicon Valley Video Technology News Blog
Social Distancing on a Live Set: Filmmakers Working in the Midst of COVID-19
Wheatstone Webinar: Social Distancing Your Studios (April 18, 2020)
Making Playing For Change’s “The Weight” with Sebastian Robertson and Mark Johnson
DPA Microphones on Proper Microphone Hygiene
AV Over IP Production Studios: Lessons from Schools, Newsrooms, Stadiums and More
ASG’s Dave Van Hoy on Remote Post Production in a COVID-19 World
Advanced Systems Group is Hiring!
Buzzfeed: 19 Things You Absolutely Must Stop Doing To Grocery Store Employees In The Age Of Coronavirus
Our Favorite Cat Video (Of The Moment, Anyway)

COVID-19 Pandemic Creates New Emphasis on Remote Post Production – Editorial by Dave Van Hoy, ASG President

Over the past few weeks, as the world has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, the BIG topic we are addressing is enabling remote production and post production. Whether it’s running a virtual conference, providing emergency messaging to employees, or finishing projects in post, everyone is doing their best to do it from home. Before we evaluate potential solutions for remote editing and color grading, it’s important to understand the technical challenges you’ll face when you leave the office. 

Today’s editing software and computer hardware are so powerful and sophisticated that we’ve become used to buying a hard drive from anywhere, plugging it into our computer, and editing in a pretty unlimited way. We take for granted that editing software requires the data for a frame of video at your frame rate and raster size (resolution) for every stream (track) you are playing simultaneously in real time to avoid the dreaded dropped frames. Remember, when you are editing with four streams of ProRes 4K at 60 frames per second, that totals 8 Gbps – and virtually any current hard drive you have does that all day long.

Let’s put this in the context of working from home. More than likely, you have an asymmetrical connection, since up and down are not the same, with somewhere between 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps download and only about 10 Mbps upload at your home. Even if you are one of the very lucky people who has a nominal 1 Gbps fiber connection at home, you’re definitely not going to fit your already compressed 8 Gbps video stream into the 1 Gbps pipe. 

Now that you understand the challenge, let’s look at the most available solutions. 

One way or another, the data necessary to play and edit your video has to reach the computer processor fast enough for your computer to make the computations to process in real time at your frame rate. When the video files reside on a central video storage system at work, most often it will be a fast SAN (storage area network) or NAS (network attached storage), it enables you and your coworkers to work just like your data is stored on a local hard drive.

Why not just share that storage over the internet using a company VPN? There are several stumbling blocks: 

  • lack of bandwidth availability will make real-time processing impossible.
  • your security team will most likely not want your storage system (with its valuable assets) directly on the Internet.
  • in many cases, your high-performance storage system is not vetted by your security team to be on your company intranet directly because media storage is highly specialized. 
  • firewalls to protect your assets that are optimized for multi-gigabit bandwidth and low latency are very expensive (upwards of $250,000).

So, how do you get around the current limitations of using the Internet to transport your data? There are three general approaches:

Move the data to local using a data transfer accelerator.

First, you can move the data using a data transfer accelerator. As we know, moving large data files across any Internet connection is painfully slow. Most data transport applications are not optimized to take advantage of modern Internet data paths with sophisticated data routers and switches. They assume you have to move the data in small packets – and frequently check that the packets arrived. This is typical for FTP and HTTP style transfers.

You can solve for this by using software that uses an alternate protocol like UDP, which is designed for streaming large data files. The best software looks across the Internet and not only finds the best routes to send the data, but provides high degrees of encryption to protect your files. 

Companies that provide this kind of performance include Aspera, FileCatalyst, JetStream, and Signiant. Costs and advanced features vary widely, but the underlying tech is similar. How effective are they? We did a test at a client site moving a 100 GB file from Silicon Valley to New York City. Using standard FTP over a 1 Gbps network, it took 36 hours. With Aspera, the same file transferred in an almost unbelievable 13 minutes and 56 seconds!

Make the data smaller.

Another option is to make the data smaller. This is what is commonly known as proxy editing. You compress the files even more (and maybe shrink the resolution and frame rate) so the files you have to move are much smaller and are good enough for editing, even if not for a deliverable.

This can be a great workflow when you have the time to plan and deploy the right tools, such as a compression engine from Telestream or Elemental (or others), as well as a media asset management system to keep track of the relationship between the editor, proxy files, and full resolution files. Of course, you then get all the other advantages of a MAM in workflow management. Unfortunately, this can be a long process to deploy and adopt.

Don’t move the data at all.

Finally, you can choose not to move the data to you locally by using a form of VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure). The idea is that your off-site computer becomes a “thin client.” The “heavy lifting” of video editing happens on a computer at another location, while your off-site computer essentially works as a remote control. 

VDI exists in many forms, ranging from Citrix servers to running applications in public or private cloud to sophisticated remote control of your machine back at the office. Once again, professional video applications generally exceed the capability of these systems because of our real-time requirements and latency issues. VDI is definitely part of the future, and it can be implemented successfully today in many applications. For real-time video, it requires a virtualization platform that attempts to move the least amount of data to represent the changes in the host computer display.

Video professionals who want to control existing workstations should explore products such as Teradici or MXFserver Remote. If you want to push your assets to the public cloud for VDI in the cloud, consider Avid Cloud, Bebop, or Blackbird.

At ASG, we continue to explore the strengths and limitations of each of these methods. There are plenty of tools to enable your workflow, and we are here to help you move forward…remotely.

Corporate Communications: Raise Your Game – Editorial by Dave Van Hoy, ASG President

I don’t like the term “corporate video.”

Corporate video was originally considered the “lower tier” for video production professionals, and it still carries that same stigma today. As a result, there are just too many negative connotations associated with that term. That’s why I prefer the term “corporate communications.”

Our industry is not the same as it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The ability to produce content is less expensive than it’s ever been, and the ability to deliver content ubiquitously is easier as well. These days, the toolsets are more equal for content creators at every level.

Even a limited budget can buy you an HD camera, tripod or other support gear, professional light kit, solid microphone options, and an NLE system with built-in graphics. Spend a little more money – and hire talented people – and suddenly your corporate video looks like something produced by Madison Avenue.

Is such a strong emphasis on corporate communications really necessary? Well, think about how your own personal use of video has grown. Perhaps you recently had to replace your garbage disposal. Where did you go for guidance when you got stuck in the middle of the project? I’d bet you turned to YouTube and watched a video to help you sort out the details.

When it comes to consuming information, whether at home or in the workplace, we have become a video-centric society. Customers and employees expect companies to deliver video messages with high production values. I will concede that, in general, corporate communications fail to reach the production quality of Game of Thrones. However, corporate communications almost always deliver more polished messaging than your local nightly news.

A lot of our competitors still look down their noses at corporate clients, and I think it’s to their detriment. For more than 30 years, I’ve watched the corporate communications market raise its game. ASG is proud to serve a diverse range of corporate clients, and we continue to be impressed by the innovation we see. If you’re ready to take your corporate communications to the next level, give us a call. We’ll help you break out of that “lower tier.”