Tony Valentino: technology today

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In March 2021, we had a great conversation with Tony Valentino, Gravity Media’s UK Head of RF and Speciality Cameras, reflecting back on his first year with Gravity Media. We’ve followed up with Tony to get more of his views on recent developments in specialist broadcast equipment technology. 

Small, and perfectly formed

The developments in miniature cameras over the past few years have been quite stunning. Sport especially has always needed small cameras to get the intimate shots and unusual angles that keep viewers engaged, and throughout my career, I’ve been particularly interested in in-car and onboard cameras. Back in 1985, ‘miniature’ cameras for F1 cars were the size of a shoebox – not only were they hardly miniature, but they also added to the risk of the sport and were difficult for teams to work around. Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, none of them ever left the car at 200mph or contributed to any kind of major incident.

Today, the kit is a fraction of the weight and size – and phenomenally more capable in terms of resolution. We can now place two cameras inside a small winglet that sits on top of the F1 car; it’s that kind of evolution and innovation in technology that really excites me. It means we as content creators can do more, and it means viewers get a much more visceral experience, feeling as if they’re right there in the thick of the action. Even in the early days when I was covering legends like Ayrton Senna at Monaco, onboard cameras made such a difference to the viewing experience – seeing the race from the driver’s perspective and really bringing it to life. If you can cast your mind back to when that first happened, it had viewers on the edge of their seats.

Incremental change

Some sports are ‘all or nothing’ when it comes to technology. By that I mean very little changes technologically, and then it does so in large leaps. Broadcast innovations on the other hand tend to be more incremental (aside from some obvious big technological changes that I’ll come onto later). For example, I think broadcasting was fractionally ahead of the technological change in F1 when I was first covering it. Back in Senna era around 1989, we were pioneering onboard RF cameras, and Senna still had to change gear manually. He was mainly driving one-handed through the winding streets of Monaco, while we were in a helicopter above, looking after the mid-point relay. That’s how we used to do it, transmitting signals from the car to the helicopter, and then from the helicopter back down to the OB. Footage like that in the early days was a bit fuzzy and you see interference, but it’s still spectacular.

A quantum leap with mesh technology

Another area that’s really moved on during my career is the transition to mesh technology – a mesh being a series of interconnected radio nodes. Every node can dynamically serve as a router for every other node, passing signals over greater distances and meaning that even if some nodes fail, the remaining ones can continue to transmit the signal.

Going back a step, in my early days, everything was analogue and FM modulation. And then we had this massive advancement in transmission where it all went digital, and Coded Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (COFDM) was developed. COFDM is a form of modulation of a single digital signal that suits terrestrial broadcasting, and again is an approach only made possible by miniaturisation; this time for chip technology. COFDM is in turn being superseded by mesh combined with the bonded SIM, 4G, and 5G networks that are either in place or due to be rolled out soon. All of that technology supports completely new approaches to transmission and the underlying platforms required for broadcasting – particularly in sport. Take rallying, for example. Previously, it would be very hard to produce live in-car World Rally Championship action because of the distances involved (so it tended to be post-produced), but with these emergent transmission approaches, live action can is now possible.

Popular applications – sports

The bulk of the specialist equipment we have ‒ all the different flavours of cameras and different setups ‒ is used on the US Open, Australian Open and all of the ATP tennis events we support. Those events really encapsulate the benefits of using those specialist cameras.

The key thing we’ve developed at Gravity Media is that you can mix and match all the different camera models with ease. For example, you could have a Sony P50, a Hitachi DKH200 and a Panasonic AW-HE130 PTRZ, and they can all sit and be controlled on a single layer of the platform – normally a Cyan View control system. Then the painting of the cameras; the racking, the colour balance ‒ all the particular camera parameters, that’s all done on another layer on the same system. The third layer relates to all of the switching of all those cameras, so that when an operator switches to ‘Camera 1’ on the control panel, it automatically assigns an RCP to paint that camera, and it also automatically assigns control of the camera to the operator. In the past, all of that was done manually and was pretty clunky; now it’s all been weaved together and works as an embedded, complete solution. We’ve worked really hard on the software to make it all work together brilliantly.

Popular applications – reality TV

For reality TV, we use the same or similar cameras, but in different configurations, with different lenses. For example, a couple of years ago on I’m A Celebrity,we introduced that control level where a single operator can control any of the cameras, just by dialling it up on a control panel. It automatically routes panels, RCPs, video signals… by just hitting one switch. We’ve also developed waterproof camera housings too, so for beauty-cam shots that have to be in high points in stadia or on location, where it’s not easy to get to and they’re exposed to the elements, we’ve got specific housings with lens-clean mechanisms; water jets for cleaning the front of the optic ‒ the glass in front of the housing. We’ve developed those systems in-house, and our R&D team is constantly looking at reviewing them and redesigning them and making them better as we go along.

Working remotely, and in the cloud

As you can imagine, the pandemic has forced a lot of broadcasters to change their broadcast approach – and for most, that has meant accelerating the transition to remote-production solutions. Gravity Media has been leading this movement for a few years now – particularly in the US – and we have an advanced roadmap in all our territories for helping clients adopt ‘at home’ centralised. productions.

The next step will inevitably involve cloud-based remote production – particularly as the speeds and connections all increase. Even now with 4K, we can do most things on a virtual platform, but 8K is already knocking on the door and that brings a whole raft of new possibilities. 8K will allow us to zoom in and digitally look around the image, as opposed to mechanically moving camera heads. That will really shake things up. And then there’s a big move to OTT services as well, with 360° cameras; 360° views. We’ll cover that in our next blog. 

For more information, or for support with your next production, email enquiries@gravitymedia.com.