The Lightweight Revolution

By Trevor Brown.

ENG-Betacam

Trevor takes a journey through TV news gathering, from film to modern digital formats.

This article was first published in CQ-DATV issue 91 which is available in various formats from the cq-datv.mobi website.

Introduction

The early 80s brought in three words that changed the Broadcast Industry: ENG (Electronic News Gathering). Out of this sprang many derivatives of those three words including EFP (Electronic Field Production or Electronic Film Production) followed by The Lightweight Revolution.

The birth of ENG

ENG began in the United States where it was kick-started by the cost and limitations of film inserts into the news. Film was replaced by portable video recorders, usually Sony U‑matic format, along with hand-held electronic cameras. The journalists liked the late deadlines that the removal of film processing delivered. The companies were delighted by the cost savings that were inevitable when you came up with reusable stock based on rust (iron oxide) versus non reusable stock based on silver (film) and needing no film processing labs and their associated costs.

U-matic recorder
Sony U-matic recorder.

In the UK, there were picture quality issues. The U‑matic format was not considered broadcast quality, mainly due to the poor chroma performance of the “colour under” system. Sony came up with a two-part solution, the first part was the introduction of the “Hi‑band” U‑matic format recorders. These machines still used the colour under system, but with an increased frequency of the colour under subcarrier to improve chroma bandwidth. The second part of the solution was a component recorder called Betacam and, although these machines did not officially exist, they came up with a “buy Hi‑band U‑matic now” solution and “we will replace it with a Betacam when it is available”. This was not the first time Sony had come up with financial schemes, C format was sold in a similar way but the other way round, get the machine now and pay later.

The Hi‑band U‑matic, whilst not fully accepted as broadcast, was now a stop gap measure and was only intended to replace fast processed positive film, the staple diet of TV news, which was also not renowned for quality.

Generation loss

Remember that we are talking analogue tape technology. If you looked at the first-generation pictures they were “not too bad”. It then needs editing, so all the wanted clips get copied to another tape and degrade by a generation. Stock shots might get copied further in the library to reels that may get used in future edits, producing third and fourth generation results when edited. The camera tapes might not turn up for the edit, they might get played out from a regional office down a PAL link and are then re-recorded in the base before being used in the edit, where they would lose another two generations.

By comparison, in the film world, what comes out of the camera is physically spliced into the transmission reel and, if it is harvested by the library as a stock clip, it is still what came out of the camera. If this is then spliced into a future item, it is still the original clip that came out of the camera. Regional offices playing clips down the line did not exist in this world.

Looking at a camera tape and comparing it with a fast-processed positive film clip is not really a fair comparison when you consider how much multi-generational degradation might take place before the story reached the viewer.

Stringers

Another problem was “stringers”. This is the term for people who are not directly employed by the TV companies, but who often film non news events mostly at the weekend using their own equipment and are paid a daily rate as and when they are given work. The film cameras used by these people, whilst not as lavish as those that the TV crews used, would produce usable results for garden parties, Lord Mayors’ parades etc. The events were often filmed “mute” as their equipment often lacked blimps (sound proofing around the camera), but mute film made a good back drop to a studio commentary.

Stringers may not have had the funds for replacement electronic kit, so there were some thoughts bandied around as to whether a “high-band VHS” format (which became S-VHS) would be suitable for stringers as it was less expensive but lower quality than Hi‑band U‑matic. These tapes also might be delivered to regional offices and again played out for re-recording in the base, which would add the same high level of multi generation degradation to a picture which started off lower quality.

Cameras

Once you have bitten the tape bullet, there are the cameras to consider. We were still using tube technology, and although the larger studio cameras were getting good results, we needed an electronic camera the size of current film cameras.

The new cameras would need not only to be portable and battery powered, but to perform without the support of a racks engineer to register, colour balance and expose the pictures. Auto iris had made some appearances but was in its infancy. Colour balance by auto adjusting using a grey card was introduced. Registration was going to have to be set up at base and pray it coped with filming for a day or a week. The colour balance gave cause for concern, but on a single camera shoot all the pictures came from the same camera so, right or wrong, they matched.

TK76-Advert
TK76 Advert.

The RCA TK76 was typical of the cameras around at the time, it was rugged but heavy and the camera operators all preferred the Ikegami as it did not obscure as much of their vision with the “camera on your shoulder” shots.

The Hi‑band U‑matic recorder which was often being carried by the sound recordist may not have gone down well, perhaps it was a retrograde step from the well-loved Nagra audio recorder, but into everyone’s life a little rain must fall.

Training

The ITV approach was to train people and expose them to the technology. I was on-board, this was the most enjoyable training course I had attended. There were morning lectures mainly aimed at teaching film people basic television theory, these I could have perhaps done without. There was production training every afternoon and it was brilliant. We were given various scenarios for a news story with a quick lunch and planning meeting, usually in the pub, followed by take the kit out and film your chosen story. This needed to be edited up for a showing at 6pm every day. Remember, the teams were all a mix of film and TV engineers, usually having a go at something they did not normally do in their working day. Scripting and presenting were alien to all of us.

There were three teams filming and each team wanted to produce the best story. The camera was auto iris, best set on the subject and then turned off for any panning shots, particularly if they involved sky which might change the setting. Colour balance was “point at a grey card” but we devised a sunset look replacing the grey card with a green roadmap which was all we had, this delivered some excellent daytime sunset pictures, otherwise known as a colour cast. It’s one thing writing a script and another delivering it to camera. The course was a full week, but I think we all came away with an appreciation for each other’s disciplines. It was a long time since I had operated a camera in anger. I had done some lighting, but not with portable kit, and my presenting generated a lot of retakes, but I was not the only one. Single camera shooting was interesting, particularly if you did retakes from different angles to edit up as a multi camera shoot.

Betacam arrives

Sony-Betacam
Sony Betacam.

Sony Betacam finally arrived in the shape of camcorders and standalone machines for editing and transmission and did, as promised, deliver component recording. We all expected a U‑matic cassette and an increased tape speed to spread the tracks out, so that added heads on the drum could lay down component tracks. Sony surprised us in that the cassette was the domestic Betamax cassette, run at an increased tape speed but with only one head added to the drum. The second head recorded R‑Y and B‑Y colour difference signals and compressed the duration using TDM (Time Domain Multiplexing). Goodbye to “colour under”, goodbye to PAL subcarriers, they had served us well. Hello to component.

Betacam-Layout
Betacam Layout.

There were new problems, including aliasing. If you filmed a parrot in a cage it was not easy to see the parrot because of the aliasing from the cage. The camcorders could not replay, so the tapes could not easily be reviewed on site and there was no colour monitoring. Betacam was changed to Betacam‑SP and the tapes could be reviewed through the viewfinder, this was a big step forward to know you had something on the tape. The camcorder meant the sound recordist lost the big box to carry, initially all his sound monitoring was on the camera operator’s shoulder, but this was soon replaced by a SQN audio mixer carried by the sound engineer.

The component editing performed well and, as predicted, the component VTR did produce much better performance down the generations. It was not lossless, but a big improvement over PAL. The links from the regional offices also improved with a coder that replaced PAL and produced two TDM pictures on the screen side by side, one being luminance and the other chrominance. Not quite component, but a step in the right direction given the links only provided PAL bandwidth.

Studio playout

ENG transmission was a big step forward. The stories were delivered to the transmission suite as “one story per cassette” with two playout machines delivering A and B feeds to the vision mixer. This replicated the telecine it replaced, where stories were spliced in order, into two big reels for transmission spaced with film leaders. The only way to drop a story was to play through it in real time so you lost one telecine machine for the duration of the story. ENG enabled cassettes to be re-arranged with no penalties to the production, so live interview overruns could be more easily accommodated.

Late stories were often delivered and edited whilst the news programme was on air! This was never popular with the editors. Any voice overs were usually recorded on site over colour bars, you would edit them into the story and then find some relevant cutaway pictures to cover the bars. A hovering journalist would ask if the bars were covered and that meant the editing was finished. Like it or not, they would grab the tape and somebody would run it from the news area to the transmission suite and the next time you would see it was on air, often only minutes later, this left you praying you had provided the correct duration so it did not run off the end or that all the colour bars were indeed covered.

Calendar-News-Van
Robert Hall reports back to base between stories. ENG vehicles are equipped with cellular phones, a radio talkback system and walkie-talkie handsets to ensure that there are no time-wasting breakdowns in communication.
Photo: via Transdiffusion – https://tinyurl.com/ybyjcph3

There were always disasters in both the editing and transmission. In the transmission suite cassettes were stacked above the transmission machines i.e. an “A” pile and a “B” pile. The running order would be an A pile story followed by a B pile story as this allowed the following story to be cued ready.

One day, the studio dropped the first story, but instead of just starting with the B machine the operator re-jigged the tapes to start with A. This was a “shooting offence” as the vision mixer had marked up the script as to which story was coming from which machine. Every time ENG was rolled the wrong machine got cut up on air producing colour bars. When the programme finished a young lady from vision mixing was seen with steam coming out of her ears heading for the ENG transmission suite to perhaps progress a VTR operator up the learning curve of what not to do when playing ENG into the local news. I used my key card to let her through the door but did not hang around for what would be an entertaining lesson.

I did get to edit stories for real. I remember a late story about a blind pianist, the tapes came in mid programme and the story really did not need the “hold the front page treatment”. I cut it, and used lots of pictures of his guide dog, white stick, and him in dark glasses, what would have helped was that the equally rushed introduction had mentioned the fact that he had learned to play the piano while being blind, it certainly was not mentioned in the video I had cut.

Later developments

It’s like the electric car, if you don’t buy the cars, the charging points will not appear. The U‑matic got us out of this chicken and egg situation. Sony came good with a component VTR machine. The camcorder was a major step over separate cameras and VTR and the kit continued to improve. Electronic miniaturisation helped and CCD arrays replacing tubes was a big step forward. This was not the end, as later machines came with Dynamic Tracking, this meant slow motion and freeze frame action was possible. P2 protocol (RS422 serial) allowed remote control over the decks for serious editing. The Betacam SP became the Digi beta, with the same size cassette and even backwards compatibility on some decks all the way back to Betacam (helpful with archive tape replay). The chicken had laid an egg, or the chicken had hatched out of the egg, depends which way you look at it. The cassette which was once designed for a Betamax home video recorder had set the broadcast industry alight.

Modern times

The CCD and Bayer array cameras have evolved and are often used on high end dramas that once would have been the exclusive domain of film cameras. The production techniques of single camera shooting across several takes that was developed by film long before the word television was ever thought of is still the preferred way of shooting these productions. I think it’s fair to say this came out of the “electronification” of film which owes its roots to ENG.

The modern images are often recorded in a RAW format, so like RAW in the stills world, it enables extensive post-production. In this new world we now have colour graders to match scenes, turn day into night and everything else that was once the exclusive domain of film, in an electronic production.

© Trevor Brown 2021