Just over eighteen months ago, Adrian Scott of the Bakewell House Consultancy was commissioned to guide Ravensbourne through the EU Tendering process to appoint a Systems Integrator to transform the broadcast facilities of Ravensbourne as it moved into its new multi-million pound home at Greenwich Peninsula. Winning the contract, TSL rose to the challenge of a condensed system design period and a tight timetable for an off-site pre-build and installation, and a clear brief to push the boundaries towards a converged IT/Broadcast, fully digital system. Martin Paskin, TSL Business Development Manager, summed this challenge up when he commented:
“In recent years TSL has shifted the focus of our business towards the integration of IT with more traditional broadcast equipment. As a result of this investment we now have an enviable position as the system integrator of choice for major broadcasters looking to deliver multifaceted, IT centric projects to the enterprise. This wide breadth of knowledge allowed TSL to bring a unique perspective to the design of Ravensbourne’s new facilities, a perspective we used to recommend systems, workflows and components that will ensure students continue to leave Ravensbourne fully equipped to secure jobs at the very best employers in the broadcast industry.”
However, the transformation of Ravensbourne was not just about an updating of facilities, but rather a once in an institution’s lifetime chance to reflect on what it wanted to achieve through its educational delivery, and to reshape its workflows, abandoning the pedestrian and embracing the future of a rapidly changing broadcast landscape. So, from the start it was important to the institution that the construction of the new facilities was not merely a commercial transaction, but rather a learning opportunity and a chance for members of the Ravensbourne community to take ownership of the process. A staff advisory group successfully worked with TSL at the design stage, inviting a number of students to feed their views into the process, and a team of Broadcast Engineering students were delighted to find themselves assisting in the off-site pre-build at TSL’s Maidenhead facilities, and assisting in the factory acceptance testing on behalf of Ravensbourne. As Ravensbourne’s Broadcasting Project Manager, Martin Uren, noted “Our facility was designed to be used 24/7 by students, so what better way to test it than by setting some students loose to see how the system would respond to they way they used it.” With over 450 students ready to dive straight into the new broadcast facilities as soon as they arrived at the end of October (less than a month after the staff got to grips with the new technologies), it was vital that this testing was thorough and pushed the systems hard.
The new Ravensbourne is an environment where tapeless media dominates, from acquisition through to playout. In what many deemed a bold ambition, a decision was made that Ravensbourne would leave behind old media and abandon tape as a primary medium, instead adopting a solid-state approach. Students would still be made aware of legacy formats, and of legacy equipment (largely since those graduating in the near future will be likely to encounter them in the industry), but the primary focus would be future facing, preparing them with the skills and knowledge fit for a career in a twenty-first century industry. High Definition throughout, the broadcast facilities have been designed as a bleeding-edge working environment (with a 3G centre), where there is the opportunity to simulate a range of workplace environments and working practices. Students are encouraged to work from initial skills towards high level, professional, future-facing skills which are informed by consultations with industry advisers, and are based on a clear understanding of the potential not only of technology itself but of the creative opportunities arising from the forced collisions of such technology.
A range of acquisition kit sits at the start of the production process, allowing students to develop skills across diverse manufacturers’ equipment. Sony HXC-100HD camera chains are central to the High Definition Television Studio, whilst Panasonic’s P2 technology is the underpinning format for PSC acquisition through a mix of Panasonic HPX371E and HPX500E cameras. The JVC GY-HM700E camera offers the additional advantage of recording natively for Final Cut Pro in both 1080i and 720p on the HDSC card system, and for Avid through an SxS card recorder added to its back. Alongside these professional formats the facility is designed to exploit new acquisition technologies, and students have already been working with video capture modes on the new ranges of digital SLR cameras, and have been experimenting with 3D production, even building their own stereoscopic rigs.
The television studio is equipped with full green screen facilities, and the ability to control equipment from the gallery or from the studio floor. The Vitec group were instrumental in supplying a range of Vinten peds, thereby extending the student experience and allowing them greater potential to hit the ground running on graduation. These are augmented by a number of other newly acquired camera support systems, all of which serve to enhance the student experience and increase their employability.
Of course, with digital acquisition comes the opportunity to place metadata at the centre of the student experience, enabling students to develop skills in metadata protocols, and allowing them the opportunity to interrogate their own learning through using metadata generated in acquisition to examine the technical aspects of construction. This is the first of many curriculum developments to stem from the introduction of this state of the art facility, and highlights the potential for change that this new building offers.
Post production has space for in excess of thirty laptop based FCP stations to connect into the network, bays of FCP fixed suites, a number of Avid suites alongside high end ‘finishing’ suites, and an audio post production suite that is ProTools based with full Dolby 5.1 surround sound. All the workstations are equipped with Euphonix MC Control panels and the post-production facility’s pinnacle comes in the form of a high-end Filmmaster grading suite where students have the opportunity to hone their skills as graders.
Euphonix appears again in Ravensbourne’s newest development that comes in the form of a full specification recording studio that was sponsored by the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, supported by Harvey Goldsmith with money raised from Led Zeppelin’s 2007 gig at The O2. The true beauty of the Euphonix desk is in its functionality that allows it to be Ethernet assigned so it can become the audio control surface for any device connected across the network. This flexibility of equipment is central to the way the new facility at Ravensbourne is designed to work – no more dedicated single functionality, but rather a multi-functionality across the entire facility where pieces of equipment serve numerous roles as and when required.
Such multi-functionality extends to the Production Control Room for the main Television Studio. Again, equipped with state-of–the-art equipment (such as Orad’s excellent graphics package the Morpho 3D), this is designed to become the main control room for any area of the new facility that gets temporarily re-purposed for production. The largest event space, The Walker Space, has HD infrastructure built in and becomes a studio simply with the addition of cameras and lighting, and the two large atria have been similarly designed to be easily converted, served by wall boxes and ready to be rigged. All can be vision mixed by the Snell & Wilcox Kahuna switcher, sound mixed by the SSL C10 desk, and lighting controlled by an ETC Element desk, though if all spaces are required to be operating concurrently then the system is designed to accommodate the additional integration of fly-aways, complimented by the expandable Clear-Com V Series Talkback system.
At the end of the digital production chain are QC and Playout, which again is established within a Dolby 5.1 surround sound setting. The facility hosts its own iPTV station and has the ability to deliver DVB transmissions, webcasts, and playout across a mobile network. Students are encouraged to engage with this end of the chain as it highlights to them the increasing dominance of a multi-platform environment, disabusing them of the often traditional view of the industry that they may arrive at Ravensbourne with.
At the heart of the facility is the Media Asset Management system. From the moment that Ravensbourne’s Director and Chief Executive, Professor Robin Baker, made the decision that education and training in the new building should be informed by the creative exploitation of technology, and that this would only be possible by making a radical and definitive departure from the past, and an absolute commitment to the future, a MAM system became an essential component of this digital jigsaw. With end-to-end digital content, obvious problems quickly appeared on the horizon concerning storage capacity, speed of access, metadata conventions and protocols, and compatibility. TSL engaged the Dutch company B4M to work with Ravensbourne in designing a fit for purpose system that would not only operate as a high end broadcast MAM, but would also serve the needs of an educational establishment. Again an original collaborative approach was adopted, with Senior Lecturer James Uren working closely with the team from B4M in designing or redesigning elements of the system so that it functioned specifically for the unique environment it was going to be operating within. The system design was a lengthy process and not without its challenges, as James Uren observed:
“Putting a MAM into Ravensbourne was an absolute first in the higher education field and, because it was not simply the standard broadcast set up, there was a lot of modification work to do. However, the guys from B4M were fantastic in wanting to ensure we had an incredible, fit-for-purpose system that did all we wanted it to from day one. The MAM is at the heart of Ravensbourne, and so that was the one thing we definitely couldn’t afford to get wrong.”
The MAM uses bespoke Fork software to drive the system, and this enables ingest, the creation of metadata tags, access, storage, and archive. The creation of additional code has meant that student production work can be submitted via the MAM, sent to a specific marker, and (with marker permissions) then automatically sent for publication via a range of media depending on its suitability. A studio show can be recorded straight into the MAM system and be waiting for the marker by the time the show is wrapped. The marker can mark it and offer feedback, before delineating it as suitable for VODcast, for iPTV, for DVB broadcast, or for mobile, or can choose to send it back to QC for further checks prior to publication. What was once a complicated analogue system has now become a simplified digital process, most of which is automated from the point a marker deems a product worthy of publication.
At the back end of the MAM system sits the storage solution. Extensive research into storage systems took place at IBC in Amsterdam revealing that the key problem with storage focused down to a correlation between speed and capacity. With most storage systems, there is initially no problem in the relationship between speed and capacity, but as more material gets put on the system (which would not take long with around 450 users), the system slows, restricting access and impacting on workflows. Similarly, if multiple users engage with the system simultaneously (as will happen in an educational environment) then the system will slow and the storage capacity can reduce. This model is not one that would have proved effective for Ravensbourne’s environment, but luckily the Isilon system offered expandable capacity and uncompromised speed. Ravensbourne’s sense that this would be the ideal system for their needs was confirmed by TSL’s system proposal, and subsequently by B4M’s recommendation.
Whilst the iconic building itself was developed over a number of years, it seems almost incredible that a converged broadcast facility such as this went from EU Tender development to a fully built and ready for student use installation in only seventeen months, with the pre-build and installation being completed in less than four months. It seems fitting to leave the final word to Ravensbourne’s Martin Uren:
The new facilities at Ravensbourne are the ultimate in educational broadcast infrastructure, and can truly be described as awesome.”
About the Author:
Dr Freddie Gaffney is Subject Leader for Digital Film Production at Ravensbourne, and has worked in the Film and Television industries for over 20 years.