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Case Study: How the State Bar of Wisconsin Transitioned to PTZ Cameras for Livestreamed Production

My current role as media coordinator at the State Bar of Wisconsin involves live production of Continuing Legal Education seminars for lawyers. Our job—as a two-person media department—is to make our speakers and presenters look good. Between us, we operate a NewTek TriCaster, audio mixing, projection, and multiple cameras. This article will discuss how and why we transitioned from Panasonic CX350s and SDI to an all-PTZ camera NDI workflow.

My current role as media coordinator at the State Bar of Wisconsin involves live production of Continuing Legal Education seminars for lawyers. Our job—as a two-person media department—is to make our speakers and presenters look good. Between us, we operate a NewTek TriCaster, audio mixing, projection, and multiple cameras.

Currently we shoot with a fleet of Panasonic CX350s. We love these cameras with their very quiet 1" sensors, and the content we produce with them looks good even at high gain levels.

My job entails all of these production responsibilities in addition to planning and purchasing all updates/upgrades to the current hardware systems.

My previous manager always used to tell me he hated PTZ robotic cams. He said the footage they produced looked too sterile. He always said, “Even a manned camera with a little shake now and then is better, because the viewer knows there is a body behind it.” He had a background in broadcast TV, so he liked his equipment big and pricey. When he retired a few years ago, I took over his position 

I have always approached video production with an emphasis on working as efficiently as possible. One change I made after my former manager retired was switching from ENG cameras to the CX350, which has saved significant space when we packed for road trips.

Moving to PTZ

Soon we will be in a position to update/upgrade/replace our CX350 cameras, and I have been considering migrating to PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) cameras for our main seminar cameras. Though my old boss’s warning about PTZ cams sterile still echoes in my head, I also keep in mind that times have changed as PTZ cameras have evolved, along with several points in particular that make today’s PTZ cameras a good choice for a production crew like ours:

  1. Even TV stations are now using PTZ cameras in the studio. I witnessed this several summers ago when I visited some TV stations to train their editors on Grass Valley EDIUS.
  2. All of our shots are 95% lockdown. We rarely if ever “pull a zoom,” which is a technique I never liked anyway (a holdover from my wedding filmmaking days). I prefer to cut to a wide camera and set my close-up camera before cutting back to it. That way no zoom is seen on the air, which helps us avoid the sterile, robotic PTZ look that my old boss disliked.
  3. PTZ cameras have a smaller sensor than the majority of studio-type cameras. In low light they can look bad. Our conference center has a full studio lighting setup and we always take lights on our roadtrips so that argument gets bumped down a bit.
  4. From the footage I have uncovered around the internet from PTZ cameras currently in production, even with smaller sensors, the modern sensors and noise reduction algorithms are pretty amazing, and the footage looks very satisfactory for the purpose we intend to use the cameras.

For those reasons, I began to seriously consider switching over to PTZ cameras and keeping a newer prosumer type of camera, like a CX350, around for creative content we create from time to time. My plan was for one of us to run the TriCaster and mix the audio while the other would sit nearby at the table running the cameras with the PTZ controller.

Planning the Switchover

Here was the plan I came up with for the testing and eventual procurement.

In my research, I uncovered a PTZ camera brand called AVKANS. Their cameras are certified for NDI by NewTek (now absorbed into the Vizrt brand), and many reviews I have found reveal they are actually PTZOptics cams with a different brand label on them. Everything is identical down to the manual and functions. The beauty is they are half the price. A full AVKANS NDI cam with long zoom can be had for well under $1K. AVKANS’ autotracking NDI cameras sell for just over $1k with NDI. (Note that prices are a bit lower if you purchase the cameras via Amazon.)

I planned to purchase at least 1 autotracking camera since we occasionally get presenters that like to walk around while presenting. The autotracking I have seen from these cameras is as smooth (or smoother) than a camera with an operator behind it.

I want to eventually go with two setups of 3 PTZ cameras and a controller. I want to start with the AVKANS brand for my initial trials. For barely more than a single CX350 camera we can get a setup of 3 and a controller. Then a year or so later, we will get a higher-end setup for our main conference center where 75% of our work originates. For those I will explore a better and larger sensor and these smaller sensor cameras would be designated for the remote seminars.

Pre-COVID, we were doing 15+ remote programs a year. Now we are down to about 5 a year, so a smaller setup can be used for those few trips. If we decide against the PTZ switchover we are only out that small amount of money and we have the setup for other uses as needed.

Testing the PTZs

Once the AVKANS cameras arrived it got interesting. Because I am not a networking guru, some of the learning process for setup took some time to figure out. Help from our IT staff was welcomed. Learning about the network switches and IP addresses took a bit of work, but once I understood the process, I found it all works really well.

Then I began experimenting with creating presets and learning how to activate the autotracking functionality. Presets proved pretty easy and straightforward. The autotracking came with a bit of a learning curve. The documentation could be better in the manuals that ship with the cameras.

Then I remembered a video I had watched on YouTube that said you have to set a Preset 0 and Preset 1 before activating the autotracking. Basically, Preset 0 tells the camera where to go if it loses you in the tracking process. Preset 1 tells the camera the position for the start of tracking.

Once your speaker is lined up and you’ve created the dual presets are created you long-press the F1 key on the controller to activate the autotracking. I’ve been very impressed with how well it worked. It is smooth and keeps up nicely. If someone walks through your shot, the focus stays on the subject.

The default autotracking sensitivity proved a bit slow for my liking, but this is easy to adjust. AVKANS provides a small web app called CameraCMS. Using the app you log into the camera and adjust the autotracking settings. After I increased the sensitivity and speed a bit, the autotracking worked well. It will even follow in the Tilt motion, so if your speaker squats down or walks up onstage it will follow them up there as well. What it won’t do is auto-adjust the zoom of the shot. If your speaker walks towards the camera, they will get bigger, as the zoom does not adjust accordingly. If that happens, it is a good idea to have another camera on a wide shot. It will keep following them but as they get too close the focus will suffer until they walk back toward the initial position where they started.

Image Quality

As for image quality, I was skeptical of how good it would look, but I was immediately pleased with it when I saw it. You will need to go into the internal camera settings and make a few adjustments, as they are more in-depth than what is available from the joystick controller. Once set there, you can tweak easily from the controller. The signal was surprisingly clean with little to no digital noise. I did notice that the image seemed a little flat as a result of the smaller sensors. 

Will any of my viewers be able to tell the difference between the images these PTZs produce and the CX350 footage once it’s streamed in a webcast? Probably not.

I also noticed that if the image was even a little overexposed, a few compression issues would show. I dialed the exposure down a bit and cleaned it up. Overall, the image looks pretty good, and unless you are pixel-peeper, you will have trouble distinguishing it from our 1" sensor cameras. My co-workers saw no difference.

We found the auto white balance to be pretty accurate in our studio, so we just left it in auto mode. You can override that from the controller if needed, and there is a One Push WB button you can use to set it manually set it. There is also an autofocus override option on the controller. We found the autofocus worked really well. Since our speakers usually stand at a podium, the one time the AVKANS PTZ did hunt for focus I just locked it in by deactivating the autofocus.

Occasionally, if the speaker got animated and moved a bit, the focus would hunt. We made a workflow of turning off the autofocus once a shot was locked down. Keep in mind that if you switch to a different camera and come back to the original camera, the camera will switch back to autofocus.

Our findings indicate that, except for the Auto Exposure, the other auto functions work well and we’ll just go with them for the most part. You will definitely want to manually control the exposure. The auto-exposure tended to be very hot, plus it does what it wants with the gain, which will eventually introduce noise to the video.

Using NDI

One feature I wanted in a remote camera was NDI support, because we use a TriCaster for our programming. Once I got all the controls and SDI feeds working, I plugged a network cable into our switcher, and the 3 cameras showed up as an NDI input. I set up a side by side with the SDI and NDI signals to test the latency of the NDI. I was expecting 1/3 to 1/2 second of latency. Surprisingly, the latency was almost undetectable.

Our audio for programming comes from a mixer board, so I was worried it would not sync with the video, but it synced well from the outset. For now, we will keep using SDI for our video output till we test the NDI a bit more. We will test it on a few non-critical recordings before diving in completely with NDI.

AVKANS support (which was very responsive) told me they are using NDI|HX, which is a compressed lower bitrate protocol, so I expected bad latency, but I did not see that. Once we go full NDI with the AVKANS, we will clean up our install down to a single Ethernet cable for each camera, which will be a welcome improvement.

Running the Show

Though we planned our workflow to include a two-person crew, on rollout day for our first program, my co-producer came down with strep throat. So, how was it to run a show all alone with the TriCaster and the PTZ cams? I was supposed to be running the TriCaster and managing the livestream while my co-producer sat next to me “playing video games” with the joystick controller and keeping up with the 3 cameras and all the presets.

Since he was not available, I went to Plan B. I just plugged an extra ethernet cable into the switch and ran it over to our workstation. Thankfully, the program that day was low key with only a few speakers, so things went smoothly. The next day’s program had many multi-person panel discussions. I just stayed on a medium/wide shot until I got all the presets programmed on one of the cameras for each speaker. Then it was just a matter of switching to the wide shot while selecting a preset for the person speaking.

Initially, it felt like a bit of a juggling act, but I was able to run a complicated show with a decent broadcast as a one-man-band. Once my co-producer returns, he will be running the cameras from a desk next to the workstation, and he’ll be able get more creative as he just focuses on the camera controls.

Stress-Testing the PTZs

After a few weeks of use, I managed to stress test the AVKANS’ build quality. We had one camera set up on a tripod near a door, so we added a sandbag to the tripod to keep it from getting knocked over by people walking about. I came in for a program one morning and the camera was on the ground. The tripod had a leg that could not hold the weight of the bag and collapsed. I picked it all up, powered everything on, and it all still worked. Given how inexpensive the cameras were, I expected to have a broken camera on my hands, and was pleasantly surprised. I don’t recommend making a habit of abusing these cameras, but it’s good to know they can take some rough handling on occasion.

Overall, I am more impressed than I expected to be with a budget production setup. The total cost of the 3 cameras, controller, 8-port POE Cisco switch, and Cat8 ethernet cables (we purchased 20ft for studio work and 100ft for road work) was $3,400. The image quality and functionality I got at that price proved better than I anticipated.

My previous boss that I mentioned above passed away a few years ago, and I still recall his dislike for PTZ cameras and his belief that they were too robotic. He also told us just before he retired that in the next 10 years, we would be doing things he could not imagine. And so we are. Although he may be turning over in his grave because we’re using PTZ cameras, in one sense, his words ring true, as we now have AI Auto-tracking robotic cameras doing a job as good or better than we can do for the type of work we create. The tech now enables us to work smarter and more efficiently than ever.

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