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A Decade of Game Changers, Part 2

As the calendar flipped to 2020, we decided to review and select the best video production gear over the past decade. Partially, this is a list of the best of what we have used in our own productions, but it is also an opportunity to highlight some true pioneers and game-changers. Part 2 of a 2-part series.

Software Video Mixer

Anthony: There are lots of software video mixing solutions out there. There are solutions for iOS which include Switcher Studio (RecoStudio/RecoLive), Teradek’s Live:Air Action, and Cinamaker. Each offers the essentials of connecting multiple external cameras, previews, allowing a live switch between the cameras, adding customizable titles, internal video playback, audio inputs, some audio adjustments, internal recording, and internal streaming engines. These solutions do it all on iPhones or iPads—reducing a multicamera live streaming kit down to something you can carry in a backpack.

For the biggest game-changer of the decade, however, I’d have to point to vMix (Figure 6, below), which has gone from “plucky little independent” to “plucky little independent that you find being used in so many places every day because it’s so good.” I can work on a production truck featuring a large Blackmagic Design hardware video mixer, and right next to it is a computer running vMix as both backup, and secondary video mixer for additional needs. It runs side by side with the big boys.

Figure 6. vMix live video streaming software

It does most everything you can ask of it, from video mixing, playback, animated titles, and streaming to more complex setups requiring macros, multi-layer scenes, integrating spreadsheets of data into a video production to automate tasks, titles, and more.

Plus, vMix allows the user to build the hardware platform suited to their needs, from small single-camera-plus-PowerPoint, to massive hardware setups handling an arena full of inputs. Producers run it on powerful custom-built workstations, easy-to-carry gaming laptops, tiny Intel NUC computers, and even a Microsoft Surface. You provide the appropriate hardware for the way you need to use it.

Additionally, I see more features being added by vMix on a regular basis. It’s already incorporating 8K and SRT capabilities while the other solutions are still thinking about it.

Shawn: vMix factors into all of my live switches and webcasts. If it isn’t being used as the video swithcher (I own and operate several hardware switchers depending on the requirements of the production), it is recording the program from a hardware switcher, or streaming the program. I tend to use vMix to add graphics too, as I find it more convenient than trying to add graphics in hardware switchers. vMix also shines at creating picture-by-picture composites. Hardware switchers often have the ability to create picture-in-picture, but the ability to scale and move multiple sources together, with the same ease as you would in an NLE, makes my life easier and makes my productions look more professional.

The best part about vMix is that it works well on my smallest-to-largest productions and I can build and operate multiple solutions of different sizes and capabilities with the same underlying solution at work. On the small end, it is a laptop solution with a single-camera input, but I can also pair it with an external Thunderbolt enclosure with a 4-input SDI card and the same laptop to increase the number of video inputs. I have the option of using NDI to get additional computer and video inputs into my laptop and even pair vMix with a range of hardware controls to replace the mouse and keyboard. I love that I can upgrade my audio processing with WAVES plugins, which isn’t something I can do on an analog sound board or video switcher. I can also run vMix in my mobile webcast studio, which consists of a purpose-built rackmount workstation computer with 9 video hardware video inputs.

Computer Horsepower

Anthony: In the 2010s, the CPU clock-speed war changed gears completely and became all about the GPU, with NVIDIA leading the pack. Content creators leveraged GPU power for everything and anything (even Bitcoin mining). This has benefitted video producers greatly since CPU clock speeds were not dramatically improving much year to year anymore. In fact, there were a couple generations of Intel chip releases which were more about lowering power requirements than they were about increasing computational performance.

For live production, the software video mixers mentioned above are only able to do what they do today because they can lean on the GPU to do the heavy video lifting.

USB Capture Cards

Shawn: One of my favorite products this past decade has been USB 3.0 external video capture cards. They mostly feature HDMI and SDI input options. I own several of them and they have allowed me to capture, switch, and stream from laptop solutions instead of having to bring larger full-size computer builds on the road with me. Recently, I moved into using external Thunderbolt 3 enclosures with larger PCIe cards, but those USB capture cards are likely to always be on every one of my jobs, along with gaffer tape, HDMI, and HD-SDI cross converter/scalers, audio DI box, and spare batteries.

Untold Story of the Decade

Shawn: Hollywood dominates the movie world and Japan dominates camera technology, but we don’t often talk about the importance of Australian companies in video production. I’m going to correct this wrong. It’s surprising how many game-changing video gear manufacturers are based in Australia. Blackmagic Design, Atomos, vMix, BirdDog, and Decimator Design are all Australian companies that feature the best-in-class products and are leaders and innovators in the marketplace. What is so impressive about the concentration of companies in Australia is that the country’s population is only 25 million, which is 12 million less than Canada has, and is 1/13th the population of the United States. Good on ya, Australia.

Connecting Cameras and Audiences

Anthony: Getting a camera “on the network” isn’t just for streaming to the internet anymore. While waiting for 4K-over-SDI to become a platform-accepted standard across manufacturers, Newtek’s NDI standard slid in from the side in 2015. The fact that it converts “video” to IP data that can be moved around using standard networking gear means that it can eliminate point-to-point wiring and patch bays. In just four short years, NDI is being adopted by all kinds of hardware and software solutions, and it enables producers to leverage existing gear in ways that were simply impossible before.

While managing and configuring wired connections requires complex patch bays, and large, expensive matrix routers, as well as the smarts to build them, manage them, and route things through them, NDI greatly simplifies this process by making video as simple as addressable devices on a network (Figure 7, below). While it can get more complex, having two cameras, and two laptop capture devices at the stage requires only a network switch, and one ethernet cable run back to the video mixer. That’s a lot simpler than if it were SDI or HDMI.

Figure 7. A NewTek NDI IP video schematic

In addition, one video camera can be “received” by multiple devices. For instance, a single set of cameras covering a sporting event can actually be used by both an English-language program director in one truck, and a Spanish-language program director in a second truck, with nothing more than a single network cable running between the trucks.

Where does an IP-based video system lead us in the future? Perhaps to the end of SDI and HDMI. It’s all just data, with any source visible at any destination. Then the challenge might be finding ways to limit the viewability of a given source and reigning it in. You want viewers to watch the mixed program, but you don’t want every camera visible to the whole world.

But today, there’s even multiple cameras on location with each camera being sent, individually, live to the cloud where they are brought into a control room in a completely different city, or even mixed entirely in a “virtual control room” in the cloud, delivering content to a cloud audience. No truck, no cables.

What’s Next?

Maybe cloud production is going to open up and be the new norm.

SRT (Secure Reliable Transport) is an open source video transport protocol designed to deliver secure, high-quality, and low-latency video across the public internet. Those remote cameras can now appear directly in my video mixer here in my home office. Meaning I don’t need to travel to mix a show down the street, or across the planet. What determines a producer’s value will be less and less about the gear, and more about their skill and the deliverables they can provide.

There will still be a need for cameras in a room where events are happening. But imagine sending a few PTZ cameras, or perhaps some high-resolution, multi-lens, spherical cameras that local producers can put in place, hook up to the internet, or they come with internal 5G modems, and all the camera angles, all the zooms, cutaways, audience shots, are merely crops off a single (or a few) high =-resolution, spherical cameras, half a world away from the remote director/producer/live event streaming professional.

If streaming is good enough for delivery, is it good enough for production, too?

We’ll see in a decade.

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As the calendar flipped to 2020, we decided to review and select the best video production gear over the past decade. Partially, this is a list of the best of what we have used in our own productions, but it is also an opportunity to highlight some true pioneers and game-changers. Part 1 of a 2-part series.