Tracking success at the Commonwealth Games

When the BBC's own in-house CG specialist wasn't available, the Corporation turned to Xrayvision to help complete a preview for the Games

By Duncan Evans

With 25 years of broadcast experience at the BBC and a couple of Gold Awards at the PromaxBDA Global Excellence Awards in New York, Rob Shergold is used to having to produce quality work with demanding deadlines. So, it was no surprise when Nick Davey, Senior Designer at BBC News, called with a bit of a problem: the deadline was in a scant seven days.

Rob had set up a small independent design company called Xrayvision in order to produce work for a wider range of clients than what he covered at the BBC. There were other driving reasons, too: "I also wanted to be free of a purchasing bureaucracy where hardware and software upgrades can get lost for months or years in endless meetings and paperwork. I wanted to work with the best kit available. I signed up to Adobe Creative Cloud and upgraded the Lite version of Cinema 4D that came with After Effects to a full Studio license at a click of a button. And I sensibly bought MAXON's Service Agreement, which meant that when R16 came out the upgrade was automatic."

Rob explained why he chose Cinema 4D, "I'd used other 3D packages before but I knew Cinema 4D could produce beautiful results quickly. And with Cineware it had an easy-to-use workflow with After Effects, which itself had a much improved camera tracker. Without this workflow this job wouldn't have been possible in the time."

The job in question was this. As creative director of the piece, Nick Davey had shot a preview of the Commonwealth Games for the BBC, a big shoot involving steadicam, a camera drone, Sophie Raworth as presenter and access to the main stadiums in Glasgow. The footage needed camera tracking and various CG elements added – some simply decorative, some more technically illustrative - for example to show how the pitch at Hampden Park was raised two metres to accommodate the athletics track.

In total there were a dozen shots, which needed compositing, of which five were farmed out to Xrayvision, the rest completed in house at BBC News. Nick called Rob who explained the task he was facing, "To meet the deadline meant that every shot had to track perfectly first time. They didn't. Three of the shots were pans but without any parallax they are notoriously difficult to track and one was a pan over moving water. The other two were shot in large stadiums, where all the possible tracking points were in the stands with very few near the camera down on the pitch to give the much needed foreground reference."

There were other problems, too. There were two traffic cones to the right of the running track. The client wanted them painted out but there was no way to make a good job of that in the time allowed, so Rob created a blank advertising stand in Cinema 4D and placed it over the cones. At the client's suggestion he created another to give it some context. To cover the cones properly, the fake advertising stand had to straddle the point at which the pitch had split in Rob's original design, so he had to move this split forward so that it looked like the stand was on the grass. In turn this meant moving the grillwork, the pillars and almost everything in shot to make it work. Being able to view these changes live in After Effects via Cineware was a huge help.

Rob explained how the overall process worked, "I used a combination of After Effects' built-in tracker and Pixel Farm's Matchit to get a basic solution on each shot. Even then the camera keyframes required a lot of editing and smoothing out. Once I had a usable camera solution for each shot, the ability to work with Cinema 4D directly in the After Effects timeline, to add compositing tags in Cinema 4D and bring separate layers for shadows, reflections and ambient occlusion into After Effects made the rest of the job very straightforward. I was able to adjust textures and lighting in Cinema 4D to match the original footage and see the results straight away in After Effects. Compare that to the process I used on the UK Debt graphic last year, which picked up a Gold PromaxBDA in June, where I would take still frames from the footage as reference back plates in Cinema 4D and then render multi-pass test frames and then import those back into After Effects before I could see if final composition worked."

To get a good idea of when the sequences had been shot Rob talked through the shots with Nick and then used Cinema 4D's Physical Sky to correctly position the sun and shadows and get the right color light for Glasgow in June. The best part was that the pipeline between Cinema 4D and After Effects was seamless. Rob was grateful that: "I had no problems whatsoever - which was good because there were plenty of problems for me to cope with already."

The only CG challenges then were editorial ones because between shooting the footage in late June and the Games starting in July, a couple of cyclists dropped out due to injury. This meant the velodrome sequence that had been created, which was of course the only sequence that tracked perfectly first time, had to be severely edited. The final piece was color graded in After Effects by Nick Davey at BBC News.

Originally Rob was going to render out the project on an 8-core Xeon PC built with 32GB RAM and a Titan Black card. However, from the first day the PC simply didn't run as fast as it should. Later, it went back and Rob now has a 12-core Mac Pro. To actually get the job done, though, he used Team Render to split the job between the PC and his MacBook Pro laptop and that worked superbly.

The job was completed in time, as Rob concluded, "I used to work at the BBC so fast turnaround is second nature to me. Nick knew he could trust me to deliver a high-quality product to tight BBC guidelines and that Xrayvision had the latest versions of Cinema 4D and After Effects necessary to get the job done."

You can see the treated shots – including the unseen original velodrome sequence – here: http://vimeo.com/xrayvision and the full broadcast version of the completed preview on Nick Davey's Vimeo site: www.vimeo.com/101328562 and it's worth noting that the project has also been shortlisted for the Information is Beautiful awards.

Duncan Evans is a freelance journalist, photographer and author.

More of Xrayvision's work can be seen at:
http://xrayvision.tv

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