Five years ago, broadcasters didn't need too many bells and whistles on character generators. The flat, retro look that was popular then did not require much computing power. But slowly, broadcasters began to abandon that flat look for a layered look with 3D graphics, requiring much more from their CGs.
Today, broadcasters are moving beyond static images to a more animated on-air look, pushing the envelope for CG manufacturers. Manufacturers will be responding at NAB 2001 by offering more systems with new, automated features.
"They want more movement on the screen; they want to have stuff happening," says Jim Karpe, Deko product manager for Pinnacle.
Phil Carmichael, director of graphics product management at Chyron, agrees. "Broadcasters need the ability to animate with ease and affordability," he says. "I think what they're looking for is easier solutions, better solutions so the bottom line is cheaper."
Karpe points to morning news programs, which have developed their own on-air looks by creating an "abstract background, with a layer of animation topped by a layer of text."
Pinnacle Systems is helping broadcasters create more distinctive looks by allowing them to integrate animation from a variety of sources. Operators can take animations created with a software system like 3Dstudio Max, or Quantel's Hal or Henry, and integrate them with the CG.
"You have more and more functionality coming in and out of the CG," Karpe says.
Another factor is automation systems, changing the way broadcasters use CGs as they become more tightly integrated into the news-production process.
Carmichael points to integration of CGs into newsroom computer systems as a major step toward automating character generation. "Even though automation is taking over, you don't lose the ability to animate," says Carmichael. "Animation is built on a template, which can be updated by an external computer. You could do it before, but it's much easier now."
The emerging MOS standard, the communications protocol for interfacing newsroom computer systems and broadcast production equipment, has helped CGs take a major leap in newsroom operations.
MOS, which is being championed by a number of manufacturers including AP Broadcast, allows CGs to easily fit into the broadcast plant by facilitating communication with a range of third-party products. In addition to interfaces with AP's ENPS newsroom computer system, it connects seamlessly to station automation systems, including Omnibus, Harris, Sony, CJDS DAL, Pro-Bel and Philips. CG manufacturers such as Chyron, Pinnacle and Pixel Power support the MOS Protocol.
AP has been working at new ways to incorporate CG functions into the newsroom. For example, last year, it released an election-statistics package for ENPS which allows stations to collate, view, display and publish election results directly from the ENPS desktop. The system monitors AP election wires and automatically updates vote totals sent to the producer-control screen and the character generator.
Pinnacle's Karpe points out that such functionality is especially helpful for small, one-man-band news operations. "We've seen newsrooms with as few as two or three people, a CG operator, a technical director and producer," he says. "The operations are limited to what you can do with the CG. If they're able to stick with a preplanned format, they can achieve a more-polished look and reduce staff for a cuts-only operation."
On the sports front, thanks to improvements in CGs and increased automation (sports producers call it interfacing), broadcasters are able to easily add more pizazz to their sportscasts by flying the score in and out of the screen and adding moving animation to players stats.
"There is more and more information coming in through interfacing databases with rosters of information events like tennis with real-time updates of score information at multiple courts," says Karpe. "The ability to get information from whatever source is really vital, and they can bring it in with the same look of the CG pages that are handcrafted. We put as much functionality into the operators' hands and allow them to create the same look from the graphics that come in through automation to graphics that they put in themselves."
CBS Sports used Pinnacle Systems' FXDeko character generators this past season to deliver its scores, statistics and player graphics for The NFL Today, its Sunday noontime sports show, and for Super Bowl XXXV. With the FXDeko systems, typing the player or team number automates the retrieval of the team and athlete data, and that information is instantly and automatically combined with the template graphics.
According to Karpe, CBS found its system's "content independence" to be an asset. Pinnacle's content independence allowed the operator to create effects regardless of the actual characters or words that were being used. For the starting lineup during the Super Bowl, for example, the operator was able to use a transitional effect to "fly" in words, individual characters or an entire row.
"The operator doesn't have to be concerned with how many characters or how many words are going into the effect; the machine takes care of that," says Karpe.
CBS also found this feature to be useful in helping it create a unique on-air look. For its NFL coverage, the network used a frame around the text using a frame template it created.
"You can have five letters to 20 letters and it will expand to fit the frame while maintaining details at end," Karpe says. "That's something that the CBS people find invaluable."
This February, for the second year in a row, Chyron was one of the stars of ESPN's 2001 Winter X Games. ESPN created 3-D animations and headshots using a Chyron Aprisa 300 Video Replay System, a Chyron Infinit CG, and two Chyron Duet video platforms running Lyric animation and graphic software. The Lyric software provided producers the ability to work off-line, reducing the amount of gear needed in their edit and graphics suites.
According to Carmichael, this configuration helped ESPN bring "eye-catching graphics live to air or live to tape faster and easier than ever before."
Just hearing the word automation may make some CG operators cringe, but, as applications become more complex, Karpe believes the CG operators are playing a more important role than ever.
"It used to be that the technical director was the person who controlled what came on, what came off with a switch-controlled DVE," Karpe says. "More and more, the technical director punches in CG and just leaves it there, and CG operators can transition graphic elements on and off."
The way it has traditionally been done, and what is still usually done today, is that when it's time to bring in the CG page, the technical director brings it up on preview to verify that it's there, and he or she moves to page.
"As these machines are getting more and more sophisticated, I'm seeing more and more responsibility going to the CG operators, especially among the top operators," says Karpe. "The CG has so much capability. It's almost like a little sub-control room."