At CNBC, Virtual Sets Move from Specials to Flagship Suze Orman Show

Tech Also Used for 'Business Nation' and 'Business of Innovation'
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The use of virtual sets, in which digital graphics are used to paint a set design on the screen, is becoming increasingly common at CNBC.

After being tried out on limited run series such as Business Nation, The Business of Innovation and ‘Collaboration Now,’ in 2009 the technology will be used in the production of The Suze Orman Show, said Gary Kanofsky, who championed the use of the technology at CNBC. “The headline is that the technology has matured enough that we’re using it for one of our most important flagship shows,” he said. When interviewed at the end of December, Kanofsky was preparing to leave his job as Director of Digital Production and Broadcast Technology after a decade of work at CNBC, which he joined as a producer in 1998.

One advantage of a virtual set is that informational graphics can be inserted directly into the template, making them crisp and clear. “That ability to convey sharp, crisp graphics matters a lot in the sports world and the finance world in particular,” Kanofsky said. “I’m a true believer in the technology and have been for a number of years.”

The underlying blue screen and green screen technologies have been used on TV for years for weather forecasts and in the movies for science fiction spectaculars, but it’s only relatively recently that the technology has become powerful enough to render complex scenes in real-time, work with moving cameras, and do it all affordably on PC-class computers. CNBC leverages software from Brainstorm Multimedia [] for its productions, and Kanofsky also credits the power of Nvidia graphics accelerator cards for making the technology practical and affordable.

“It’s not done without pain,” he added, noting that a production with a virtual set may require a bigger crew and more fussing over the calibration of equipment. But the benefits can be dramatic.

“The virtual sets were, at a minimum, one fifth of what they would have cost if we had done them differently. In fact, those designs we could not have accomplished if tried to fabricate them – it would have been physically impossible,” Kanofsky said. In particular, the technique was cost effective for series that weren’t expected to have long runs, where the set cost could be amortized over time, he said.

Virtual sets can also be squeezed into small spaces that can be reused for multiple productions, Kanofsky said. “When we did Business Nation, we had [host] David Faber literally in a corner of Studio B, but it looked for all the world like he was in this immense set.”

Kanofsky said CNBC’s experience influenced the use of virtual set technology for other NBC programming, such as this year’s election coverage. He also believes CNBC has pushed the state of the art by using virtual set technology for more sophisticated four-camera productions, as opposed to those that simplify the graphical rendering problem by using a single fixed camera.

One way to make a production look even richer is to mix real and virtual set elements. For example, The Suze Orman Show will preserve some trademark elements such as columns from her old set that will be placed on the green screen set. Sometimes it also helps to use physical set elements such as a wood or metal beam, since rendering those surfaces realistically can be tricky with computer graphics, Kanofsky said. “Some things are harder to do in the computer than in real life.”

Some types of programming also don’t lend themselves to a virtual set, Kanofsky said. Most of CNBC’s daily live programming will continue to use traditional hard sets, he said. On a show such as Squawk Box, which is a more chaotic production with lots of guests, there are probably too many moving parts for a consistently good virtual set effect. “One of the keys to good virtual is lighting, and to ensure that you need a measure of control and predictability over the environment,” he said.