From virtual production to lighting and the inexorable rise of remote, Phil Rhodes looks back on the first NAB for three years.
It’s really easy to sum up a trade show in terms of the most prominent exibits. The problem is that a few years ago, the biggest showing at any film and TV industry trade show was stereo 3D, and we all know what an unstoppable behemoth that didn’t become.
So it’s with some trepidation that we sum up NAB 2022 in terms of virtual production. Yes, there were several big video walls on display, each worth worth several million to anyone with sufficiently deep pockets, and capable of displaying images more than 10K wide. There were also several small ones, including an entertaining audience-participation event in the lobby presented by display specialists Vu with a motion control camera from Mark Roberts. Sufficiently intrepid bystanders could sit on a bike prop that rather resembled one of Tron’s light cycles and appear to ride it through a video game world.
It’s all wonderful, and modern video walls create images which are subjectively beautiful, with huge resolution, brightness and a sheer vibrance that’s hard to dislike. That said, we can’t discuss this without mentioning some of the more visible problems, for problems there were.
We won’t embarrass any company by naming it, but at least one video wall spent some of its time parked on a poster image which showed significant quantisation noise - banding - and banding looks big on a display easily forty feet across. There’s a lot of places in the signal chain that could have happened, and it wasn’t visible in the actual virtual set images that were used during live demos, but it’s an object lesson in how hard this stuff can be to get right.
Similarly, at least one of the virtual production demos showed some strange twitchiness in the camera tracking which was visible as a discontinuity in the final wall image; it almost looked like the image had been put through a very naive frame rate conversion (it won’t have been that, but that’s what it looked like). Again, this is hard to pin down without access to the really low-level implementation details, and it’s clearly not inevitable; it’s a glitch, an aberration, but it was a glitch that happened at a trade show and was exhibited to attendees for several days in a row.
Virtual production is hard.
Beyond VP, the NAB Show 2022 had a lot to say about lighting, and particularly full colour mixing lighting. The two big launches of the show were both LED hardlights and both in the 600-watt range, although with very much differing technical implementations. Aputure put out its COB-600C and Prolycht its Orion 675. The former is an RGB plus white design; the latter an RGBACL one.
A complete discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of each would take more space than we have; suffice to say that there are valid reasons to choose either approach and it’s not clear that there’s a better approach in general; the right choice will depend on the requirements of the job and the absolute differences in the absolute capabilities of the technology are fairly subtle for most applications.
Drawing both the lighting and virtual production threads together, a lot of manufacturers showed lighting which is capable of following video content, the better to create interactive lighting effects to complement video walls. It’s still not that widely understood that the light cast by a video wall is not of high colour quality and may not make people look wonderful; it’ll certainly struggle to illuminate some kinds of production design adequately.
To their credit, most of the video wall providers seem to be very aware of that, and the lighting manufacturers are keen to help solve the problem. The show was replete with LED pixel tubes set up to react to video, almost to the point of displaying the video image themselves. Perhaps one day someone will make an LED video wall with RGBACL emitters and we’ll have better colour quality from them, but, having asked around, the colour quality of the emitted light doesn’t seem to be a huge priority for panel manufacturers.
The stampede to remote
Away from the bright (and increasingly colourful) lights of single-camera production, it was impossible to overlook the thunderingly huge interest in remote production, particularly using PTZ cameras and streaming services. If there’s any positive outcome to be clawed back from the pandemic, it’s that global access to education has been improved no end by the enormous amount of streaming gear that’s been put into venues such as universities.
It’s becoming such a big deal that there’s now even competition between streaming protocols, with NDI, JVC’s Connected Cam, and various other implementations of web-based video streaming all vying for attention. More or less every manufacturer capable of bolting a camera onto a pan and tilt mount has now done so, with various products choosing to include various combinations of remote control and streaming features. It’s hardly spectacular technology, but there seems at least some indication that its popularity may well endure even if the disease does, one day, go away completely.
What else? Deity, the offshoot of Aputure that manufactures audio gear with a very high price-performance ratio, announced a timecode slate. Zeiss announced its 15mm Supreme Prime, a very tricky piece of design considering it’s a rectilinear lens designed to cover huge sensors at an f/1.8. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the NAB Show 2022, though, was simply the state of the NAB Show.
Nobody’s pretending that the show hadn’t suffered from the pandemic; attendance, at a hair over 53,000, was barely more than half what it might usually have been. The empty South Halls were somewhat balanced by the vast expanse of the new West Hall, but with the likes of AJA conducting meetings in a private room, and Avid pulling out entirely, some big names were notably absent from the show floor
But it’s hard to walk away with a negative impression. The halls seemed well attended and more than one exhibitor - speaking on condiion of anonymity - suggested that the crowed had been thinned out but increased in average quality, allowing more time to be spent making better deals.
It’s not a triumph - halving visitor numbers never could be. But it’s about as close as anyone could reasonably have hoped.