Recent developments in television graphics platforms have transformed the “look” that can be created for a program. This is especially true for sports, news and weather. As the processing power available becomes greater yet lower-cost, graphic designers have been given more tools to realize their creative ideas.
Television graphics have come a long way since the closing titles were created using a caption roller in front of a camera. Lower thirds were just a black-and-white card placed on a stand in front of a camera. The black-and-white characters could be filled with a color matte on the production switcher, and an edge might be added to improve visibility — and that was it.
The invention of the electronic character generator (CG) offered graphic artists many possibilities for the lower third. It became possible to easily use a range of typefaces. Colored type and backgrounds could be set at will, and type could be bordered to aid visibility. A whole range of dynamics became possible that could not be created with the basic caption roller. The concept of the matte or linear key meant that graphics could sit on a semitransparent background, another aid to visibility.
The world of television graphics has been transformed since those early days, with all manner of 3D creations, virtual sets and data-driven templates.
The creation of graphics is inherently labor-intensive, yet directors always want more to add that certain “look” to their program. Many of the advances in recent years have been to automate the on-screen graphics and reduce the need for the craft personnel in regular production.
Today, there are two main families of graphics products: One stems from the CG, the other from computer graphics and developments like the virtual studio. The CG has evolved as processing power increases year-on-year. The original products used custom hardware to create effects in real time. Computer graphics traditionally ran on (what was then high-powered) computer workstations. The creations had to be rendered by the CPUs to create the final graphic. For anything complex, the processes were much slower than real time, so to speed the processes, a render farm comprising many computers was used to shorten the run time of a job.
Changes in technology have made graphics platforms more affordable. Some video cards now include powerful graphics processors that can be used for 3D modeling and rendering. The huge market for 3D gaming means that these cards are manufactured in large numbers and offer good performance at a fraction of the price of a bespoke processor designed solely for broadcast graphics. Unlike the serial processes of the CPU, graphics processing units (GPU) use many programmable pixel shaders (thread processors) in parallel to perform tasks like transforms and shading, as well as offer an alternative to the render farm.
A graphics platform today comprises a multicore PC workstation fitted with a high-performance graphics card and an HD-SDI interface card. Inherently lower cost than a proprietary platform, the modern graphics system can be deployed with a freedom that would have been limited in the past by caps on available capital and operational budgets.
The processing power available in a GPU-accelerated platform means that today 75 percent of graphics that were once rendered in advance of airing can now be generated in real time. And the CG has gone from the edit bay to graphics and titling applications running within the NLE.
The GPUs can be programmed using generic APIs, which free vendors from lock-in to a specific graphics card. One example is Open GL, a vendor-neutral, multiplatform graphics standard for developing 2D and 3D applications. NVIDIA has CUDA, a general-purpose parallel computing architecture that leverages the parallel compute engine in its GPUs. Using the GPU to solve many complex computations can create 3D graphics in a fraction of the time required on a CPU.
All of this available power can be leveraged by vendors to add features, or create whole new applications. For graphics designers, the power has provided new tools and new capabilities that can be used to realize the fruits of their imagination. For producers, the automation — templates and data-driven graphics — lowers costs without sacrificing the “look.”
Last year much of the attention of broadcasters was to look for ways to improve the efficiency of their operation and to take cost out of the business. With graphics creation being a craft, and inherently labor-intensive, it presents a specific area of interest.
One solution is the wider use of data-driven templated graphics. The other is the management of the ordering of graphics from the art department and managing the fulfillment through to the news, sports or other departments. New business models, like operating graphics “in the cloud,” offer stations new ways to collaborate and to simplify basic graphics creation for the newsroom. Regional or group stations also look to maintain consistent branding across the organization, which is often a challenge with a geographically-dispersed business.
The ability to render graphics in real time rather than rendering in advance has opened the door to new applications that can enhance a show, including the following:
The touch screen is not a new concept, with widespread use in kiosks and phones. Combine the idea with a large in-shot display wall, and the talent can interact with graphics, pulling up a new screen or drawing basic shapes to highlight areas of interest.
For example, on a morning show, one common segment is a discussion of hot stories in the daily newspapers. Classically, a camera may zoom in on a paper laid out on a coffee table. It is now possible to interact with the newspaper displayed on a video wall so that the anchor can point to stories and zoom in. Another example is election graphics, where the anchor can call up scenarios for the final results or play coalition games to show the result of possible alliances.
- Real-time commercials
A data-driven real-time platform opens new possibilities for advertising. For example, a commercial during a sporting event can incorporate the current score, or can change according to who is winning or losing. In another example, product pricing can be tuned to meet demand.
The advertiser books a slot as usual, but the spot plays from the graphics platform rather than the video server. The advertiser feeds data to the platform to update the graphics in real time.
- Immersive graphics
Graphics can be keyed in perspective onto objects in a scene. This could be advertising banners for a sporting event, or stats in a news or election broadcast. This technique places graphics in the scene rather than as an overlay.
The sports production sector has embraced the technology. Examples include the overlay of a virtual world record holder on a runner or swimmer to show how they compare. Another example is car rallying. As each car drives alone against the clock, it is difficult for the viewer to judge how they are performing. By overlaying a virtual competing car as a ghost car, the position in the race can be better judged.
- Video walls
The video wall has become an essential adjunct to news presentations. It allows the talent to interact with the content in a way that is not possible with the over-the-shoulder keyed insert. The concept is not without its problems. In HD, the source pixels can become visible. New developments allow the wall to be driven at resolutions up to 4K. And the display doesn't need to be limited to conventional video aspect ratios, as a typical studio set may need a wide display.
- SaaS or graphics in the cloud
Broadcast news operations have long relied on news agencies to supply the video and text for breaking stories. A recent service offers graphics as a service. By operating the graphics as a hosted service, groups can easily share graphics and resources across all stations in the group. The service can be accessed from anywhere via a Web browser, so a reporter can access the system from the field.
Just as news journalists are now expected to cut their own stories, only resorting to craft editors for special sequences, there is no reason why similarly the majority of graphics can't be placed in a prepared template by journalists.
Such a service provides more than an image library; it can aggregate real-time data — like stock prices and weather — with static data like maps. It also provides the tools to call up templates and populate as necessary. Journalists can build charts without recourse to an artist. In the event more complex graphics are needed, the application can be used to order graphics and even to track the progress, which is essential in a fast-moving news scenario.
Graphics SaaS gives small and midsized broadcasters access to the same level of resources as a network, but at a fraction of the cost. Just as image libraries or news agencies give broadcasters access to stories they cannot justify sending a crew to cover, the service provides high-quality graphics to enhance a story.
Just around the corner, some of the leading broadcasters are preparing for stereoscopic broadcasting, so 3-D graphic applications must be enhanced to support the new format. However, it is not inherently difficult to generate 3-D graphics; witness the number of animated stereo movies.
All areas of live television can benefit from the advancements in graphics technology. These are just a few examples:
The migration of premier news services to HD will create even more demand for high-quality graphics to help explain the stories. The larger canvas not only allows for more detailed graphics, but the increased use of cell-phone footage, too compressed to use full HD screen, provides new challenges for the graphics designers.
The use of maps to help explain a story has increased largely because they are no longer hand-drawn, but can be quickly accessed from databases in many different formats from street maps to geographical terrain.
It could be said that weather forecasts have benefited most from the application of the full resources that a graphics platform can offer. To present scientific data in an entertaining manner that will hold viewers' attention has always challenged the broadcaster, and innovation in weather coverage shows no indication of slowing down.
Complex graphics have become essential to sports coverage, whether it is presenting the scores and stats or, more recently, immersive graphics to enhance the viewers' understanding of the action. The provision of graphics for sports has become a business in itself. At any large event, the graphics truck can be found parked next to production and VT trucks. Sports graphics call on all the available technology to deliver the director an innovative presentation of real-time statistics, background analysis, virtual play and the lower third.
Much of the recent developments in television graphics have come from these providers, and to see what is possible today, they are the ones to watch.
Elections are a veritable feast of results, predictions and statistics. A popular style is to place anchors in a graphics-rich environment. This could be through the virtual studio or through video walls. Directors can call on the full toolset, including video walls, immersive graphics and — to support the anchor — interactivity.
As broadcasters compete in an ever more crowded multichannel, multiplatform world, branding is important to maintain the channel brand and hopefully the viewers. 2D snipes and squeezebacks are commonplace, but in the quest to differentiate a brand, broadcasters are demanding 3D data-driven branding graphics.
Again the real-time rendering capabilities of modern graphics platforms means that this can be achieved without the need to prepare, at great expense, all the graphics sequences. A simple data feed of program listings and a data link to the broadcast automation is all that is needed. The next step, real-time commercials, is just an extension of the same technology.
As broadcasters move to multiplatform delivery, the demand for graphics will only increase. Web sites, VOD and mobile TV all call for more graphics in more formats. The challenge is to create more, but without increasing costs.
As directors demand more 3D effects, and broadcasters migrate to stereoscopic coverage, the demands on the platforms will only increase. Thankfully, gamers' thirst for more immersive, exciting games is driving the graphics processing technology, and the vendors of television graphics platforms can leverage this technology.
Although artists will always be at the heart of graphics creation, broadcasters must always look for smarter ways to leverage their special skills to enhance programming and to promote their brand. The combination of real-time 3D platforms and data-driven templates has transformed what can be achieved, all without breaking broadcasters' budgets.