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ITN Election 2001

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Dermot and virtual map. 

Joe Mc and Jimmy Jib Crane 

There has been a long running battle for graphics supremacy  between the BBC news and ITN ever since the swingometer was introduced . ITN’s election 2001 with its virtual reality set, I believe, really pushed back the boundaries  this time.

The ITN graphic’s team had used a partial VR set in the 1997 election, this was a rudimentary system by today's standards and did not allow the camera to move and track the background at the same time.

Today ITN  have a system developed by VIZ, not related to the comic but in some ways funnier, that allows the camera to move anywhere left, right, up, down, zoom in and zoom out pull focus in space and the 3D graphics background will track with it. You can mount the camera on cranes, peds, steadicams or handheld. It also allows for multicamera setups.

What we're doing is light years
ahead of what we used in the ‘97
election. It sounds odd, but this is
‘real’ virtual reality, as opposed to
‘fake’ virtual reality where the
cameras don't actually move. VR
technology is most often used to try
and recreate real ‘hard’ sets. We
wanted to break those boundaries
and produce a fresh, exciting and
constantly transforming set that's
fun for the viewer,
  “Virtual reality is not often used
for live television. We're all used to
computer generated imagery in
films, but in Hollywood each frame
can take hours to create. Our system
generates 50 images every second.” Glen Marshall ITN Graphics
The VIZ VR system works like this. First the studio is painted green/blue or on any colour that the presenter or subject isn't. 

A set of circular targets, about 200, are installed in the studio grid. About 3 ft apart and some higher and lower by 1 ft.  These targets can best be described as bar codes and each one is unique. (see pic)

The studio cameras at ITN Philips LDKs are then fitted with a small  VR  camera (see pic) that has an array of green LED’s around the VR camera lens this camera looks at the targets and the VR computer processes this information to calculate where the Phillips camera is in space. Ideally the VR camera needs to see at least five of the targets to get an accurate position in space and to prevent any judder in the image. The normal camera lens, a Canon J8 on the Jimmyjib, has a digitizer attached to the zoom ring to allow the computer to follow the zoom position

Presenter, Dermot Murnaghan, had the hardest job on the set, the reason being Ultimatte.

“It's so realistic in there that it begins to mess
with your perception of reality.
Virtual reality green is taking over my life.
Even my dreams are green, and when I went
to a football match the other day I half expected
to see the House of Commons complete with
swingometer generated on the pitch.
Finding my way round with absolutely no
points of reference has been a struggle, but Blair’s
delay has given me even more time to get the
choreography right. And the studio team and
direction have been simply excellent - there's no
way we could have cracked it without bonding
as a team.We’re fired up and raring to go.
Let loose the mighty Swingometer!” Dermot Murnaghan

It helps the illusion if there are shadows cast by the foreground subject in the graphics scene. The fine Ultimatte set up for this meant that we could not have marks on the studio floor as these would show through the key. Dermot with the help of floor manager Dave Hennings had to set up a system of reference points, usually floor monitors at good eye line positions and out of shot.  We did have one or two green props so as Dermot could position himself correctly in the scene.

We had two large 10 ft video projection systems down stage from the cameras for Dermot to see himself and the graphic background, again out of shot, so although he could see himself he was reversed left to right. Unfortunately the scans could not be reversed on these projectors or monitors as Dermot needed to be able to read the graphics data.

We started working on the project February/March 2001 with the expectation of a May 3rd election but due to the foot and mouth crisis the election was postponed until the 6th/7th June. We would have been ready for the 3rd May but to be honest the extra rehearsal time was a godsend.

During the down time the studio cameras had to be used on other programmes so had to be de-rigged day to day and firing them up again caused a few crises with the main graphics computer which had a habit of losing the positioning and timing references. I must admit its a scary thought going live on air for 26 hours with a computer you know has had a few tantrums. The backup for the whole system failing on the night might have run something like “and now lets go over to Dermot in a bright green studio”

The day before the election I had a worried call from Kevin Morrison  the Chief Engineer and instigator of the project saying the Jimmyjib’s head was spinning round and round and making some peculiar noises. I rushed into Grays Inn Road, ITN's headquarters to discover the jib had been ‘played with’ by a group of visiting engineers. they had managed to short circuit the Jimmyjibs focus motor which had upset the electronics of the jib and hence the spinning head. A simple problem to resolve as we carry spare motors but didn't do anything for last minute nerves.

Jimmyjib description.
There were two Jimmyjibs on the programme one in the Atrium of ITN and one in the VR studio. 
The Jimmyjib in the VR studio was attached to a Vinten HP ped via an 18” customized high hat(see pic)

The rise and fall of the HP ped is disabled and locked or it would be unsafe and definitely could not handle the load of the jib. A health and safety assessment was done and everyone agreed that the weight of the ped makes a far more stable mount for the jib than the tripod that comes as standard with the kit. The steering and wheels of the ped are fine. This makes for a very versatile piece of kit as one operator, myself, can steer the ped, with feet, zoom and focus, pan and tilt track and crab, Jib left right up and down. I wonder what our film operator friends would think of this? In fact on a recent pop promo I worked as a crane swinger, we had a crew of  five people, focus puller, camera op on crank wheels, clapper loader, crane swinger, dolly grip all doing a very similar job to what I was doing alone – don't get me wrong I like having as many crew as possible on the job, more so as the years go by.

The Jimmyjib was a triangle type and has much more rigidity than the older round cross section model. I set up the Jib at the giant length, about 20 ft reach.
Although I have always been against it for eye line reasons, being off the lens axis, we fitted a Panasonic 7” LCD display under the wide angle lens. All the pieces to camera from the jib where on the wider end of the lens and I could not see any problem with Dermot’s eye line into camera.

The Jimmyjib Triangle will take a normal teleprompt set up. I was happier with the lightweight solutions though as the amount of extra BNC and control and power cables was making the pan and tilt motors work very hard for their living.

This LCD had two feeds one for prompting and one for showing Dermot the composite image of himself and the VR background. We could switch this remotely as some pieces Dermot needed prompt at the beginning and then he would need to see the composite VR image.

Monitoring for myself included three colour  9” . One for TX, one for preview that is low resolution due to the VR computer memory, one for off air, and a switched feed so I could see my camera clean this was important to be able to see when the subject is about to shoot off the set or vision mixer mask.

The VR camera, mounted on the Philips camera, has a fixed focus lens this also caused a small limitation to the height the camera can rise to as the camera loses focus on the targets at about 13 f high. The position of the studio lamps and pan-to-graph also has a bearing on the target visibility so you need to have a good relationship with your LD, Roy Newman in this case, to make the shots work.

If the VR camera loses site of the targets there is a judder in the background graphic until it finds where it is again so careful rehearsal is required to avoid any embarrassment. The movement of the jib through space served to compliment the VR background very well and the ability to fly over Dermot and the virtual set pieces made for some stunning shots, I know I'm saying it myself!


The VR computer can also morph between a pure graphics scene to a live camera scene this opens up lots of possibilities. In one sequence we were able to start with a birds eye view of the Houses of Parliament do a virtual fly down and travel through the corridors and then morph seamlessly through to Dermot live as if in the House of Parliament

The initial set up and calibration of the target rig took 2/3 days.

The VR camera has to see the targets in order to track the background so you have a limit to the amount of tilt on the jib camera. The camera can however pan 360° horizontally, even off the green screen and the computer still tracks the scene.

On the night of the election, Red Bull on stand by, we went on air at 22.00. Then Jonathan Dimblebey who was in the separate Atrium set, handed over to Dermot and away we went. We did about 4/5 pieces an hour for the next ten hours and did not have the slightest problem all the preparation and rehearsal had been worth it.


Director     Jane Thompson/Munroe Forbes
Cameras      Joe McNally (Jimmyjib) - Ben Mitchell
Floor Manager   Dave Hennings
Sound Dave Tolman
Graphics  Ian White - Glenn Marshall
Lighting and Ultimatte Roy Newman