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Virtual Sets Finding Their Niche

The use of virtual sets constructed digitally within a newsroom graphics system, rather than hammered together with wood and metal, is becoming increasingly common for news magazine, sports, and special events shows such as election coverage, as well as for some newscasts.

Of course, working in front of a blue screen that can be electronically swapped for other graphics is nothing new for TV weather reporters.

But adoption has come more slowly full virtual sets for newscasts and news features, at least in the U.S. (some overseas markets have been more tolerant of technology that projected a more obviously artificial, cartoon-like look).

In the last few years, vendors including Vizrt, Brainstorm, and Orad have significantly improved the quality of the imagery and the ease with which it can be integrated into a live show, with virtual sets modeled in 3 dimensions that shift to adjust for camera movement.

There were some experiments with the technology in the U.S. in the late 1990s, including a prominent one at New York’s WCBS and another at the Florida’s News Channel cable network, which used the technology to produce zoned versions of its newscast with differently themed backgrounds for each region of the state it served. In retrospect, they were probably pushing beyond the state of the art in digital video production at that time.

“There certainly were glitches,” said Bob Brillante, who was the founder and owner of Florida’s News Channel. “We had lip synch issues, and problems with the virtual tracking system not keeping up with the movement of the talent on air.

Computing power wasn’t as strong in the mid-to-late 90s, and the virtual reality environments didn’t look as real.” It took 6 to 8 months of work with the vendor, Orad, and designer Dan Devlin of Devlin Design Group before the shows were really achieved broadcast quality, Brilliante said.

Still, Brilliante is planning to use the technology again as managing partner of the Black Television News Channel, which is scheduled to break ground on a production facility in Washington, D.C., in February in preparation for launching the cable network later in 2009. The software is now much more capable and runs on cheaper hardware, he said.

“Virtual environments do give you a great deal of flexibility. Every time you change the look of a program, you’re not building a new facility to do that,” Brilliante said. BTNC plans to use two virtual sets to serve the needs of many different features.

“Where we have talk or news shows that are personality-driven, we can use this to give them their own set with a unique look and feel,” he said. BTNC has contracted with TV graphics technology vendor Vizrt for a turnkey package of technology and graphical design services to produce the virtual sets. On the other hand, Brilliante plans to use a traditional physical set for the more standard newscast programming with an anchor sitting behind a desk.

Cable programs such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 already make extensive use of virtual sets, and many other network and cable news programs make use of virtual sets for individual segments where, for example, they want to depict a reporter walking through an information-rich landscape of charts and graphs.

Adoption for local TV news programming is rarer so far, although an ambitious project leveraging virtual sets at Canada’s Global Television could catch the attention of larger station groups. For Global TV, the technology is part of a grand plan to digitize the production of a national newscast, plus 14 local news broadcasts, with control room operations centralized in four regional production centers. By placing anchors on a simplified set with a green screen background, the control rooms are able to mesh live video with unique computer generated backgrounds for each station prior to broadcast. And because it’s digitally generated, the set looks good in high definition at a lower cost than it would take to build a comparable hard set at each location.

Ronen Lasry, owner and creative director at Full Mental Jacket, which designed the virtual sets for Global Television, sees compelling economics for this setup, noting that “the cameras are all on robotics, so the cameras, the production, some of the writing, and the virtual sets are all done remotely at these broadcast centers. So all you have to have at the local station is a green screen and a desk, one engineer, and a host, with a few local stories worked in.”

The technology would also work well for a scenario where two stations, perhaps affiliates of different networks, are sharing studio space as a cost control measure. They could share the same green screen set, and still have different looks “just by changing a couple of graphics on a video wall,” Lasry said.

Dan Devlin, whose firm did the design for Florida’s News Channel and some other early virtual set projects, said his firm has now gone back to primarily physical set design. “You have to be doing enough news, and enough different news, to justify the investment” in a virtual set, Devlin said. He can see why it would make sense for Global Television, but for most stations “dollar for dollar, including the cost of the system, I don’t think you can do virtual for what we can do a hard set for,” he said.

The technology can bring additional expenses, such as staffing the new control room job of monitoring the virtual set system. “If you’re trying to do stuff ultra-cheap, virtual sets may not be the way to go,” said Tim Hedegaard, whose firm Inc. is another virtual set design specialist. On the other hand, if you can’t afford to spend millions but are willing to invest a few hundred thousand dollars, virtual sets can be a way to spread that investment across multiple productions, he said. “So much of the virtual set system is the initial outlay of capital,” he said. When it comes time to launch a new program, virtual set technology will let you fit it in the same space as an existing production, he said, “and a virtual set will always be cheaper than building another building.”

Hedegaard said his customers are split between those who “want the viewer to believe that’s a real wood desk, and see the reflections on the polished wood of the desk,” while others are more willing to accept a stylized graphical look to the set where “the viewer doesn’t necessarily believe that it’s real, but it looks good,” he said.

Lasry said acceptance for the graphical style is easier at a time when newcasts are packing so much information, and fantastic lighting effects, into even their hard sets. “We don’t necessarily have to make it look realistic, but we don’t make it look cartoony, either. It just looks like a beautiful motion graphic or broadcast graphic that you can walk around in,” he said.