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Sony Sings for 'X Factor'

Fox reality show's live telecasts prompt production challenges

If you somehow miss the array of equipment at the Sony booths at CES or NAB in Las Vegas this year, you might consider auditioning along with thousands of others for the "The X Factor" to sneak a peek at much of Sony's video hardware in action.

The U.S. edition of the Fox show – featuring the never-dull Simon Cowell – premiered this fall and typically wins its twice-weekly time slots. In fact, airing on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the series has made Fox Television competitive in the fall for the first time in years. Like its longstanding reality-show colleague "American Idol" (which resumes on Fox in January), much of "X Factor" content is aired live – and that fact alone necessitates having to rely heavily on cameras and other technical infrastructure to maintain high production values with there is scant room for error.

Fremantle Media, a global production house that produces several other hit reality shows, has tapped Sony HD cameras (XDCAM and EX series), as well as its PMW-F3 camcorders, as the house format for "The X Factor."

Fremantle Co-executive Producer Jason Sands said "since we shoot mostly in the multi-camera arena in the field and the studio, with high shooting ratios, multiple-camera 'Isos' [image sensor sensitivity to light], and with quick acquisition to air deadlines, we felt it was the right time to start the move to standardize our shows to one recording format." XDCAM 800 cameras give the show's DPs a certain amount of creative flexibility in the field, with "a robust set of controls and frame-rate options," he said. The equipment provides a reliable format that delivers high-quality images to the show's post production teams, which can quickly ingest the material directly into the editorial process.

"We're shooting with the PDWF800's at a 50-megabit quality [and] the images are fantastic," said Sands. "Then the question was how to shoot additional footage to give us the creative look we wanted-- the depth of field -- while staying within the price points and workflow viability we require? The answer was obvious: We turned to Sony's PMWF3 [35mm camcorder] -- for interviews due to its depth of field, and then the Sony EX3 for run-and-gun and behind-the-scenes footage."

What excites Sands most about Sony's XDCAM line is it giving the field director a lot of camera options, while still maintaining a unified workflow for post. "We use the F800 as our 'workhorse' reality camera and when combined with a 20-X lens, we're able to shoot reality scenes from a distance -- but maintain solid close-ups. And then the F3 is our interview camera. With that large image sensor, we're able to achieve the shallow depth-of-field associated with a long lens in very small spaces, where the use of a wide lens is required," Sands added.

"The [PMW] EX3 is a great utility camera used for second angles in reality scenes, as well as lock-offs. We document much of the process of putting 'X Factor' on every week. The time lapse is a staple of the format, and with the EX3 we are able to shoot beautiful time lapses without tying up an F800 or F3. So we use three Sony cameras with three distinct purposes."

Zach Jarosz, vice president of Post Production at Fremantle Media North America, said footage shot on EX3 and F3 cameras comes to post production on SxS cards, and then his team subsequently uses Sony HR1 decks to transfer content to XDCam discs. "We do this so we have the media on a safe, stable and archivable source, and so all the media that's ingested for editing comes off one consistent format. This way, we only need one deck source in the edit bays," Jarosz said.

Fremantle's streamlined post process use a series of Sony PDWU1 drives to ingest audio and proxy resolution video for edit. "As one would expect in the live environment, we're often turning around elements very quickly in post. We rely heavily on the stability of the XDCam systems and workflows, and take full advantage of the faster-than-real-time ingest capability of the U1 drives," he said. Jarosz believes because the F3 and EX3 record not to tape but to SxS cards, the technology is a "philosophical challenge for traditionalists" who usually prefer to have an archivable asset with quite literally a long "shelf life."

"Also, with eight of these cameras, the Factor will accumulate upwards of 4,500 hours of source footage in a single season," Jarosz said. "To handle this, our deadlines, consider the fact taped shows are often delivered day-of-air, that live show packages will be delivered to the Control Room as the show is actually still airing, and you see there is literally no room for error." Thus, Jarosz's solution is Sony's PDWHR1/MK1 field recorder.

"This device has conquered the divide between production and post production," he said. "We use it as an intermediary between acquisition and editing. It will transfer all media from SxS cards to XDCam disks. So now, all our media is living on one single consistent format that is disk-based and archivable with a 'shelf life' of 50-plus years," Jarosz said. "Plus, only one type of deck is needed in post for offline. We use PDW-U1 drives to handle ingest for our Avid edit process, and the PDWF1600 to handle the up-conversion during the online process.

The Fox broadcasts also have their own online lead-ins that are streamed to fans -- "The X Factor Pepsi Pre-Show." Victor Borachuk, executive producer/director at Jupiter Return, says at the heart of the pre-show are two Tricaster 850 Extremes from NewTek, which specializes in portable live production (and 3D animation systems). One Extreme powers the pre-show, and the other powers the "Verizon backstage experience" -- which provides Android tablets with access to exclusive feeds from backstage cameras.

"We've loaded up the HD-SDI inputs coming into the Tricaster Extremes with eight 720p feeds," Borachuk said. "These feeds are coming from Ikegami cameras in the studio area, Folsom Image Pro HDs for Twitter and Skype, and a feed from another Ikegami camera brought in via fiber from the 'turnaround' area where MTV News gives live updates. We also have a video router in place with access to any feed, should we need it," Borachuk said.

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