CBC: More Virtual Than Ever

*  This article is originally published on film-tv-video

CBC has put a new virtual set with Zero Density technology into operation in Cologne. KST Moschkau implemented the Reality system that RTL has been using since autumn.

CBC was an early adopter of virtual set technology in Germany, using virtual sets in conjunction with automated robotic systems at the brand-new Media Group RTL site in Cologne-Deutz as early as 2010.

Thomas Harscheidt, Managing Director of CBC, explains that even then the aim was to create visually appealing settings for a wide variety of shows, while at the same time optimizing studio workflows. “Since then, we’ve kept updating and adapting the virtual studio technology in-house – and now we wanted to take the next big step.”

At the same time, RTL also wanted to redesign: Several RTL information and magazine shows were to receive a completely new look. Thomas Harscheidt, “Content, brand and technology form a symbiosis that gives viewers a new TV experience. With the use of game engines for virtual set and augmented reality, we set a new benchmark for TV studio productions. This development was achieved through a close collaboration of Mediengruppe RTL’s content, marketing, and technology expertise.”

“We use new cameras from Grass Valley, LED lighting from Arri, virtual studio technology from Zero Density, tracking technology from Trackmen, graphics technologies from Vizrt and the graphics software Cinema4D from Maxon” names Mido Fayad, Director Production & Broadcast Operations, some key points and adds: “The fact that we now use game technologies in the virtual studio brings us many advantages.”

film-tv-video.de asked CBC in more detail how these results were achieved, the first implementations of which have been on air in RTL’s TV program since the fall.

New TV look

CBC is part of the RTL Deutschland media group. The company also works for several other clients, but naturally the connection to individual companies in its own media group is particularly intensive. That’s why the desire to give RTL’s information and magazine programs a Design-refresh went hand in hand with the technical considerations for implementation. CBC was therefore involved in the redesign of RTL’s TV programming at a very early stage.

In the first stage, the magazine shows “Exclusive,” “Explosive” and “Extra” received a complete redesign, which can already be seen since September 21, 2020. “Guten Morgen Deutschland,” the RTL lunchtime magazine “Punkt 12,” and the news programs “RTL Aktuell” and “RTL Nachtjournal” will follow in the coming year.

The new studio design follows the insight that viewers want more and more orientation, classification, and explanation in an increasingly complex, digital world. RTL emphasizes that the presenters of RTL info formats will play an even more important role in the future. But the new three-dimensional X-key visuals of the logos and the topical theme images that appear on large panorama monitors are also central elements of the redesign.

On the way to the new look, CBC had to overcome several challenges. For example, the handling of light and shadow plays a major role in virtual sets. “That’s ultimately what makes the look and enables the desired realistic image impression,” says Thomas Brill, responsible for real-time graphics at CBC.

He says that during the agency’s initial design proposals, it quickly became clear that the designs, which included many reflective and glossy surfaces, would place high demands on virtual technology: “So we looked early on at what the market had to offer in terms of virtual studio systems that could even implement something like this.”

Mido Fayad reports that they quickly came across the Unreal Engine from Epic Games during this research. It is the basis of many successful games, but has also established itself strongly in the virtual studio sector in recent years, where several providers of virtual sets now use the power of the Unreal Engine for their systems. One of the virtual set systems that work with Unreal is the Turkish manufacturer Zero Density. Zero Density’s German sales partner is KST Moschkau from Düren.

Felix Moschkau from KST explains:

“Zero Density’s system is certainly one of the most advanced real-time virtual studio systems on the market. It features extreme photorealism and outstanding performance – even in UHD. The Reality System’s Differential Keying Process not only ensures excellent keying results, but also maximum interaction between presenter and virtuality, in terms of shadow casting, reflection behavior and situational color grading.” At the Innovation Center in Düren, KST was able to demonstrate the possibilities, and CBC had the opportunity there to test and check the system in interaction with other studio components.

What makes Zero Density stand out?

In view of the many advantages, CBC believes the system has potential. Mido Fayad reports, “We were excited not only by the quality of the virtual set, but also by the possibility of working hybrid, i.e., switching directly from the green screen to a real set and back again. That in combination with the differential key process opens up completely new possibilities.”

In the end, CBC decided on Zero Density, and from Felix Moschkau’s point of view, this is largely due to the fact that “Zero Density offers a particularly high level of integration with Unreal Engine. The dynamic light and dynamic reflections are particularly convincing. This makes it possible to actively influence the light in the virtual world, whereby the light not only influences the virtual background, but also the keyed image.”

This is also interesting in combination with augmented reality, where this functionality makes it possible, for example, to adapt the shadows cast by virtual objects to the real shadows. Felix Moschkau: “Problems that you have with the chromakey do not occur here. With Zero Density, you get an extremely precise key. The prerequisite for this is a very precise camera tracking.

CBC first implemented a test installation at its headquarters in Cologne. “An important question for us was whether a system based on Unreal Engine would also work stably and with high availability in a live production environment with tracking, animation, control, because of course you need that in the production of daily broadcasts like we have,” says Mido Fayad.

Existing technology in Köln

At CBC in Cologne, Zero Density was to be tested under real conditions and in interaction with the existing technology on site.

Just last year, CBC invested in a new LED lighting system from Arri as well as new camera systems. CBC now uses Grass Valley LDX 86N cameras in the studio area, which are UHD-capable.

The company implements camera automation with Technodolly systems. “We have a high degree of automation with many prefabricated camera movements. Nevertheless, depending on the format, we always have professionals on site who can intervene individually in the action,” explains Thomas Harscheidt.

For tracking, CBC has already been working for many years with the VioTrack system for stationary and mobile use. It comes from the Cologne-based company Trackmen. For real-time graphics, Vizrt systems are used in addition to Unreal-based engines.

Installation and implementing

Mido Fayad reports that one of the issues during the testing phase was to find out how long it would take to bring design templates from Cinema 4D into the real-time graphics, because that was a process that often took a long time in the past. “We definitely wanted an improvement here,” says Thomas Harscheidt, “because we wanted the new technology to give us an option to quickly exchange individual elements – something that was previously only feasible with a great deal of effort.”

The people in Cologne also wanted flexibility in other areas. Thomas Harscheidt: “We have already implemented the development of a hybrid studio with the help of the Differential Key Process for shows such as “Die 10” or “Die 25″. In the long term, we’d like to do the same for other formats.” CBC had already created the prerequisite for this with the conversion to LED studio lighting, because the differential key requires very high light stability.

Overall, the test phase was very successful, and KST’s CEO Axel Moschkau sums up: “We were already able to adapt the system to CBC’s needs during the three-month beta test phase.” Thomas Harscheidt emphasizes that KST was able to offer very good testing and training opportunities in advance. “So we knew what to expect at a very early stage – and KST Moschkau built up a lot of trust for the Zero Density system during the decision-making phase.”

So the test system very quickly became a production system. “We are currently working with three engines, because Studio 2 uses a total of three cameras – one on a Technodolly and two on pump stands,” explains Mido Fayad.

Silos removal

Thomas Brill, Head of Virtual Technology & Graphics, CBC, emphasizes that the implementation of the new virtual studio system has merged, or at least brought closer together, areas that used to operate very separately. “With the Unreal Engine, we were able to render and test under realistic conditions already in the design draft phase. We were also able to bring it into the studio production environment much earlier and look through the camera onto the finished set and see how the designs actually look. That’s a huge advantage.”

Here, the close integration of the individual trades definitely ensures better results. Thomas Brill adds: “Of course, this requires that the employees in the different areas already have the appropriate skills, and that is the case with us. Most of the young designers who come from university already have experience with design in a gaming engine. These are very good prerequisites. Our job is then to incorporate the specific requirements of a professional production company.”

Perspectives: Real, virtual or both?

What will happen now when CBC switches the next RTL broadcasts to the new technology? Thomas Harscheidt answers that in the long term they want to combine virtual and real sets. “In our view, this is the best solution for the presenters as well as for the viewers in the studio because we want to be very authentic with our sets.” And that’s easier to achieve if the actors are not just standing in front of a green wall, but can also interact with real objects.

Aspects such as UHD and HDR will also play a role in the next development steps. Here, CBC sees itself well prepared. “With differential key methods and the internal 16-bit calculation, the virtual studio system from Zero Density offers the resources we need for the next technological steps – and also the performance for rapid implementation,” concludes Mido Fayad.

The goals in view

Naturally one can ask what all of this are needed for. The answer comes from the fact that CBC and Mediengruppe RTL have always driven innovation in the TV market – and this approach has proven successful.

This is shown by the following key figures: currently, Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland reaches around eight million viewers every day with over six hours of RTL Live Information alone through its TV news and magazine offerings (8.15 million viewers aged three and over watched for at least one minute on average every day in the period from January 1 to September 10, 2020).

A total of around 700 journalists at 24 locations in Germany and abroad provide around 20 hours of news and magazines every day on RTL, NTV and VOX, as well as comprehensive information on the digital offerings of Mediengruppe RTL. In the first half of 2020, an average of 24.57 million people obtained information from the Group’s journalistic offerings every day.