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Flypacking for the Dalai Lama

CreativeCOW presents Flypacking for the Dalai Lama -- Live & Stage Events Editorial

Santa Barbara California USA All rights reserved.

At most colleges and universities, you can find events such as sports, concerts, lectures and art exhibits happening almost continuously, each confined to a very small area. The frequency, size and location of these make a portable live production system ideal for recording events with multiple cameras around campus. This has encouraged the evolution of flypacks: switchers, mixers, cameras and cables, packed in a single case, and ready to move.

Other characteristics that make the flypack a good fit for our needs are quick setup times (usually 2 hours or less), small operating spaces, even smaller budgets, and the capability of operating several floors up in a building. Even a production truck would have trouble with those requirements.

At the University of California at Santa Barbara, we were building flypacks long before we knew what to call them. In the early days of our mobile production switching (we're talking way back to the mid 90s), one of the few options we had was to bring our studio equipment out into the field with us. While bulky and awkward, our first flypack was born.

This scenario continued until the turn of the century, when DV became an "acceptable" format. I jokingly call these times "The Dark Years." It seemed to happen overnight that smaller became better with switchers, recorders, cameras, monitors, and scopes, all at once.

Unfortunately, what we gained in portability, we lost in quality.

DV flypack
The DV flypack

We used DV cameras and decks plus a prosumer switcher, and created our own three-cable umbilical cord: composite for preview, S-video for recording, and XLR for intercom. This was the answer for us until equipment and pricing could catch up.


We had several hurdles to overcome before we could build an HD flypack that met our needs.

Even though HD itself is no longer new, there are only a handful of HD switchers on the market that are small enough to fit in a travel case. That list gets even smaller once you make HD-SDI a prerequisite for the signal path.

(I have nothing against component HD, but in our situation, one cable is better than three!)

Old Flypack
The "old" flypack

Another big hurdle in creating a compact live production system is monitors. It's best to have a dedicated monitor for each input source. This means that even for a modest system like ours, we need eight monitors just for source monitoring, plus a program and preview monitor. Ten monitors is a LOT for a flypack!

Until recently, that left only two choices:

1) Purchase a large monitor and a video splitter to control all the monitoring sources; or

2) Get a couple of 4-bank rack-mount monitors.

The downsides? The larger monitors are hard to fit into a flypack, and you're going to spend over $12,000 to get HD/SD functionality in the splitter alone. The bank of rack-mount monitors have small viewing screens, and, combined, are still rather expensive.

Panasonic AV-HS400 switcher
Panasonic AV-HS400 switcher with multi-view monitoring.

Enter the Panasonic AV-HS400, a compact HD/SD switcher with a built-in 10-split multi-view for monitoring all input sources! We now use one large HD monitor to view all our sources: camera, video, preview and program, in either HD or SD. This is a huge step in flypack configuration.

(FOR-A's new HVS-300 also comes with multi-view, and I'm sure that more will follow.)

We keep the camera setup simple by only using one HD SDI cable to run to the flypack. In our studio, we use large multi-core cables to combine power, video return, and camera control (white balance, iris, painting, gain, etc.) - but they are a beast of a cable when spooled up and taken into the field.

As the scale and complexity of our shoots continues to grow, our next upgrade will be to add multicore cables for at least one of the flypacks. For now, we trade off advanced control in favor of speed and simplicity. We roll into an event, set up cameras, slap on batteries, run one cable, and we're ready to go.

No matter what audio configuration you come up with for a flypack, there is no categorically correct audio setup for all situations. Most of our flypacks over the years have included a Mackie 1402 mixer: big enough for most of our needs but small enough to fit into a rack case.

It also has enough inputs for most of the lectures and other events we handle that we can control all the sources individually, plus run a feed for general PA.

We control the mix, though. The audio feed from a PA system is designed for the venue, not the video. An arena is a very different space than one for normal TV viewing. You'd be surprised by the difference between the right mix for each of them.


His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama came to speak at UC Santa Barbara in late April, but we started preparing in early October, a full 7 months before his arrival. It was like prepping a combination of a rock concert, a visit from the Pope, and the circus.

Like most of my colleagues, I treat all clients with the same amount of respect and attention to detail. That being said, you really don't want to blow it when the Dalai Lama comes to town. His calendar is completely booked seven years out. If you miss a shot, it will be a long time before you can get a makeup shot.

new HD flypack
The new HD flypack for University of California at Santa Barbara

We were originally booked simply to provide IMAG (Image Magnification lenses, even with a doubler, can't get a tight enough shot to work in an IMAG setup. It's not uncommon to be working at a camera distance of 150-200 feet to the front of the stage, which is the situation we found ourselves in.

We ended up renting a Canon HJ40 x 10B IASD-V HD lens with stabilizer. This is a BIG lens. When I talked with the rental house and our vendor, they both kept saying, "Wow, this is a really big lens. Are you sure you can use it?" I kept telling them, "Yes, just send me the lens."

But I must admit, when the lens case arrived and I opened it, I thought to myself, "This lens is HUGE! How am I going to use this?" At 13 inches long by 7 inches wide, and 12 pounds, it dwarfed the camera. It worked out great in the end, and we ended up needing just about all of the zoom power of that lens to get us a tight enough shot for both the IMAG and the broadcast.

The venue for the Lama shoot had a mixture of lighting from the house, windows and the stage. We needed a projector that had enough punch to be easily viewed with all of the audience lighting on. We rented the Panasonic PTW-D7700U-K DLP, with 7000 lumens and a 4000:1 contrast ratio. This was just about the best projector we could afford and stay within our budget.

We were able to setup for a close rear projection, with the projector pointed at the rear of the screen from about 15 feet. We saved money by not needing to rent a larger unit with a longer throw.

Since we were trying to keep the budget low (relatively speaking), we passed on using an expensive HD digital converter for the projectors. Instead, we ended up using our MOTU V4HD as the converter between our HD-SDI output, and the projector's HD-component input.

The MOTU V4HD is very similar in operation to the AJA I/O HD (with a bit more functionality than the AJA), but in a two rackspace enclosure. As a video capture device, it can take a digital or analog HD or SD signal, and convert it to a FireWire 400 or 800 stream to be digitized by FCP, Premiere, Vegas, etc. The V4 also can also up-convert, down-convert, and/or crossconvert.

Even though the MOTU specification list mentions all of these features, making it SOUND like it can do exactly what we wanted it to do, you're really not sure until you see it in action. It was a great relief to see the image coming out of our flypack, blown up on screen.

The new HD flypack in action
The new HD flypack in action



As the event drew near, we had another curve ball thrown at us: a request for a simultaneous webstream.

Under less than perfect circumstances, this could have induced a heart attack right on the spot. Thankfully, we already had some experience in dealing with webcasts. It is not uncommon in the university setting to fill a venue, and need to show the video to the overflow audience in another room. Even if the rooms are only 1000 feet apart, it can take a lot of gear and cable for the video and audio. With bandwidth capacities getting higher and higher, it is fortunately becoming much simpler to plug one computer on the recording end and another computer on the receiving end, and webcast them from one to the other.

We have done them on both a PC and Mac, but since we have a large Mac infrastructure, we've since standardized to QuickTime as our stream of choice. We use QuickTime Broadcaster as our stream capture software. It's a free download from Apple that works with any Mac. Also, since it's developed by Apple, it works easily with their server software. The Broadcaster software is looking at our program video and audio out via FireWire, straight into the Mac.

Before I started getting involved with webstreaming, I used to think that you had to be a coder to make everything work. After working with it for a while, it's not that difficult (as long as everything works like it should!). We actually use an older G5 with OS X Server installed, since the server computer doesn't need a lot of horsepower to run.

Live Performance
Click for larger

We set up at the venue and run QuickTime Broadcaster, saving an .SDP (Session Description Protocol) file onto our streaming server. At that point, anyone with the correct RTSP (RealTime streaming protocol) address can view your websteam through QuickTime player. It's actually easier than I'm making it sound.

We have also used the "point to point" webstream workflow, where the computer at the venue acts as both the encoder and the streaming server. You eliminate the need to connect to a streaming server, and instead stream the file straight to a specific location.

The tricky part is getting websites to embed the streaming file and play the video correctly. We usually leave this up to the client's IT department, but we generally view our webstreams straight through the QuickTime player. It gives us more control of the image, and how we display it on the receiving end.


The Dalai Lama shoot went very smoothly from every angle. We had put so much work and thought into the flow of it that we were poised and ready for the challenge.

Actually, it was almost anticlimactic. However, it was the ultimate test for our next generation flypack: broadcast recording, image magnification, and webstream, all coming out of one box. It passed the test with flying colors.

Our flypack design is just one choice out of a thousand possibilities. You can configure a flypack to accomplish just about anything you need. I can't wait to see what new products come to market to take us to the next level of mobile live production recording.

Todd GillespieTodd Gillespie
Santa Barbara, California USA

Todd is a senior producer/director at UCSB, responsible for technical support of film studies, productions for their UCTV channel, in-house productions and the faculty media center editing labs. He is a recent recipient of 3 national Telly awards ( for his short documentary about archeological work in Iceland. You can find him hosting The COW's Final Cut Pro Basics and Adobe After Effects Basics forums.

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by Rob Ainscough
Excellent read. I'm in the process of upgrading/adding to my home setup (MOTU Ultralite and BlackMagic designs). I was looking to get your opinion on how well the MOTU V4HD worked for you.


1. Acceleration
2. Audio (will it also work as a good audio base for Logic)
3. Any 800 issues, was it stable?
4. Quality of conversion?

Thanks, Rob.
by John Donlevie
I work for an AV company, and we too have deployed the panasonic switcher...its almost perfect...FX are a little weak...but we rarely uese them...its routing however is great...I recommend the component output/DVI card and the additional SDI Outs...the component is absolutely a part of the projector world although I too prefer HDSDI for most things, The other SDI though have a down converter that is near flawless add an AJA SDI to NTSC and you are ready for back stage and DVD records its also get two!
with the DVI out you can use a computer monitor for preview saving thousands off the broadcast deal.

Now I ask the world for something to reliably record HD too for a few days of 8-10 hour sessions..sorry Pany, the HD Decks are way too much money, recording direct to the Mac is OK but clients want something like a tape...something portable...64GB P2's need to be about $64 to make them interchangeable with tape...Camera cards for example are cheap enough to swap them out and "save your negs"....same needs to be for two cents...we are almost there... next up 3d and 1080P
Todd what camera did you hook to the Canon lens?
good ideas and pragmatism
by olivier madar
Thank you for this article. We made nearly exactly the same configurations as you here in France :
- Videonics with YC first
- Panasonic and Aja IOHD and 24 LCD JVC for HDSDI input today. I put 4 analog YUV input card into the Panasonic to be able to use the little JVC 201 camera (low budget with YUV full HD BNC output)

Happy to see we think in the same way in this little world !
flypacks, cont'd
by Mike Cohen
Actually, our original flypack greatly resembled your "old flypack" - same monitors and switcher. No CCU's however. The sync controls on the cameras were tiny screw adjustments, taking two people to adjust and watch the scopes.
Ah the memories.
Be Ready for Anything
by Mike Cohen
This article highlights the skill that all video pros need to have - the ability to think on your feet and deal with the unexpected and/or uncontrollable.

Back in college I helped my mentor build a flypack, stripping various components out of our studio, for a planned outdoor folk concert. However the day before the event the weather forecast was not looking good, so we had to backtrack and put everything back where it came from. Luckily the rain location was an auditorium across the hall from the studio, so we ran camera cables, intercoms and audio down the hall and did the live switching from the control room. Running a camera on the stage was a highlight of my college days.

Years later in my job at Cine-Med, we had a few multi-cam live to tape shoots. The first was in, of all places, a hotel suite. We removed all the furniture, including unscrewing the bed from the wall, and setup our cameras, headsets and chairs for the talent in the master bedroom, and the switcher and decks in the living room area. We built a pseudo-flypack with a clunky old Panasonic composite switcher and various available color and black and white monitors. The sync connections on the cameras were a tad flaky as was the stability of the switcher, but it was adequate for live switching. We of course recorded ISOs for later editing.

In 2001 we did a few live events for the government. We were doing two cameras + PPT slides live switch for IMAG plus ISO and live switch record for on-demand RealVideo streaming at a later date. I ran one cam, hired a local shooter for cam 2 and had my wife do the live switch (she used to operate an MRI machine, so a Panasonic MX-50 was a cake walk). Since this was for the US Gov't, we also needed to provide live open captioning. Our captioning vendor was out of state. We took a house audio feed into our mixer and into our record deck. We took an audio out from the mixer into a phone coupler sending the audio to the transcriptionist. The transcriptionist, in real-time, typed the live audio into text, and transmitted the signal over a 2nd phone line into a Line 21 encoder. Our switcher feed went into the Line 21 encoder then to a DA feeding the projectors and the record deck. Exciting.

More recently we did a live to tape shoot in a studio. The studio had recently acquired a Tricaster. This was an early version of the Tricaster which had good marketing but bad execution. Perhaps it has improved, as they certainly offer a lot of models now.

Just last week we did a live webcast. The vendor brought in the Panasonic switcher with monitor mentioned in this article, along with redundant streaming encoders and plenty of extra monitors, telestrator and lights.

Surround yourself with good people, know what you are getting into, have a plan, and you should have a great result.

Great article. Congratulations Todd.

Mike Cohen

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