New Camera System Allows Handheld IMAG to Jazz Up Presentation

Grass Valley’s wireless camera system helped revamp the annual WHNPA awards ceremony.

Ed Eaves, senior segment editor for Dateline NBC, was thumbing through a trade magazine late last year when he stumbled across an article about a new Grass Valley Digital Triax Wireless Camera System from Thomson Grass Valley, which was unveiled at the 2002 IBC show. Eaves decided that was the kind of technology to bring some pizzazz to the annual black-tie awards gathering he was planning for the White House News Photographer's Association (WHNPA), schedule to be held May 2003 in Washington, D.C.

The WHNPA is an 82-year-old association of photojournalists, and each year it holds a gala awards dinner to honor those who have produced some of the year's most exemplary still and video news images. While the prestigious event is popular with WHNPA members, attracting some 1,000 attendees, it has, in the past, been a dry affair. So, upon being drafted into the job of co-chairing the event last year, Eaves decided to make the 2003 event more exciting.

The event consists of a cocktail hour, followed by a dinner during which awards are presented for Still Photographer of the Year, Video Photographer of the Year, Lifetime Achievement Award, Political Photograph of the Year, and Video Editor of the Year. After dinner, a band provides music for dancing.

This year, MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews and his wife, TV anchor Kathleen Matthews, served as co-moderators, while General Tommy Franks presented the Lifetime Achievement Award.

But to make the event more interesting, Eaves realized he had to dramatically improve the A/V presentation at the dinner. Part of the problem in accomplishing that goal was that for the past five years, the event has been held in the National Building Museum — a landmark federal building that Eaves says is a beautiful site but has terrible acoustics. Moreover, high-end A/V presentations held there can get expensive since there's no installed equipment.

So Eaves moved the event to two ballrooms in the Omni Shoreham Hotel that were more conducive to creating an ambitious A/V experience.

“The WHNPA awards dinner attracts a savvy A/V audience, and if the audio is no good, what's the point?” Eaves says. “We were in a beautiful building, but people didn't like the program. So we decided to go to a hotel ballroom with all the advantages you get there.”

But moving venues was only part of the solution. Organizers had to create a more interesting video presentation. In the past, several stationary cameras around the venue were used to project IMAG images of speakers at the podium. What Eaves wanted was a video presentation that felt more like a major awards show, including close-up shots of audience members and the winners as they were being announced.

He investigated the Thomson Grass Valley digital wireless camera system. The system consists of a compact, lightweight, wireless back that docks to existing Grass Valley LDK100 and LDK200 standard-definition camera heads (two LDK200 cameras were used for this event). Built around the COFDM modulation scheme — a European standard, multi-path method for transmitting digital signals — the wireless backs feature a non-directional antenna that can communicate with a receiver located up to 500ft. away.

“With traditionally shot IMAG, you get big pictures of people at the podium, but you can't get close-ups of the winners standing and walking up to the podium unless you have a handheld camera positioned in front of the person being announced,” he explains. “That's what we wanted.”

To get this kind of intimate coverage, the cameras would have to be wireless. “This was a tight, ballroom setting, and there were food servers and other activity going on at the same time the awards were being announced,” he says. “So you just couldn't do it with cable pullers and wired cameras.”

Eaves and the WHNPA immediately approached Thomson to see if the manufacturer would be interested in becoming a corporate sponsor for the organization. Thomson agreed and offered two wireless camera systems for the gala. This was the first time the cameras were used in the United States at a live event.

The WHNPA contracted event management company Artist Services Inc. (ASI), Washington, D.C., to manage the event. ASI hired SSI Productions, Atlanta, which handled the A/V.

According to Jeff Robertson, SSI's VP of business development, and Rob Kemp, SSI's video division manager, it was clear that the WHNPA wanted a fast-paced awards event with lots of angles and quick cuts between live shots of podium speakers, award recipients, audience members, and pre-canned video bios of the different award nominees.

SSI used three wired Sony DXE 35 cameras to capture traditional IMAG video of the speakers at the podium, combined with the two, new Thomson Grass Valley wireless cameras for handheld shots throughout the venue. Four Christie L6 projectors were used to project the video on four different Transformit video screens, set up in the front and back of the ballroom. To route signals and switch cameras, SSI used a Sony DSF 700 switcher and a Sigma SS2100 router.

Although SSI had never used Thomson's Grass Valley wireless system before, Kemp said they integrated it seamlessly with the Sony cameras. “The cameras were very lightweight compared to some other ENG cameras,” he says. “They had excellent picture quality. They didn't seem to have any problems with dropping like other systems we've used before.”

While most other wireless cameras on the market make use of microwave technology to transmit video signals, the Grass Valley cameras use COFDM. Besides resulting in lower latency, the use of the COFDM technology allows the cameras to more easily communicate with a receiver, because the signal is sent out on multiple paths.

“The microwave systems we used before were very directional, and you had to have a bunch of antennas all over the place,” says Kemp. “But this system had one antenna for each room. The camera could go anywhere without any problem. They actually work through walls, which is kind of unusual.”

Near the end of the dinner, camera operators were able to walk from the main ballroom to the secondary ballroom, without dropping the video signal.

Initially, Eaves worried about whether the system's camera operators, more accustomed to using stationary cameras for IMAG, would be able to deliver quality footage from a handheld camera.

“I was worried they would just stand in the corner, and we'd get a lot of shaky footage,” he says. “But they did a great job. They were giving it the MTV treatment, giving us all the angles, the moves and swoops and climbing all over the stage. And that just looks great when you mix it all together.”

“I certainly would rent them to supplement our shows,” says Kemp. “Absolutely.”

Stephen Porter is a freelance writer who has been covering video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years. Email him at