Casper Choffat, NEP Group Senior Vice President of Global Product, was recently featured at the 2021 TV Tech Summit.
Choffat appeared in the opening keynote conversation with TV Tech Editor-in-Chief, Tom Butts, discussing NEP’s biggest projects, latest product offerings and trends in remote production.
Watch the full conversation here, or read the transcript below.
Tell us about your new role at NEP Group?
A little more than a year ago we decided to centralize our product offerings. You had known us mostly as a project group, but we found that within those projects we have capabilities that overlap between our different businesses. We decided to align that thinking and build out more created solutions for projects that we can use globally, more efficiently and effectively and have a more product-oriented view. I started at NEP about eight years ago, but I started in the role of managing the product team a little less than a year ago.
What are the biggest changes NEP has experienced over the past year and a half, regarding your work with your clients?
When I started in a global role with NEP, I found that in that global role I had to work with some 26 different business units in 24 different countries, meaning I would need to work remotely, the same way we are doing this interview. Then, the whole company decided to join me, which made my life a lot easier. What we saw is a shift in producing from on site live production, to more remote ways of working. We were already playing in that field for quite some time. It was a necessity from that moment onward. What the pandemic has proven, is that working remotely is possible. We had people working on productions, working from their homes, using a public internet connection to connect into our infrastructure. We’ve more than proven as an industry, that producing remotely has worked and has accelerated.
So in essence, NEP was ready?
NEP had been working on centralized production since about 2015. That means we are centralizing our production equipment and control rooms inside a designated production hub. We utilized those capabilities to the fullest extent when the pandemic hit. With that knowledge, we helped our markets that didn’t have production centers yet to set up production facilities using remote capabilities from transmission equipment and utilizing the cloud. It’s that expertise we shared globally that has helped us get on top of this very quickly.
For years, when we thought NEP, we thought production trucks. How has the philosophy towards production trucks, and the use of them evolved over time?
Our truck business is a significant part of the business, and we keep investing in that part. It’s more about the ability to produce and distribute the operations - having the ability to have certain positions or the whole control room set up in different locations. For example, your graphics operator can sit at a location in the city they live in, so they don’t have to travel. It doesn’t necessarily mean the whole production needs to move outside the truck.
What we did during the pandemic, is provide remote capabilities for control positions to peoples’ homes or different locations. But, we were still utilizing our trucks. We have a hybrid approach where we want to enable our OB trucks to become part of our centralized production platform, but we also invest in our centralized production platform to create additional control rooms throughout the globe. That strategy will give our clients the ability to use whatever production means they need. They will get the same experience, and that’s what we are investing in through our NEP Platform Control System we are building. For us, it ties together all of our capabilities and gives an operator experience the same experience.
As a global company, how did the variety of rules and regulations country to country have an effect on your operations?
We have operations in many countries around the globe and many different regions. We saw challenges of bringing people from one country to the next. Given that we have an international reach and an established setup in many geographies throughout the world, we were able to connect and share our knowledge and resources and work our way through the pandemic.
The term social distancing is a relative term when you are working inside a mobile production truck. Did you have to make alterations?
Both in our mobile units and production control centers, we put in screens, virus protection systems and air purifying systems to protect the teams from the virus. We also did a lot of testing for our team members and used masks.
Do you send people to live productions now?
It depends on our clients’ needs. We will send people on site, depending on what our clients need. We have a lot of options: we can do a full production with an OB truck fleet in any location, or we can build out a complete broadcast center using fly packs in another location. But we can also use our centralized production or our cloud production capabilities when needed.
In the early days of the pandemic, everything live was shut down. How did that impact your company?
It impacted the company quite heavily. Not having sports and live events taking place was a big thing, but not just for NEP, but the whole industry. What I liked about it is that we came together to find ways to solve this problem. Everyone from the broadcasters to the rights owners to all of the different partners we work with were looking for ways to produce content. It wasn’t just sports and entertainment, but also corporate events.
We as an industry came together to find ways to start producing alternative content. One way we did this was by having setups in peoples’ homes to still have that live capability. Also, talking to the government bodies around the world to see if we could get professional sports back, successfully. Relatively quickly in a lot of our markets, we were producing sports again. That has been very impactful for our company.
The pandemic accelerated a lot of technology advances, particularly in IP. Can you comment on the role of IP now in your productions?
The infrastructure that we build is completely IP-based. We are largely focused on building out IP infrastructure because it is very scalable and deployable. We were already doing this pre-pandemic. We were already investing and working towards a complete IP-based infrastructure with the first one we launched in our Australia hub in 2017.
What is the demand for UHD?
I would say it is high, depending on the market. Through most of the Asia-Pacific region, UHD has become almost a given, like HD is in the U.S. More and more of our customers are asking us to either produce in UHD or have one of the setups produced in UHD.
NEP is making acquisitions all the time. Recently, you bought VISTA. Can you tell us about that?
We acquired VISTA to accelerate our remote production capabilities in the U.S. VISTA gave us that capability. VISTA provides end-to-end workflows, from transmission and connectivity, to packaged traditional broadcast production solutions, to customers in sports, entertainment and news. We are covering thousands of events in North America each year as well as Europe.
Can you tell us about some of the new products NEP has developed?
“We talk a lot about centralized production. That is one of our spear-headed products. The underlying platform control system is hugely important for us. It’s a software-defined networking product. It’s a resources allocation management product and a broadcast control product all in one - so for us, it’s almost a Swiss pocketknife. We are investing heavily when it comes to live production products.
We are also working towards having more capabilities in the AI and machine learning space. We are currently researching capabilities in that space. Through our Fletcher brand, we have this product called TrACE, which is an automatic following system used in tennis to provide tight replays, without needing camera operators on site.
We are also looking into how we can accelerate some of our cloud products. We have, for example, a remote commentary product that we’ve advanced and made more scalable throughout the pandemic. Those are some of the highlights.
Recently you did a project with the show “Love Island”. Can you tell us what NEP did on the set of that production?
For the U.S. and U.K., we did a complete remote production setup, where we sent a few engineers on site, but the production was done remotely from our Grays Inn Road production facility in London. This was mostly a response to the pandemic restrictions. Our remote and centralized production capabilities have given us the ability to do this, from our connectivity solutions to our remote production facilities.
Another example is “Extreme E”. This is a production that is done largely remotely, and we started this pre-pandemic. This is done from our Grays Inn Road facility in the U.K. This is a production where electric 4x4 vehicles are racing against each other in very harsh and remote environments, where the only way to get feeds out of those production sites is through satellite. We had the ability to get about 30 camera feeds to our production center in the U.K. Then, we had our graphics operations done from our Netherlands production center where our graphics teams were able to insert all of the augmented reality graphics and all of the immersive experiences for that production.
“Love Island” was done as a response to COVID, but “Extreme E” is something we planned pre-pandemic, and it’s something we are planning to do going forward.
Tell us about your partnership with Trilith Studios in Atlanta?
We acquired Prysm Stages, Lux Machina and Halon Entertainment. Those three companies give us a footprint in the film and TV space. It is our strategy to build out virtual production stages around the world to run different film and TV productions inside of those volumes.
Our first partnership is with Trilith Studios where we are launching a very, very large in-camera visual effects volume, where our Lux Machina team will run the operations and the workflow for the stage, and our Halon team will run the creative services and delivery of creative elements for the virtual production stage work. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the team in London where they are working on two different productions in two different locations, and it’s incredible. It’s amazing to see how big those operations are and how much technology is involved. It is very complicated and requires highly skilled engineers to deliver those productions.