St Michael’s uses a fleet of remote-controlled Panansonic PTZ cameras to improve the quality of their online streaming platform with 4K images and accurate, flexible zooming and focussing.

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Like many churches, St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto had to close its doors in response to the pandemic of 2020. Its team and the Archdiocese of Toronto were compelled to redefine what it meant to be a source of hope and support for the community in difficult times.

Previously, the cathedral had broadcast its Sunday Masses online, but the system in place at that time was not nearly robust enough to achieve their vision for a new online platform. “When the lockdown started in March of 2020, we started streaming every day, and that was a tremendous concern because I knew our systems weren’t built for it,” said Sheryar Malik, Systems Administrator at St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Beyond bandwidth problems, in 2016, the team at St. Michael’s had installed cameras for broadcasting services but were unhappy with the results, ranging from low-resolution images and poor contrast to issues with zoom and focus. Overall, the quality had been below their standards. But as Covid persisted, broadcasting became even more important, and they began working with Audio Visual Engineer Mark Webster and his team at Cinemastage.

Light Balance

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“One of the key problems stems from the dramatic changes in light levels created by the large stained-glass windows,” Mark said. The bright, white altar that forms the backdrop of many of the shots caused other lighting challenges. The previous camera system was unable to balance the brilliance of the altar lights with the surroundings and, in particular, the people speaking in front of it. The resulting loss in clarity and detail failed to capture the details that make St. Michael’s beautiful 173-year-old historic building a distinctive, meaningful place for worship.

“The previous cameras would either focus on the altar and darken everything around it, or they would adjust to the surrounding area and the altar would become dim,” Malik said.

As the teams from St. Michael’s and Cinemastage addressed these issues, they explored options for suppliers. Mark advised relying on a single, reliable provider and recommended Panasonic. “Since we were receiving 4,000 views a day and the expectations were extremely high, the system has to work. Panasonic products are robust and have a strong track record.”

4K Investment

The first decision was to replace the current 1080p system with 4K capable equipment. Although modern 1080p systems generally support a sensor upgrade, the goals of the project combined with the specific challenges of light and space that the historic building presented called for a true upgrade.

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A major advantage the higher resolution afforded was the flexibility to zoom across the cathedral. The space is very large, and for the distances they needed to cover, smooth, accurate zooming was important. For both groups, another key factor was longevity. With the understanding that 4K is the future, it made more sense to invest in that higher specification now instead of purchasing another set of 1080p cameras that would need replacing in the near future.

Panasonic PTZ Cameras

The teams eventually chose a series of Panasonic PTZ cameras to serve various scenarios. St. Michael’s Cathedral is now equipped with five AW-UE150 4K cameras – three white and two black – and one AW-HE130 HD camera. The AW-UE150 has a 1-type MOS sensor that captures 4K/UHD 60p video, with a 75.1-degree viewing angle and 20x optical zoom. Giving St Michael’s greater flexibility, it supports outputs including 12G-SDI, HDMI, optical fibre and IP and can operate in 4K and HD simultaneously.

These cameras also receive firmware updates, which may make them more useful to St Michael’s in the future. The most recent update, for example, adds SRT (Secure Reliable Transport) to the AW-UE150’s capabilities, making it a streaming camera, as well as TSL 5.0 multiviewer display protocol, quicker Pan/Tilt moves and Minus Gain.

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The production kit the church purchased includes one AV-UHS500PJ 4K/12G production switcher and the AW-RP150GJ PTZ Controller. A ZOOM/FOCUS rocker mounted on the controller’s joystick manages pan and tilt operations for the kind of zoom and focus control mentioned above. The other camera functions are accessed via a built-in touch display.

Once they were confident they had chosen the best models for the church’s requirements, Mark and his team put considerable effort into planning the systems handover. They were able to complete the camera upgrade with zero downtime – even while the St. Michael’s team continued to broadcast every day.

Quality Leap

“It was quite a race to get this set-up in place and running as fast as possible, and I have to compliment Panasonic for pushing to get these cameras and devices to Toronto,” Mark said. “They pulled equipment in from every corner of the globe so we could have it in our hands, complete the job and satisfy our client.”

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For the teams involved, the results were immediate – clearer images, better control and the flexibility to zoom in on speakers at the altar and other points of interest around the Cathedral without losing image clarity. But for those outside, the leap in video quality also made a difference. While members of the parish have commented on the new look of the streams, other churches and institutions have asked for guidance on upgrading their own streaming operations.

However one of the best outcomes is the new ability to balance the light and the dynamic range of the historic building, Malik said, “That’s something we’ve noticed, now that we have these Panasonic cameras, has been taken care of very nicely.”

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