With the unprecedented cancellation of the Eurovision Song Contest 2020 due to COVID-19, Australian public broadcaster Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) changed its schedule in May to provide a week’s worth of programming to entertain audiences as they followed advice to stay at home, culminating in an innovative and engaging Saturday night event. SBS wanted to throw an on-air party with Australian artist Montaigne, to celebrate what would have been her live performance at the Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam.
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, which severely limited studio operations and the crew size, the creative team wanted to bring the fun of Eurovision to viewers at home and create a party atmosphere for Eurovision 2020 – Big Night In! This would not only entertain Australians, but also help bring a sense of connection and togetherness that is unique to Eurovision, at a time when many were feeling isolated.
Working with local production company, Blink TV, SBS used its TV production studio in Sydney for the live linear telecast. According to Benjamin Allen, Broadcast Graphics Lead at SBS, the most important goal for the production was to “keep the need for people coming into the studio to an absolute minimum.”
“At the time of the Eurovision production, there were a lot of unknowns around how to work within COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions,” Allen said. “Using augmented reality technology allowed us to quickly turn around a full studio show, with reduced numbers of people needing to be on the studio floor.”
Augmented reality became the technology star of the highly successful solution for Eurovision 2020: Big Night In! The program featured a new virtual set and a few special appearances thanks to augmented reality graphics, all generated with graphics systems from Vizrt. Themes of social distancing and isolation also factored into the creative treatment of the show.
To achieve their vision for this non-traditional production, SBS made extensive use of the Viz Virtual Studio environment, which creates and manages sophisticated and interactive 3D virtual sets and immersive graphics. Powered by Viz Engine, a real-time compositing and rendering system, they also experimented with playing out pre-recorded clips of the hosts into the Sydney studio along with other AR graphics elements they built in the Viz Artist design tool.
“The production team loved the adaptability of the Vizrt AR graphics elements and the fact that we didn’t need to have set builders come on site,” Allen said. “In the end, the hosts did come to Sydney (socially distanced at 1.5m apart) but the AR graphics still played a major role in bringing colour and fun into the studio.”
The creative team that worked with Montaigne on her Eurovision performance had already made a lot of the staging assets for what would have been the live show in Rotterdam. The SBS graphics team was able to repurpose some of these elements into its AR set up, recreating what Montaigne’s Eurovision performance would have looked like in Rotterdam. They used hand-drawn animation clips that were originally going to be part of the background and moved them into the foreground as AR elements. Through her choreography, Montaigne interacted with these animations, and having them right up close to her gave them far more impact than they would have had behind her in the LED wall, as originally planned. Allen said that it was relatively easy to create the graphic elements with the Vizrt tools used to develop the virtual backgrounds and AR graphics.
For this project, the SBS graphics team worked closely with their lighting directors in trying to blend the real beams of light from the studio lights with the AR elements. Asking a lighting director to light something that wasn’t actually there was an interesting challenge for the team.
The incorporation of social media into the broadcast has been a big part of SBS’s regular Eurovision programing for many years, as a way to bring a live atmosphere to the primetime show and directly engage with audiences. Naturally, SBS wanted to keep that tradition alive and bring that same live atmosphere to Eurovision 2020: Big Night In! As the program went to air, a small social media team captured live tweets and audience comments about the show, and encouraged viewers to share images of their Eurovision parties at home. The tweets and images were then played out during the program by a graphics operator using a Viz Trio graphics control system. This, Allen said, brought an “in it together feel” to the program, with wonderful audience discussion and celebration incorporated throughout the program.
n the end, the production received a warm reception from viewers at home, and that was most rewarding. The Eurovision fans lived up to their reputation for having fun, with a steady flow of hilarious tweets and funny photos.
Judging by the audience engagement on social media, people were definitely loving what we created,” said Allen. “Both SBS and BlinkTV production were very pleased with what we were able to offer and achieve. The concepts and requirements were changing every day, and thanks to Vizrt’s tools, we were able to deliver on almost every idea.”