Preseason Provides Perfect Test for ESPN’s High-Speed Cams

By Carolyn Braff

Preseason football games are useful labs for coaches and players, as they try out their on-field decisions. But plenty of testing is being done behind the scenes and off the field as well. ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew uses its preseason broadcasts to try out the newest playmakers on the MNF roster, starting with two new high-speed cameras that will make this season’s coverage sparkle -– in up to 600 frames per second.

Last night’s New York Giants vs. Cleveland Browns broadcast unveiled the Panasonic NAC high-speed cameras, chosen for their ability to eliminate blur and provide more detail on playback than the network’s current high-speed cams can produce. The cameras will not be available for next week’s final preseason broadcast, so last night’s game was the crew’s sole opportunity to get a feel for the new gear.

“We knew we would cover the game in the first half and, at halftime, talk about what we learned and what we want to try, because we don’t have the cameras available for next week in San Diego,” explains Chip Dean, director of Monday Night Football. “The next time we see them will be for the opener, and we want to get them ready to go.”

The NAC cameras can capture anywhere from 300 to 600 frames per second, depending on light conditions on the field and distance from the shooting subject. Fletcher Chicago, the rental company that provides ESPN with the gear, helped the crew calibrate the cameras during Sunday night’s rehearsal and set them up on a new dual platform, which places two camera operators side by side.

“We created a Chapman dual platform this year so that they can cross-shoot both teams,” Dean explains. The two operators sit in director’s chairs on the platform. One shoots the game at the normal 60 frames per second, while the other shoots at 300. The second high-speed camera is placed at field level to provide a closer look inside the game.

“By being raised, you can shoot the whole field and eliminate any dead spots,” Dean explains. “The low camera will give us a more intimate look. It’s closer to the action so it’s more of an emotional feeling. You see the eyes of the returner as he goes back and follows a punt.”

ESPN has used super-slo-mo technology before, using cameras that record up to 180 frames per second, but Dean notes these two high-speed cameras as the biggest additions to this season’s coverage.

“We did rehearse on Sunday night, but nothing’s the same until you get in the game,” he explains. “If a high-speed camera is playing back a play at 300 frames vs. 180 frames, it’s going to take that much longer to play the footage. In the course of the game, you only have so much time between plays, so we have to find where we can get it in. Integrating all that technology is a challenge for us.”

For the camera operators, running the high-speed cam is not an entirely new experience, but there is a bit of a learning curve, so Dean expected to make some halftime adjustments. The Giants’ 37-34 victory did not provide every scenario he would have liked to see -– there were no replay challenges in the game, for example -– but plenty of opportunities cropped up to showcase the high-speed technology.

“We got really lucky and stumbled into some great things, with a catch at the back of the end zone and a great strip,” Dean says. “We’ll use these cameras for facial expressions and the unique mechanics of the game. With our refocus on a big-game approach, a Super Bowl approach to every game, these tools will allow us to better analyze the game.”

Monday night’s broadcast used only 12 cameras, rather than MNF’s usual complement of 20, which means Dean’s crew will have some adjustments to make when the regular season kicks off in two weeks. But having the pared-down support allowed the technicians to focus on integrating the new cameras and find the most effective ways to use them without the pressures associated with a regular-season game.

“Just rehearsing that creates nice opportunities for us before we bring in the full arsenal,” explains Jay Rothman, MNF senior coordinating producer. “The beauty of preseason for us is, we can introduce new content and rehearse the things that create more choices.”

The 2008 season of Monday Night Football will also bring back the virtual down-and-distance marker -– “We were the only football show last year who wasn’t doing virtual down and distance,” Rothman says -– along with a new scoreboard graphic and a renewed emphasis on catering to the avid fan, rather than the casual fan. The regular season kicks off Sept. 8 in Green Bay.