ESPN Tests New 3D Business Model With X Games Movie

By Carolyn Braff

3D sports production is gradually gaining traction, but when it comes to determining a working business model for the medium, the jury remains out. This summer, ESPN will try a new avenue to 3D success as ESPN Films presents “X Games 3D the Movie, “a feature film in digital 3D. By turning a live event into a limited-run film, ESPN is hoping to create content with a much longer shelf life than a single competition, or single run of the X Games.

“We felt it was a better business decision to run something that can be shown many times, as opposed to trying to make it all in one night” especially when the number of theaters that can take the live application would have been pretty small,” explains ESPN producer Phil Orlins. “In an odd way, the fact that X Games is not as mainstreamed can work for us in a movie presentation, since I don’t think people will be saying ‘I already know this guy won the competition, so I don’t need to see the film.’”

As the coordinating producer of the X Games television production, Orlins feels the dynamism of the X Games events make these sports particularly suited to 3D viewing. “Proximity is a huge factor in getting great 3D,” Orlins explains. For maximum 3D, he says, the subject should be within 80 feet of the camera. X Games events have a clear beginning, middle, and end” top of ramp, jump, landing, for example” so distance from the action is far easier to predict at any given moment than that on a mile-long NASCAR track, or even a 100-yard football field.

“3D, even more so than HD, is an attempt to replicate the human experience and what the human eyes see and do,” Orlins explains. “Because of that, the pace of how we cut things does slow down and we do shoot a little wider.”

Blueprints For Success

The film takes advantage of months of planning, incorporating dedicated 3D footage from Summer X 2008, Winter X 2009, and an additional 14 days spent with each of the film’s six featured athletes. The footage shot at the Games was shot solely for 3D use, separate from the 2D television production, so those events became large-scale ENG acquisitions” with cinematography in mind” rather than live-event shoots.

“There was no need for live cut and we did not use any live zooms at all because those zooms are things that the human eye cannot do alone,” Orlins explains. “Our opinion was to stay away from doing things with those cameras that the human eye cannot do because it begins to fight with the perception of the reality of the human experience.”

Behind the guidance of Pete Routhier, director of stereoscopy at Creat3, every shoot was pre-engineered and after hours of blueprint study, cameras were placed in precise position to maximize the 3D effect.

Leaving The Sports To The Sports Guys, and Engineering To The Engineers

Routhier’s background as an aerospace engineer helped him to give director Steve Lawrence the optimum pictures with which to tell his story by carefully choosing and calibrating every camera, lens, and angle ahead of time.

“That allowed us to use sports cameramen instead of 3D experts on the cameras,” Routhier explains. “We wanted to be able to use people that know how to frame a speeding motorcycle passing left to right at 60 miles an hour, so we took the 3D out of their hands. We knew that where we put them, with the cameras they had, that every shot would look good in 3D.”

Routhier’s strategy was camera-agnostic, as the team utilized six different types of cameras, from the “RED ONE” camera to Iconix cameras and lightweight Sony EX3 units.

“We don’t build rigs for one particular type of camera,” Routhier explains. “We look at what kind of image, frame weight, and quality we need, and choose the weight and size of the camera accordingly.”

Some of the cameras utilized beam splitters and for the most part the operators framed with the left eye.

“We did not want to give them a small 3D monitor because that creates a whole other series of problems,” Routhier explains. “The 3D was calibrated for a 35-foot wide screen. If you view the 3D on a smaller monitor, it will look flat, and then people will think the 3D is not good. We prefer to give them a left- and right-eye monitor side by side so that they can be careful about framing on the edges.”

For Great 3D, Put Cameras In Harm’s Way

For the Summer X events that took place inside the Staples Center, ESPN used eight cameras to cover the action, but the additional shooting in seven different cities truly allowed the creative team to flex its muscles. During a Winter X shoot with snowboard sensation Shaun White, the production team mounted two Sony EX3 cameras to a horseshoe bar and had a skier follow White down the run, providing views of the slope that only the athletes ever see in true 3D.

For a shoot with rally car racer Travis Pastrana, the team mounted a pair of cameras to the hood of his car to get 3D footage that they would never be able to capture during competition.

“As great as our access is within the X Games, you’re still shooting a live event,” Orlins says. “By adding those additional 14 days, we were able to go to the ultimate 3D level in a more controlled environment.

Moviegoers will be treated to a number of high-wow-factor 3D views, including that from inside a foam pit as Moto X racers practice their jumps into that pit” and onto the cameras.

“Since this was originally started as an R&D project, I had the opportunity to test a lot of things that have never been done before, like putting a very small camera in the cockpit of a rally car,” adds Routhier. “We were able to put cameras in harm’s way” not the operators, but the cameras” to get some spectacular shots.”

Limit Supply, Create Demand

The film will run in theaters for one week, beginning August 21, sandwiched strategically between blockbuster 3D releases already planned for the summer movie season.

“We felt like that timeframe offered us an opportunity to own one summer week with kids still out of school,” Orlins says. “We thought it was best to position it for one week, since there aren’t that many theaters that are showing multiple 3D offerings at this point. And we do feel that demand can make it a little more special.”

If all goes well in the theaters, the home demand for this type of long-shelf-life 3D content should grow quickly, and for ESPN, that’s a good thing. Once companies agree on what type of technology is best to use for 3D viewing” active versus passive glasses, for one” Orlins sees 3D making its way into the home sooner rather than later, more likely in a movie version that live televised events.

“The business challenges of live 3D into the home with getting some level of distribution and how to make 2D and 3D compatible” are you going to be on two separate channels?” those issues don’t have to be addressed for doing a 3D movie on Blu Ray,” Orlins says. “I don’t see anything in the equation that’s going to make it particularly difficult to have some success with Blu ray 3D in the home.”