ESPN Uses Globetrotters Game as Test for Single-Truck Approach to 2D/3D

ESPN’s 3D production of the Harlem Globetrotters game on Feb. 25 at the new Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, FL, will go a long way in determining the future of using a single truck for both 2D and 3D productions. Although the event was a testing ground for the minimum of 85 events that ESPN plans to deliver on its 3D network over the next year, the Globetrotters game may end up being the only event in which ESPN uses a single truck for both the 2D and 3D broadcasts.

“This is a one-time-only deal for us,” says Bob Toms, VP, production enhancements, at ESPN. “The plan is to use two trucks, [one for 2D, one for 3D], so we definitely have to practice as much as we can. There’s so much for the director and the production team to learn.”

In the first test of its kind, ESPN used a single NEP truck to produce both the 2D and 3D feeds for the Globetrotters game at its Disney World complex. The game was produced in 3D with the left-eye feed being used for the 2D recording. (The game was taped in front of a live crowd and repackaged into two hours of content that aired on ESPN2 the following night.) This created the low-risk atmosphere that allowed ESPN to experiment freely.

“We’re going to learn a lot tonight,” Anthony Bailey, VP of emerging technology at ESPN, said before the game. “We do believe that we have to figure out [how to use one truck for 2D and 3D]. Our approach tonight is very experimental. It’s an easier event to do because it’s scripted. We have a lot of control in terms of cameras and the setting.”

A Single-Truck World
ESPN believes that the use of a single truck for 2D and 3D is an absolute must if the network is to continue to telecast live sporting events in 3D past the one-year commitment it has already made. Not only is the use of two trucks extremely costly, but most venues simply do not have the facilities to accommodate two side-by-side trucks for a single event.

“There is limited real estate at a lot of venues,” says Chuck Pagano, EVP of technology at ESPN. “Getting a second truck in to do a second version — well, in reality it’s probably easier getting an act of God accomplished. Our goal is to get it onto one truck so we’re doing 2D and 3D out of the same truck. Part of why we [did this test at the Globetrotters game] was to find out what we don’t know so we can go out and work with it and figure out how to make it work.”

Nonetheless, ESPN plans to roll out two side-by-side trucks for each of the 85 broadcasts it has guaranteed to air on ESPN 3D over the next year, regardless of the obstacles and increased costs that represents. However, the door remains open for more low-risk tests similar to the Globetrotters experience.

“We’ll have separate side-by side-trucks [for ESPN 3D broadcasts],” says Bailey. “That’s how we budgeted it, and we’re going to spend the year doing it that way, but, if we feel like there’s a college hoops game or something that we don’t have on the schedule that we can do 2D and 3D in the same truck, then we’ll do it.”

Setting the Pace
One thing ESPN doesn’t plan to change is the 3D rigs. The network and NEP deployed Pace 3D trucks for the Globetrotters broadcast, and neither plans to use anything else.

“We’re using Vince Pace’s rigs, and they’ve been great,” says Pagano. “Vince did a lot of work on Avatar and a couple other 3D movies, and we have a lot of confidence [in the rigs].”

John Studdert, director of sales/marketing at Sony Broadcast & Production Systems Division (Sony is the official sponsor of ESPN 3D), seconds that sentiment, saying that, along with 3ality Digital, Pace has led the way in the world of 3D rigs. “Obviously, as far as the rigs go right now, Pace and 3ality have come out of the gate very quickly,” he says. “I think we all expect competition as [3D production] takes off, but they are definitely at the top right now.”

SkyCam in 3D
The single-truck scenario wasn’t the only 3D aspect that ESPN tested out at the Globetrotters game. A Skycam was rigged up for the production, marking the debut of the Skycam in a 3D sports production.

“We believe the Skycam will be one of the greatest tools for 3D,” says Bailey. “It’s something we wish we had for the Ohio State-USC [college football game] game. Our goal is to figure out whether or not it will really work for 3D. The shake in it — what does that do to your eyes? Can we get the shot that we want, or will it be behind the action? These are things we have to figure out before we put it into use.”

Side-by-Side or Top-to-Bottom?
One hot issue for 3D TV has been whether to deliver the signals using a side-by-side system, in which the frame is split vertically, or a top-to-bottom system, with the frame split horizontally. Pagano refused to commit to either format, saying that ESPN will experiment with both, depending on the event.

“We’ll probably do both,” he says. “I may have multiple customers that are looking for the same product, but they need it done in different fashions. It’s not a big deal for us, so we’re conditioning ourselves for both.”

Carriage Still Up in the Air
Speaking of customers, ESPN has yet to announce any carriage deals for its new 3D network, but ESPN President George Bodenheimer said before the game that distribution announcements will be coming soon.

Studdert is confident that the distribution angle will be resolved sooner rather than later: “I have full confidence that ESPN will be able to work this out. They are a heavyweight. I think, by the time the summer rolls around, all the pieces will be in place. I’d be shocked if this isn’t all worked out by then.”