ESPN 3D Discussion Draws Standing-Room Crowd at NAB

How hot is 3D sports at NAB? A Monday session featuring ESPN executives drew a crowd of more than 300 people and left hundreds more out in the cold. Moderated by B&C Senior Editor Glen Dickson, the panel featured ESPN staffers Anthony Bailey, Phil Orlins, and Bob Toms as well as Vince Pace, CEO and Cinematographer at PACE.

Orlins, ESPN coordinating producer, event productions, said the challenge for all in 3D is creating a unique viewing experience while tempering expectations of fans as to what they should expect. “You need to maximize the incredible dynamic of 3D without losing the basics of covering the game.”

The executives discussed lessons learned from recent tests in 3D production, beginning with 2009 efforts like a college football game between USC and Ohio State last September with the help of Pace and NEP. The use of a 42-times lens in the low-end-zone position gave the crew more flexibility in grabbing shots beyond the typical end-zone position. And graphics required a different approach than in 2D.

Toms, VP of production enhancements for ESPN, noted that graphics need to be scaled back, simplified, and time needed to be spent figuring out where the graphic should lie in the Z axis. The use of wipes during replays also tended to be a bit too much in the face of viewers.

“There is a lot more thinking beyond just how you frame it,” he said.

Toms also mentioned that luck was part of the success of the Ohio State/USC effort. The 3D cameras were located on the opposite side of the field from the 2D cameras, and, fortunately, USC ran the majority of its plays toward the 3D cameras. “I don’t know if it would have been as successful if the plays were run away from the camera,” he said.

Anthony Bailey, VP of emerging technology for ESPN, discussed a trial held at ESPN’s Digital Technology Center in Orlando, FL, in February that involved a Harlem Globetrotters game. The goal was to see whether it would be possible to take the left-eye feed out of the 3D camera systems and produce the 2D feed out of the 3D feed. But telling the story properly in 2D and 3D, at least for now, appears to require separate positions. “Our goal is to keep refining to bring the costs down,” he said.

A big step towards cutting those costs involves minimizing crews and educating venues on the need for additional camera positions for 3D productions. “Many venues were built years ago, and the camera positions are what they are,” Bailey said.

Orlins observed that different sports  will present different challenges in terms of staffing and the need for unique camera positions.

Sports like football, for example, may require wholesale changes, such as relying more on a 3D version of the Skycam and telling the story from above the field. Viewers have spent more than 50 years watching football covered from the traditional positions along the 20-yard line so there may be some resistance to such a drastic change, but Orlins wondered whether that resistance couldn’t be overcome.

“The way football is shot now is primarily up above, and the cameras are located in the press-box level,” he pointed out. “And it’s not a terrible 3D experience from up there, but it isn’t optimal.”

Golf, however, has proved suitable to 3D. Orlins said that the limited number of 3D cameras used for coverage of the Masters golf tournament in 3D was complemented by the use of occasional 2D feeds.

“We found it pretty manageable to mix in 2D and 3D,” said Orlins.

Pace said  the 2D cameras were passed through some slight separation to soften up the impact of a directly overlaid image. “It paid off for us,” he added.

Although converting 2D to 3D could be one way to cut some costs and add to the storytelling, the jury is still out on automating operations, in particular convergence-operator positions. Pace said that, while he isn’t opposed to relying on software-based convergence, he believes that, currently, those systems do not give the director and producer enough control over the production.

But development of automation technologies and more cost-effective camera systems is on the way. Pace said he and others did not set out to make 3D productions expensive. And the action on the NAB show floor, and the interest shown in the 3D session itself, point to a future where costly solutions today could be affordable solutions tomorrow.

“To a certain degree, this is viral,” said Pace. “Everyone sees the value [of 3D] and now engineers and others are looking to solve issues.”