CBS Sports’ 3D Production of US Open Is a Winner

CBS Sports this past weekend undertook its latest 3D challenge: producing the US Open tennis tournament. With the help of PACE CEO Vince Pace and his team, as well as NEP, CBS Sports produced coverage that allowed tennis fans to see blistering 130-mph serves, swerving top-spin lobs, and dancing drop shots in true “you are there” fashion. And refinements for this upcoming weekend will make it only better.

“We’ve exceeded our expectations by far,” says Ken Aagaard, EVP, Engineering, Operations, and Production Services, for CBS Sports. “It’s definitely the definitive sport for 3D because you can get close to it with the confined area. Even without getting the best camera positions, it is an incredible show.”

The 3D coverage began on Sept. 4 at 11 a.m. ET and continued through Monday afternoon. It will resume on Sept. 10 with the men’s doubles final and women’s semifinals and continue through the weekend for the men’s semifinals and the men’s, women’s, and women’s doubles finals.

The on-court coverage is being shot using six PACE 3D rigs with Sony cameras and Fujinon lenses. All camera signals pass back to NEP SS9 (where the production team is located) and a PACE 3D truck, where convergence operators bring the left and right cameras together to form the 3D image.

“The biggest reason we chose to work with Vince Pace was because of his track record and the ShadowD 3D rigs,” says Aagaard. The ShadowD rigs mount the 3D camera on top of the 2D lens, allowing one operator to control the 3D rig via a data input to the 2D lens. The production crew pre-sets the 3D rig, and then, as the operator controls zoom and focus on the 2D viewfinder, the 3D rig tracks along.

“Without the ShadowD, we would not be able to have camera positions near cameras two, three, and four,” says Aagaard. Camera two is located behind the court, about five rows into the audience, and three and four are located on the court opposite the umpire chair.

The limitation of the ShadowD is that the camera operators speak only with the 2D production team. In addition, the lenses are currently limited to 88x lenses. The use of 101x lenses would allow the 3D rig to match the 2D rig in terms of framing.

Because this is the first time tennis has been produced in 3D in the U.S. and the team had time to review the coverage after the first weekend, changes have been made in the production. For example, it became clear early on that some of the most compelling shots were captured with a side-by-side 3D rig located in a dugout position behind the baseline. With the court-level camera roughly 13 ft. behind the baseline, dramatic shots were the norm.

“The low dugout cameras are amazing, and you can do play by play from them,” says Aagaard. “Those shots allow you to feel the speed, see the top spin, and get a sense of how fast the players have to be to bring the racket around.”

The dugout shots proved so compelling that, after Saturday’s coverage, the decision was made to move a camera that had been in the corner of the court to the dugout below camera two, which is the primary coverage camera. That addition allowed the director to cut between a high shot and a low shot without crossing the court and confusing viewers.

“The first HD show we did was a New York Jets [football game] in 1998, and this is similar to that,” says Aagaard. “When we did that game, HD had been around for a long time, but we were able to put it all together and make a real show. We’ve done the same thing here with all of the elements, from playing back 3D material captured with an ENG camera to replays.”

Aagaard adds that a Panasonic 3D camcorder, in the hands of operator Bill Tynan, has played an important role in the production, capturing 3D images from around New York City and the grounds. Those interstitial elements are used to roll into and out of breaks and between matches.

“The images have a nice 3D feel, and the camera works superbly,” says Aagaard. “It isn’t very often that an early production model of equipment works that well.”

A 3D camera on a jib outside Armstrong Stadium also grabbed crowd shots, and some 2D-to-3D conversion was done from blimp and beauty cameras. That processing was done by pixel-shifting the images in the production switcher.

The CBS Sports graphics team used Adobe After Effects to build a number of 3D graphics and opens that delivered a solid 3D effect. The team built three versions using 19-in. monitors, each version with slightly different separation. Bruce Goldfeder, director of engineering for CBS Sports, says the graphics department sent over only two of three, believing that the first version did not have enough separation. But, when the two versions that were sent were watched on a larger monitor, the CBS team found that the version that was not sent was, in fact, the best for the job.

“You really need to look at things on a monitor that is about the same size as what most viewers will be watching it on, which is about 35-42 in.,” he says.

The major enhancement for next weekend will be a revised 3D score bug. The current version sits within the 4:3 safe area and has conflicted with some of the action, resulting in some occlusion when the player or object of interest on the screen collides with the graphic.

“We’re going to reframe the graphics and bring them out a little bit so it is less distracting,” Aagaard explains. Graphics provider Reality Check will build the 3D bug so it also automatically imports scoring data.

The US Open marks the second time that CBS Sports has produced an event in 3D, following up on the closing weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball championships, held in Indianapolis last March.

“As successful as that production was, this one has been perfect from a production point of view,” says Aagaard. “I would be surprised if the US Open isn’t in 3D every year, because the sport and the framing are so good for 3D.”