ESPN Builds 3D Playbook for College Football

Nearly every sporting event produced in 3D thus far has essentially been a one-off shoot, making it extremely difficult for production teams to hone their skills and develop a cheat sheet of best practices for live 3D sports productions. However, ESPN 3D’s college-football coverage is blazing a trail. For the first time in these still early days of 3D production, a single unit will have the opportunity to produce a game every week for an entire season.

“We thankfully have found a sense of normalcy, which I wasn’t sure would ever happen [for 3D],” says Phil Orlins, coordinating producer for the network’s 3D productions. “We have actually started working somewhat normal hours, and people leave the truck on time. It isn’t the never ending challenges that we faced earlier in the year just getting ready for air. Doing the events two or three weeks in a row allows us to get more comfortable and get a better handle on things.”

ESPN 3D is now prepping for its fifth college-football broadcast, and, with each passing week, Orlins and company are adding to the 3D-football-production handbook, having already developed a few standard fixtures.

ESPN 3D deploys eight PACE 3D rigs for each game: two rigs fitted atop a motorized cart that runs along the sidelines, two small handhelds on the sidelines, and a set rig at mid level on the 50-yard line, along with a mix of several goal-post, slash, and low-end-zone positions that vary from game to game.

Two Cameras, One Cart, Picture-Perfect 3D
ESPN has worked with Chapman/Leonard Camera Systems to reengineer a traditional motorized sideline cart so that it can fit two 3D rigs — one at the traditional 2D camera position about 16 ft. in the air (used primarily for player close-ups and replays) and a second atop a telescoping tower about 25 ft. high.

The rig high atop the tower serves as the primary play-by-play camera and is controlled by a robotic pan-bar system operated remotely by a cameraperson in the B unit of NEP SS32 (ESPN’s dedicated 3D production truck). Therefore, the primary game angle moves along the sidelines with each drive, rather than being fixed at the press-box level at the 50-yard line (as it is for 2D shows). The camera is about three times closer than the traditional press-box position, creating a 3D image with far more depth.

“That primary play-by-play angle is moving up and down the sidelines on the high tower on the cart the whole game,” says Orlins. “It actually gives us a degree of pitch and angle to the shot that is fairly comparable to what you’re used to seeing from the press box.

“We’re ecstatic with the quality of the game coverage and the 3D image from that position,” he continues. “It’s just steep enough to not feel like you’re low or getting blocked, but, at the same time, you have that proximity so the 3D images are noticeably more impactful than you could get from the traditional press-box camera position.”

The mid-level 50-yard-line position is outfitted with a 42x lens and serves as a “safe camera,” used occasionally for game coverage when the cart camera is moving from position to position. While it does not provide “dramatic 3D,” it is a valuable play-by-play alternative when the cart cameras are not available.

The 18-Pound Handheld
ESPN also uses two handheld side-by-side 3D rigs with Sony cameras featuring a Sony Exmor R CMOS sensor and Fujinon lenses. The entire rig now weighs just 18 lb. (less than many of ESPN’s 2D handheld packs), allowing camera operators to roam freely along the sidelines. This is a far cry from the 3D handhelds ESPN had to work with just a year ago, which often weighed upwards of 40 lb.

“We made a decision a while back that, if our handhelds weren’t going to be light enough to be mobile with, we might as well be on tripods,” says Orlins. “The Sony XMOR cameras are about as small as anything out there, but they also have ½-in. sensors rather than the typical ⅓-in. sensors on cameras that size. They were the best solution for us to make a handheld as small as we could possibly make it and not give up image quality.”

A beamsplitter configuration is usually used for shots that close to the action. However, the Sony Exmor cameras are so minuscule on ESPN’s side-by-side rigs that the interocular distance is down to about an inch, allowing camera operators to get as close as 4-5 ft. from the subject.

“We’re not at a beamsplitter configuration because the cameras themselves are just tiny little ice-cube–size cameras with tiny little lenses on them so we can get the interocular [distance] way down,” says Orlins. “We can still get pretty close — not as close as we would with a beamsplitter but almost as close.”

Super-Slo-Mo in 3D: Still in Development
While it remains a work in progress, ESPN’s use of 3D super-slo-mo has shown promise in recent weeks. Fletcher and PACE reengineered ESPN’s super-slo-mo rig at the beginning of college football season, significantly cutting down the size. After three weeks of testing on the road, ESPN featured 3D super-slo-mo during the South Carolina-Auburn game on Sept. 26.

“We had great success with it at Home Run Derby and X Games, but we were able to essentially use it in a fixed configuration,” says Orlins. “It was extremely simple for Home Run Derby: you just put the camera 60 ft. away, frame the hitter head-to-toe, and don’t touch it the rest of the time. It’s very different for football because we’re constantly moving [the camera].”

He notes that ESPN was happy with the super-slo-mo at the South Carolina-Auburn game and expects to use it again in a few weeks. Until then, the production team will continue to experiment with placement, convergence settings, and zoom options.

“For football, our ultimate goal is to put it as that lower camera on the cart and really move up and down the sideline with it,” he says. “But we need full zoom, focus, pan, and tilt to do that, so it has been challenging.

No Need for RF in Football
Orlins says the 3D team had about 90% success with RF wireless cameras at X Games this summer, using both a handheld and one in-car RF system that was deployed for the Rally Car competitions. But despite the success, he does not currently see a need for RF in 3D football productions.

“We feel really good about RF, but we’re not currently using it on football,” he says. “We just don’t feel a necessity for it. We’re already able to move where we need to move along the sidelines with the cabled handhelds. I know we’ll be back in the RF business when Winter X Games comes around but probably not for football.”

1st-and-10 Line a Long Way Off
Do not expect to see the 1st-and-10 line on an ESPN 3D football telecast anytime soon. ESPN is not currently testing it on the road and has no plans to use it for 3D this season.

“We continue to talk about [the 1st-and-10 line], but I can’t say that it is even close right now,” says Orlins. “It’s difficult to begin with, because the left and right feed have to match up absolutely perfect. And then on top of that, the fact that we’re using a game camera that is continually moving has added a whole other layer of complication to it. I’m not holding my breath on that one.”