LTS 2010: Directors Offer Front Bench Perspective

For today’s directors, showing the game is just one item on a laundry list of responsibilities during a live sports telecast. From providing official replays to finding new camera positions for side-by-side 3D productions, directors have plenty on their plate, and they are expected to handle it all. At SVG’s fifth-annual League Technology Summit on December 14, leading directors from national and regional sports networks took the stage to discuss the challenges they face when it comes to staying out of the way of the game, providing optimal replays, and bearing cement mixer-like audio effects.

The Replay Responsibility
For NFL games, the replay angles given to the referees come directly from the television truck, which puts an enormous amount of pressure on the director to ensure that his team has the definitive angle.

“Sometimes the officials come into the TV truck and they want to know if we have 23 cameras,” explained Mark Grant, CBS Sports director. “Sometimes we don’t have the angle that a bigger show with a lot more cameras may have, but we make it work. If there’s a play that may be under review, we’re obligated to show a replay that [the stadium can show] on the Jumbotron. It really does affect our coverage; we have to stop whatever we plan on doing and show the replay so they can make a decision.”

For Renardo Lowe, director for Turner Sports, the game day pressure he feels surrounds not the quick turnaround replay angles, but rather covering the fundamentals of the game.

“We have an obligation to the viewer to show whether a point should count, or if a runner was safe or out,” Lowe said. “Our obligation is to show the viewer what’s going on, so we’re always trying to get more cameras on the [sidelines].”

Staying Out of the Way
Bill Bell, director and executive producer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, talked about the importance of delivering to the public the events of the game, and of the support that he now has in doing so.

“You no longer have to have your eyeballs on everything,” Bell said. “There are other people that can assist you in being successful. You still have to hold your people accountable, but now there’s a lot more support around you in the truck.”

John Moore, director for the YES Network, agreed that technology has brought far more gadgets into the production truck, but such a proliferation of options is both good and bad.

“When you have it, there’s sometimes a pressure to use it, whatever it is,” Moore said. “That’s the balance. Let’s not step all over the story. The next day, people are not asking, ‘did you see that cool graphic?’ As producers and directors, sometimes we have to forget that we’re in the truck and remember the people sitting at home watching the game, and not get in the way of it.”

Production Truck Wish List: Access
The panel of directors described their ideal mobile production units, bringing up everything from comfortable chairs and coat hangers to refrigerators and color laser printers. On the more technical side, monitor walls and layout are critical elements for everyone.

From Left: YES Network's John Moore, Turner Sports' Renardo Lowe, CSN Mid-Atlantic's Bill Bell

“As we get spread out as a crew, I like that graphics can now be in production,” Lowe said. “I always like to turn around and see the graphics operators. On certain crews, those are the youngest people on the crew, so I feel that they need to be with for the team dynamic.”

For Moore, access to his fellow crew members does not stop with graphics.

“I hate when you get into a truck and to talk to an audio guy, you have to go out of the truck and up around the corner,” Moore said. “I like being able to look somebody in the eye and talk to them, or o back and talk to the audio guy to make him feel like he’s a human being and not stuck in a prison. Access to as many people who work on the show as possible is a huge thing.”

More Game, Less Cement Mixers
The audio wish list does not stop with access. All four directors talked about the challenge of directing the show around audio that they may or may not be able to hear.

“You have no idea if what you’re hearing is what they’re hearing at home, or if it’s what the audio guy is hearing,” Moore said.

“The speakers that we all have in front of us are not a true barometer of what’s going out,” Bell added. “It’s always great hearing the ball on the bat, sticks, pucks, and elements that enhance the sound of the game, so we try to enhance those.”

Of all of the parts of the show, the directors said, audio is the most human-driven, as the audio mixer makes the majority of his editorial decisions without checking with the director, as there is not time to do so.

“You have to trust your audio guy,” Lowe explained. “Do you want to give fans the in-arena experience when there is profanity? You have to trust your audio guy with the integrity of the show to make decisions like pulling down crowd mikes. In baseball, fans will get on the umpire and he’s got to make that decision quickly to pull down a mic.”

Sounds of the game and an authentic auditory in-arena experience are goals for every director, but the ancillary noises that go along with graphic and sponsor elements are not always part of that plan.

“There’s always the policy that for every visual action there’s a sound that goes with it, but I would love to see us all back up a little,” Moore said. “Not on the true sounds of the game but these friggin noises every six seconds. I don’t know why a replay has to sound like a machine that’s breaking. The sounds that we use all sound like cement mixers.”

3D Means New Positions, Designs
The panel discussed the future of 3D production for sports, and noted that a side benefit of so many 3D experiments will be the creation of new camera positions for the HD shoot.

“What I like about 3D is that is makes you rethink how you cover sports,” Grant said. “We are forced to put cameras in places that in an HD world, we would not have enough cameras to try that position.”

“It’s going to change the way you think of things,” Moore added. “At this point we can’t put eight 3D cameras out there, cover a game, and then see what the limitations are. In 3D, there may be a better place to watch the game than in center field or high home, but you don’t know what that place is until you look at the game afterwards.”

In addition to forcing directors to rethink their camera placement, 3D may force architects to rethink the way stadiums are designed.

“We always plan for traditional HD camera placement,” Lowe said. “Now in the planning process, someone’s going to have to think about placing cameras for 3D. There’s going to be some back and forth as far as premium seating versus camera placement. I think 3D is going to change the way that venues are planned.”