Inside Look at ESPN 3D Highlights SVG’s 3D & Beyond Summit

During an eventful day of sessions at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York City on Wednesday, SVG hosted more than 100 industry leaders at its inaugural 3D & Beyond Summit. During the event — which was sponsored by Sony, Teranex, Bexel, Intelsat, Panasonic, Telecast, and Vizrt — Sony Electronics announced the renewal of its ESPN 3D sponsorship, and coordinating producer Phil Orlins provided an inside look at the 3D network’s operations during its first year.

“Going into this year, we had the benefit of knowing that we were going to do 85-plus events, which will end up being about 105 at the end of the calendar year,” said Orlins. “We knew we had a big schedule to accommodate, but we were able to plan ahead and position ourselves appropriately going in.”

The Crew
Prior to the network’s launch last June, ESPN assembled a small but tight-knit crew that has served as its core. Besides Orlins, the crew includes producer Josh Hoffman, director Doug Holmes, veteran operations and technical staffers, and plenty of help from Vince Pace and his company.

“The thought from the outset was that we would have one group that was consistently dedicated to this project,” said Orlins. “Fortunately, as the work continues to grow, more and more people get interspersed and, hopefully, take advantage of the knowledge that the core group is acquiring on a weekly basis.

The Camera Positions
When it comes to picking camera positions at the average major sports venue — an NBA arena, for example — ESPN 3D often sits fourth in the pecking order, behind ESPN’s HD 2D telecast and two regional sports networks. While this fourth-place dynamic has created challenges during ESPN 3D’s inaugural year, it has also bred a much-needed philosophy of innovation.

“The best part of this project is that we start from scratch for every event we’ve done, and it’s allowed us to try new things and put some cameras in different places,” said Orlins. “When you are [experimenting] in 2D, you are being evaluated by your main audience right away, and, in many cases, the familiarity with how the sport has been covered in the past does not lead to a lot of flexibility to change your approach. But 3D has given us an extraordinary opportunity to do things differently and, to some degree, find an audience that embraces that new approach.”

The Robotics
Many of the innovative camera positions involve extensive use of robotics, the prime example being ESPN 3D’s roving game angle for football. Rather than placing three high-game cameras at the press-box level, Orlins and company opted to mount a 3D rig atop a 25-ft.-tall telescoping tower on a conventional Chapman cart, which follows the action up and down the sidelines.

“At the end of every game, I heard some people say they loved it, and I heard others say they didn’t,” said Orlins. “But thankfully, by the time we got to the BCS Championship game, we really had it clicking the way we wanted to.”

The name of the game in 3D production is proximity. Getting cameras as close to the action as possible is integral to providing viewers with a truly 3D-centric telecast. However, inserting manned 3D rig positions just off the field of play often means expensive seat kills in the stands. In many cases, the antidote has come in the form of robotics.

“No matter how good you are at what you do, you have some serious — if not impossible — challenges for 3D if you are 150 ft. away,” Orlins pointed out. “So we said early on that getting close was a high priority, and, if that meant that we go with robotically operated cameras or pan-bar systems [controlled from inside the truck] rather than [manned cameras], then that was a change we had to make.”

The Technology
In just one year, the technology that ESPN 3D deploys on an average shoot has progressed dramatically. Many of the handheld rigs are minuscule compared with what ESPN used during its initial 3D football coverage. In addition, ESPN successfully produced the 2D and 3D productions out of a single truck (with the 2D show taking the left eye of 3D rigs) for a boxing match and an NBA game. However, there is still plenty of work to be done in terms of both rigs and 3D technology in general.

“If we’re roaming the floor at NAB looking for one thing more than anything else, it’s probably the smallest possible camera-lens combinations,” Orlins said. “I think we feel like there are some technologies that are quite close, but certain holy grails definitely remain out there for us: a certain level of quality in a certain small package.”

The Future
ESPN 3D is entering the final chapter of its first year, the NBA Finals. The network will produce every game of the series and, for the first time, deploy two separate mobile units and production teams to cover the action in both cities. While some specialized gear — such as a handful of miniature 18-lb handheld rigs — will be shipped between cities, the East and West Coast productions will be almost entirely independent from one another.

“Thanks to our partners at NEP and PACE, we will be deploying a second mobile unit for the first time [at the NBA Finals],” said Orlins. “Thankfully, the industry is moving towards 3D, so that will make [dual-city] shoots like this much easier [in the future].”