ESPN 3D Update: The Move Toward a Single-Truck 2D-3D Show

Fresh off production of all six NBA Finals games, ESPN 3D enters its second summer of existence with a full slate that features Friday Night Fights, Wimbledon (produced by BBC/Sony/AELTC), the MLB Home Run Derby, the World Football Challenge, X Games 17, and the Little League World Series. The network’s programming schedule will run the gamut over the next few months, but ESPN has staked out a clear path that drives toward one key goal: a 2D-3D production model that uses a single mobile unit and crew.

“We are doing more and more of the unilateral 2D-3D production,” says Phil Orlins, coordinating producer for ESPN 3D. “We feel it is obviously a very, very important step in our progress and something that we are becoming more and more comfortable with.”

Beginning tomorrow, ESPN will use one mobile unit to produce both 2D and 3D for at least five Friday Night Fights telecasts, nearly 20 Little League World Series games, and all the X Games action from the Staples Center in July (one of the three X Games venues in Los Angeles).

Long viewed as the Holy Grail in the quest for cost-effective live 3D sports production, the single-truck 2D-3D setup uses one crew to run the show and relies on the left-eye feed from the 3D show for the primary 2D telecast. Speaking at CEA LineShows in New York on Tuesday, Bryan Burns, VP of strategic planning and development for ESPN, referred to this method as “5D” production. The setup also sometimes uses 2D-3D combo rigs (such as the PACE ShadowD system).

Friday Night Fights
Boxing lends itself to this 5D approach because ringside camera positions are already key to 2D boxing coverage. So, not surprisingly, ESPN 3D first used the single-truck method during a FNF telecast in February.

The network plans to use one truck for both 2D and 3D productions for at least five FNF telecasts over the next three months. The six-camera complement for these five 2D-3D productions will be almost identical to the February fight, which featured the typical FNF setup but with the three ring-side handhelds and the ultra-slo-mo camera farther back from the ring. In addition, FNF’s round-clock graphic will be located at the bottom of the frame rather than at the top to prevent a depth conflict in the 3D telecast.

“[Friday Night Fights] is the first real series of events where we’re doing [one truck],” says Orlins. “We realize that we need to be able to do this [single-truck setup] as a multi-event series rather than just a one-off.”

The biggest change will be the inclusion of studio segments from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT, a staple in 2D FNF telecasts that was left out of the 3D production in February. These segments will be incorporated into the 3D telecast and shown to viewers as 2D.

The crew will be a mix of FNF veterans and the core ESPN 3D team that has worked on nearly every 3D event over the past year. Although FNF producer Jim Zirolli will take the place of ESPN 3D producer Josh Hoffman at the front bench, ESPN 3D’s Doug Holmes will be in the director’s chair.

“It just makes more sense to have Jim in there rather than me,” says Hoffman. “You want to have as many people as possible from the regular crew because they know [that sport] the best. But there are also certain positions that are 3D-specific like the director, where the 3D aspect is unique to that [position].”

X Games 17
The Summer X Games at the end of July will mark the largest event yet to deploy the 5D system. ESPN 3D will shoot all of the Staples Center action using one truck and one set of camera rigs. The network will deploy 11-12 cameras to cover all four days of the MotoX events at the Staples Center.

“There will be a 3D wireless handheld, a 3D jib, and a 3D Flycam right across the middle of it,” says Orlins. “All of those bells and whistles that we would throw at 2D will be used for 3D.”

In addition, ESPN will deploy seven 3D camera rigs to cover the Big Air, BMX, and skateboard events on Thursday and Friday night. At these venues, the 2D and 3D shows will be independent of each other. The six to seven 3D rigs will be deployed and the 3D production run out of the 3D truck on hand at Staples Center. In all, ESPN 3D will deliver 21 hours of 3D coverage, according to Orlins.

Little League World Series
After X Games, ESPN 3D travels to Williamsport, PA, where it will use the 5D approach to produce every Little League World Series game from Lamade Stadium, the primary of the two LLWS venues. Although the 15-plus telecasts will mark the first live baseball to appear on ESPN 3D (not counting the Home Run Derby), the smaller diamond and field create a more 3D-friendly product than MLB or college baseball.

“From a 3D perspective, being able to have a centerfield camera at 200 ft. away rather than 420 ft. away is going to allow you to feel the separation between the pitcher and the batter,” says Orlins. “It’s a great opportunity to shoot baseball at a much closer proximity.”

However, although the 2D and 3D productions will converge in Williamsport, remnants of the segregated 2D and 3D shows will remain.

“[The LLWS] has caused some fascinating conversations as we are edging into stuff like football,” says Orlins. “We are going to have a phenomenally impactful 3D with a few camera positions, but we are also going to keep three to four 2D-only cameras in the mix out of 14-15 total. There are just certain shots that you can’t get if you are 200 ft. away. The fact that we’re doing 2D and 3D from the same truck has really enhanced our need to think about that.”

5D Not Quite Ready for Big Time
While single-truck 2D-3D will grow immensely over the coming months, don’t expect to see it anytime soon for sports like football, baseball, and soccer, which require different camera positions for 2D and 3D.

“It will be a while until we can integrate big events into what we call 5D,” Burns told CEA LineShows attendees. “It’s just too complex. I don’t want to call what we are doing baby steps; they are very serious steps. But we are taking a measured pace, and we are building our way along. We do not have a plan right now to eventually get everything to [5D]. It is still a work in progress.”