ESPN 3D’s College-Football Coverage No Longer a Hail Mary

In just over a calendar year, ESPN 3D’s college-football coverage has grown by leaps and bounds from both a technical and a visual standpoint. Now ESPN 3D has doubled the number of games on its 2011-12 college-football slate and plans to introduce several production elements as the season progresses: a 1st-and-Ten Line, increased use of 2D cameras, and, possibly, the first appearance of the network’s “5D” approach — a unilateral 2D-3D production that deploys a single mobile unit — for a football telecast.

Each of these elements marks a substantial step forward for 3D sports production, but by far the most significant advancement would be a 5D football production, a task that seemed inconceivable just a year ago for a sport that does not lend itself to a combined 2D-3D production model.

“We’re looking at doing [a 5D production] a couple of months into the [college football] season,” says ESPN 3D Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins. “It is something we feel good about coming off the Little League World Series [a completely 5D show ESPN produced throughout August]. Not any kind of regular basis, but it is something that we would like to see happen this season and expect to see happen this season.”

Already entering its fifth game of the season on Thursday, ESPN 3D will deliver 20 regular-season games (including the ACC Championship) and six bowl games (including the BCS Championship), double the 13 games (including two bowls) that the network produced last season.

1st-and-10 Line: (Almost) Ready for Its Closeup
The 1st-and-Ten graphic has proved to be one of ESPN 3D’s greatest challenges in its 15-plus months of existence and has yet to actually appear in a 3D football telecast. A complicated and sometimes finicky system for 2D, the 1st-and-Ten Line becomes doubly complicated for 3D because systems for the two camera feeds in the 3D rig must be perfectly in line with each other.

ESPN’s primary game camera further complicates matters by roving up and down the sidelines atop a Chapman Cart, a stark contrast to the stationary 50-yard-line camera of the traditional 1st-and-Ten system.

However, last December, ESPN acquired PVI Virtual Media Services with the intention of finally mastering the 1st-and-Ten graphic for 3D, and that goal looks to be finally within reach.

“We are quite optimistic that it will be with us before too long this season,” says Orlins. “[PVI] will be with us [for each game], and we will be testing it extensively. They are developing it for the camera that moves up and down the sidelines so it will be an optical-tracking type of scenario.”

2D Cameras Break Through to 3D Side
After shying away from the tactic in its early days, ESPN 3D is incorporating 2D cameras into its football coverage for the first time this year. The 2D camera feed is doubled for the left-/right-eye feeds and set slightly off-center to create the illusion of 3D in the ESPN 3D telecast. This method was used with much success during the Little League 2D-3D production in August.

“We feel that, for certain things, 2D cameras do not detract from the overall 3D experience,” says Orlins. “They will allow us to get tight shots at a distance, which is a very important part of football coverage. Even if you have huge lenses on 3D cameras, there isn’t much upside when you’re shooting 200 ft. away, so the simple solution is to mix a bit of 2D into the coverage.”

The hope is that pairing 2D cameras with the successful launch of the 1st-and-Ten Line will go a long way in facilitating a 5D model for football.

“The first-down line and the willingness to use an occasional 2D camera to fill in those aspects of the coverage definitely makes us much more confident about taking on [a 5D football production].”

SS32 Stays Busy
Despite the increased workload, ESPN 3D will roll out its dedicated 3D mobile unit, NEP’s SS32, for every single game this season.  Although the Thursday and Sunday games have been scheduled with geographical proximity in mind, Orlins says that a small group of production people will often be sent to the Sunday location ahead of time to lay out fiber cabling and begin setup.

SkyCam, Handhelds: Better and Back for More
ESPN 3D’s camera complement varies depending on the venue’s layout but usually comprises two goal-post cameras, two handhelds, one or two 2D cameras (in low end-zone and/or slash positions), a SkyCam (for all Thursday-night games), and two cameras attached to a Chapman cart roving the sidelines.

The top camera on the Chapman cart — the MastCam — stands 25 ft. high atop a telescoping tower and serves as the primary game angle. An ultra-slo-mo is located about 10 ft. below on the tower. Orlins & company will also have a second MastCam cart available this year for stadiums with sideline access behind both benches.

The SkyCam will be on hand for all Thursday games as well as a handful of Saturday games. The 2D-3D aerial camera system, which consists of a small 3D rig mounted below an HD camera, debuted on New Year’s Day at the Fiesta Bowl to mixed reviews. However, after a few adjustments, it turned in a much-improved performance at the NBA Western Conference Finals this summer.

“When we first debuted it on the Fiesta Bowl last year, the interocular setting was not exactly where we needed it to be, so it was a less dramatic 3D experience than we hoped for,” says Orlins. “We made some adjustments and got the cameras a little farther apart from each other. When we got it to the right distance, we had a great experience with it for NBA, and we’re confident it’s going to have a huge 3D impact for football.”

ESPN 3D has also further improved the configuration of its handheld rigs, which were caught in a tug of war between weight and the ability to capture subjects up close for much of the past year. Previously, handhelds were either 18 lbs. and in a side-by-side configuration (which makes it difficult to capture subjects directly in front of the camera but easy to maneuver around the field) or a 45- to 47-lb. beam-splitter rig, which was used for sports like boxing that required cameras to be extremely close to the action.

However, ESPN engineers have finally developed a 24-lb. beam-splitter rig that allows camera operators to get within 2 ft. of the subject and offers full mobility and range of motion.

“We finally have gotten the handhelds exactly where we want them to be, to the point where they were perfect during Little League World Series,” says Orlins. “Now we have a package that allows us to get close but also allows the operator the full mobility and range of motion we’re looking for. That’s a very big step.”