ESPN 3D Update: Full Steam Ahead Going Into Augusta

There may not be as much steam behind the 3D sports train as there was two years ago when ESPN 3D was preparing to launch, but, nonetheless, the network remains all-engines-go as it approaches its two-year anniversary in June. Although no official programming lineup has been announced, ESPN 3D has pledged to follow up this week’s Masters golf tournament from Augusta National (CBS is co-producing the 3D show) with a full slate of live events over the coming months.

“In the sense of [total 3D rigs], the Masters is certainly the biggest single-venue production I’ve seen,” says ESPN 3D Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins. “It’s been stepped up pretty considerably from last year with basically full coverage of the back nine.”

5D Comes of Age
Although the hype around 3DTV is not what it was in 2010, the technology and production philosophy behind these 3D shows have grown by leaps and bounds. The progress is highlighted by ESPN 3D’s evolving 5D production model, which significantly reduces the cost and scope of 3D productions by producing both the 2D and 3D shows out of the same truck, using much of the same crew, and sharing the majority of camera positions (the 2D show either takes the left-eye feed from the 3D rig or uses a stacked 2D-3D Shadow D rig from CAMERON PACE Group).

The prospect of regularly producing 2D and 3D shows independently for every event was never economically feasible in the long term. But, by integrating 3D workflows into the 2D infrastructure, ESPN has gone a long way toward solving the economic conundrum originally presented by 3D production.

“We’ve gotten faster and faster in terms of setup, to the point where we are fairly quick now,” says Orlins. “At the Big East Tournament ,we did 13 cameras the first day in 5D — some 2D, mostly 3D. We got in the building at 5 a.m. and were on the air at noon. That is pretty strong indication of how far we’ve come with 5D.”

Although 5D has become the norm for ESPN 3D’s college- and NBA-basketball coverage, it has yet to be perfected for football, soccer, and golf (ESPN began to experiment with 5D for football last November). Traditional 2D coverage of these sports relies on several distant camera positions (especially the midfield game-coverage camera) that create “low-impact 3D” images, forcing the 3D show to operate independently from the 2D.

“We have had a lot of discussions about [using 5D more regularly for] football,” says Orlins. “But we are going to hold off until the schedule comes out [to make any official decisions].”

Basketball as a 5D Breeding Ground
ESPN 3D’s college-basketball coverage, which concluded last week with the NIT Championship game from Madison Square Garden, offers a glimpse at just how far the 5D approach has come in just over a year.

“It’s not a big shocker, but basketball on the one hand seems pretty simple and easy because it is a relatively small and confined court,” says Orlins. “But, on the other hand, it is a fairly complicated and challenging sport to do because it does have a flow to it that forces you to use a game camera for a fairly long period of time. And that kind of wide shot is not a [camera angle] that lends itself to 3D.”

This dynamic forced ESPN to reconsider the traditional method for basketball coverage, integrating below-the-rim robotic cameras on each basket as an alternative to the midlevel position at midcourt. These cameras located at the elbow of the stanchion approximately 8 ft. behind the basket.

“That became a pretty simple alternate cut for 3D to give the coverage something a bit more unique,” says Orlins. “When we used that coverage aggressively, it became a really good 3D experience.”

This tactic was used primarily at venues with faraway midcourt game-coverage cameras (notably, University of Kansas and MSG), while venues with closer game cameras (UConn, Duke, or North Carolina) allowed ESPN to rely primarily on the traditional game-coverage position.

As the season progressed, Orlins and company settled on an average 11-camera complement of seven manned cameras and four robos (one above and one below the rim on each basket). A handful of these positions (courtside handheld super-slo-mo, high and tight, and a slash) are 2D shots that are slightly offset for the 3D telecast to create the illusion of 3D.

“This is just further evolution of figuring how to create the two shows together and where we can use certain 2D cameras within the 3D show and 3D cameras for the 2D show,” says Orlins. “We are definitely playing with how much alteration was appropriate and how much that adds to the director and crew’s challenge. We’re still really debating that and evaluating simple ways to change the cut significantly.”

The Super-Slo-Mo Elephant in the Room
According to Orlins, the main challenge for 3D basketball coverage remains the lack of a native-3D handheld super slo-mo device to capture the courtside replays that are integral to basketball coverage. Although ESPN 3D has worked with its technology vendors (including CAMERON PACE Group and Fletcher Sports) to create small-form handhelds as well as a fixed ultra-slow-motion system, the super-slo-mo handheld remains illusive.

“That is the key shot for basketball, more so than for most other sports, and, if that camera were to exist, it would be a really great 3D shot,” says Orlins. “We could probably make a really heavy super-slo-mo handheld, but you don’t want a guy wedged in on his knees at midcourt with a 48-lb. camera on his shoulder.

“We are essentially facing the same issues we battled to build the 3D handheld multiplied by the fact that it is a super-slo-mo,” he adds. “Those same little cameras that we used to create the 3D handhelds do not really exist in the super-slo-mo format. If we have cameras for the [3D vendors] to develop into 3D rigs, they can figure out how to make anything. But if the form factor doesn’t exist in the first place, then it is a little bit more of a challenge.”