As Season Kicks Off, ESPN 3D Goes 100% 5D for College Football

ESPN 3D has always taken a walk-before-you-run approach in deploying its 2D-3D hybrid production model, lovingly referred to as 5D. The network started with boxing (a 5D-friendly sport) in February 2011, using a single mobile unit and a mix of 2D cameras and 3D rigs to produce an installment of Friday Night Fights. ESPN continued its use of the 5D model in the ring and, as the year went on, added the Little League World Series, Summer X Games, NBA and college basketball, and, notably, college football. Now, as the 2012 college football season kicks off, the two-year-old network is most certainly off and running at a near break-neck pace.

“We have entered into a true hybrid approach for football, where college football is 5D across the board this year, with the exception of the BCS Bowls,” says Phil Orlins, coordinating producer, ESPN 3D. “And we have taken the entire noon-Saturday football package on ESPN, which allows us to be consistent with our truck and crew.”

An Evolved 5D Model
Once requiring a laborious and complicated setup, ESPN and CAMERON PACE Group (CPG) have evolved the 5D model into a well oiled machine capable of ultra-quick setup and strike for this season’s weekly college-football shows.

In the current 5D model, a single mobile unit, comprising NEP Supershooter 32 and a CPG Shadowcaster serving as the B unit, produces both the 2D and 3D shows. The 2D telecast takes the left-eye feed from the 3D rigs, and the 2D camera feeds are doubled for the left/right-eye feeds and set slightly off-center to create the illusion of 3D for the ESPN 3D telecast.

After wrapping up its 5D production of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, last weekend, ESPN 3D is now scheduled to produce 16 regular-season college football games over the next two months, as well as the Orange Bowl and BCS Championship Game (which will be produced as side-by-side 2D and 3D shows) in January. Add in stops at the Charleston Classic, Old Spice Classic, and Jimmy V Classic basketball tournaments, and it’s obvious why a streamlined setup-and-strike is critical to ESPN 3D’s livelihood.

“We continue to refine our production approach and try to make things as efficient as they can be, but we’ve already come a very long way,” says Orlins. “At this point, we’re just chipping away and looking for evolutionary steps.”

The Standard 5D Camera Complement
Orlins and company have settled on a standard camera complement for football that varies slightly from venue to venue but is essentially made up of four high 2D cameras (at the 50- and two 35-yard lines, as well as a high–end-zone position) and six to seven 3D rigs on the field. A 2D low–end-zone camera will often be added to capture field-level shots 60-70 yards away.

The field-level 3D rigs are composed of two handhelds, two goalpost cams, a MastCam and an ultra-slo-mo aboard a Chapman-Leonard cart, and an occasional jib for higher-profile games.

The cart cameras have been a valuable tool for ESPN 3D from the beginning, but the network and CPG worked with Chapman-Leonard this offseason to redesign the cart to make the MastCam more effective in the red zone.

“It’s comparable to what we’ve done in the past, but, with this one, the mast is directly behind the cart camera as opposed to 8-10 ft. off to the side, so now it can go right over the camera’s head,” says Orlins. “Now we can run it really low, just over the regular manned cart camera. Then, when we get down near the goal line, we will pop it up and use it as a game camera because it is easier to periscope up and down.”

1st-and-Ten Line Simplified
By eliminating 3D rigs from the high positions, ESPN 3D also essentially solved one of the biggest issues it has faced in football coverage: the 1st-and-ten line. A complicated and sometimes finicky system even 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. However, the new camera layout “renders first-down line a moot point because those top cameras are 2D now,” says Orlins.

“We may at some point try to bring in the 3D first-down line on [in goal-line situations], but, the first couple weeks of the year, we won’t,” he adds. “It is a minimal gain because the goal line is usually the first-down line in those cases. But we are aiming to start working on that line around October.”

Ultra-Slo-Mo Comes Into Its Own
ESPN 3D is also working with CPG to continue to evolve its I-MOVIX SprintCam 642 3D ultra-slo-mo system (rented from Fletcher), which has come a long way since its shaky start at the network’s launch.

“That was a quirky piece of equipment for us early on, so it’s nice to have that working so consistently and effectively now,” says Orlins. “We are working with CPG to move some larger lenses to the ultra-slo-mo. It will make that camera more versatile to handle the tight 2D stuff that you want from a cart camera but still give us the great 3D ultra-slo-mo.”

The Scorebug Becomes a Band
ESPN 3D will also bring back the one-line-band–style scorebug — rather than the traditional FoxBox in the corner — that it used for football coverage last year as well as for its college-basketball coverage and the Little League World Series this year.

“From a 3D perspective, that makes sense because keyable graphics with video around them are still one of the most significant challenges that we deal with,” says Orlins. “So this is a clean, simple approach that puts the same information on the screen but a presents a lot less potential for blockage and depth conflicts.”

ESPN 3D kicks off its college-football coverage on Saturday at 12 p.m. ET with Ohio taking on Penn State.