Live From MLB All-Star Game: Fox Tests Out Cutting-Edge Coverage
The MLB All-Star Game has always been an “active test site” of sorts for Fox Sports.
Although the Midsummer Classic is one of the premier sports events of the summer, Fox’s production team uses this A-level broadcast as a technological tryout with an eye toward October and the postseason.
This year, the network is pulling out all the stops with what it is calling its “most technologically advanced MLB All-Star Game broadcast in history.” To cover the action at Target Field in Minneapolis, Fox is deploying 4K workflows, futuristic graphics enhancements, and a bevy of high-frame-rate cameras.
“There’s a lot of enhancements that we used in the last MLB postseason, and those tools have only gotten better,” says Mike Davies, who was elevated to SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports in May. “We’re very excited to try some new things out.”
With Fox Sports working from Game Creek Video’s FX series of production trucks, it promises to be a summer night to remember.
High-Speeds and Ultra-Mos Abound
The 36 cameras that Fox is deploying throughout the stadium for the All-Star Game is impressive in itself, but digging deeper into the details shows just how technologically cutting-edge this show is. Specialty high-speed cameras, which have become a calling card of sorts for Fox’s marquee baseball coverage, can be found all over this production.
Working with high-speed–camera provider Inertia Unlimited, Fox is deploying two Phantom cameras and three X-Mos.
The Phantom cameras are a higher–frame-rate X-Mo; it’s capable of shooting between 2,000 and 3,000 frames per second (fps) and is the model responsible for many of Fox’s iconic slow-motion shots, including Hunter Pence’s triple-contact, broken-bat RBI for the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2012 National League Championship Series. These Phantoms are positioned in each of the first- and third-base-line camera wells.
The three X-Mo cameras, which Fox typically runs at 420 fps or 480 fps depending on stadium lighting, are positioned in high center field and along each of the baselines.
The Phantoms and X-Mos are based on Vision Research’s Phantom v642 camera, and Inertia Unlimited is trying out the latest iterations of its technology.
“There is no doubt that the MLB postseason is a place where we want to be ready for primetime, so to speak,” says Jeff Silverman, president of Inertia Unlimited. “The All-Star Game is a great opportunity in a slightly more relaxed atmosphere to try more-innovative approaches.”
New on the national stage is the Grass Valley LDX compact XtremeSpeed 6X ultra-slow-motion camera. Shooting at up to 540 fps, this “super-mo” was used through the first half of the season on Fox RSN telecasts and is making its All-Star Game debut.
“We’re looking forward to seeing what that looks like,” says Davies. “It’s been a really good camera for us.”
In addition, Aerial Video Systems (AVS) is providing aerial coverage for Fox and, for the first time, the company is sending up its Partenavia P68 Observer aircraft.
Comfy With 4K
Again this year, Fox is tinkering with some 4K workflows inside an HD environment but with a new pair of cameras at its disposal.
The AJA CION, making its All-Star Game debut, is capable of shooting 120 fps while maintaining 4K quality. The Vision Research Flex4K is also on hand. Both cameras will be attached to AJA Corvid Ultra servers. The CION is located in high center field; the Flex, at high home.
As for using any of these feeds on-air, Davies acknowledges that current 4K workflows are more of a “catch lightning in a bottle” situation.
“Depending on what we get, they might not be used,” he says. “The All-Star Game is not a very strategic game, but really what we’re doing with these cameras is seeing what type of high frame rate a 4K camera will graduate to for the postseason because that’s when we really want to use it.
“Right now,” he continues, “4K is a technology that you’re not going to use unless you have to. And, with 36 cameras, we have a lot of cameras focused on other things, so it’ll be interesting to see how we get to use it. But, for the most part, this is about getting the chance to look at the quality and, hopefully, get something into the broadcast, if we’re lucky.”
Although not much has changed in the way of workflow this year — Fox is still powering its 4K replays through EVS and will use the technology only for higher resolution in replays — Davies notes that Fox is taking critical steps this week.
“This is the next generation of 4K, where we’re looking at higher than 60 frames per second, and that’s been a big thing for us,” he says. “While it’s very nice to zoom in to an area of interest, it’s useful only if that area of interest is also compromised by motion blur. So we think that the high frame rate is going to be incredibly important in terms of 4K enhancement.”
Graphics Fill Stadium and Screen
It wouldn’t be an A-level Fox Sports broadcast without some state-of-the-art graphics.
Beyond the standard scorebug and other graphics, Fox has brought N-Cam, an optical tracking technology that is new to the All-Star Game. N-Cam creates the 3D graphics in the real-time environment and has been used in Fox Sports’ studio production since 2013. Its other live-event deployments have been at Super Bowl XLVIII and during SpeedWeeks in the 2014 Daytona 500.
Also new to the show is SideTrax, from Sony-owned Hawkeye Technology. Another optical tracking technology, SideTrax grabs pitch speed and break data and creates a three-dimensional strike zone over home plate that is viewable from even a side perspective.
Fox Sports production personnel met in February with Hawkeye Technology to discuss a baseball iteration of its popular technology, most known by sports viewers for its use on in-bounds calls in major tennis tournaments and for goal-line technology in the Barclays Premier League. The technology offers an entirely new perspective of a pitch passing through the strike zone and is available on three camera feeds: the main centerfield camera and the first-base and third-base camera wells.
“When you try a technology out like this for the first time,” says Davies, “you get to see what else it might be able to do. We’re looking forward to that as well.”
The MLB All-Star Game airs on Fox tonight at 8 p.m. ET.