Inside Look at NFL 3D HD Production; 2D Systems, Workflows Play Key Role

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Next week, the NFL, 3ality Digital, and Crosscreek Productions will broadcast a 3D HD version of the Dec. 4 game between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders that will prove the validity of using existing 2D production vehicles and signal paths for 3D. “From a league perspective, we could do big events using this technology,” says Glenn Adamo, NFL VP of Media Operations and Broadcasting. “This is a starting point, and, if successful, 3D HD will increase the fan’s entertainment experience.”

If all goes as planned, viewers in movie theaters in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston will feel as though they’re right on top of the action.

Producer Steve Beim and director Bob Levy, as well as some of NFL Films’ top camera operators, will cut the seven-camera shoot in Crosscreek’s Voyager 8 2D truck.

Camera rigs with two Sony HDC-1500 cameras with Fujinon 22x lenses will cover the action from six locations at field level, with a seventh located higher up on the 50-yard line to provide a sense of place (the longer shot flattens the 3D effect). Another rig will have a Sony HDC-950 portable camera, and a Cunima ultra-compact HD camera will also be tested.

“We spent a lot of time trying to ensure that each shot will make people watching the production go ‘wow’,” says Adamo.

Cameras will be controlled through a stereoscopic platform controller that will allow convergence operators in the trucks to ensure compelling 3D images are captured and delivered, along with metadata, through Telecast SHEDs and fiber to Voyager 8. Camera signals then go into a proprietary 3ality stereoscopic image processor that automatically balances out the cameras and fixes minor errors.

“Vertical offset between the two camera images is what makes 3D difficult to watch,” says Steve Schklair, founder and CEO of 3ality Digital. “Our system uses auto alignment and image analysis to adjust the positions of the camera. It is accurate enough to allow shots captured using a long lens to vertically match up perfectly.”

The two 720p/60-fps signals from the cameras on the rig are then muxed into a single 720p signal that can be cut in Crosscreek’s 2D truck without the need for 3D-capable production gear. “The multiplex turns the 3D signal into a 2D signal so that standard production switchers, routers, EVS units, and graphics can be used,” says Schklair. “We also don’t have to worry about having two transponders, satellites, and then reclocking the image at the theater, which is just not viable.”

The multiplexed signal is then encoded and sent via satellite to theaters where 3ality Digital decoders will then turn the 2D signal into a 720p/30-fps signal for viewing at the cinema.

Because 3ality Digital’s technology removes the need for the production unit to be outfitted with 3D projection monitors and have everyone wearing glasses, the company believes 3D productions become much more viable and cost-effective.

Even the convergence operators, who are in charge of controlling the 3D effect, will not watch on 3D monitors (although one will be available for quality control). “They will see metrics related to the depth on a 2D screen so they can keep the depth fairly consistent so that, when there is a camera cut, there isn’t a big change in depth,” explains Schklair.

“You always hear broadcasters and producers discuss putting the fan in the game,” says Adamo, “and that’s why I’m excited, because 3D will eventually allow the game to come into a viewer’s living room.”

A compelling 3D experience begins with proper camera placement. “Framing is critical to depth of field,” says Adamo. “You can’t be too close; otherwise, you lose the 3D effect.” Likewise, you can’t be too far away.

That’s why a sideline cart, with a camera on a platform about 15 feet off the ground, will play an important part in the production. It will be used for tight game coverage, with shots framed a little wider than usual from that position. Legendary camera operators Donnie Marks and Hank McElway will lend their expertise alongside two others from NFL Films and operate handheld cameras. “On the low-angle shots, the convergence operator will be more aggressive in driving the 3D effect,” says 3ality producer Ted Kenney.

The NFL Network’s existing Vizrt graphics package from Reality Check will be used during the game. “We don’t need things coming off the screen so the graphics will be less than 1% in front, or even behind, the screen,” says Kenney. “Our goal is to make the screen seem to fall away.”

Four years ago, the NFL did a 3D experiment during the Super Bowl, but the evolution of 3D equipment will make this production a much different experience. “The software aligns the lenses and carries the alignment through the whole zoom range,” says Kenney. “It maintains pixel-for-pixel accuracy and also allows for quicker setup and the ability to fit this production into a standard production unit.”

Kenney, who worked on 3ality’s production of the U2 3D movie, says that Levy’s experience as both a sports director and an entertainment director will help viewers feel as though they’re on the field. “We’ll be able to give the fans different perspectives, like putting them in the front row of the end zone,” he adds.

While this production will be completely separate from the NFL Network 2D broadcast, which uses 27 cameras, eventually, a 2D version could be derived from the 3D version. The challenge is that 2D viewers are used to seeing plays from a myriad of angles, whereas the 3D viewing experience requires fewer camera positions because the viewer needs a sense of place in the stands.

“We’ll see whether or not the 3D coverage can translate into 2D,” says Adamo. “It’s like the difference between a long-form feature and short vignette.”

There is little doubt in the potential of 3D, especially with 3D-capable consumer displays expected to be a major theme at this year’s consumer-electronics show. For now, though, 3D HD is a theater-only experience.

“Sports in 3D is more viable in theaters, but how well does it play on the big screen?” says Schklair. “And how do you buy a beer in a movie theater?”

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