Mobile-Production Companies Mixed on 3D

Live 3D sports productions are on everyone’s mind these days, thanks to ESPN and DirecTV, but mobile-production–truck companies must get on board before such productions can become reality. Some, like NEP and All Mobile Video, have already committed, rolling out trucks that will be used for live 3D sports during 2010. But coming on the heels of the HD transition, not all mobile-production providers are quite so gung-ho about the new dimension of sports broadcasting.

“We had not given much thought to [3D], but obviously, since the announcements, the interest is a little higher,” says Corplex President Scott West. “But we don’t anticipate anything happening right away. 3D still seems in its infancy.”

Says Mira Mobile GM Frank Taylor, “Since the mobile-facilities business has always been technology-driven, we are certainly following the 3D discussion closely and continue to do so. ESPN’s announcement will serve as an early indicator if there is a business model here that can make sense. We currently have no specific plans or timetable for construction of a 3D truck.”

F&F Productions agrees that the infrastructure on new truck builds should be 3D-compliant, but the company is not ready to build a 3D mobile unit until it has a contract in hand.

HD Trucks Can Do 3D
However, according to several companies, a truck capable of supporting a 3D production does not have to be 3D-specific. Alliance Productions, which has already backed one 3D telecast — CrossCreek’s Voyager 8 unit was used for the NFL’s 3D test — has proved that a standard HD truck, with some supplemental equipment, can do 3D.

“For new truck builds, it will definitely be important to have an infrastructure that supports 3D, but that infrastructure is not drastically different from a new HD build,” an Alliance spokesperson says. “It is more the monitoring and areas of convergence that need to be addressed when dealing with 3D.”

Indeed, when it comes to the signal path of HD vs. 3D, not much equipment needs to change. There are no 3D-specific routers or EVS systems, so HD trucks are mostly equipped to handle 3D, with a few key exceptions.

“We’ve got a truck that we’re working on HD-wise in the next 12-18 months, which could be something that we could do as a dual,” Corplex’s West says. “But I think, right now, we’re going to wait and see that 3D doesn’t flop.”

Set the B for 3D
Instead of building a single 3D-capable truck, Game Creek Video is looking into the possibility of a 3D B unit.

“It would be an expanding B unit that would have all of the components necessary to control the cameras and operate in 3D mode,” says Game Creek President Pat Sullivan. “It would be a 3D component that could park next to any one of our trucks, plug in, and create a full-blown 3D production.”

Game Creek’s plans have been accelerated by recent 3D announcements, but Sullivan stresses that, if he can’t strike a deal that makes sense for Game Creek, its customers, and its vendors, then he is happy to be patient about the rise of 3D.

The companies under the Alliance umbrella are also looking at possible changes to current trucks and support trucks that would enable the HD trucks currently in use to deliver 3D. The aim is to do 3D work as requested but continue HD work at the core of their business.

Retrofitting for a New Dimension?
If a new 3D-truck build is not in the cards, can current trucks be retrofitted to produce HD? F&F Productions is one company that is exploring that approach.

Mira Mobile is among those currently waiting for more information. “It takes approximately six months to build a truck from the ground up and three to four months to do a retrofit on an existing truck,” Taylor explains. “Given that kind of lead time, there is going to have to be a lot more market information available on the future of 3D production before plans can be put in place.”

The Limiting Factor: Rigs
The newness of the medium means that 3D equipment is changing daily, but the development of some products is certainly lagging behind others.

“The biggest challenge that we’ve seen is the camera-rigging system,” says Game Creek’s Sullivan. “The cameras can be 3D, and the lenses can be 3D, but the big challenge is a camera-rigging system that can operate on the same basis that we operate on, which is to do a one-day set, shoot, strike. The camera-rigging systems today can’t do that kind of thing.”

For 3D sports production to be turned into a business, Sullivan says, camera rigs are the one element that must be improved.

Alliance Productions agrees that rigs are the element that is furthest behind the technology and is looking toward next-generation gear to close the gap between prototype and mainstream.

First In, First Out?
NEP was the first mobile production company to stick its toe into the 3D waters, but is there an advantage for the first mover into such an amorphous space?

F&F Productions doesn’t think so. “It is probably not an advantage to be the first mover,” says an F&F spokesperson, “due to the fact that it is going to be like high definition, where trucks will have to be redone in a few years to update equipment.”

Without a doubt, trailblazing a path for the rest of the industry is an expensive proposition.

Says Corplex’s West, “We saw this in the first round of HD equipment, back in the early 2000s; most of that equipment has been pretty well antiquated for several years now. What you don’t want to do is be the first guys buying everything, have it run well for a year or two, and then everything improves, and you have to buy it all over again.”

Alliance Productions agrees, noting that it can be an ROI issue.

Mira Mobile’s Taylor, for one, is impressed with NEP’s approach to 3D, especially that company’s partnership with 3D production company PACE. “NEP is providing an older HD truck and infrastructure that was an underutilized asset and adapting it for this use. This approach allows them to significantly reduce their financial risk while learning the technology and figuring out if there is a long-term marketplace that might justify further investment. It’s a win-win for ESPN, Pace, and NEP.”

What Are We Waiting For?
With the HD transition, most mobile-production companies waited until a long-term contract was in place to cover the cost of their investment in HD equipment. They expect the 3D transition to be similar, with companies waiting for contracts before making the kind of investment required to produce 3D.

Of course, any new truck must fit the company’s existing philosophy.

“It’s critical to have trucks that are intuitive, flexible, and easy to use,” says Game Creek’s Sullivan. “If we can’t do that in the 3D realm and we build something that’s cumbersome to set up, that’s expensive for our customers in terms of overtime and things like that; we’re not going to do it. It’s got to work for our customers in order for it to work for us.”

The other wait-and-see factor? Programming.

“Eighty-five events is enough maybe for one truck, which NEP already has built,” Corplex’s West says. “We’re waiting to see if other people are going to originate more programming. And they’ve got to get the channel carried on some tier at some point and then wait to see if the consumers are going to buy the new televisions. I think it’s got a long way to go before it gets real traction, but it’s interesting how quickly it’s come up.”

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