ESPN Maps Out 3D Strategy at SVG 3D Summit

At SVG’s first-annual 3D Sports Production and Transmission Summit on May 20, more than 200 industry professionals gathered at the CBS Broadcast Center to hear an overview of ESPN’s 3D strategy, delivered by two top executives. Anthony Bailey, VP of emerging technologies, and Bob Toms, VP of production, walked attendees through ESPN’s history with 3D production — and shed some light on the company’s future in the 3D space.

First Out of the Gate
One of ESPN’s first 3D experiments was a USF vs. Kansas football game. While certainly a success by several measures, that production illuminated the challenges involved in producing live sports in 3D, many of which have yet to be solved.

“We had a fairly young director, someone who was willing to think outside of the box and try things differently,” Bailey said. “But he kept trying to produce it like a 2D show. We regrouped in the second half and said let’s try some different things, and we were really happy with what we saw.”

That experiment gave plenty of confidence to ESPN’s production-enhancement team, creative-services team, and technology division, but, without a transmission test, Bailey was not confident in the end-to-end workflow. For that, ESPN chose the Ohio State-USC matchup that was the most important football game early in the 2009 college season.

Big Game, Good Feedback
During their presentation at the SVG 3D Summit, Bailey and Toms discussed how they chose viewing locations for that 3D experiment and how they ran their focus groups and also shared some of the feedback they received during the game. ESPN had set up a Twitter account during that game, so that the company could interact with the fan feedback and keep it on file.

“We found out right away that quick camera moves hurt,” Bailey said. “We tried the first-and-10 line because we wanted to go into this game with every bell and whistle we had on the 2D side, but it was painful beyond the 30-yard lines. So, in the fourth quarter, we decided we were no longer going to use it. This was probably the best fan feedback of anything ESPN has ever held a focus group on.”

ESPN had several major takeaways from the Ohio State-USC game, including a low end-zone camera that was rarely used and has not appeared since.

“When you go to a site, you can’t do a site survey and just say, ‘I think a camera will look good here,’” Bailey said. “Since then, we’ve been going to the sites, taking rigs, and asking, ‘how would it look here? Let’s take a look at it.’ It has added cost, but, until we figure out the right locations for cameras, it’s something we need to do.”

Home-Court Advantage
The next major 3D test was a Harlem Globetrotters game on ESPN turf, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, where the company had control over the full production. The game was shot in 3D and edited for 2D playback the following night, which enabled ESPN to experiment with producing 2D and 3D in the same truck, using one director and two producers. The right eye from each camera was used for the 2D show.

One 3D camera angle ESPN chose not to use from that production was the SkyCam, but the director learned that, with a 3D graphic treatment, a 2D camera can feel 3D to an audience. Either way, however, when it comes to 3D productions, no two sports are alike.

“Basketball is very different from football,” Toms pointed out. “It’s cut a little tighter and lower. For 3D, you don’t want to go as wide or as high. There is a real high-wire act from the production side: how far, how high, and how tight should you go so that you can still wow them with a good 3D shot? Each sport — and, in some cases, each venue — is going to afford you different challenges.”

Clinical Innovation
At ESPN’s innovation lab in Orlando, the company built its own golf hole so that Bailey and Toms and their teams could practice producing golf in 3D.

“With that hole, we have no problem rolling a jib right up to the edge of the green,” Toms said. “Augusta was probably not going to let us do that. But we were able to use that as a sales tape, so to speak. It really showed the possibilities and how 3D really helps golf.”

The innovation lab is also designed to allow producers, directors, camera operators, TDs, and graphics operators to work on 3D events and get some repetitions in before they are tossed into a pressure situation.

“It doesn’t matter what they’re shooting. We need to get directors to understand that you have to cut and then wait,” Bailey said. “Graphics people need to understand that maybe less is more. And in 3D, you don’t have to protect 4:3; you can put graphics wherever. Our goal in the innovation lab is to get butts in chairs and get a lot of reps.”

Live on the Air
ESPN3D will launch next month with 25 World Cup matches, produced by Host Broadcast Services. ESPN’s first self-produced 3D event will be the X Games from Los Angeles, followed by college football, including the BCS National Championship game; college basketball, including the Big East Tournament; and some NBA games. Outside of the lineup, however, ESPN3D offers a host of question marks.

“3D and 2D right now will each have their own truck and own crew,” Bailey said. “We plan on doing that for at least the first year. There is still a lot for us to learn. We’re trying to figure out smaller camera packages and all the bells and whistles of first-and-10 lines and K zones and virtual graphics.”

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