IBC 2010: Behind the Curtain(s) of Live 3D Sports Production

3D sports production has exploded in 2010, and attendees of IBC’s sports track on Saturday were treated to a look under the hood with three of the biggest players in the space. Peter Angell, head of the production and programming division for Host Broadcast Services, led off the presentation, followed by Kevin Stolworthy, SVP of technology for ESPN, and Chris Johns, chief engineer for BSkyB. The three shared their significant histories in 3D sports production and offered some lessons learned as well.

Angell, who oversaw production of 25 3D matches from the 2010 FIFA World Cup, called the preparation for those broadcasts the busiest five months of his career. During the presentation, he showed attendees a side-by-side comparison between his company’s 2D and 3D coverage of the World Cup Final.

“In our coverage, there was very little that was coming out of the screen,” he explained. “For a live sporting event, you’ve got to be very careful with the management of the depth budget. Live sport 3D is not about stuff coming out of the screen; the key is the depth feeling, or the feeling that you’re there.”

For the World Cup coverage, Angell was forced to convert some 2D camera feeds to 3D, which is not ideal but, at this point, a necessary evil.

“Right now, while the industry is filling the gaps in the 3D-production chain, the only way to get certain shots is to convert,” he said. “Personally, I don’t have a big problem with it. If not showing that shot will deprive your audience, then that shot needs to go in. My preference is not to penalize the viewer by eliminating a 2D shot.”

Still, care must be taken when using any type of 2D-to-3D conversion.

“I’m not going to say that they’re fantastic,” Johns said of the conversion devices. “You have to take great care when you use them, because they all deliver interesting results.”

When it is possible to get a great 3D shot, however, the result is far more breathtaking than any HD shot, according to Johns. “The 3D leap appears stronger than the HD evolution. The emotion you can get from 3D is much more powerful than the change from SD to HD.”

Stolworthy, who will be doing a weekly 3D college football game throughout the fall season, opined that 3D impact shots are great but not at the expense of the fan experience: “You lose some dimension with the play-by-play camera, but you have to live with it because you’re telling a story.”

ESPN has run into some additional challenges with graphics. since the network’s productions are generally very graphics-heavy, but how those graphics are presented to the audience is still a question.

The repetition that ESPN will undergo this fall, however, should help the network answer some of those questions, as BSkyB has been able to do by producing two English Premier League games in 3D each week. That level of production did not come quickly, however.

“It took six months of testing to get to a quality threshold that we were happy with unleashing on the general public,” Johns explained. “We will now be producing 10% of our 1,000 annual sporting events in 3D, and we are looking to increase that. If you can do it in a repetitive manner, it becomes a very efficient way to deliver 3D.”

For right now, Angell said, 3D is going to remain a boutique industry, because good-quality 3D is very expensive to produce and bad-quality 3D is not particularly cheap.

“Collaboration is really the key to 3D success,” Stolworthy agreed. “Collaboration with vendors that keep costs down, with sponsors, and with broadcasters. We don’t believe in secrets at this point. It’s much better that we work to make this product better. Otherwise, we will lose this customer quickly.”

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