With BCS Championship in the Can, ESPN 3D Takes a Moment To Reflect

ESPN 3D’s production of the BCS National Championship Game on Monday capped the network’s first season of college football and, for that matter, the first entire season of any U.S. sport produced in 3D from start to finish. The six-month-old 3D network produced more than a dozen college football games this season — nearly one per week — beginning with Boise State-Virginia Tech on Sept. 6. With the first full season of 3D in the books, it’s report-card time.

“I would have to call it a huge success,” ESPN 3D Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins says of the network’s first football season. “We really established our playbook for how we want to cover football in 3D, and we made some major strides in terms of technology and game coverage. There are always naysayers out there, but most of the feedback has been very positive.”

Although 10 cameras were deployed at the BCS Championship game on Monday, the bulk of ESPN’s 3D football productions have used eight cameras: two goal-post cameras, two handhelds, two slash positions, and two cameras attached to a Chapman cart roving the sidelines. The top camera on the Chapman cart — dubbed the MastCam — was about 25 ft. high and served as the primary game angle; a super slo-mo was located about 10 feet below on the tower.

“Not that much has changed from the beginning of the year from a main-coverage standpoint,” says Doug Holmes, ESPN’s primary 3D football director. “The initial concept of how we prefer to do game coverage has not changed much, but we have absolutely had to adapt to different venues and challenges throughout the year.”

MastCam Keeps Moving
One of ESPN 3D’s most important early challenges was finding a viable primary game angle that could capture the breadth of action like the traditional wide shot but could also be located close enough to the field to create a legitimate 3D image. The solution came in the form of the MastCam, which provides an overhead wide view similar to a press-box shot and travels up and down the sidelines with the play.

“Because we’re moving on a cart, we’ve continued to adjust exactly where we want to put [the rig] on the tower,” says Orlins. “But, basically, it’s done everything we wanted it to do on football. There have been a couple hiccups along the way, but it has definitely provided the consistent angle of game coverage we were looking for.”

The MastCam’s biggest test came on Monday in the final game of the season in the form of Oregon’s treacherously fast-paced offense.

“Yes, it’s a big concern,” Holmes said of the Oregon offense before Monday’s game. “There are going to be times when we’re not going to be where we want to be. I will need to go elsewhere for coverage more often than I want to. But we have to do that anyway because of how the cart has to move.”

In addition, the MastCam cart was forced to share space with two additional Chapman carts deployed by the HD show on the sidelines. “There’s a lot of traffic with three carts on that sideline instead of just us,” Holmes added. “So we all have to play together nicely.”

Out With the End Zone, in With the Goal Post
Early on, the production crew realized that the traditional low-end-zone positions were simply not an option for 3D football coverage. “When you’re working with a big lens at ground level and you’re shooting something 40 or 50 yards away for 3D, if you get any kind of action in the foreground, it immediately ruins the shot,” says Orlins. ”It is uncomfortable and painful to watch.”

Orlins and his team resolved this issue by eliminating the low-end-zone positions entirely and replacing them with rigs attached to the cross bar on the goal post. This position provides a higher angle, shooting over the players and thus avoiding the uncomfortable image created by players’ crossing directly in front of the camera.

“The goal posts have essentially replaced the low end zones for us,” Orlins continues. “While we can’t put quite as big of a lens on the goal post, it’s so crucial to be up high enough to not get blocked close to the camera. The goal-post cameras are high enough to avoid any close blockage in those shots.”

Handhelds: Keep It Light
One of the key developments during the season was the drastic decrease in size (and, more important, weight) of the handheld cameras roaming the sidelines. In July at the X Games, ESPN 3D used handheld rigs weighing approximately 45 lbs. By September, when football season was in full swing, the cameras were just 18 lbs., lighter than many of ESPN’s 2D handhelds. The miniature handhelds rely on Sony Exmor CMOS technology and are fitted with Fujinon lenses.

“The smaller handhelds really changed the ability to get up and down the sidelines,” says Orlins. “We were able to get valuable shots of the benches and the cheerleaders and the crowd.”

For the BCS finale, ESPN 3D added an additional handheld to its coverage that weighed in at about 28 lbs. This is due to the fact that “there is not really a third tiny [handheld] in existence,” says Orlins.

“With the extra handheld, I’m going to concentrate on color — the benches, the bands, and literally going up into the stands,” Holmes said before the game. “We haven’t done that at all this season so I’m excited to add a bit more color to the show.”

Super-Slo-Mo Worth the Wait
While there were a variety of technical challenges during the 2010 college football season, none was more prominent than the development of 3D super-slo-mo.

“I don’t think there’s any question that our biggest single struggle all year was the ultra-slo-mo,” says Orlins. “We battled with it for about two months before we finally got it right.”

After months of experimentation and limited use in live games, the ESPN 3D team finally became comfortable enough with the Fletcher-PACE–engineered unit to begin using it regularly for the network’s coverage of the ACC Championship game on Dec. 4.

“It is finally up to snuff now, but it wasn’t until about the end of November we finally got it right,” says Orlins. “When it’s right, it is every bit as spectacular as we hoped it would be.”

A 3D View From the Top
At the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, ESPN 3D debuted the 3D SkyCam. Despite some promising results, Orlins feels the technology still has a long way to go.

“I think it’s going to be phenomenal, but it wasn’t yet,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress. I doubt we’ll try to use it again until next football season. But it is something that we want to make work. It’s got to work with 2D; we’re not going to fly two Skycams, so it’s got to be a mount or some kind of system that works for both.”

1st-and-10 Line: Not the Easiest Part of the Puzzle
The 1st-and-10 line was perhaps the most obvious production feature missing from ESPN’s 3D football coverage this season. A ubiquitous element now taken for granted by most viewers, the technology has proved challenging to duplicate in 3D.

“[The 1st-and-10 line] is off the table until back into football season,” says Orlins. “We’ll definitely push it again for next year. We miss it. Of all the things out there, it’s the one that is noticed the most.”

ESPN has spearheaded extensive testing of the 3D 1st-and-10 line and discussed it with several vendors, but to no avail. Nonetheless, the network will continue to search for a solution in time for the 2011 season.

“It is going to be tough,” Orlins says. “The left and the right have to be absolutely perfect. If there is even a tiny inconsistency between the left and the right, it would ruin the entire thing. Then the other aspect is that we move our game camera all the time so you can’t set it at the beginning of the game. It is doable, but it’s not the easiest part of the puzzle to say the least.”

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