Sky, ESPN Lay Out 3D Vision, Lessons Learned

The worldwide leaders in creating 3D sports content, ESPN and Sky 3D from BSkyB, took to the stage at the CCW Conference in New York City to discuss the lessons learned during their first full year of 3D-network operations. Moderated by NEP Broadcasting CTO George Hoover, the discussion ranged from out-of-home viewing to camera positions to which sports are best suited for 3D and more.

“The pubs were the first place we broadcast because we believed that, with 3D, seeing is believing,” said Steve Cassy, director, Sky 3D. “You can have a poster or ad in a newspaper, but viewers cannot understand it until they see it. So that was a big opportunity for us to have more than 1 million people experience 3D before we started delivering it to homes.”

The 3D experience is currently available in more than 2,500 pubs in the UK. Each pub can decide how many 3D sets and what type of 3D sets they want to have installed, but Cassy said that one or two passive sets is the most popular configuration. The use of passive technology lowers the required investment because passive glasses cost a couple of dollars vs. $80 per pair for active glasses.

“Some have a £5 deposit on the glasses, and then the viewer gets the deposit back after the match,” he noted.

One of the challenges, he added, is helping the pubs figure out at what height and viewing angle to place the set for the best viewing experience. “We give guidance, but it isn’t our right to stipulate where the sets should be placed.”

Cassy recalled the first day that BSkyB finally hit homes: Oct. 1, 2010, when the network kicked off coverage of the Ryder Cup golf tournament in 3D. Only 47 minutes into the broadcast, the heavens opened and canceled play. For the next seven hours, the on-air crew filled time from the broadcast cabin, not exactly the “wow” factor the network was hoping for. But, by the end of the tournament four days later, the network had delivered the goods, with more than 20 3D rigs capturing 44 hours of golf action in what was, at the time, the single largest 3D sports production.

Technical Foundation
BSkyB 3D sports coverage week in and week out is produced out of two Telegenic production trucks that have approximately 20 3D rigs from 3ality Technica and a crew comprising an engineer, a rig technician, two stereographers, and six convergence operators.

“Football, or soccer, is the biggest sport in the UK and the one that is driving the audience and is our focus,” said Cassy of a sport that has been broadcast in 3D for more than 350 hours in the past year. “But there are some sports that do look better than others, like the Horse of the Year show-jumping event, which took place last week. It isn’t the biggest sport, but it demonstrates the wow factor of 3D and can help drive PR and publicity. The reports were that it looked sensational and you could really get a sense of the size and strength of the horses.”

Darts is another sport that benefits from 3D. A 3D camera mounted over the board gives viewers a sense of what it feels like to be a dartboard without risking injury.

“We are trying to use as much new technology as possible and have learned a lot and have also made plenty of mistakes, but we’re still learning,” he said. “There is a lot of innovation in the rigs, and we have been playing around with graphics. And our coverage is very strong right now.”

ESPN Perspective
ESPN 3D senior producer Josh Hoffman said that ESPN’s 15 months of 3D broadcasts have also been a time of learning and experimentation. The network’s key partners are NEP Supershooters and CAMERON-PACE Group, which provides 3D rigs and robotic cameras that are constantly being revamped and improved.

“We have a 3D camera that is mounted on the bottom of the Flycam for college football and also a MastCam, which is mounted 30 ft. above the field,” he added. “And, for the NBA, robotic cameras just above the scorer’s table and the vomitories give us some predictability in coverage. That is one of the biggest challenges: balancing where we want cameras and people paying to be at the game.”

Camera Location
Striking the right balance in camera placement also requires understanding which camera angles are most effective for 3D viewers. Traditional camera positions in an upper or mid-level deck are often too far away to deliver a quality 3D perspective.

“For soccer, we are much lower and closer to the pitch,” said Cassy.  “And we cut more slowly, have fewer replays, and avoid fast pans so that the viewer can get immersed in the picture.”

Hoffman agreed on the need for greater proximity. “Wider shots don’t allow for the emotional 3D shots,” he pointed out. “You have to walk into the stadium or arena with very few preconceived notions of where to put cameras. And you have to look around the stadium and understand what you are looking for in 3D, and you have to be willing to build from scratch.”

The real trick, however, is not only driving a quality 3D experience but remembering job one for a sports broadcast network: documenting the game.

“You can never get away from that,” said Hoffman. “And we want to make sure that there is nothing they see in HD that they can’t see in 3D.”

Unified Productions
That doesn’t mean having the exact same camera angles as the HD broadcast but rather making sure viewers can follow the action in a similar way. That is also one of the benefits of unified productions, where the 2D and 3D productions share camera positions and crew members. An experiment by ESPN earlier this year proved their viability for basketball, and boxing on Friday nights has also been produced with only one set of cameras.

“On Nov. 1, we will broadcast a football game produced the same way, with one production operating in the 3D truck,” Hoffman added. “It will also have a virtual first-down line, a hurdle we need to clear.”

With respect to future technical developments, if the past is prologue, 3D-production professionals can expect rigs and cameras to become lighter and more capable.

“We now have a beam-splitter handheld rig, so we can get very close to the action, and it weighs less than 25 lbs.,” said Hoffman. “And camera rigs that weighed 50 lbs. last year now weigh less than 20 lbs. and are reasonable enough to carry the entire time.”

In many respects, the production issues have been sorted out. Cost issues remain, but, as larger and more popular sports make the transition to 3D, the viewers will follow. Unfortunately, one popular sport in Europe and the UK, Formula One, will not be produced in 3D in the near future.

“It’s ultimately down to the governing body and the central production company that handles Formula One,” said Cassy. “We would love to see it, as it would bring a whole new way of watching a sport that has embraced technology like none other. So, if you ask for our view, we would support it.”

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters


The Latest in Sports Video Production & Technology
in Your Inbox for FREE

Daily Email Newsletters Monday - Friday