BCS Championship Production Illustrates ESPN 3D’s Rapid Growth

ESPN 3D’s college-football production model has matured to such an extent in its first two seasons that Monday’s BCS Championship 3D production in New Orleans would be almost unrecognizable to the original ESPN 3D crew from fall 2010. ESPN 3D’s college-football finale will feature a Skycam, lightweight wireless handhelds, ultra-slo-mo camera systems, and a 1st & Ten line — all techniques that were finicky, if not impossible, to use during those early days.

“This is really an accumulation of all the different technologies that we have brought to football on ESPN 3D this year,” says Phil Orlins, coordinating producer for ESPN 3D. “That includes heavy use of robotics on the sidelines and goalposts, Skycam, ultra slo-motion, and the 1st& Ten line, which is still in its evolutionary phase, but we hope to use it a reasonable amount of time throughout the coverage.”

5D Comes of Age on the Football Field
While the technology has grown by leaps and bounds, it is the growth of ESPN’s 3D workflow that is most impressive. Just a year ago, the use of the 5D production model (a single-truck 2D/3D setup uses one crew and relies on the left-eye feed from the 3D show for the primary 2D telecast) seemed inconceivable for a sport played on a sprawling field that does not lend itself to a 2D/3D production.

However, Orlins and company continued to tweak the 3D football coverage to facilitate the 5D model, and, in November, ESPN offered its first 5D production of a football game.

“We didn’t start the season with 5D football scheduled, but we ended up doing five games between Nov. 1 and Dec. 20, which is amazing,” says Orlins. “Obviously, we would not be doing that if we weren’t making a lot of progress.”

Nonetheless, 5D for football is by no means perfected yet, as proved by the fact that ESPN 3D will produce Monday’s BCS Championship game independently from the 2D show. Although the two productions will share a jib (2D will take the left-eye feed) and the Skycam (outfitted with a 2D camera and a 3D rig) that will be controlled by the 2D show, the 5D model will not be in place for ESPN’s highest-profile football game of the year.

“We will not be using 5D. We like to live on the edge, but not at the BCS Championship,” jokes Orlins. “That said, we are extremely confident that 5D [is a viable option] for high-profile [football] games.”

Both shows will feature a single set of announcers (Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit) calling the BCS Championship action, as has become the norm for ESPN 3D shows.

A Streamlined Setup and Strike
The production model is not the only aspect of ESPN 3D that has evolved significantly. Once seen as a grinding, meticulous setup, 3D shows are now among the quickest setup in the production compound.

“We are truly able to work in a timeframe now that is comparable to a 2D timeframe,” says Orlins. “In fact, on quite a few occasions, we have arrived after the 2D crew arrived, and it has not been much of scramble.”

This high-velocity setup will be put to the test this weekend at the Superdome, where the New Orleans Saints take on the Lions Saturday night, giving ESPN and ESPN 3D just a day and a half to set up shop.

A Season of Quick Turnarounds
ESPN 3D’s college-football slate was packed this year, with 26 games on the docket, and every single telecast was produced out of NEP SS32, ESPN 3D’s dedicated mobile unit. The bowl season was even more hectic: the network delivered six games in three weeks, including three games in five days as part of an Orlando-to-Atlanta-to-Orlando trek.

“We were ambitious or insane — depending on how you look at it — in planning to do 26 games from one 3D facility. That kind of aggressive scheduling and setup time was a massive challenge that I think we met very well. [For example, at the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta], we were able to arrive at noon on [Friday Dec. 30] and comfortably do a game on the evening of [Saturday Dec. 31]. That shows how far the technology and our understanding of the technology have come.”

Challenges Remain
ESPN 3D’s technology complement and production workflow may be in a much better place today than they were at the network’s launch in June 2010, but several challenges remain, including the not-yet-perfected 1st& Ten Line.

“We have made a lot of progress with the first-down line, but it is something that we still need to work on,” says Orlins. “We will continue to tweak it after this year to get it perfect. We need to master that 100% if we are ever going to get to the point of a complete 5D production. That is crucial.”

In addition, despite the impressive visual results from the 3D Skycam, Orlins continues to debate whether to alter its current three-camera setup (two for the 3D rig, one for the 2D show).

“Skycam has been done regularly in 3D for the first time this football season, and it is a pretty spectacular 3D shot,” he says. “But we may look to adjust that [three-camera] setup into a pair of cameras, with 2D taking the left eye, similar to what we do with our other cameras for 5D.”

ESPN 3D’s coverage of the BCS Championship from New Orleans begins at 8:30 p.m. ET on Monday Jan. 9. 

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