SVG Sit-Down: Chris Calcinari, VP, Remote Operations, ESPN and ABC Sports

Chris Calcinari oversees and manages operations for the thousands of live sports events produced by ESPN and ABC each year. SVG recently sat down with him to discuss the launch of Monday Night Football’s new quartet of state-of-the-art production trucks, the increasingly crowded state of the cable sports market, and the future of 3D, 1080p, and 4K production in sports programming.

Chris Calcinari

Chris Calcinari

How do you view the legacy of ESPN 3D from a production and technology standpoint? What can the ESPN Operations team take away from the advances of the 5D production model?
ESPN3D challenged us on many levels and was also a great learning experience. The project evolved over time from a side-by-side (two separate productions) production model into the 5D (single production) model that was revolutionary, much more efficient, and obviously more cost-effective. We actually produced some very big events in this manner, including the Winter X Games, which garnered two Emmy Awards for ESPN for Outstanding Remote Technical Team. It is quite different walking into a live mobile unit and seeing everyone wearing 3D glasses. That is how we produced our events. The 2D production was simply one eye of the 3D signal.

You need to approach a 3D production carefully. All of the truck resources are actually cut in half to support the two signals required for each video source. On the flip side, everything in the field is doubled, as each camera position is actually two cameras. We learned a lot about the different tools required for 3D, such as the mechanical 3D rigs, smaller-form-factor cameras and associated lensing (used for the handhelds), dual-link signal flow, monitoring (passive vs. active), frame-accurate encoding (required to send two signals back to MCR simultaneously), and so on. We also spent a lot of time with innovative companies such as the CAMERON PACE Group. They have a lot of smart, creative people who developed great products and think differently. I believe our experience working with them has made us better.

When do you see 4K sports telecasts becoming a reality? And what about 8K? And, in the meantime, how valuable do you believe 4K tools can be within HD productions (for example, stitching and zoomed-in HD replays)?
The value of higher-resolution delivery will likely be debated for quite some time. I don’t have a crystal-ball-type prediction on the timeline for 4K or 8K. Clearly, ESPN and many others are testing the available tools and working with manufacturers on their development. The tools are indeed coming along. As an example, we had some people in Rio over the summer observing the first multicamera 4K remote production at the FIFA Confederations Cup. There were some major limitations, but, on a large monitor, the image quality is impressive. On the remote-production end, we have tested 4K cameras for resolution value, such as zoomed-in replays. You really need the perfect play (and angle) to take place, where you can zoom in on a player’s foot or the ball crossing a line, in order to take full advantage of that type of resolution-based enhancement. Frankly, you may go a few games and not get one tally, which makes the investment a difficult proposition.

ESPN was an early innovator when it came to 1080p telecasts. With all the buzz about 4K, is this still an initiative for ESPN? Will we see 1080p telecasts in the near future?
On the remote-operations side, we have been working with our various vendors to ensure that new-equipment acquisitions or mobile-unit builds are 1080p-capable. There are still one or two pieces of gear that are not quite there yet, but we hope to do remote acquisition in the 1080p standard in the future so that we are delivering the highest-quality signal back to our facility for archiving. The reality is that a complete end-to-end 1080p workflow exists today. 4K is not quite there yet.

The new Monday Night Football fleet of mobile units will debut next week. Can you give us a preview of these units? How will these state-of-the-art trucks enhance the quality of MNF telecasts?
We are very excited about the new [NEP] EN-1 Monday Night Football fleet. The planning for this mobile-production facility started close to two years ago with the simple goal of building an environment that provides the best available resources today with the ability to support the tools and workflow requirements of tomorrow. NEP and their team of designers, engineers, and fabricators did a great job with this project. We believe that EN-1 will set a new standard for big-event trucks.

The overall system is four 53-ft. double-expando trailers that operate as one. The size and capability of the trucks is the first thing that catches your attention. Two examples: the total workspace is roughly 3,300 sq. ft., and the router is the single largest EQX router built by Evertz to date, with 576 inputs and 2,088 outputs. The trucks are built to efficiently support our cross-platform content initiatives at each game. Within the EN-1 production environment, there are facilities and workflows to support the game, on-site studio, ESPN Deportes, International, and social media. Having every one of these entities supported out of the same facility creates a collaborative environment of sharing and creativity.

Other major components include 24 Sony HDC cameras that can also be used as 2X SSMO sources when running in 720p. There are also 15 EVS XT3 servers and one XT3 SpotBox. The main switcher is a Grass Valley Kayenne Elite with multiple single-M/E sub panels and an aux bus supporting studio, subswitching, and ESPN Deportes. The main game audio desk is a Calrec Apollo digital console, which is supported by an Artemis Beam handling submix. The finishing touches in the truck were handled with great care by the NEP designers. Each workstation has individual lighting control; air-conditioning is equally distributed throughout the space; monitors can easily be programmed by an individual operator depending on how many sources he would like to see at the same time, etc. Important to note is that this resource will also seamlessly move in to our NBA Playoffs and Finals coverage, as well as our domestic X Games events.

What production element/technology has been the biggest game changer in your mind over the past 12-24 months?
My group really focuses on the core tools required to cover remote events. I think the big game changer in terms of coverage is high-motion cameras. If you watched our Sunday-night Yankees-Red Sox game a few weeks back where A-Rod was hit by a pitch, the high-motion replays were some of the most compelling shots. A-Rod’s reaction as the ball hit him and the emotion of Girardi’s argument were all captured very dramatically. We have also starting using these cameras in a split-block configuration, placing them behind the glass on our NBA games and on the net behind home plate for MLB games. These cameras have really improved over the last few years and have become a staple for our higher-end shows.

Behind the scenes, the proliferation of fiber-optic cable has been a game changer that allows for very efficient signal distribution, quick setup and teardown, and the ability to move signals long distances. We have also focused heavily on file transfer, which allows us to send melt clips back to home base while the show is going on, avoiding lengthy post-event melt edits and costly real-time baseband transmission of the material.

How does the skyrocketing cost of sports rights affect production operations — or does it? Do networks feel the need to pour more resources into the production budget to create a higher-quality telecast to justify the price they are paying for these properties?
I think it certainly impacts the way that we think about things on the operations end. I believe that we need to be as efficient as possible so that we are supplying our production partners with the best tools and workflows available within our budgets. As costs escalate on the rights side, efficiency will continue to be a focus on the execution side.

With the launch of Fox Sports 1 and the ever increasing number of cable sports networks, how can ESPN differentiate itself in its live telecasts and remain the leader in this space?
We simply need to stay focused on the habits of our viewers and the technologies that they use to consume our products. As habits and devices change, we simply need to ensure that our high-quality content exists wherever the viewer wishes to consume it.

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing remote sports production today? The greatest success?
There are now many platforms that require event-based content. Many of these platforms require production to be done as efficiently as possible. The traditional execution models that we have used for our bigger events are not the model that we will be using on smaller productions being solely distributed, say, over an Internet platform. We are going to need a toolbox of solutions going forward, each one of which will be pertinent to the business model for the particular platform being served. School-based control rooms, non-traditional smaller mobile units, small flypacks, IP delivery are all options that will be used.

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