X Games Austin Live: 4K, ncam, and Plenty More Bleeding-Edge Fun

With a new host city comes a new bag of tricks, and ESPN has plenty of those on hand this week for Summer X Games in Austin, TX. In addition to extensive 4K testing and shooting, ESPN is debuting the ncam camera-tracking system and the ultra-small Antelope Pico high-speed POV camera. And the Sport Science team and host John Brenkus are on hand to produce their first-ever fast-turnaround segments.

4K Is About More Than Just Tests
Over the past three years, X Games has become a prime 4K testing site for ESPN Emerging Technology (ET). In Aspen, ET rolled out two 4K cameras exclusively for testing and comparison (different frame rates, angles, lighting, focus, etc.). In Austin, ESPN upped the ante, deploying five 4K cameras with the intent of capturing footage to compose a full X Games 4K sizzle reel.

The Emerging Technology team and the ncam setup: (from left) Michael Zigmont, Larry Jones, and Michael Gay

The Emerging Technology team and the ncam setup: (from left) Michael Zigmont, Larry Jones, and Michael Gay

“What is different about this time is, we’re actually shooting more in terms of trying to put together a sizzle reel to create something that we can use internally that looks like an actual product,” says Samuel Reisner, senior development engineer, ESPN Technology Innovation. “So we chose the events, scheduled it out, and found more operators. We are going to set up in a few different locations and try to get different angles, reaction shots ¾ things that look more like a real broadcast.”

The Emerging Technology team’s 4K tool belt comprises two Sony F65s, two RED ONEs, and a Canon EOS C500 complete with an Astrodesign 4K recorder. All three camera models are shooting in 60 fps and are deployed in various handheld, shoulder-mount, and Steadicam configurations depending on the situation. ET and Technicolor (which is assisting on the project) are working with a wide range of lenses, including FUJINON Zoom and Canon EF lenses.

“Lensing is still an issue,” says Reisner. “Focus is one of the biggest challenges no matter what, and we’re doing a lot of research and trying to find the best ways to address that.”

The ncam bar is integrated into a Steadicam rig this week at X Games.

The ncam bar is integrated into a Steadicam rig this week at X Games.

In addition, ET is deploying the Sony F65 to capture a limited amount of 8K footage and 4K/120 fps for testing (and the latter could be used for slow-motion shots in the sizzle reel).

“This is a great opportunity for us to use at X Games, where we have access and we have the rights, to acquire the [8K and 4K/120 fps] footage. Even if we can’t yet display it, we can use it for evaluation, so that, when that opportunity arises, we are there with [content] as pristine as possible.”

ncam Takes VFX to the Next Level
ESPN Emerging Technology’s Neartime VFX (Visual Effects) system has long been a staple of X Games coverage, allowing ESPN to insert virtual graphics that appear to be part of the actual environment on a quick-turnaround basis. However, ET is looking to take it to the next level by integrating these elements into live coverage via the ncam camera-tracking system.

“I’m absolutely positive that this is going to be a game-changer,” says X Games Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins. “When you stop and think about the possibilities — like an athlete’s giant head busting out of the bottom of the mega-ramp — it’s a very cool new tool.”

The system, which was deployed by Fox Sports for its Super Bowl XLVIII and Daytona 500 coverage, features a nine-sensor crossbar mounted on the camera (it is in a Steadicam configuration in Austin) and supplies real-time data to its associated tracking server. The system provides complete position and rotation information, plus focal length and focus, and is compatible with any virtual-graphics system (ESPN is testing multiple rendering devices in conjunction with ncam at X Games).

The RED 4K camera in a Steadicam configuration at the X Games Vert competition in downtown Austin

The RED 4K camera in a Steadicam configuration at the X Games Vert competition in downtown Austin

“For the first time, we are able to put virtual graphics on a Steadicam shot,” says Michael Gay, chief technologist, ESPN Emerging Technology. “We are going to be driving it with live data to make the graphics appear integrated with the environment. The sensors create a [data map] of the environment, and we use that data to find out where the camera is and where the [object] is. So now we can place virtual objects on actual courses.”

ESPN is deploying the system on the Big Air, Street, and Park courses and will be actively looking to get it on-air during the live telecast.

“Ncam benefits us in two ways. In terms of post, it can make what we do with VFX faster by giving us the tracking data and allowing us to turn it around faster,” says Michael Ziegmont, manager, concept development, ESPN Emerging Technology. “And it is also the next generation of VFX, bringing the live energy of the event into the cool form factors and the graphics that we have always done.”

The Smaller the Better
ESPN is also thinking small at X Games, testing the Antelope PICO Extreme Slow Motion + Live camera system provided by Fletcher. Despite an extremely small form factor, it can record at up to 350 fps. Based on a ⅔-in. CMOS 2K chip, the PICO also features a technology that eliminates lighting-related flicker in real time. The camera will be deployed inside one of the pits on the Street course.

Technicolor's Pierre Routhier mans a Canon EOS C500 4K camera.

Technicolor’s Pierre Routhier mans a Canon EOS C500 4K camera.

“A camera that small with the ability to do high speed is a very interesting concept and has a lot of potential,” says Steve Raymond, associate director, event operations, ESPN. “You can get some very compelling footage in some spots that you may not have been able to otherwise.”

ESPN is also working with Broadcast Sports Inc. to test out  a new Marshall Electronics HD-SDI 1080p mini camera (provided by Joseph Electronics) in a wireless RF configuration.

“We need to get an idea of what it is capable of because the form factor is perfect,” says Raymond. “And the fact that we don’t have to convert from HDMI to HD-SDI is big.”

Camera Control Over IP
ESPN is also deploying Sony’s NXLIP55 IP live-production unit, which can transmit up to four genlocked HD video streams (along with tally and intercom) over a single LAN cable.

The Sports Science “lab” at Circuit of the Americas

The Sports Science “lab” at Circuit of the Americas

“The original reason we asked to demo it is, we didn’t have any fiber up to the top of the observation tower at CoTA, but they could give us a 1-GB Ethernet connection,” says Raymond. “So we knew we could make that work with this box.”

Sports Science Lab
The Sports Science team is on hand cooking up its unique breed of segments — which are usually long-term postproduction projects — in a quick-turnaround fashion. The team (Brenkus, a producer, editor, and graphics creator) are tasked with producing its graphics-heavy, science-driven segments on the fly, using a combination of Apple Final Cut Pro 7 and Adobe After Effects.

“This is the first time Sports Science has been in a live environment,” says Orlins. “They are tied into our IP Portal to access material and are looking for great moments. When someone does a groundbreaking trick, they will create a segment that explains the physics of it in a 30- to 60-second clip. It’s perfect for X Games.”

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