MLB All-Star Roundup, Part 1: Cameras, Graphics, and Studio Sets

The MLB All-Star Game show is always a showcase for cutting-edge production tools and tech toys. Tech vendors turned out in droves to Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, providing specialty cameras, virtual graphics, unique studio set designs, High Dynamic Range demos, and much more to Fox Sports, ESPN, MLB Network, and other broadcasters covering the festivities. Here is a brief look at some of the tech highlights at MLB All-Star 2015.

3g Wireless Takes Viewers Inside the Derby With CatcherCam
ESPN teamed with 3g Wireless to launch UmpireCam during ESPN’s College World Series coverage last month and brought the technology to Sunday’s Celebrity Softball and Monday’s Home Run Derby telecasts, this time worn by the catcher. The minuscule camera, which weighs under a pound, is mounted at the top center of the catcher’s mask; the battery (two-hour lifespan) and transmitter are on each side of the mask.

3g Wireless tech Neil Lague works on the CatcherCam worn during ESPN’s Home Run Derby coverage.

3g Wireless tech Neil Lague works on the CatcherCam worn during ESPN’s Home Run Derby coverage.

“It’s something we believe is a very important shot for baseball,” says ESPN MLB Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins. “Your cameras are not as close for baseball as they are [for sports like] football and basketball, with sidelines. [With] baseball, you [have] sort of a 60-ft.-radius moat around the action. But this offers an optimum view of the most important aspect of the game, so we view it as a priority. 3g has been extremely responsive to our needs and various requests, and I think it’s a perfect addition to Home Run Derby.”

ChyronHego Powers MLBAM Statcast
ChyronHego was on hand supporting MLB Advanced Media’s Statcast system, which was used by Fox Sports during the All-Star Game and MLB Network’s MLB Tonight: All-Star Batting Practice coverage (it was slated to be used during ESPN’s Home Run Derby coverage as well but wasn’t because of a last-minute technical glitch).

ChyronHego plays a key role in MLBAM’s Statcast operation.

ChyronHego plays a key role in MLBAM’s Statcast operation.

MLBAM deployed two Statcast systems for the Fox telecast, instead of just the single system traditionally used on MLB on Fox productions. This required additional ChyronHego hardware in the rack room at Great American Ballpark and an additional Replay Builder system in the Statcast production room. Traditionally for MLB on Fox telecasts, Statcast has access to high-home, third-base, and high-third cameras but added high home, a fixed high-home ultra-wide shot, and centerfield angles for All-Star.

“We’re going to be sort of experimenting with more camera angles,” said Kevin Prince on Monday. “And we will have an additional operator on the replay system so that we can get more camera angles and present those to the producer/director.

Statcast has now played a role in dozens of live MLB telecasts with Fox, MLB Network, and, beginning last weekend, TBS. With that in mind, Prince notes that the system and how broadcasters use it continue to evolve.

“Fox started out very tentatively, and, as they’ve begun to understand the enhancement and storytelling, they now are adding more Statcasts every week,” says Prince. “We had more than 20 Statcast events on-air [on MLB on TBS] over the weekend, so we are very pleased with that. It’s coming along very nicely.”

CP Communications Orchestrates Massive RF Effort
CP Communications provided a variety of wireless RF cameras to networks onsite: two handhelds and a Steadicam for ESPN, two handhelds to Fox Sports, two for MLB Network (a handheld and a HatCam worn by talent while they walked around batting practice), and a handheld for Japanese broadcaster NHK. MLB Networks’ HatCam also provided a unique challenge and opportunity for CP.

CP Communications President Michael Mason (right) and Senior Engineer Frank Rafka

CP Communications President Michael Mason (right) and Senior Engineer Frank Rafka

“The camera is a lot smaller, the transmitter is a lot smaller, the batteries are a lot smaller, everything is smaller,” notes CP Communications President Michael Mason. “The challenge is making sure that we’ve got the ability of getting back the signals because you have to hide the antennas in the helmet so they don’t show.”

In addition, CP handled all the RF coordination for MLB and the broadcasters at Great American Ballpark — no easy task at an event the size of MLB All-Star.

“Before we even got to town, we had 275 frequencies in the database,” Mason explains. “So frequencies are slim pickings here. You would think that, in Cincinnati, the TV market is not that large, but it really is. It’s pretty congested in squeezing everybody in and getting everybody to use their wireless [appropriately]. With all the ENG crews that show up to a worldwide event, it really is a little bit of a challenge but one that we are up to.”

On the audio side, CP deployed an army of wired and wireless effects mics for all three networks and the world feed. In addition, player mics played a significant role in ESPN’s Home Run Derby and All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game coverage.

Filmwerks Gets Creative With Fox, MLB Network Sets
Fox worked with Filmwerks (which recently acquired Fox’s longtime studio-set constructor, Kernwer) to create its All-Star Game set in the centerfield stands. Centered between the PNC Power Stacks (steamboat-style smokestacks that blow out pyrotechnics and fireworks after big plays and Reds victories), the set was built into the ballpark structure using ModTruss. The base was 20 x 24 ft., the roof overhanging at 30 x 20 ft. (which came in handy during the torrential downpours Monday afternoon).

Filmwerks built Fox Sports’ set directly into the ballpark’s Power Stacks in centerfield.

Filmwerks built Fox Sports’ set directly into the ballpark’s Power Stacks in centerfield.

“This is a special structure that not many other people could have done, because we had to actually build the ModTruss around the existing structure,” says Filmwerks Project Manager Bill Talaska. “It’s a very specialized product that a normal truss would not have been able to do.”

Filmwerks also built MLB Network’s on-field set, which featured a new hydraulic motor system that significantly reduces set and strike time — which was key given the limited time available just before first pitch and after the last out. The motorized cart featured three hydraulic motors and could move at 8 mph, saving MLB Network time and labor. The structure could be raised as low as 12 ft. or as high as 20 ft.

“We decided to take it to another level to where it can drive itself on and off the field with four-wheel steering and the ability to turn around or rotate very easily in a direction,” says Talaska. “We used it for the MLB set, which was somewhat small, but we can use it basically as a base structure for all of our on-field structures. We can put that under any size, and now, rather than people pushing the set on and off the field, it’s driving on its own.”

Filmwerks also built MLB Network’s secondary set on the concourse level and its red-carpet set outside the ballpark.

Fletcher Sports Returns With Robotic, Ultra-Slo-Mo Cameras
Fletcher Sports was back in the All-Star habit in Cincinnati, providing a total of 14 robotic and ultra-slo-mo cameras. For ESPN’s Home Run Derby coverage, it provided an I-MOVIX ultra-slo-mo system and Sony HDC-P1 robos at mid home, behind the mound, two low on the field, scoreboard, and beauty-shot positions. During the All-Star Game, Fox deployed Fletcher robos at mid home, in the booth, four dugout positions, and the scoreboard.

“It’s always great to be part of such a large event on multiple networks,” says Fletcher Sports VP Dan Grainge. “The cooperation required to get things changed over from one show to the next is incredible.  We look forward to it every year. While it’s the high-speed replays that get all the buzz, it’s really the shots in front of the batters that tell the story. It shows how hard the batters are working to hit those home runs. There is no other way to get that close during the event without the robos.”

Grass Valley Tests HDR Feeds
Grass Valley teamed with Fox Sports to conduct High Dynamic Range tests during the All-Star festivities.

Grass Valley and Fox teamed up to conduct side-by-side HDR-vs.-SDR tests at All-Star.

Grass Valley and Fox teamed up to conduct side-by-side HDR-vs.-SDR tests at All-Star.

A Grass Valley LDX 86 Universe camera running at 1080p was deployed in high centerfield to capture footage both before and during the game. The test derived HDR and SDR feeds from the same camera head, then sent them though identical transmission systems as 10-bit data to side-by-side Dolby displays inside one of Fox’s Grass Valley FX trucks: a 1,000-Nit display and a 300-Nit display. A Grass Valley K2 Dyno replay system played back the footage when necessary. Fox technology executives and Grass Valley personnel were onsite to monitor the tests and chronicle findings from the demo.

Grass Valley did similar side-by-side tests with HBS at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Vancouver, comparing UHD, HDR, 6X slow motion, and 1080p in various configurations.

Inertia Unlimited Deploys Three DirtCams
Although Inertia Unlimited’s DirtCam has been a staple of Fox’s MLB All-Star coverage for several years, the network took the RF in-ground system to a whole new level. Fox deployed a record three DirtCam positions: the traditional home-plate spot and first and second bases. In addition, Inertia Unlimited added remote pan and iris control. This not only made for a higher-quality image but allowed the Fox production team to create ground-level angles never possible before, such as a runner sliding into second, a runner leading off at second, or a shortstop’s millisecond-fast snag of a line drive.

One of three Inertia Unlimited cameras deployed for Fox Sports, this one at first base.

One of three Inertia Unlimited cameras deployed for Fox Sports, this one at first base.

“The combination of having a better-quality image with the fact that now, when a runner leads off, [we] go with the runner makes me terribly excited about the possibility of what we’re going to see,” says Inertia Unlimited President Jeff Silverman. “And, when he runs back, we can go back to the bag.”

He adds that, after the conclusion of last year’s MLB Postseason, he went to work “rebuilding the system entirely.” He enlisted Integrated Microwave Technologies to provide an RF Central microLite transmitter, which allows the operators in the truck to pan and paint any of the three dirt cameras through a single data channel. UK-based Bradley Engineering provided circuitry for the robotic and iris remote controls. The revamped system still features the same nearly invisible aboveground profile and lens, but it is capable of rotating up to 200 degrees and boasts improved resistance to reflections from stadium lights.

“I think that, over the last year or two, the DirtCam has come of age, from being a bit of a gimmick camera to something that you can actually work in with production,” says Mike Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports. “And now that Jeff has enabled the panning of the camera, pan left and right, that would be great.”

Inertia Unlimited also provided Fox with five high-speed systems, including a Vision Research Phantom 4K Flex outside the dugout, running at 1,000 fps into an AJA Corvid Ultra with TruZoom, and an X-Mo Phantom, running at 2,000-3,000 fps at low first and low third, respectively.

Sportvision Provides Virtual Ads for International Feeds
Sportvision was back at All-Star, providing virtual-ad insertion for the behind-home-plate signage within MLB’s various international feeds.

Sportvision’s Andrew Lorenz inside SV15

Sportvision’s Andrew Lorenz inside SV15

Sportvision rolled out two Sprinter vans for the operation: SV14 and SV15. SV14 was dedicated to Fox Sports digital ad insertion (on the center and tight-center cameras) and a customized feed for Canadian-rights holder Rogers Sportsnet, which takes the Fox Sports broadcast feed but inserts its own virtual-ad signage. SV15 inserted virtual ads into the centerfield camera on international feeds (Dominican, Asia, and non–Rogers-customized Canada), with an additional dedicated stream for Japanese broadcaster NHK, which cut its own show, using the MLB world feed and its own unilateral camera feeds.

“Basically, we take in a single camera feed, and we have master/slave computers that output various different versions of the ads to the various markets,” says Andrew Lorenz, manager, broadcast production and operations, Sportvision. “It’s an instrumented system, so we have our proprietary pan head and lens encoders installed, which gives us a much higher-quality product than you would get with a vision-only–based system.”

Click here for MLB All-Star Roundup, Part 2: The Trucks.

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