Live From FIFA World Cup: Fox Studio Operations Embrace AR, Home-Run Production
Red Square facility is designed to evoke the host country
One of the centerpieces of Fox Sports’ coverage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup is the network’s studio at Red Square, a facility that was a long time coming and has undergone some revisions since the early days of planning. And, as the tournament heads into its final seven matches, it is clear that the studio, with its backdrop of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral, has given the network and its studio production team and talent just what they need.
“We wanted to be in the center of Red Square, and HBS was able to secure this location, which is the signature spot and stamp of Russia itself,” says Rod Conti, VP, World Cup operations, Fox Sports. “And we worked to get as individual of a look as we can within our walls, running two shows a day and then working with other affiliates like Fox Sports Brazil, Sky Deutschland, and others.”
The overall footprint may be smaller than what Fox Sports has typically used to at a major event. At the Super Bowl, for example, it has much more freedom to define its presence. But the World Cup, like the Olympics, requires coordination with the host-broadcast operations and also with other rightsholders. As a result, the Fox studio is located next to a two-story complex where other rightsholders — the BBC, ITV, Telemundo, SBS, TV Azteca, and others — also have a presence.
“HBS does a real good job of handling requests and mandating protocols that keep things in line,” Conti says of sharing the space. “We thought it would be limiting, but it has turned out to be essential in this environment. And everyone on the engineering side of the networks here is sharing, getting creative, and working with each other.”
The studio measures 27 x 35 ft. and offers a number of looks, thanks to the backdrop of Red Square behind the set, a small patio, and a large Sony Crystal LED Integrated Structure (CLEDIS) display, which offers 180-degree viewing angles so that even the fans outside the studio can watch matches being played on the screen for the talent.
“The screen gives us something to shoot against,” adds Conti, “and the AR and tables play against the screen so the payoff has been nice: the matches look great in it.”
The original plan was for a two-floor studio facility, but that eventually was reduced to one floor with an expanded back-of-house area, so the onsite production team could be close to the talent and studio. Audio operators, camera shaders, and those involved with the robotic controls and augmented reality elements are all onsite.
Mark Roberts Motion Control provides camera support for Fox Sports telecasts, and fully robotic cameras support both shows from multiple positions. In addition, a fully automated Studio Bot is also onsite, with 240-degree range.
“The robotics have Sony HDC-4300 cameras on them,” he says, adding, “We went with robotics because space was more of a concern than anything.”
According to Kevin Callahan, VP, World Cup operations, Fox Sports, Canon has also played a role in the studio operations: its onsite support group has been busy ensuring that the lenses operate to the best of their ability.
“Their support has been fantastic as they make sure all of the lens are in tip-top shape,” he adds. “Also, all of our ENG lenses are Canon 4K lenses operating with Sony F55 cameras.”
The Fox Sports team at the studio comprises 175 people working in two shifts. The studio is a beehive of activity from around noon to 3:30 or 4 a.m. during match days, and the team onsite is complemented by a team at the IBC that produces FIFA World Cup Today and a team in Los Angeles that produces FIFA World Cup Tonight. With the show cut remotely, there is no need for a production-control room onsite at Red Square.
“The Zoom teleconferencing system is connecting us to everywhere,” Conti explains, “so that the talent can have their daily meetings with production.”
Two 10-Gbps circuits are used to send nine camera signals and audio signals to the IBC with the help of six Lawo V remotes, according to Bruno Brunelle, lead engineer-in-charge for the studio operations. There are also 65 feeds coming back to the studios.
One change since the early days of the tournament was the decision to pull out the glass wall that was originally located behind the main desk. Glass walls help with things like sound, rain, wind, or high temperatures, but the decision was eventually made to remove it and get more connected with the audience and outside.
“What it gains us is the ability to bring the outside in,” says Conti. “Losing the glass poses some risks, but the benefits outweigh them.”
The studio was designed by JHD Group, led by Jeff Hall, working closely with Gary Hartley, EVP, graphics, Fox Sports. Conti says that, as in Vancouver for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, one of the goals was to create a studio look that reflected not only the Fox Sports brand but also the nation hosting the event. Handmade and commissioned elements, such as hand-blown glass pieces suggesting different aspects of Russian culture, line the walls of the studio. And 22-carat gold leaf has also been put to use by the set builder, Stuttgart, Germany-based VBT. The World Cup is the first time Fox Sports has worked with VBT, which also builds structures for HBS.
“They took Gary’s vision and turned it into reality, and they did it with a fresh attitude,” says Conti. “And nothing can shine quite like gold when the light hits it.”
AR is another big element in the studio. Stype’s Red Spy camera tracking system can begin tracking within 20 seconds of being turned on and requires no calibration. It emits infrared light, which is reflected to the system by reflective markers installed around the studio. A VizRT graphics system inserts the AR elements.
“It has worked out really nicely,” says Conti, “and we’re happy with it.”
He expects that AR will continue to play a large role in studio operations: for example, helping a smaller studio look bigger, especially when tied to a green-screen element.
But, for all of the benefits AR offers, nothing can outdo being onsite and in the open air. “It feels more live and has a presence,” Conti notes, “We are doing as much as we can to bring the outside in.”
Next year, he and the team will be trying to replicate the look and the dynamic energy for another big event on the FIFA schedule: the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, to be held in France.