The Return of the Masters: CBS Sports, Augusta National Golf Club Innovate With Drones, New Robos

A different season, the lack of fans in the gallery give the production a new look and sound

When the Masters was postponed to November, there were some definite knowns. The spring azaleas would be traded in for fall colors. The lively yet respectful gallery would be replaced with silence. And COVID-19 protocols would be a big part of the plan to ensure that everyone was working as safely as possible.

When Augusta National Golf Club approached the CBS Sports production team about improving the production look and feel, Patty Power, executive VP, operations and engineering, CBS Sports, and the rest of the team were challenged to introduce production elements with new dramatic visuals that would bring back some of the missing emotion.

“We would not have been successful without the support and collaboration of our partners at Augusta National,” she says. “We knew this was going to be a massive undertaking, with all the challenges of producing during a pandemic with the health and safety protocols and testing. But we also knew we had an opportunity, together, to create something very special with the coverage.

“Our protocols were not just for all of us at CBS,” she continues. “They also included ESPN, the international partners, and the vendors as well. That was one of the main challenges, [along with] space for the onsite facilities and how were we going to social-distance everybody. And then on top of that, make everything work.”

Mike Francis, VP, remote engineering and planning, CBS Sports, considers the Masters probably the single most challenging production even without COVID-19. But, he notes, the COVID-19 protocols required a compound with more space, not only in the production trucks but in the office trailers.

“We had to interconnect more trucks, more offices, and our comms plan got more difficult,” he explains. “And that’s before we relied more heavily on the remote efforts, which were our most aggressive to date.”

As CBS has done all season for the PGA TOUR events, virtual graphics were produced in New Zealand. Says Francis, “We also had a whole room of people at All Mobile Video in New York doing the vast majority of our Top Tracer technology and ball tracing as well as supplemental camera shading.”

Every Shot, Every Hole, in conjunction with Augusta National, returned and also transitioned to a more remote operation. “Everything went really well from a technical standpoint in terms of planning and bringing it all together,” he says.

Along with the obvious challenges of dealing with COVID-19 is the challenge of an even more buttoned-up plan going into an event the size of the Masters.

“We don’t have the luxury of figuring out where we are going to put somebody when we get there,” says Francis. “Everybody needs an assigned working position ahead of time.”

The compound once again had NEP SSCBS at the heart of the production of the second nine, and NEP ND7 handled split duties for the first eight holes and the featured groups. Game Creek Video’s Edit 4 was onsite for Every Shot, Every Hole, and its Yogi produced the Amen Corner 4K HDR show and also was a supplemental workspace for quality control.

Game Creek Video’s Chesapeake handled the 4K HDR show for holes 15 and 16, NEP EN2 produced the new 4, 5, and 6 featured holes, and NEP Supershooter 8 served as a technology truck, housing the core tracing and virtual hardware systems that were not done remotely.

“Augusta National was also able to provide us more interior space in the IBC that was not being used,” says Francis. “Being able to utilize that space was a big help as we could spread people out and keep them in safe working environments.”

As for course coverage, without patrons, there was a chance to add in some new robotic cameras, such as on a tree at the 15the hole and another at the 16th tee.

“Those gave us some flexibility,” Francis points out.

The absence of patrons also allowed the CBS production team to deploy two drones as well as to build a Flycam along the 16th hole. Those efforts were spurred by Augusta National’s desire for some new looks in the production.

“The two drones gave us continuous live drone coverage from an inside-the-course perspective, as well as the exterior of the course to get more beauty shots,” says Jason Cohen, VP, remote technical operations, CBS Sports. “It was a vantage point of the course that has never been seen before. And then you combine that with the beautiful scenery of the fall foliage and the way the course was groomed. It was pretty special.”

The Flycam had a 4K camera and had a point-to-point run of more than 700 ft. from the 16th tee to the green.

“It was capturing some unbelievable shots as players walked down the fairway,” says Cohen. “It’s a low-risk, high-reward technology with a system that is non-obtrusive and adds tremendous value with incredibly beautiful shots of the course.”

He adds that the hidden MVP of the production was the RF jib. “It was able to find its way into nooks and crannies of the course and show the undulations of the greens in a way you’ve never really seen before. It’s not a revolutionary technology, but it showed things we’ve never seen before. And, when you combine it with the drone and the Flycam, it lended itself to people feeling like we were covering it really differently.”

Says Power, “To see the course from a completely different perspective with all of the cabins and the main clubhouse was really a highlight.”

The additional coverage provided by Every Shot, Every Hole also allowed some new product offerings.  CBS Sports and Augusta National were able to expand feature hole coverage to holes 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, 13, 15, and 16.

“There was also My Group, where we provided Every Shot video and metadata to Augusta National and IBM,” says Francis. “That allowed fans to essentially create their own featured group that they could follow online. It was a really good year, and everything went well.”

Says Power, “Mike and his team deserve a lot of kudos for just the engineering of it and getting it all together. And Jason and his folks in technical management kept everything in line.”

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