‘A Blank Canvas‘: NBC Sports Brings Live Drones, High-Speed Cameras To Paint Cinematic Broadcast of NHL Games at Lake Tahoe
With no fans allowed onsite, NHL takes a swing at unique, made-for-TV production
If you work long enough in this business, you might get the chance to be a part of a show that’s truly once-in-a-lifetime. Perhaps it’s an incredible moment that fans will never forget or a championship moment when it feels like the whole world is watching.
Crew members at NBC Sports and the National Hockey League will get a chance just like that this weekend, when a professional hockey game will be broadcast live from an environment that U.S. sports television, perhaps, has never seen before — and may never see again.
The NHL is hosting NHL Outdoors, a doubleheader of games — the Vegas Golden Knights face the Colorado Avalanche at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday; the Philadelphia Flyers battle the Boston Bruins at 2 p.m. on Sunday — played on a rink erected on the banks of scenic Lake Tahoe.
No roof. No fans. Just hockey and the great outdoors.
“It’s as close to a blank canvas as we’ve ever had for one of these outdoor games,” says Charlie Dammeyer, who will direct both games this weekend for NBC Sports alongside his producer partner, Matt Marvin. “That’s the exciting part. I’m a big fan of being able to take people places that they can’t go. You’re going to see some shots that you’ve never seen in a hockey game before. I’m excited to do it. The whole crew is excited to do it. We’re really looking forward to it.”
Live drones? New camera positions?
Hockey like you've never seen it before.
— NHL (@NHL) February 19, 2021
The site — which is built along the 18th fairway of Edgewood Tahoe Resort in Stateline, NV — offers a unique opportunity to try a wealth of new production ideas, and NBC will take advantage of it, deploying upwards of 40 cameras (comparable to most Winter Classics the network has broadcast in the past).
There are notable firsts in these shows, which mark the first time NBC Sports will use live drones on a hockey broadcast. In addition, high-speed super-slo-mo cameras will be in positions never used in hockey, including on a large jib behind one of the nets.
It’s shaping up to be a truly made-for-TV sports event and with no fans in attendance, it was an opportunity for the league to try something unusual with purely television in mind.
“The broadcast piece of this is why we are here,” says Steve Mayer, SVP/chief content officer, NHL. “This is a television event, and we’re going to have a broadcast like our fans have never seen before. We’ve never experienced something like this. Because of how unique it is, it’s going to resonate not only with hockey fans but with sports fans.”
A First for Live Drone Coverage
Many of the most eye-catching live shots of the broadcast with come from two drones: a large, heavier-duty drone carrying a robotic Sony P50; a small, speedy FPV drone that can zip around at up to 70 mph.
NBC Sports is partnering with Beverly Hills Aerials on the drone deployment, and it’s a very similar to the one-two punch deployed just last weekend at the Daytona 500 for Fox Sports.
“It’s like driving a school bus vs. a Ferrari,” says Dammeyer, “They’re both automobiles, but they’re completely different.”
He notes that the big drone will be used as more of a cinematic camera for long, slow, smooth, stabilized establishing scenic shots for resets coming out of break or long breaks in the action. The FPV drone, on the other hand, is going to have some fun. Its nimble versatility will allow it to spin around the event site, even fly quickly along the surface of the lake, whose shoreline is mere feet away.
“I think some of the pictures that are going to come from those drones are just going to blow people away,” says Mayer.
It’s worth pointing out that, for safety reasons, the drones are not permitted to fly directly over the playing surface, even with no fans in attendance. However, Dammeyer says he would love to use them more as a live tool in the future.
“We’re just kind of scratching the surface with this,” he explains, “It may turn out [great]; it may not work. But I the league was willing to let us try this, and that’s the first step. You always have to take the first step to take 20 steps, so I’m proud of the direction that we’re going. I’m excited about this, and I hope they do have lasting power.”
In terms of aerial shots, a fixed-wing airplane is also a part of the plans (weather permitting).
Explosion of High-Speed Cameras
In addition to the special angles, the NBC camera arsenal is also loaded with high-speeds. In fact, Dammeyer says, this is the most high-speed cameras he has ever deployed on a hockey broadcast. There are 11 to be exact, which is more than is used on crown-jewel events like the Stanley Cup, the All-Star Game, or the Winter Classic.
While standard angles like hards and handhelds will be shooting at 6X, two iso cameras will also be at a similar speed.
Even the jib, whose base will be positioned behind the glass behind one of the goals, will be shooting at 6X speeds. That’s another element that Dammeyer has never used on a hockey telecast before.
“Fast things look better slow,” he smiles. He points out that the lack of fans also removes the need for protective netting above the glass behind each goal (which is standard in NHL arenas for fan safety), allowing better positioning of the jib. Such a location would never be practical in an NHL building.
The high speeds won’t just be for game action either. Jib-camera operator Jack Hagen is going to be shooting with a Sony 4800 at 16X super-mo. He has been given the freedom to shoot literally anything that captures his attention. Dammeyer jokes, “If he shoots a squirrel jumping out of a tree in super-slo-mo, we want it!
“[Jack] is going to be more aggressive,” he continues. “You’re going to see replays off of the jib that maybe you didn’t see before.”
The Storytelling Balance
When you speak with any director worth his or her salt, every single one will tell you that the most important part of the job is to protect the game. Whether it’s a regular- season match or the Super Bowl is taking place on the moon, there’s still a game that needs to be broadcast that fans care about. Although the main attraction of this game — and this production — is the locale, the two matches at Lake Tahoe are regular-season games with two points on the line for the Golden Knights, Avalanche, Flyers, and Bruins.
Dammeyer does note, however, that, given the unique nature of the game and the incredibly picturesque scenery surrounding the rink, if there was ever a broadcast that would make him push back against that, it would be this one.
“Yes, we cover the game, we cover the goals, we cover the plays, we do the replays,” he says, “but I think it would be a huge mistake to think we should do this game like any other regular-season game.”
Dammeyer plans to cut cameras during play stoppages much differently than he might on a typical night. Following a play, instead of switching to mostly tight shots of players on the ice or the benches, he might reset the scene. Also, following a notable play, instead of showing four different replay angles, he might show two replays and get back to the gorgeous scenery with a drone, jib, or airplane shot.
“We’re outside, and we’ve got to embrace that,” he says. “It’s a delicate balance, but let’s celebrate where we are. This is so unique.”
Commitment to Natural Audio
A big part of that storytelling process lies in the sound.
Since no fans with be in attendance and the game won’t be hosted in the familiar confines of an NHL arena, NBC Sports and the NHL are pulling back on efforts to pump in artificial crowd noise both at the venue and in the broadcast.
This is a departure from what the league did both during its Hub Cities project last summer and is currently doing this season in (mostly) empty rinks around the league.
At Lake Tahoe, the broadcast will focus entirely on natural sound, and NBC Sports Lead Audio Engineer Tim Dunn is on the task to capture as much of the natural sounds for the final submix as possible.
“[Tim is] a puck head,” says Dammeyer of Dunn, who is a veteran of NBC’s NHL coverage. “He loves hockey. He’s probably looking forward to this as much as anybody. You’ll hear the game as it’s supposed to be heard.”
A Team Effort
The onsite crew will have the benefit of working inside NEP’s ND1 mobile unit, a four-truck system that normally works NBC’s slate of Sunday Night Football and serves as an ideal environment for socially distancing the crew safely.
Technical manager Greg Pfeifer has assembled a strong crew and an impressive work site, setting up a broadcast in a location with literally none of the power or connectivity needed to do a show of any kind.
“I’m extremely proud of the technical crew here,” says Dammeyer, “specifically, the camera operators. It’s great to have all this equipment, but, if you don’t have the technicians behind that equipment, it doesn’t really matter.
“We’ve got the paintbrushes,” he continues, “but we need the artists to paint.”
Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday, with the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, will take place on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, SN1, SN, and TVAS. Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday, which features the Boston Bruins against the Philadelphia Flyers, is Sunday at 2 p.m. on NBC, SN1, SN, and TVAS.