Live from Wembley: Sky Sports delivers a special experience for Joshua vs Klitschko
With almost every country in the world looking on, last Saturday’s Joshua vs Klitschko title fight was more than just a boxing match, it was an international event. It was also one of the biggest pay-per-view productions Sky Sports has ever offered, so pressure was on the production team to deliver a special experience.
One problem covering boxing is its unpredictability, especially with seven fights in all, any or all of which could finish in the first round, or go the distance.
The key timing they had to hit was to have the first bell of the main bout at one minute past ten, as agreed with Wembley. Everything had to work backwards from there, with boxing starting at six thirty, to give enough time for interviews, even if all the fights went long. However, if they were short “then obviously we have to make sure we give our customers value,” with lots of prepared packages, with both long and short versions of them, plus promos and interviews with celebrities at the fight if needed. These were also shown in the stadium, so no one was bored, “to make sure that it’s a whole event,” said Sky Sports’ director, Sara Chenery.
They had to use the Wembley screens, which presented problems. While coverage of Champions’ League football, for example, would probably have both presentation and match trucks, “we do it all out of one, which is quite unusual for something of this magnitude, which means we have one vision mixing desk, so we have to work out how we can facilitate everybody. It’s kind of at its maximum but it works. The difference this time is that [Wembley] asked for separate feeds that they wouldn’t normally get without any of our graphics or any of our elements on,” she explained.
They couldn’t just bring another truck into the venue. “Apart from the cost implications it just wouldn’t physically fit.” This meant a lot more planning beforehand, to make sure everything would work, particularly with such a packed schedule and having to deliver everything that had been agreed. “We have a lot more expectations simply because we’ve got [three] extra broadcasters and they all have their own demands that are written into their own contracts that aren’t with us — but we have to provide the elements.”
Biggest ever fight for Sky Sports
Telegenic’s T18 is Sky’s normal truck for boxing, while HBO used CTV, Showtime used NEP Visions, and RTL brought its own trucks from Germany. The event was shot in HD rather than Ultra HD because it was on pay-per-view, and Sky’s set-top box can’t currently handle that in UHD.
“It’s the biggest fight we’ve ever done,” said Jennie Blackmore, Production Manager, Sky Sports, so while it would have been possible to get it ready to do PPV in UHD, “the risk associated with it,” especially with so many purchasers, was too great.
“We have trialled boxing in UHD, although we haven’t actually broadcast UHD, but we did a full test a while ago just to see how our super slows would work,” and it went well, “so we know boxing can be done in UHD; it was just deemed that this was not the event to launch it officially,” she added.
Sky had 16 cameras covering the ring, plus a mini cam in Anthony Joshua’s dressing room, while RTL had its own radio camera ringside, and each international broadcaster had a couple of cameras on their presentation platforms. ShowTime and HBO shared a super slow camera at 90º to the ring, and they all had cameras by their commentary positions to do stand ups between fights or for news reports. Sky also used the Sky News helicopter, as it previously did for Froch-Groves at Wembley.
The main camera platform was built up over two rows of seats at one end of the arena, instead of using the TV gantry normally used for football. As “everything’s very much focused on to the very centre of the pitch” it requires a different height and distance back, explained Chenery.
Sky had two handheld NAC hi-motion cameras, and because it was still daylight when it came on air at 6.30, was able to use higher frame rates than normal, although as the lighting changed, the rate had to come down, getting dark just before the main event. “This is the trickiest time, because they’ve got to keep re-racking everything,” she said. “We have it as slow as we can without having to put any gain in it because otherwise there’s just no point,” as it’s not like some sports where the slo-mo allows you see precisely if a ball hits the line. “You know if you see a punch in hi-mo, whichever way you go, it looks quite brutal, so it’s more a question of the clarity of the shot.”
“We have the same Telegenic vision guarantee who works with us all the time, so he’s very used to keeping a real close eye on both the hi-mos and coming through to Sara if he thinks it needs changing or is looking a bit grainy,” added Blackmore. “It’s a good regular team that works on the boxing and understands how Sara likes to use the cameras.”
Timing “is the biggest difference that I find with boxing,” compared to other sports, such as rugby and football that Blackmore has done, where “you turn up and the centre of the pitch is empty, and you place all your cameras and facilities around that empty pitch: with boxing everything happens in the middle.” At Wembley, the flooring was laid first, then the canopy went in, then on-pitch seating alongside work on the lighting truss and PA system within the lighting, while the Spidercam was being installed and tested, as well as the ringside commentary positions and tables. “If the PA’s got a problem and we can’t raise the lighting truss in time, that impacts everybody else who is waiting to go in and rig. Cameras ringside can’t go in until the ring is in; the ring can’t go in until the lighting truss has been lifted, so it’s a real finely tuned schedule,” she explained. Fortunately, “it all went very well for us.”
A Box Office occasion
There was a hydraulic stage, installed by BPM SFX (together with the pyrotechnics), but again timing was key here, as it takes time to rise and fall, and there is a set time limit for the boxer’s ring walk, which couldn’t be varied — otherwise the boxers and promoters might get upset. “It’s a calculated risk for us. We’ve obviously spent money on it because that’s part of our Box Office occasion to go that extra mile and to have that extra pizzazz and a sense of occasion,” said Blackmore. But the boxer or their team can veto it all once they see it, even if they have agreed to it during planning. While Klitschko didn’t want to use it, Joshua agreed to use it, and even did a rehearsal on it on Friday.
Because someone’s likely to lose “what you can’t do is ever be in a position whereby anything you’ve done has impacted them at all, or their preparation or their walk to the ring,” said Chenery.
“The Boxing Board of Control deal with Sara quite a lot on things like that just to make sure that the TV side doesn’t affect the boxers,” added Blackmore. “They’re very strict on us not having lights up once boxing is going on in they ring, because they don’t obviously want anything to distract the boxer from the fight itself, how many people are allowed in the ring post fight to interview, and equipment and cameras. They’re very specific.”
Aerial display with Spidercam first
Saturday was the first time Spidercam was used in the UK for boxing. It was a requirement from RTL, but Chenery was delighted to use it. It “surpassed all expectations. The coverage we got from that and the helicopter really added to the occasion.”
The helicopter has limited flight times due to refuelling, but was timed so they could be sure it would stay up for the whole length of a 12-round fight. It did mean they lost one flight earlier in the day, but “you want them there for the for the ring walks, for all the lovely pyro shots, but obviously you also want them there for nice flyover shots when the boxing is going on, and the winner’s announcement,” said Blackmore. With Spidercam it meant they got lots more aerial shots. These came in useful when Klitschko powered through his ring walk much faster than expected, so they cut to the aerial cameras to keep everything to time, getting great shots of the arena and the Wembley arch, which was lit up with the colours of the boxer’s flags.
The Spidercam was outside the canopy, but could dip low to get shots into the ring, although they had to be careful not to get it into shots the other broadcasters might take. As this was the first time Chenery used it, she experimented on earlier fights other broadcasters weren’t covering, so that they could tell her if it caused a problem so she wouldn’t do that shot during the main fight – although during most of the action they took Sky pictures anyway.
She didn’t want it under the canopy “because it’s not just about the boxing. It’s about the whole event, and to restrict it to just underneath the canopy of 30-feet [10m] would just be a real shame, and you can’t have both, unless you have two Spidercams, that would be interesting” – although she expects there would be crashes.
Having the Spidercam meant that they didn’t want any Hotheads (which they would usually get in from Spidercam supplier Alan Wells). Besides, they also had two jibs one at the back for presentation and crowd shots and one ringside for “nice close overhead shots of the boxers,” said Blackmore.
Changing shooting styles
“We’ve changed our coverage so much over the last ten years,” said Chenery. “For an event of this size we don’t really go for the long lens head-to-toe in-out coverage of many years ago. We use that front jib for a lot of lateral movement so that you feel like you’re inside the ring a lot more. There’s a lot less filming from a long distance with ropes taking up half your screen. There’s a lot more handheld, so you feel as close as you can, with the boxers almost flying into the camera. There’s a lot more of the jib, with the movement left and right where we can move around the referee.” If you only use distant cameras and a handheld ringside camera, “every time the referee gets in shot you have to cut, whereas when you’ve got a jib, if the ref gets in the way, they can just move around past him, so it’s much less distracting than having to keep cutting.”
Some of her American counterparts have asked her advice on using that jib, because they generally use a Jitter Cam (a jib flying in the rafters) and tend to have a more traditional style of coverage. “We’ve really rethought ours to try and bring people as close to the action as possible,” which extends to how they capture audio. Rather than using effects microphones hanging down, the sound operator follows where the boxers are. “So if I’m on camera three handheld, he’ll be on that camera’s microphone. They follow the boxing round all the time to get the best effects. If I go to the Steadicam in the crowd, they’ll be on that Steadicam so they get all the cheering effects. It’s much harder, but it’s much more real,” she explained.
Trying to deliver the best sound quality can be difficult, because promoters Matchroom use very high volume music between rounds. “That’s a real challenge, to develop our microphones to try and get round that,” without compromising the atmosphere but hearing what presenters or interviewees say. However, with certain songs “the crowd will go absolutely crazy, [so] we just have in our running order that we won’t talk at all and we’ll just embrace it because you can’t combat it. When they play ‘Sweet Caroline’ there’s no danger of hearing anybody,” she said.
“We always look at new technology – it’s just got to be good value,” said Blackmore. At the last O2 event they couldn’t use Spidercam, which “doesn’t really work at the O2 because of the roof,” but used Eaglecam (also from Alan Wells).
It’s a recently introduced point-to-point wire cam that offered a lot of movement for the money. “It stays at one level, you don’t have a drop that you can get with Spidercam, so it was more limited, but still gave us nice overheads,” added Chenery.
They make limited use of a ref cam, as many referees don’t like it. It has been cleared for use in their bow tie, but this isn’t usually a good place for it. “Boxing referees often walk backwards, so they are looking at the boxing, but their bodies are facing away so the camera’s not pointing in the right direction,” she explained.
Sky has been developing a camera that can be used around the ear, “but then you have to get the right people that embrace it.” They are also looking at having a trainer cam as trainers are happy to use it, which will be on some sort of lanyard “and we’ll get that one shot that we don’t get normally where the boxer is sitting on his stool and the trainer is talking to him.” Some trainers are embracing it and the Board has cleared it. They won’t be allowed to use it for audio, but they can already capture audio in the ring using Sennheiser 416 microphones, they just have to be careful how they use it because of the risk of swearing. Ideally Chenery would love the referee to have a microphone. “That’d be perfect for us because you’d hear all those punches close up,” but it hasn’t been agreed yet.
Camera positions through the ropes
Chenery wants the viewer to feel they have the best ringside seat, so “I’ll usually go to the jib head-to-toe rather than come all the way out to a long lens camera 60 feet [20m] away because it takes you away from it,” but the fight dictates the coverage. Lighter weight boxers move around the ring very fast, “so we’ll cut the cameras a lot less” but heavier weights “often move slower, stay in pockets for a bit longer, so perhaps we cut round it a little bit more so that we’re not just stuck on one camera all the time,” she said.
Cameras five and six are low down shooting up through the ropes, to get artistic low angles, including of the corner men. “They often get people spitting on them as well when they spit in the spit bucket. That’s a perk,” laughed Chenery. “We have to be mindful that it’s quite an awkward shot to film, so we rotate our camera people around quite a lot, so you don’t just get one poor person stuck for hours.” These cameras also do shots from in among the crowds (which is why they were both wireless at Wembley). There is also a Steadicam for ring walks and crowd shots.
“It took us quite a few years to get permission to have a jib in that corner,” said Chenery. “We used to have nothing there, then we had a fixed hothead,” and it took a lot of persuasion to eventually get the jib agreed, but only with limited lateral movement, as the seats near it have to be sold as restricted view.
“Because it’s constantly on the move it’s not seen as a complete site restriction,” added Blackmore. “We have it at every single boxing broadcast, whether it’s our smallest spec to our biggest spec, and we’ve never had any complaints.”
Chenery likes that it offers a gentle, fluid move, “so it’s interesting from a directing point of view, and you don’t have to keep cutting off the camera, which is the thing that’s so distracting if you watch coverage of boxing the first time people do it. They just keep cutting the cameras because they’re moving so fast. What we’re trying to do is slow it all down and go to cameras at the right time so that you’re getting people’s interest in the fight and they’re not always constantly having to come back out again. We tend to come out head-to-toe when the referee says ‘break’ and everyone’s had to move back, not when a boxer is in the middle of a really big exchange.”