Live from Wimbledon: Hall reflects on 2015 production advances; 8K tests
The 2015 Wimbledon Tennis Championships concluded last weekend and for Mervyn Hall, broadcast manager of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and his team it also concluded an event that saw them not only better meet the needs of broadcasters this year with technical and production enhancements but also take a step towards the future thanks to an 8K trial with NHK.
“The biggest thing we did this year was the 8K trial with NHK that almost fell into our lap as NHK raised the idea on the last day of the Championship last year,” said Hall.
That idea sparked a trip by Hall to Japan to see an 8K production of a Sumo wrestling tournament and learn first hand how an 8K production comes together and what the possibilities are for the format.
“It was fantastically impressive,” he recalled. “And we realise the practical applications are not great today as no one can receive it, by and large, and it is expensive to deliver and acquire. But there is also not a fantastic amount of knowledge about where to put the cameras and that is why we did it.”
The NHK productions focused on the action at Court One as positions on Centre Court were unavailable. During the production period, which lasted nine days and concluded with two men’s quarterfinal matches, Hall and others who observed the coverage said that there were noticeable improvements as the tournament progressed.
“On day one it was a compromised production and I thought it looked okay but by the time we got [to the end] I thought it looked really great with really sharp pictures and great colour rendition,” said Hall. “And most of the people who have gone to see it have gone into the viewing area and gone ‘wow.’”
More than 1,000 visitors went into the small tented are on the roof of the broadcast centre that had three rows of four chairs, most of which were located at the optimal distance to notice the benefits of 8K on the massive 105-inch display. To really reap the benefits of the extra resolution a viewer needs to be seated at a viewing distance that is .75 times picture height.
“NHK was a joy to work with and they are so enthusiastic and embraced everything we do,” added Hall.
The next step, said Hall, is to once again sit down with NHK in a few months and share what both AELTC and NHK learned from the experience.
“Our view is that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is worthwhile because sooner or later these technologies will be in use, whether it’s pure 8K or a derivation of 4K and 8K or some other form of UHD,” said Hall. “So it would be silly if you have the opportunity to do these things to not do them.”
The deal with NHK was straightforward as both AELTC and NHK funded their own contributions to the effort. Going forward the obvious challenge will be camera positions, especially if a format like 4K becomes a reality before 8K becomes a reality. Hall says the process of mapping out those positions would involve first asking what positions are desired and then offering up realistic plans of what is possible and help the production team select the one they prefer.
The 8K test was only one of a series of other production enhancements this year. For example, over the years Hall has said a number of overseas broadcast partners have been puzzled as to why there were not more cameras on hand that simply showed off what is arguably the most beautiful grounds of any major tennis championship. This year ALETC responded with three rail cameras and two ball cameras that can rotate 360 degrees.
“We’re really pleased with those,” said Hall. “We worked very closely with ACS and we will almost certainly roll out more positions and beauty cameras in the future.”
The key, said Hall, is that the camera design work companies like ACS are doing makes the cameras more unobtrusive than ever. “We can put them in places and you don’t even know they are there so that has worked out really well,” he added.
The use of the Hawkeye automated camera system was also expanded this year, bringing court coverage of matches to three more courts this year. A total of six courts used the Hawkeye system to provide automated three-camera coverage of matches that otherwise would not have been covered.
“The basic technology is pretty straightforward but we’ve had to do some work with respect to graphics, commentary, and sound,” said Hall. The end result, for example, was that full-blown score graphics were offered up on the Hawkeye courts with commentary done from two off-tube commentary booths located in the broadcast centre.
“In two weeks we had more than 50 unilateral bookings for those matches and that is 50 matches that otherwise would not have gone to air and been covered,” added Hall.
Improvements to beauty shots and on-court coverage were complemented by physical improvements to the post-match interview area as well as, for the first time ever, simultaneous interpretation of questions and answers in seven languages.
“It’s partly for the broadcasters but mostly for the benefit of the club as we are the only grand slam where senior committee members from the club sit in on the interviews and make sure it follows a proper tennis pattern and doesn’t meander off down odd avenues of personal questions,” said Hall.
So now, when a Japanese broadcaster asks a player a question in Japanese the club member can make sure the question is appropriate and other members of the press can also follow the conversation.
The expanded use of Hawkeye, improvements to the press conference area, and even 8K are all part of the constant evolution that is coverage of the Wimbledon Championships. And relationships between broadcasters and production providers are also part of that evolution as NEP Visions is now in its second year as the primary production services provider for the BBC, host, and ESPN coverage of the tournament. Last year David O’Carroll served as the production manager but he left to take on a new role as head of technology at Presteigne Broadcast.
“This year we had to start again with Hugh Potter but he knows the Championships very well as he worked on the 3D productions and has been terrific and really embraced the complexities of this thing very well,” said Hall. “I’m really pleased with the relationship with Visions.”
As for next year look for even more evolution as Court 14 will be back in full use next year and there might even be some more space available in the broadcast centre.
“We’ve just been rammed in here and I think that [expansion] will happen this year,” said Hall.