Remote production, UHD, cricket and rowing on the MPS agenda
Remote production is coming, but is not necessarily welcome, according to a panel on ‘Sport: Live Production’ at last week’s inaugural Media Production Show in London. “It’s probably inevitable in a lot of ways, whenever we think it will come, because it will be cheaper and more efficient,” said Andrew Preece, Executive Director, Sunset + Vine. He thinks it will be a little bit sad, being remote from the action and other crew, but he’s sure it will help get more sports on air that wouldn’t otherwise be broadcast. “I’m sure there is a place for it, but it will mean the cameraman won’t be able to look around and see the shot behind him.”
“When you are covering a live event, you’ve got 38 cameras there, you need to be there to do it,” stated Simon Wheeler, Executive Producer/Director, IMG Productions. If you are in a remote gallery “you lose contact with your talent, you lose contact with your creative cameramen, and I don’t see from an outside broadcast perspective a great advantage.” However, he admitted there could be an advantage for studio presentation or for multi-sport events like the Olympics, where you can edit and produce a lot of highlight packages back at base.
Andy Beale, Chief Engineer, BT Sport, sees it being useful for high-volume, relatively formulaic sports, particularly where they aren’t going to be broadcast live but merely used in a highlights show. However, he sees great opportunities for technology to augment productions, for example, robotic cameras being driven by tracking data and picture analysis — such as individual player cams, which he predicted we will see more of in the coming year.
A year of Ultra HD
BT Sport recently completed its first full season of Premier League coverage in Ultra HD, and has shot more than 70 events in UHD (only a handful of which were not also broadcast in UHD). “It is a process of continued innovation,” starting with the first Sony 4300 2/3-inch cameras, “which were really important for sport, because you have great depth of field,” vital for any tight camera position (camera 2 or 3) trying to track a player, explained Beale.
Over the course of the season, BT has added smaller cameras, more high-speed replay, and RF cameras, which were also vital to truly capture “the emotions, the energy, the tenseness” of events, such as on the grid at Moto GP — although they couldn’t be cut in live because of one second delay. “It was the difference between race coverage and having the full production around the event and showing that sport at its very best,” he said.
Because of the delay they don’t usually cut to it live, although when they used a UHD helicopter for the first time anywhere at the Emirates stadium for Arsenal v Barcelona, the shots were so spectacular that the director cut to them live anyway — “It looked so gorgeous.”
They had hoped that the delay would be reduced enough by August to be able to use RF cameras live for next season. “Unfortunately, the manufacturers who are making these technologies are dependent on much bigger markets than broadcast, and the chip set suppliers who are making those chips are focused on other things.” Beale believes it will be October before the delay comes down enough.
To take off, he believes all the elements must be available to UHD. “You can’t not have the best presentation,” including the big name presenters and pundits. “It’s the package, the full content, that matters.”
The other thing they are waiting for is better replays. “Currently, no replay manufacturer has brought out a really suitable replay server,” as densities are still a maximum of four channels in UHD, “and that is a real headache for people who want to do a results package or who want to put together lots of angles quickly for half time.” It has meant users have had to re-think how they operate.
For both the Champion’s League and Europa League finals BT distributed the matches across as many platforms as it could, from UHD to social media and YouTube (in a strategic partnership), “amassing us 12 million viewers combined.”
IPL cricket challenges
IMG Productions produces Indian Premier League cricket, which “is the biggest revenue generating sporting event in India, possibly Asia,” worth about $3 billion in total from Sony Television over the ten-year contract, plus about $1 billion more coming from franchise owners, said Wheeler.
It uses a freelance production crew of about 270, in four production teams, wich each team working across two or three sets of equipment. Each fly pack comprises of a 38-camera unit (of which there are eight in total across the 11 cities).
One of the problems with covering the IPL is that the schedule of matches isn’t made available until about eight weeks before the first game. The equipment is supplied by Zoom Communications, which has re-equipped completely for this season.
“Each season the IPL is keen to bring in new technologies. We’ve had Spidercam for about five years now. This season it was brought into about 36 of the 60 matches, and we brought in with that augmented reality graphics, which were used last season only on the final,” he explained. The final used Ncam graphics, but this season it is using Spidercam’s own AR graphics. It has also got hard-won permission to use drones for the first time.
“We still have to shoot the IPL in 4:3 safe, which may seem crazy, but in India there is a population of one billion, of which 900 million are still watching on old CRT TV sets,” although most middle class homes have HD, which is why IPL is produced in HD. While the next move will be to UHD, India is very price sensitive. “These technologies are usually a bit later, but the marketplace is voracious for new ideas, so while the distribution may still be limited, the content is cutting edge,” said Wheeler.
Rowing on a budget
Henley Royal Regatta hadn’t been televised for 50 years, until Sunset+Vine did it last year. Although a relatively small (11-camera) event, it is complex, and they had to go along the river on a boat working out where to put camera positions, checking if trees or branches could be cut down if necessary, and how to get the signals back.
It might seem easy to get RF signals back from a long, straight stretch of river, especially as there is a nearby church with a long flag pole that would seem an obvious relay point — unfortunately the flag pole turned out to be a mobile phone mast. “It was a big challenge to get 10 cameras on the river, and to get the signals back to our production area,” said Preece. None of the cameras were on a cable.
They also wanted to avoid just a continual procession of panning shots of boats as they went past, so used a catamaran, a jib at the start, a camera on the umpire’s boat, and a drone flown from a platform in the middle of the river — which was able to provide angles on the rowers that hadn’t been seen before.
“We spent quite a bit of time trying to source a drone company or people who could fly a drone that close to spectators and people outside the control of the production, which is where the CAA draws the line,” he explained. The Henley organisers put a platform in the middle of the river, with a generator and RF link. They got some very close shots. “It was quite nerve wracking, but also very innovative, and this year we have three drone platforms so we can select different places to crash into.”
Because it was initially intended for online viewing (via YouTube), the budget was constrained. In the end, the BBC took the finals for viewing on the Red Button, and it is hoping that broadcasters will also take this year’s coverage. The event takes place again at the end of June.
Another point of view
An equestrian producer in the audience, who uses a self-developed jockey cam, asked the panel what impact PoV cameras are having on other sports. Point-of-view cameras have made a big difference to sports coverage, particularly rugby ref cameras, responded Beale. As rugby players can generally be trusted not to swear, they can be used with live audio, something he wouldn’t want to risk on football, even if it were allowed.
“They are a big advantage, but they have a limited use [in cricket],” said Wheeler. “They’ve got to be used judiciously live,” but are ideal for replays.
“Rugby has embraced it, football hasn’t. The hardest thing is to get permission to do it,” added Preece. Most match coverage hangs on camera 1, “but then the insights you get from PoV, as we all saw from the Rugby World Cup, can be quite sensational.”