A sporting event is arguably the most difficult genre a director will encounter. Within sports, the most challenging event I’ve encountered is directing baseball—doing it well is not easy, messing it up is.
Three years ago my column on directing baseball ran in Sports TV Production and received more email than many other stories. I think that’s because at its core, televising baseball remains a unique strategic challenge for those who cover it—starting with the director—and those who are interested in getting into sports television.
I felt it was time to re-examine the art of covering America’s Pastime.
THE JIGSAW PUZZLE
From inside the mobile unit, the monitor wall of a baseball telecast is like an unassembled jigsaw puzzle. Only by putting different pieces together in a logical order does the whole picture become a reality.
The fun of baseball is that there’s no one “right way” and styles can differ widely based on the personality of the director. The challenge is to cover a complex game in a way that doesn’t have your crew’s head spinning.
The complexities of directing baseball go beyond most sports. In games like basketball, football or tennis, it’s where the ball goes that changes the score. In baseball, the player scores points by reaching home without the ball.
Directing baseball includes showing both the runner and the ball often in very different locations on the field. Over time, directors have developed a wide variety of styles in how to cover the sport. This includes how cameras are numbered and where they’re placed on the field.
For example, some directors follow a runner crossing home from a low-field camera near first base while others show them from low third and yet others from a high-camera above first or third base.
Even the seemingly simple task of following a ball in-play differs from one director to another. Until the ball is caught or hits the ground, some directors stay on their primary “game camera” while others will cut to a close-up just before an outfielder gets the ball.
THE BASIC GAME
Although each director brings a unique style, you do find some similarities. Below is one coverage scenario based on common assignments directors often give the first five cameras on a baseball telecast.
Beyond these, generalizations are increasingly difficult. Camera assignments and locations change frequently depending on the director, the number of cameras, the stadium and the plans for covering a particular player or team.
CAMERA ONE: LOW THIRD BASE
Often placed at low-third base near the dugout, this camera usually covers left-handed batters and right-handed pitchers so as to afford viewers a shot of either player’s face. When both players are facing this camera, the director usually assigns the shot of the batter as the priority.
A common pattern is to shoot the hitter close-up for a live picture as they prepare to swing, but as soon as the camera is off-air it zooms-out for a head-to-toe shot. The director uses that framing as a replay iso-shot of a player’s swing as the ball crosses the plate.
Assignments to this camera differ most when there are runners on base. Here’s one common choice: if there’s a runner and the batter is facing away from this camera (hence a right-hand hitter), this camera shoots the runner closest to home. When there’s a left handed hitter and someone on base, this camera would often shoot the hitter first and then get the runner who’s second closest to home—saving the lead runner for another camera.
The most complex setup is when the bases are loaded: usually after this camera follows the lead runner home, it jumps past the person trying to score next and gets the runner who was originally on first base. Conversely if this camera started with the hitter, it would often jump past the runner on third base to show the runner coming off of second and rounding third.
The low-third camera also gets shots of both dugouts, both on-deck circles and is a common choice for following players back to the third base dugout.
Another common assignment includes getting a pick-off shot of both the pitcher and the runner at first. The challenge becomes that this shot can conflict with covering a left-handed batter, hence the creative and often confusing differences between how directors can assign just this one, solitary camera position.
CAMERA TWO: HIGH HOME
The high-home position is a standard camera that directors assign to follow the ball during live action. While not every director numbers the position “camera two,” most do.
Beyond following the ball, this camera has a variety of “special situation” tasks. Most often, this is the camera to cover appeals with first and third base umpires.
Often with bases loaded, or the infield/outfield playing shallow, this camera will shoot wide and sweep across the bases to show you the defensive posture of a team. When there are multiple runners and the pitcher is not in his stance, directors may assign this camera shots of base runners, coaches or even the bullpen—so long as they get back to their pitcher/batter shot before the pitcher throws the next ball.
One area that differs among directors is what to do when there’s a close play at home. Some will stay on the high-home shot while others prefer to cut to the low-angle camera that’s showing the runner’s attempt to score.
CAMERA THREE: HIGH FIRST BASE
Most baseball directors assign at least one camera to “freelance” and look for the best shot of whatever action is happening during a play. Often this assignment falls to the high first base camera—commonly named “camera three.”
A typical shot for this camera is to “shag” a close-up of whatever player is catching the ball. The aggressive nature of this position is one ambitious camera operators relish and clock punchers avoid!
Other images from this camera include “hero” shots of the key performer in a play or “goat” shots of the player who made an error. Further, this camera often gets pick-off shots of runners on base and a “pitcher/runner shot” that’s used for isolation replays.
Once all assignments are set, this is usually the camera that picks up whatever isn’t already covered.
CAMERA FOUR: CENTER FIELD
The standard center field camera assignment is the “pitcher/batter shot” of the pitcher throwing the ball home. After the pitcher throws the ball, this camera may be assigned to zoom-in to the batter (in the case of a walk) or the pitcher (in the case of a strikeout).
Over the past decade, directors have given this camera so many other specialty shots that frequently a second camera is placed in center field to cover them.
Often the center field operator will follow balls hit directly toward the camera, catcher’s throws to second base when a runner from first is stealing, passed balls, wild pitches and pop-ups behind home plate.
In addition, this camera sometimes gets close-ups of outfielders catching fly balls for isolated replays—an assignment that frequently includes following the ball if the outfielder throws home.
When there’s a home run, the director may assign the center field camera to zoom-in to the batter, the pitcher or to show the crowd in the bleachers near where the ball landed.
The advent of longer lenses has given more life to the outfield camera position. Once only well lit stadiums could afford the center field camera the ability to show a batter close-up using a 2x extender. Nowadays, the new 100x lenses make that possible even on a less-lighted field.
CAMERA FIVE: LOW FIRST BASE
This camera operates with many of the same assignments as camera one at the low-third base position. However, since this camera shoots from the first base side of the field, it covers right-handed batters and left-handed pitchers—with the priority on the hitter.
If a batter is a lefty (thus facing the other way) and there are men on base, this camera usually covers the runner closest to home. Conversely, if the batter is a righty (thus looking toward the camera) and there are runners on, then the assignment is often to shoot the batter and then get the second runner closest to home.
In essence, the low first and low third base cameras play a game of leapfrog with each other—whoever gets the batter also gets the second runner. At the same time, the camera who doesn’t have the batter often gets the lead runner and, if applicable, the third runner closest to home.
ASSEMBLING THE PUZZLE
Although many directors follow a formula along these lines, there are frequent variations. In order to direct baseball, one has to pre-think the scenarios and assign shots based on what’s most likely to happen.
The unique nature of baseball makes covering this sport a greater task than most viewers will ever appreciate. Masters at the task know the fun lies in putting the jigsaw puzzle together in a way that makes it look easy.
Lee Henry is a veteran network sports producer/director. You can contact him at [email protected]