Ken Freed / 01.25.2006 12:00AM
ABC Sports Prepares for HD Super Bowl XL
Detroit winter weather may present the biggest challenge
DETROIT: When ABC Sports cameras zoom in on the football for the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XL in Detroit's Ford Field at 6 p.m. on Feb. 5, more than 130 million viewers in the United States and perhaps 1 billion viewers worldwide will see the most technologically advanced Super Bowl ever.
"Sports is always at the cutting edge of hi-tech on television," said George Hoover, senior vice president of engineering at NEP Supershooters, the mobile division of NEP Broadcasting in Pittsburgh that will bring three trucks to Super Bowl XL. "Since the first super slo-mo cameras five years ago, the NFL is generally a driving force for new TV technology." NEP is bringing Supershooter 26, the HDTV rig used to shoot Monday Night Football on ABC for the past three seasons, to the event. NEP also is bringing in Supershooter 20, the HDTV truck used to shoot Sunday Night Football for ESPN.
The three-and-a-half hour pre-game show and the shorter post-game show will be shot in HD using Supershooter 18.
Separately, the Denali Silver truck will be used for the "Bigger Bang" half-time show featuring the Rolling Stones, sponsored by Sprint Nextel and produced by Don Mischer Productions, which did last year's Super Bowl half-time show with Paul McCartney in Jacksonville, Fla.
As with previous Super Bowls, there will be lots of eye-catching commercials during the breaks.
"Last year, there were 26 commercials in HD," said ABC Sports spokesman Mark Mandel, "and we expect at least that many this year."
Jay Gleeson, manager of remote operations for ABC TV, said all the NEP trucks will use Thomson Grass Valley WorldCam cameras equipped with Canon lenses. Grass Valley switchers will control the video, all recorded on Grass Valley VTRs. The HD gear will be backed up by several Sony slo-mo cameras, plus a Panasonic camera for the ESPN SkyCam, a Panasonic POV, and Harris encoders and decoders.
ABC Sports plans to use at least one hi-def RF camera, Gleeson said. At press time, it had not yet been decided whether to use a camera supplied by Link Research in the United Kingdom, (represented in the United States by Ariel Video System) or one from Total RF in Bensalem, Pa. Both of these handheld cameras performed well, he said, so the final decision will hinge on pricing.
"The HD RF camera selected will be all over the place," Gleeson said, "We'll go wherever we can't get with a cable camera, especially behind the benches where running cable is a major issue for the teams. We also will be able to walk up into the stands to get shots of the fans or see the game from their perspective, providing we can do this without blocking the view of the fans behind us, or we may go out to the concession areas."
ABC's biggest challenge with the RF camera will be the lack of any return video for the camera operator to frame shots incorporating graphics, Gleeson said.
"We had two vendors come up with possible solutions, but things did not work as we'd hoped," he said.
ABC Sports next considered having someone with a small RF monitor walk with the camera operator, he said, "but then the camera operator would have to look away from the eyepiece to consult the external monitor to frame a shot, and we can't have that. So, because at this late date we do not expect to find a solution, we're going with no solution."
Instead, Gleeson said, the director will have to talk the RF camera operators through each shot, telling them to tilt or pan to accommodate the graphics with various game stats. Another option might be to frame an RF camera shot within an insert window.
ABC Sports also experimented with a point-to-point cable camera on a boom 15 feet above the sidelines at a pre-season game in Ford Field last August. A Panasonic 800 HD camera was rigged and operated by the SkyCam crew.
"We found that, as when camera and crew went up and down the field, they kept getting in the way of the fixed camera positions, which was more annoying than anything else. This was going to be our big, flashy technical innovation for the Super Bowl this year, but after we'd actually tried it in the same venue as the Super Bowl, we had to let go of that idea," Gleeson said.
ABC Sports will field test the Sony advanced prototype HD super slo-mo camera system, according to Robert Willox, director of marketing for content creation at Sony Electronics. He said the world's first 3x super slo-mo camera captures video at 180 fps in multiple HD formats, from 720p to 1080i, "so the camera will be useful for NBC or CBS the next time they air the Super Bowl." Several engineers from the Sony design center in Atsugi, Japan, will baby-sit the prototype during game, according to Willox. Sony also is providing its Cinealta HDW-F900 camera, which will shoot HD 1080p at 24 fps for archive material to be created by NFL Films.
The camera lenses at Super Bowl XL will reflect the latest technical improvements, said Gordon Tubbs, assistant director of marketing for the broadcast division of Canon Broadcast USA, provider of all the lenses used in six Super Bowls.
Supporting close-ups will be box-style XJ series 75x, 86x and 100x lenses, including the new HJ18ex28B lens, used for the stationary cameras and the smaller remote-control cameras mounted on the crossbeams of the goalposts. The cameras on the field and in the locker room will use HJ series ENG-style portable 40x telephoto or 2:1 zoom wide-angle lenses. The super slo-mo cameras will use a combination of these lenses, Tubbs said.
"The biggest thing this year is that all of our high-end lenses now feature Canon's advanced Optical Image Stabilization system," he said. "Image stabilization built into the lens is critical for a sports event like the Super Bowl, where the director needs really long shots with extreme close-ups of the player's faces."
Willox said HD itself now makes it possible to deliver those close-ups in greater details than ever before.
"In the old days, the cameras could barely penetrate the shadows under the helmets, so the players all looked like Darth Vader. Now, because of HD, you not only can see the sweat on their faces when watching at home, you see their state of being, which brings a whole new emotional level to viewing the game," he said.
Yet for all the blessings of HD gear, ABC Sports still faces some major hurdles in broadcasting Super Bowl XL from Detroit in mid-winter.
"Our biggest challenge may be the weather," Gleeson said. "All those under the dome in Ford Field will be toasty warm, but what about all the people out in the parking lot? If they have to troubleshoot a cable that's buried under ice, not only will they have to contend with the cold, but they could do more damage to the cable than anything else. Or else suppose someone steps on an audio cable? That crunching sound underfoot may be the brittle cable breaking, and then what happens to the audio signals?"
Gleeson said ABC Sports and NEP are backing up everything, "but there could be problems from slower recovery time in the cold weather."
ABC explored covering the entire compound with a big tent, but the city of Detroit objected because driving long metal stakes into the pavement risked hitting underground electrical conduits. After an ice-skating rink dome collapsed under heavy snow in Europe late last year, "that whole idea went away," Gleeson said.
Another challenge will be the outside cabling.
"In the past world of SD," Gleeson said, "you could run triax cable forever, but you can't pump an HD signal much more than 2,500 feet. Since the trucks will be 900 feet from the outside input-output panels at Ford Field, this poses some real difficulties for us."
Hoover at NEP agreed that the weather may pose some obstacles. "We expect that it's going to be quite cold in Detroit in February, not quite like being in Florida last year. So, I worry about the wires and cables freezing."