ESPN produces flagship boxing event in 2-D, 3-D

ESPN has led the way in 3-D production, producing (or helping to produce) a variety of football and X Games telecasts in an effort to provide content for its 24/7 3-D channel as well as pioneer a technology that it feels enhances sports broadcasting for viewers in ways HD can't quite measure up to.

In the process, the network has tried to reduce the costs involved with 3-D production to make it practical. Last fall Jonathan Pannaman, ESPN’s senior director of technology, told a sports conference in Europe that the network was looking into new production techniques to develop a viable business model.

The result of a series of internal tests at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports facility in Orlando, FL, and at its main campus in Bristol, CT, led to the 3-D telecast of last week’s “Friday Night Fights” boxing event. In what could be a watershed moment for 3-D production for live broadcast, the sports network used a single 3-D-capable mobile production truck from NEP Supershooters (NEP SS32) for both the 2-D and 3-D telecasts.

NEP’s SS32, built specifically for ESPN 3-D productions, is a twin unit that includes a full production room with 3-D monitoring and a “B” unit to support 14 convergence operators (one for each camera) and a stereographer. It features a Sony MVS-8000X production switcher, various 3-D camera rigs by PACE, EVS XT[2]+ (six-channel) HD/3-D servers, Evertz EQX router with integrated multiviewers, RTS ADAM intercom system and a Calrec Alpha audio console.

Doug Holmes served as director for both telecasts, and, he said, he used fewer cuts than he might have otherwise to accommodate the 3-D viewers’ experience.

“Some sports dictate a certain pace, but 3-D benefits from a slower pace of cuts, no matter what sport,” said Phil Orlins, coordinating producer for ESPN’s 3-D channel.

To conserve effort, and equipment, the ESPN crew used the left-eye feed from the 3-D production for the 2-D telecast. It’s a technique that has been tested by ESPN before and used during actual productions for POV or alternative “B” shots.

The production also used five Sony HD cameras on PACE beam-splitter camera rigs (three handheld, one on a jib and one camera on a tripod). The 2-D/3-D simulcast also used an ultra-slow-motion camera rig on a tripod.

While using a single truck would appear to be the most cost-effective way to produce a 2-D/3-D simulcast, there are limitations. Most 3-D productions to date have struggled with a single-crew approach because 3-D cameras must get closer to the action to be effective. Equipment suppliers, such as PACE, have developed specialized rigs that allow a single operator to shoot both 2-D and 3-D simultaneously, but some shots are still problematic to get for 3-D viewers from a traditional 2-D camera position high in the stands.

Indoor events, such as basketball games or a boxing match, can get around the limitations because the cameras can easily get closer to the players at all times, and the action is a bit more predictable to cover. And, coincidently, ESPN will also deploy this approach for the standard and 3-D telecasts of the Georgia-Florida NCAA men’s basketball game Feb. 24.

“Boxing is ideal and creates fewer challenges than a sport that takes place over a larger surface, like football,” Orlins said. “It does run the risk of getting too close to the action and having an uncomfortable experience for the viewer. So we have made some arrangements to back the cameras a few feet further away than we might normally be for a (2-D) boxing match.”

After the camera signals are converged and adjusted inside the NEP truck, ESPN will send discrete left-eye and right-eye feeds back to network headquarters in Bristol, where the 2-D telecast will be extracted and the same commercials inserted using a Pixel Power BrandMaster 3-DS master control switcher and Abekas Mira server (controlled by a DNF Control device) before sending the game out to the various satellite and cable carriage partners. Graphics will be located at the top of the screen to avoid “depth conflicts” that cause discomfort for viewers. The 2-D viewers will see the same graphics (although just the left-eye view) at the top of the screen.

“Usually, graphics are keyed over the video,” Orlins said. “In 3-D the graphics will still be placed above the video, but your brain interprets the graphic at a certain depth. It also sees the video at a different plane. By placing the clock and boxer’s names and scores at the top of the screen, we avoid those depth problems.”

Orlins said the telecast represented “the first time we've taken this approach, but we feel it’s the right sport to try it on.”

ESPN has shared elements of the coverage from individual cameras, especially for its X Games productions. But this was the first time the network used a single truck. It’s moments of practicality like these that helped bring more HD content into viewers’ homes. ESPN is hoping the same for 3-D.