Specialized cameras for OB sports

Technological advances in mini HD cameras, wireless camera systems (including HD) and high-quality slow motion recording are being used to lift productions out of a formulaic rut or to tell stories not hitherto possible.

Minicams fit into places that normal cameras can't go and are often tailored for specific applications, such as covert filming of wildlife, undercover reporting or hidden camera entertainment shows.

However, innovation is most bold in sports, as broadcasters are driven to put the viewers right into the heart of the action by delivering astonishing new close-ups with ultra motion cameras or spectacular aerial views from versatile overhead rigs.

Many sports production companies have experimented with placing cameras in unique places for niche sports, such as in rugby posts, onboard racing cars or in the pockets of snooker tables. This type of acquisition really comes into its own during coverage of major international sports events like the Olympics, where there is a huge demand to replay action from every possible angle.

Specialist camera developers and rental outfits are well advanced in their bids for business at next year's Olympic Games, making presentations to host broadcaster Beijing Olympic Broadcasting (a joint venture between Chinese state broadcaster CCTV and International Sports Broadcasting).

In Beijing, the track and field athletics alone will feature more than 30 HD cameras and more than 30 remote minicams (many also HD) that will be plugged into pole vaults and high jump poles, as well as fitted to hammer throw nets or into the ground on the javelin pitch. There will also be a variety of trackside and aerial cameras.

All the indications are that another international event, Formula One Grand Prix, will also be covered in HD next year. This is a sport with a profile that has been significantly boosted by the clever implementation of onboard cameras delivering a driver's eye view of the circuit as well as RF pit lane cameras. An HD production depends on the robustness of microwave links from the car to the trackside as well as advances in reducing the size and weight of camera systems. These are the two key technical limiters that restrict further specialist acquisition.

Specialist cameras

Production companies or equipment suppliers tend to delegate responsibility to experts when multiple specialist cameras are required. North One, which provides on-location host broadcast for the World Rally Championship (WRC), partners with the BBC Resources Special Cameras team to design, fit and support an array of onboard cameras. Gearhouse Broadcast regularly works with the UK's Camera Corps to provide wireless feeds, which Gearhouse then slots into the overall operation.

The BBC's team is responsible for some of the most creative camera angles in world sports. Its most famous application is the Stumpcam, now standard issue for cricket coverage. It has also put remotely-operated 360-degree cameras in rugby posts, as well as placed minicams onboard A1 Grand Prix cars and in the bulls-eye for archery contests.

The broadcaster has been extremely successful in coverage of international swimming events. It won a prestigious Royal Television Society sport innovation award for its HD Plunge Cam, a camera that is mounted on a 16m vertical track and captures divers in real time. The camera slows as they dive into the pool and when they're 4m below the surface where there is considerable pressure on the glass and seals. The system uses old 16mm C-mount lenses and cost about €300,000 to develop.

Most recently in a venture with Golf Flagstick (which markets advertising space around the pole), the BBC team built the FlagstickCam for CBS' coverage of one hole of the U.S. Masters golf tournament. The unit consists of six minicams and their batteries, which are incorporated into a 2in (5cm) diameter sleeve around the flagpole. One camera looks straight down into the cup; the rest cover the green from all directions. A BBC technician was on-site to ensure the signal from the FlagstickCam integrated with the host broadcast.

The BBC team finds it practical to convert domestic minicams because no manufacturers are making small enough HD cameras. The HD chip and zoom lens is retained but new software is engineered to feed an HD-SDI signal into the scanner. Alternatively, widescreen anamorphic, security or medical (endoscopic) lenses are adapted with the SD signals upconverted, as is done for cricket's Stumpcam.

The BBC is currently testing flash memory-based minicams onboard WRC cars that are much lighter and more robust than the current miniDVs. Tests are proving successful, allowing additional cameras to be fixed to the car, increasing North One's editorial armory.

Camera Corps has devised several unique point-of-view cameras. For example, its Pop-Up Ice Cam consists of two cameras housed in a 22cm unit that can be raised and retracted to capture footage of a bobsleigh heading both toward and past the camera at speeds in excess of 110km/h. The company has also housed cameras in ski poles and mounted a camera in a baseball base.

In addition, Camera Corps manufactured a CCU system to remotely control up to 130 cameras over long distances for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The current CCU can control 13 different camera models, including HD cameras, and is routinely used on reality TV shows.

A favorite device of specialist camera firm Aerial Camera Systems of Surrey, UK, is the Iconix HD-RH1. It comprises a 3CCD split optical block and a 33mm × 38mm × 50mm camera head, weighing just 70g. It captures 720p, 1080i and 1080p, and supports frame rates of 24fps, 25fps, 30fps, 50fps and 60fps.

Wireless cameras

Until recently, RF camera technology could not support wireless HD transmission without unworkable delays or picture loss. Now mainstream manufacturers are bringing RF HD camera systems to market. JVC, for example, has introduced the ProHD Libre, which provides native 60p HD capture, recording and microwave transmission through an onboard transmitter developed by Broadcast Microwave Services. The entire transmitter is the size of a small outboard battery. A fully equipped system, complete with camera, lens, microwave transmitter and receiver, can be configured for half the cost of most current microwave systems.

Link Research's RF systems are in widespread use, especially in motor racing, where wireless cameras come into their own by circumnavigating pit lane safety hazards. The company uses its own FPGA-based MPEG-2 encoding rather than industry standard DVB-T. This makes for a higher data rate between transmitter and receiver. Coverage using DVB-T typically yields 50 to 60 flat fades or even loses the signal completely. In contrast, using the same bandwidth as Link's codec reduces flat fades down to half a dozen. The Link HD system also uses the company's own COFDM-based modulation to deliver a robust signal.

In September, Link launched the L1500, its first modular transmitter, which is capable of swapping the RF section for different frequency bands in the field. Since territories have different RF limitations and licenses, this is likely to reduce the amount of required travel kit because only select RF modules are needed rather than several complete systems. The new transmitter is also capable of switching from SD to HD with the addition of a simple USB key.

Directors are increasingly confident of deploying RF cameras and for more than occasional shots. For example, ITV Sport's 2008 production of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is likely to be HD for the first time. It will be filmed almost entirely with RF units and build on the SD coverage, which will feature 15 Link RF cameras hired from Charter Broadcast and produced by O21.

The use of RF cameras (which includes four handheld radio cameras, two gyrostabilized devices, two radio cams for the umpire's boat, two mini systems on the university boats, two helicopter systems and five fixed pier-to-pier camera links) has completely changed the presentation of the event. It previously relied on long tracking and helicopter shots to cover the 7km course.

The event is unique because it relies on ground receivers using cellular diversity all fed back by a fiber contribution network. The 2006 coverage won the RTS live OB of the year award.

A problem with HD for specialist applications is the bandwidth required. In SD, there can be up to four cameras transmitting from a speeding car, for example. Additionally, multiple wireless coverage requires complex test management (and special licenses) to ensure that the frequencies between each transmit and receive point are robust.

California's Aerial Video Systems (AVS) was the first to successfully demonstrate an HD wireless camera system in the United States at a Monday Night Football game in 2005. Since then, AVS has covered numerous live events, such as the Super Bowl, NBA playoffs and finals, and the Academy Awards, with the Link HD camera system.

Slow motion cameras

Another significant hole in the HD OB arsenal has been the lack of a slow-motion camera capable of matching the speed of existing SD devices. Sony's HDC-3300 HD Super Slo Motion does just that and received its first practical outing at the Ryder Cup last fall. CTV and Telegenic used camera captured close-ups and reaction shots of the crowd and players rather than just swing and shot analysis.

The technical trade-off with ultra motion cameras is speed versus image quality. As the frame rate increases, available light to produce picture clarity decreases. Products from ARRI and new Belgium firm i-Movix attempt to push those boundaries.

Marketing and developing technology deployed initially in the Tornado high-speed unit (developed with Japan's NAC Image Technology), ARRI has continued to revise its Hi-Motion device for sports broadcasting. The preproduction unit was first used last year by Sky Sports when it covered the Premiership Football matches. Recording at 300fps, the new unit now provides 22 seconds of storage (double that of a year ago) available for immediate playback at six or 12 times slowdown live-to-air, with no processing delay. It also features operational improvements in remote control and record replay as a result of customer feedback. It was recently deployed for coverage of UEFA's U-21 Championship, cricket internationals (through Sky Sports and OB firm CTV) and motor racing, including several Formula One Grand Prix.

At NAB2007, i-Movix introduced the SprintCam. It can record 1080i HD images up to 5000fps. Photron APX RS cameras fitted with Fujinon Digipower broadcast lenses record to a server using i-Movix software algorithms. The SprintCam is tailored to fit any OB or venue network and designed to integrate within the EVS server and playout systems — now the de facto standard for live sports production. At 1000fps, it can cache 30 seconds, an improvement on the memory and speed of rival technology. The unit has already been active at several PGA golf tournaments, including the French Open, coverage of the Belgian division one football (soccer) league and Red Bull X-Fighter freestyle motocross events. The Photron features a single 10-bit CMOS sensor with Bayer system color.

Aerial cameras

Aerial Camera Systems supplies the Camcat flown wire rigs developed by Germany's Brains and Pictures. The Camcat range has been featured at numerous international winter sports and athletics events and uses RF for picture transmission, camera and head control data to and from the camera buggy.

Another product, Skycam, is becoming a fixture at many U.S. events, particularly those covered by ESPN. It was also extensively used during the Doha Games 2006 (by host broadcaster DAGBS) for the opening and closing ceremonies and reconfigured for use in the athletics coverage. A second system was deployed to cover diving and swimming.

Unlike Camcat, Skycam is connected entirely by fiber optics and features a computerized obstacle avoidance system, Skypath, to navigate the camera around fixed obstructions. It comprises a robotic camera (Panasonic AK-HC900 HD fitted with a Fuji 5.5 × 4 lens) suspended from a cable. With a joystick control, an operator can pilot the system in three dimensions and up to 48km/h.

According to the head of production facilities for DAGBS, David Shield, the Skycam enabled the team to capture shots that would be technically very difficult by any other means. These include aerial blimp coverage, crane style pans, and dolly and tracking shots that can span up to 240m.


A range of airborne mounts, rail camera systems, remote heads and cranes exist to stabilize remote camera shots. One of the newest to market is the Vortex by Cammotion, a specialized carbon fiber rig offering vertical tracking to 30m, stability at 30 knots and high-angle aerial shots.

Cameraman Matthew Gladstone got the idea for the Vortex after seeing photographers using professional stills made of masts in the back of 4 × 4 vehicles. He constructed a unit stable enough to support 20kg. It is ideally used in sports applications where space is a premium, such as in horse racing or marathons.

A remote head provides standard pan-and-tilt features, and the camera can be overslung for 360-degree panning or underslung for ground-level shots. The system is small and lightweight (just 3 tonnes against a 17 tonne cherry picker/boom lift) for easier location access and can be erected in minutes, enabling it to relocate several times in one day.

Adrian Pennington writes about broadcast technology.

Adrian Pennington

Adrian Pennington is a journalist specialising in film and TV production. His work has appeared in The Guardian, RTS Television, Variety, British Cinematographer, Premiere and The Hollywood Reporter. Adrian has edited several publications, co-written a book on stereoscopic 3D and is copywriter of marketing materials for the industry. Follow him @pennington1