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Actioncam HD system takes flight for sports production

The ability to provide difficult overhead camera views by flying a camera on cables across the field of play is a relatively new element to sports coverage, but one that is increasingly catching on with TV producers and viewers alike.

Each sport presents a unique challenge for an overhead camera. So the camera starts its move behind the quarterback, behind home plate or high enough over the basketball court to dodge a long pass.

A new Tulsa, OK, company called Actioncam, founded earlier this year by former employees of CableCam and SkyCam, is focused on changing the economics and logistics of such a system. The Actioncam HD aerial camera technology has been in development for about 18 months.

Using lessons learned from their shared experience during the formative days of cabled camera systems, PJ Bennett, Actioncam HD president and CEO (formerly with SkyCam), and Alex MacDonald (former co-owner of CableCam), senior manager of business development, are promoting a new system that uses strong synthetic support lines and a lightweight, stabilized camera head carrying a Panasonic AK-HC1500 box-style HD camera with a Fujinon HA13X4.5BERD wide-angle lens.

The Actioncam system uses error-correcting TCP/IP communications on a fiber-optic (Ethernet) link that allows the operator to move the camera into a variety of positions and control the lens remotely. The software can then receive and calculate focus/zoom and camera positioning data from the Fujinon lens inside a production truck to accommodate virtual technologies, like the first-and-10 line or perhaps virtual ads in the future.

On-site at a sports venue, two operators control the Actioncam HD system, which relays video to a dedicated production truck staffed by Actioncam. One operator uses a joystick to move the camera in space via a system of four high-tension (2500lbs breaking strength) synthetic lines together with a military-grade fiber-optic cable that provides power, video, camera control and additional safety (another 1500lbs). The camera flies on the support lines, while the operator adjusts the pan-and-tilt functions of the camera (employing Fujinon’s DigiPower technology to zoom in and out and keep the shot in focus).

The system’s versatility allows it to fly under a basketball scoreboard and yet be high enough to clear the action, as Actioncam demonstrated for CBS at the NCAA Basketball’s Final Four in Detroit’s Ford Field. “Some of the existing systems are limited as to the types of venues they can cover either because they can't pull as much tension without breaking a fiber line,” MacDonald said, “or fly high enough with their heavier camera package.”

More recently, Turner Sports used Actioncam during the 2009 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. The NCAA and NBA both have approved the use of the Actioncam HD system because of its mobility and quick setup time.

“At one point during a Final Four time out, we zoomed in tight on the Michigan State huddle gathered at the sideline to go over the next play,” Bennett said. “From our position over the court, we were able to zoom in very close with a clear shot of the coach. As the time out ended, we pulled out to an extreme wide shot. The effect was dramatic and the network loved it.”

Another benefit of the Actioncam HD system is its use of a simpler rigging method and a smaller camera housing that is much cheaper to produce. The existing systems use the same gyro-stabilized mounts found in ENG helicopters, which tend to be much more expensive.

The company is now in discussions with FOX and CBS to use the system for the upcoming NFL season. The Actioncam HD system showed its superior speed and maneuverability at a recent Oklahoma State football game, and a full test for the NFL and several networks is scheduled in early July. Turner Broadcasting and the MLB is also interested for the 2010 season, having seen the system’s potential during some tests conducted at Turner Field in 2005.

Of course, some stadiums and arenas make installing an aerial camera easier than others, but MacDonald says a team of two local riggers can rig the Actioncam HD system inside a basketball venue in two days (about half the time it takes to set up other systems). “Tear down is accomplished in under five hours. Local labor, the simplicity of the rig and a flat pricing structure is proving extremely attractive to producers and are a huge advantage in market penetration,” MacDonald said.

Sports like baseball are especially challenging because the camera housing has to extend far up over the stands before the ball is pitched to prevent interfering with a pop fly. This means more difficult rigging and a wider scope for the camera to cover, but the results can be stunning. MacDonald spoke of being able to follow a player around the bases after a home run.

“The economics of sports production today is such that you have to offer producers a low-cost alternative or this technology will only be used in the top-tier games,” MacDonald said. “Aerial camera systems add value to any sporting event; viewers love it. It’s all about ratings.”

“At the end of the day, we bring in the beauty shot at a price the networks can get excited about — about 30 percent less than the competition,” MacDonald said. “We’ve worked hard to bring the cost and complexity of our system to a manageable level so that everyone involved with a sports production, from the producer to the riggers that have to install the system, are comfortable using it. That’s been the challenge of every aerial cable system ever used, and one we think we have overcome.”

In 2007, Winnercomm, a sports production company in Tulsa whose SkyCam system has been used extensively by ABC Sports and ESPN, acquired both CableCam and SkyCam, and this year Winnercomm was bought by the Outdoor Channel, so MacDonald said he sees an opportunity for a second major player to enter the field.