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ESPN NASCAR Coverage Takes The Lead With HD

“Gentlemen, start your diesels!”

No, that’s not the well-known command that summons rolling octane thunder to erupt from asphalt during a quiet blue-sky afternoon. It just might be heard, though, in the TV truck compound as drivers start their rigs to move ESPN’s new production trailers to the next race of the 2007 NASCAR season.

ESPN selected Pittsburgh-based NEP Broadcasting to build from scratch a custom-designed fleet of four trucks to service the network’s return to NASCAR. And what a return it is. After a six-season absence, the network resumed NASCAR coverage this year with lots of new technology to enhance the look and the sound of motor sports for television viewers.

ESPN came back on board with a commitment to produce Busch and Nextel Cup races and all associated programming using HD cameras. “Our decision with regard to a full commitment to a high definition presentation is not only unprecedented in NASCAR, but it’s unprecedented in the history of motorsports coverage,” said ESPN senior coordinating producer Rich Feinberg. “Heretofore, while NASCAR to some degree had been presented in high definition, there were numerous camera systems within those presentations that remained in standard def, for example, in-car cameras and the pit reporter cameras.

“Specialty systems that you would see—like grass cam or wall cam or crew cam—all those systems remained in standard def. So what happened was if you were a NASCAR fan watching a Nextel Cup race last year in high def, you got great camera coverage at one point, and then all of a sudden, the standard def signal would pop up, back to high def, back to standard def.”

According to Feinberg, achieving in-car HD cameras took an incredible commitment from technology vendors and engineer designers. “In-car camera systems are quite complicated by nature. You can only have so much weight in the car because it can affect the car’s performance,” he explained. “You have to get a signal out of a car that’s driving at 200 miles an hour with severe G-force going in and out of turns.”

Broadcast Sports, Inc.’s 20 years of custom design and in-house building experience made overcoming the challenge of making the first-ever HD in-car camera systems possible. “HD wireless transmission is relatively new and in its infancy,” said Clay Underwood, BSI business development manager. “It’s only been available for about a year, and most of the products that are available ‘over the counter’ are not directly applicable to our situation.”

When ESPN selected BSI to be the network’s in-car and RF vendor, there wasn’t a single-chip HD camera sitting on a shelf and waiting to be used. “Miniaturization is the key in on-board cameras,” said Underwood, “so there’s always going to be a trade-off between being small enough and being able to generate an image that’s worthy of transmission. And so we worked with a manufacturer to develop a single-chip megapixel solution that would deliver enough resolution to be able to generate a true HD signal.”

A BSI trailer housing the in-car camera gear and providing RF communications is part of the six-trailer fleet, as well as a Featherlite office trailer. “This isn’t a small sporting event. This is 60 to 70 HD cameras every week,” said Feinberg. “It’s a little bit more like a rock tour than it is a sports tour. What we tried to do is design a system that was so self-contained and so easy to set up that it could actually handle this kind of travel that we’re talking about.”

In the first four weeks of racing, the truck compound moved from Florida to California to Mexico to Nevada, traveling tens of thousands of miles. “It is without a doubt the largest television compound that’s crisscrossing the country on a weekly basis in the history of sports television,” added Feinberg. “Week 1, we finished in Daytona on a Sunday night, and we were on the air Friday morning in California, four days later, with all the equipment moved across the country.”

Recognizing ESPN’s needs, NEP designed and built the Supershooter 21 four-trailer mobile unit. The A unit contains the control room and the graphics room, including two Vizrt graphics stations.

With so many cameras and replay channels, SS21 uses two Grass Valley Kalypso HD switchers. A large 3.5 M/E Kalypso handles the main program, while a second 2.5 M/E Kalypso handles sub-switching the replays into the main switcher.

“This results in an available 7 M/Es and over 140 inputs,” explained George Hoover, NEP senior vice president of engineering. “This configuration allows the production team to maximize the number of replays which can quickly be placed on the air in this very fast sport.”

The control room features an all-plasma monitor wall with Evertz technology allowing different configurations. “Flexibility was important, and we needed to have enough monitor wall space,” said Feinberg. “That’s why we laid out the truck horizontally instead of vertically and used this plasma system to allow us, in any given plasma, to have one picture or to have 20 pictures, whatever we want. However we design the monitor wall for a race, it can all be captured in memory so that next time we return to a track, we can just hit a button, and there you have it.”

The B unit contains the audio rooms and what used to be called the tape room. It has an EVS network with nine XT[2] servers, each with three inputs and three outputs, and one running in a four-input, two-output configuration. There are two six-channel systems recording a super slo-mo camera plus one standard input, one output used for the slo-mo operator, and one output by an IP Director as a playback channel for an NLE. Additionally, there are two IP Director systems for logging and producer browsing.

“Essentially, we have doubled the capability that Monday Night Football has in terms of replay systems,” said Feinberg. “And then there’s the video control area where we do all our shading of the cameras. Also in our B unit is our audio A1 mix room, where the primary mix is done.”

A lot of audio mixing capability is needed to handle the approximately 100 microphones. “NEP turned to our long-term audio console supplier, Calrec, to supply a network of three digital audio consoles,” said Hoover. “One of the largest Alpha 100s with Bluefin is used as the main mix console. A Sigma with Bluefin handles effects, and a Zeta handles tracking and replay of the driver communications. All three desks are interfaced together by MADI networking.”

Calrec’s Hydra technology is used in the field to bring back the microphones from the course and the announcers in the booth. “Hydra allows the mixer full control of the microphone preamps located on the course,” Hoover explained. “This lets us capture the analog mic signal as close to the source as possible, preamp it with Calrec’s legendary sound, digitize it and send it over fiber back to the console. All the problems of microphones on very long cable runs with generic preamps on batteries are eliminated, resulting in a much cleaner and clearer sound.”

The C unit contains a screening station so production assistants can find footage for the producers, as well as a Final Cut Pro editing room. “Instead of us having to cart office trailers around the country and set up an edit room in an office trailer and do it again next week, we just built one into the mobile unit fleet,” said Feinberg.

A feature unique to NASCAR productions is a racer radio room, also housed in the C unit, from which the television production crew can essentially eavesdrop on all 43 teams on the racetrack. They can hear and record race team communication between the driver, spotter, crew chief and anyone else on their channel. “What that allows us to do is let the drivers and the crew chiefs and the teams help us tell the stories themselves of their journey through the race,” Feinberg added.

The D unit is the pit studio for the announcers. It’s mounted on a pantograph system that raises the studio floor 12 feet above the ground. A custom-made Daktronics LED display on the front of the announcers’ desk is visually prominent during wide shots, while LED light fixtures from Selador are used to help light the talent.

Bruce Ferri, a lighting designer for New York City Lites, was involved with the lighting design and installation of the Selador fixtures in the pit studio trailer. “Part of the mission statement from ESPN was we had to think outside the box,” said Ferri. “Everyone knows that we could get some HMIs and clip gel to them and have somebody clip gel as needed, but they wanted more cutting edge than that. The lack of heat and low power consumption was definitely a plus, but I selected Selador because I needed some kind of fixture that could change color temperature as the conditions on the track changed.”

Instead of the red, green and blue strip lights used for stage lighting, these fixtures have seven different colored LEDs: red, orange, amber, green, cyan, blue and indigo. An ETC Pharos Lighting Playback Controller is used to mix the seven colors to match the color temperature of the light coming through the window behind the announcers. The lighting director can match the shifting color temperature of the sunlight as it changes from mid-afternoon to sunset as well as the track’s lights. Plus, the LED mix can be saved as a file and recalled when another race is televised at the same track.

“The pit studio is a double expando,” said Paul DiPietro, ESPN coordinating operations director. “On one side, you have a full expando of the glass. And on the other side, you have the identical expando, but it’s the working side, so it’s just solid wall. In that working side, on the floor, we have three sections of rail mounted to the floor.”

Each rail section has a Telemetrics trolley with an elevating pedestal. A remote pan-tilt head, prompter, and Grass Valley LDK 6000 mkII WorldCam handheld camera completes each of the three camera systems.

The cameras can move smoothly and independently of each other without transferring vibrations to the on-air camera. The two camera operators use Telemetric’s precision joystick controllers and the company’s CPS-SP-S Studio Software System to control the trolleys, elevating pedestals and cameras. The camera ops can store different shot positions that can be accessed through a touch screen.

“With the trolley going from left to right, the pedestal going up and down, as well as the camera tilting and panning, you start combining all three and you’re imitating a jib move,” said DiPietro.

The pit studio also contains another technology for dealing with excessive backlight, be it sunlight or track lights. “We have a motorized polarizing filter on each camera lens, and we have polarizing film on the glass behind the announcers,” said DiPietro. “So when the light comes through, the film polarizes it.”

The camera’s polarizing filter is then used to increase or decrease the brightness of the background. “The motorized filter wheel has a wired remote,” noted Ferri. “In Daytona we decided that the LD should control it in concert with the video engineer.”

Noubar Stone, senior creative director for ESPN Productions, orchestrated the design for the pit studio’s lighting and set as well as the window treatment and lens polarizing system. Solarfective Products Limited designed and built the custom-made motorized shade roller system that is used to raise and lower the polarizing film for the window. The company built a similar system for ABC’s Good Morning America street windows.

With a cutting-edge mobile unit and new technology, ESPN has returned to its road trip with NASCAR. Using a system designed to be so self-contained and easy to set up will make production life easier for the approximately 200 crew members who are traveling from February through November.

“This [NASCAR project] is about a journey for many, many months and ultimately many, many years, and not about a destination after two weeks,” said Feinberg. “It’s a long one, but it’s an impassioned group, a committed group across all business units within this company. When ESPN picks something to really get behind as a corporation, it’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Bill Molzon is director of TV operations for Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bmolzon@ Elizabeth Witte is a junior communication and English major at Waynesburg College.