Mainstream 3-D production hinges on cost

The production of live sports events in 3-D seems to be gaining momentum among network-level producers looking for the next big “wow” factor, but the extra cost involved with producing such a telecast is prohibitive at the moment. Some are comparing the situation to the early days of HD television production, but the image processing and synchronization involved with stereoscopic images is much more difficult for today’s crews to get their heads around.

This is not to say that some are not trying to remedy the situation. Several of the broadcast TV and cable network sports divisions have joined with the two major 3-D specialists, 3Ality Digital and PACE Technologies, both of Burbank, CA, to host experimental “closed” telecasts to select theaters around the country. To date, the technology has not made it into U.S. living rooms. Some say this might be more than five years away (assuming consumers buy the required 3-D-capable TV sets).

NEP Supershooters, a veteran mobile production company in Pittsburgh, PA, has converted a 52ft rig from its fleet into a fully 3-D-capable production truck, which is set to seed the production community and get crews trained to do 3-D projects cost-effectively. The new SS3D truck is part of a joint partnership with PACE and will be used as a “research and development platform” by the company’s clients for 3-D production, according to George Hoover, NEP’s chief technology officer.

The truck was first deployed Sept. 12 for a national college football game that was transmitted live from Columbus, OH, to the Galen Center on the USC campus, where a combination of six Sony SXRD 4K projectors displayed the game in stereoscopic 3-D on three 40ft screens. Those in attendance wore special polarized glasses to watch the telecast. The reviews were very positive.

“The idea behind SS3D is to be able to give the production and technical staff a familiar work environment with the tools they need to do a live event,” Hoover said. “The learning and technique development opportunity can then be concentrated on the 3-D elements.”

The new 3-D production truck includes a standard Sony MVS-8000A 4ME switcher, which will be operated in dual mode, switching a separate left- and right-eye feed. Other HD switchers with dual-mode capability could be used as well. The truck will use PACE’s FUSION 3D camera rigs, proprietary image-capture systems (inside a separate B-truck) and also carry eight stereoscopic rigs (each with dual Sony HDC-1500 cameras) designed by Vince Pace. In addition, the truck uses an NVISION Envoy digital video router, NVISION AES digital audio router, and SSL Aysis Air PLUS! digital audio console. A Chyron Hyper X3 graphics unit is included, and the truck is wired for two six-channel EVS XT[2] video servers. The vehicle also features a 3-D production viewing area, a convergence station and 3-D-capable tape, video and engineering rooms.

The real question is if this new truck will save producers money over using one of your other existing trucks for 3-D production. Hoover said that current 2-D trucks require modifications to the monitor wall and creation of a work area for 3-D imaging engineers. The SS3D comes with that functionality in place, plus includes the traditional requirements for live multicamera events, such as systems to accommodate intercom, tally, replay, graphics, 5.1 audio, etc.

Building the truck was a significant expense, but Hoover said that because it is a “research platform,” it was funded out of NEP’s R&D budget, and so cost comparisons to a traditional HD truck are not really comparable. “Obviously, there’s twice as many physical cameras per camera positions, as well as the 3-D camera rigs and the left- and right-feed processing, which all create increases in cost from a pure cost to build over 2-D units,” he said.

Despite the “bleeding-edge” costs, the new SS3D will be used for special events (it’s booked for several 3-D productions set for “broadcast” in Q4 of 2009 and Q1 of 2010), and the company will monitor demand.

“This [3-D] technology has already proven its value as a consumer draw for motion pictures,” said Alec Shapiro, senior VP of sales and marketing for Sony Electronics’ Broadcast and Production Systems. “Sports events are another ideal application of 3-D. Whether it’s a sports arena or a movie theater, 3-D live production brings the action to fans who can’t attend in person.”

The need for more training and cost analysis is clear. Other companies, like Cross Creek Television (in Alabama) and Game Creek Video (Hudson, NH) have produced 3-D games for the NFL and NBA, respectively, with traditional 2-D trucks, but a number of technical compromises limited comparison to what viewers are used to seeing from productions that use 20 to 30 cameras. Most 3-D telecasts to date have used six to eight camera rigs, made up of two HD cameras mounted on special (albeit hard to handle) brackets to provide a right-eye/left-eye view.

As a dedicated 3-D research platform, SS3D is not intended to handle 2-D work. In part, this allows NEP to maintain schedule flexibility to meet the opportunities and requirements for developing 3-D production techniques for live, multicamera production. As with all new technology, cost and ratings are critical to mainstream deployment.

“Our plan is to go out and work with PACE and our mutual clients on a 3-D project, then come back for a postmortem, followed by refining the systems and techniques, and making whatever changes or modifications are required, and go back out again,” NEP’s Hoover said. “We can handle 12 to 18 shows a year within the scope of a research and development unit.”