Technology

3D Takes the Mound

Early baseball coverage bodes well for new format 7/19/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

The world of Major League Baseball
had plenty of front-page news last
week with the deaths of two New York
Yankees legends, announcer Bob Sheppard
and owner George Steinbrenner, and the first
All-Star Game win by the National League over
the American League since 1996. So, it’s understandable
that another potentially historic
development happened mostly under the radar:
the league’s first foray in stereoscopic 3D
production.

For the last major U.S. professional league to
experiment with the 3D format, MLB’s All-Star
Week created a flurry of activity, with two regular-
season games, the State Farm Home Run
Derby and the All-Star Game all broadcast in
3D in a span of four days. And while no further
3D broadcasts are scheduled, the early verdict
from network executives is that baseball in 3D
is nothing short of a home run.

“I always thought baseball would be one of
the sports least conducive to 3D,” says Ed Delaney,
VP of operations for YES Network. “After
seeing this, it may be one of the best.”

“Everybody was very surprised at how really
cool baseball looked in 3D,” adds Jerry
Steinberg, senior VP of field operations for Fox
Sports. “It was amazing.”

Steinberg and his Fox team, working with personnel from DirecTV, 3D specialist PACE and
YES, produced the regular-season games on July
10 and 11 at Seattle’s Safeco Field between the
Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees. Those
games, which were sponsored by DirecTV and
Panasonic, were broadcast regionally by YES
and FSN Northwest, and carried by DirecTV,
Verizon and a host of major cable operators.

The Fox team then headed to Angel Stadium
in Anaheim, Calif., to produce the All-Star Game
on July 13, which was broadcast exclusively in
3D on DirecTV’s new n3D channel. Fox used
the same NEP 3D truck, SS32, that had supported
ESPN’s 3D coverage of the Home Run
Derby the previous
night. Another NEP
truck with PACE
gear, SS31, was
used to produce the
games in Seattle.

While Fox had
done some 3D testing
at Angel Stadium
this spring with
high-school players
to work out camera
positions and angles,
the real-game
experiences in Seattle
and Anaheim still
surprised Steinberg,
who had previously
produced the 2009 BCS college football championship
game in the format. “Baseball looked
different,” he says. “You can see the depth, you
can perceive the heights of the pitchers on the
mound, and you can get the perceived distance
to home plate better.”

The Seattle 3D productions used six 3D cameras
on the field, in traditional positions such
as “low-first” base, low-third, high-home and
center-field, plus low-home, a position that isn’t
available in many stadiums. A seventh camera, a
Panasonic 3D camcorder, was used in the booth
to capture shots of the announcers. The All-Star
coverage in Anaheim used 13 3D cameras, including
Panasonic camcorders that shot B-roll footage around the stadium and of All-Star players
inside the clubhouse.

Steinberg originally planned to only use seven
3D cameras for the All-Star Game, but MLB afforded
more access than expected. For example,
Fox was able to place cameras in the dugout and
behind home plate, with a 3D robotic camera
mounted on the screen in a “mid-high-home”
position. The extra angles allowed Fox to really
“tell the 3D story,” Steinberg says.

“Evidently, MLB became 3D believers after
seeing the stuff in Seattle, and thought that this
thing could be pretty cool and possibly have a
big future,” Steinberg adds.

Steinberg and Delaney agree that the low-home
camera position in 3D, which was employed extensively
during the Yankees/Mariners contests,
was particularly dynamic.

“It was the money shot,” Delaney says. “When
A-Rod [Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez]
got brushed back, you felt the speed. And when a
ball would skip in the dirt and come right to the
camera, you were ducking away from the ball.”

The shots from low-first and low-third were
also impressive, he adds. “You could take a shot
of a batter, and see the background of the dugouts,
the depths of the guys in the dugout and
the crowd standing behind. It really popped.”

Shots from center-field and high-home positions
were less exciting, as they didn’t give as
great a sense of depth. But they still worked for
game coverage. “If you’re shooting from center
field, you don’t get the ‘Holy Cow!’ 3D experience,”
Steinberg says. “But that doesn’t matter;
you’re still getting depth.”

ESPN also used traditional positions for some
of its 12 3D cameras, such as high-home, to
track the ball during its coverage of the Home
Run Derby on July 12. “There are certain cameras
you can’t get away from, as you have to
document the event,” says Chris Calcinari,
ESPN VP of event operations. “Some cameras
you need to tell the story; others you need to
give the best 3D effect.”

But since the Home Run Derby competition
doesn’t make use of the infield, except for the
placement of a batting-practice pitcher, ESPN
was able to experiment with some rather unconventional
positions. For example, in addition
to a bevy of PACE 3D rigs with Sony cameras and Fujinon lenses in traditional spots, ESPN
positioned two pairs of Panasonic compact
cameras on the left and right side of the infield,
very close to home plate, and aligned them for
a 3D effect.

“They were only about five feet away,” Calcinari
says. “So, you had the batter in the foreground,
and tons of background.”

Another innovative 3D look was provided by
a new ultra-high-frame-rate camera from Vision Research and I-Movix, which ESPN
rented from camera specialist Fletcher.
That camera, which ESPN mounted
down the third-base line, recorded 3D
images at 1,000 frames per second for
dramatic slow-motion replays.

ESPN also used a new camera system
for 3D called MastCam, which consists
of a vertical pole about 12 feet high
with a 3D camera system mounted on
a robotic head. ESPN placed the Mast-
Cam three feet behind the pitcher, with
a view looking down on the pitcher as
he released the ball. ESPN took the risk
of a line drive coming back over the
pitcher’s head and hitting the Mast-
Cam, but that didn’t happen.

ESPN is considering using the MastCam for
3D coverage of college football this fall, by placing
it on a cart that can be moved up and down
the sideline. Robotic cameras, such as pan-bar
systems that can be controlled by an operator in a
truck, will be important to 3D sports coverage in
general, as their smaller footprint cuts down on
expensive “seat kills” in stadiums and arenas.

While there is a buzz over 3D baseball
coming out of All-Star Week, network executives
concede that only a handful of early
adopters actually saw the coverage on 3D
sets. No further 3D MLB broadcasts are currently
planned by YES, Fox or ESPN for this
year. 3D production is still tremendously
expensive, as much as seven times that of
a conventional HD production, according to
one network chief. While set-makers are covering
costs now, questions about a long-term
business model remain. And technical glitches
persist, such as a transmission problem
during the July 11 Yankees/Mariners game
that degraded the 3D pictures on DirecTV
for the first couple of innings.

But production veterans like Delaney still
think they may have glimpsed the game’s TV
future last week. “I was never a skeptic about
baseball in 3D; I just thought it would not be in
demand,” he says. “But I realized you could sit
and watch a baseball game in 3D for a full three
hours. And if you watched 10 games in 3D, it
would be like going back to SD when you saw
a regular HD game.”

E-mail comments to
dickson.glen@gmail.com

 

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