Live From MLB All-Star: Fox Sports’ New 4K Workflow, Specialty Cameras Turn Citi Field Into a Production Playground
Setting up for a production as large as the Major League Baseball All-Star Game (Tonight, 8 p.m., Fox) is enough of an undertaking. Now throw on top of that, that there’s an almost equally as popular and technologically demanding of an event – the Home Run Derby – going on the night before in the same building that is produced by an entirely different network.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges that we have is there is this huge show right in front of us that we have to work around,” says Mike Davies, VP, Field Operations, Fox Sports. “[Monday night] after [the Home Run Derby] we have to put in 11 cameras and put in a lot of the infrastructure that’s currently taken up by ESPN. You’d always like to leave a show done [the night before] but so far [on Monday afternoon] we haven’t actually gotten everything in yet.”
Fox Sports will deploy a whopping 39 game cameras across Citi Field for tonight’s MLB All-Star Game – 41 if you include a pair of robotic locker room cameras that may be used in the game’s surrounding coverage. Yet that just begins to scratch the surface as to what will be going in the stadium and outside in the 10,000 square-foot production compound.
In the eyes of the Fox Sports production team, the MLB All-Star Game is a perfect setting to test out some of the newest technology that will hope to some day be a standard part of every baseball broadcast.
“When we come to the All-Star Game it provides a really good test-bed for us in terms of trying new things,” says Davies. “Whether they make air or whether they don’t make air, we always push a lot of things forward here at the All-Star Game.”
A New Look at 4K Workflows
Fox Sports is taking a look at some 4K workflows at this year’s All-Star Game.
One 4K camera is deployed in the stadium, positioned next to the high-home HD game camera: a Canon C500 Cinema EOS camera equipped with a EF 70-200mm lens. It’s the same camera that MLB Network used on their 4K tests during the World Baseball Classic in March.
“Obviously, everybody’s doing 4K,” noted Davies. “I think we’re in a position where we need to refine our strategy in terms of the technical backend of 4K. So this is the primary vetting process so that we can line up our priorities for postseason.”
At the center of Fox’s 4K workflow is ChyronHego’s AKI Paint, a specialty commentator analysis tool that Fox also uses for its Player Pointer graphics element.
“This is both the first time we have had Paint at the All Star Game and this is the first time the 4K system has been used anywhere in the world,” says Kevin Prince, ChyronHego U.S. President. “We literally got the system working about 10 minutes ago [11 a.m. on Monday].”
AKI Paint’s internal pixel recognition allows the operator to apply lines to map the field. The operator can take the 4K image and zoom in and pull an high-resolution HD output tat can be used for replay. The system also contains an internal, multichannel DDR (direct-to-disk recording) that offers about 12 minutes of 4K storage. Use key frame to determine which parts of the shot you want to zoom in on. Internal key-framing capabilities allow the operator to simulate camera movements within in the image, as well.
“It’s like a Swiss Army knife,” says Zac Fields, Vice President of Graphics and Technology at Fox Sports. “The [4K] zoom is awesome but the biggest thing it does is the pixel recognition so you can take these [elements] and map them and it appears as if its within the scene. It also has the tremendous turnaround time that you need in the live environment.”
The AKI Paint is tied directly into the EVS XT3 live production replay server, a 4K server that EVS first debuted at this year’s NAB Show.
“We have the telestration and then [EVS] can supply the normal clipping and packaging applications,” says Prince. “This will be a a great compliment to the whole process.”
AKI Paint’s primary role is still to serve as Fox’s Player Pointer graphics element, which was used on-air during last year’s NLCS and World Series. The system uses an internal chroma-keyer to track and apply identifying graphics to players either on the bases or in the field. Each player is assigned with a tag prior to the start of the game which is than associated with a graphic. According to Fields, the tracking is essentially married to a render which inserts the graphic.
“Player Pointer becomes so critical in an All-Star Game like this because there’s so many player substitutions,” says Fields. “It’s important to keep the viewers updated as to who is out there.”
Inertia Unilimited Gets Dirt-y
A staple in many of the biggest Fox Sports shows, Inertia Unlimited has an even bigger and more unique presence this year at the Midsummer Classic.
For the first time at the All-Star Game, Inertia is rolling out “Dirt Cam,” a specialty camera system that will be buried in the dirt a few feet in front of home plate. Just imagine the slightest tip of an iceberg floating above the surface of a body of water and it gives you an idea of just how tiny the camera lens itself is, and just how much is housed below the surface of the playing field. In fact, the camera only peeks outs a tiny 3 mm off the ground.
“We’re really looking forward to using it,” says Francisco Contreras, Director of Field Ops for Fox Sports. “It’s going to make a difference and it’s going to look really cool.”
Dirt Cam is a system that Fox was hoping to deploy last year, but an intense heat wave in Kansas City made the camera’s usage impossible. Those in the New York-area know its been a scorcher of a week at this year’s game as well, but according to both the Inertia team and Fox, the system is better prepared to handle the weather this time around with the housing having been adjusted.
Inertia, Fox, and the Citi Field Grounds Crew did a field test of the Dirt Cam on Saturday morning and were pleased with what they saw. At 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the Inertia crew of Jeff Silverman and Keith Johnson met with the Citi Field Grounds Crew to put the system in place.
“They do the majority of the digging and the other work, but we help them place it,” says Johnson. “They have been wonderful thus far. We needed them to dig a foot and a half deep hole they took it all in stride.”
After supplying three of their specialty high-speed cameras a year ago in Kansas City, Inertia Unlimited has five of its popular X-Mo systems also on-hand at Citi Field.
On site there are three “FOX Phantom Cams” – a Vision Research Phantom v642 supplied by Inertia that captures images between 3,000 and 5,000 frames per second (fps). The Phantom Cam became the talk of last year’s MLB Postseason when it captured gorgeous images at the NLCS and World Series, including the now famous Hunter Pence “three-hit” swing in Game 7 of the NLCS. At All-Star, the three Phantoms are positioned at mid-first, mid-third, and tight center.
“The great thing about baseball is that it provides an awful lot of opportunities to use it,” says Davies. “If you point it at a batter all night long, you’re going to get a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of repetitive, very predictable things that you can park a camera on a watch.”
There will also be two X-Mo cameras – or “hyper motion” cameras that can shoot up to 500 fps that will positioned half way up each baseline.
Game Creek Orchestrates It All
No stranger to Fox’s biggest sports productions, Game Creek has brought in its four Fox trucks: A, B, C, and D to handle this tremendous show. These trucks have worked previous All-Star Games, the Daytona 500, and Super Bowls for Fox.
The A truck is the hardware truck with all of the audio, replay, video, and core engineering going on inside. The B unit has graphics, production, and the ChyronHego AKI Paint system. The D unit, meanwhile, is equipped with two pre-game Final Cut edit systems and a fifth video position for operators shading robo cameras.
Mike Copeland, engineer overseeing the entirety of Game Creek’s work at the All Star Game, echoed Davies thoughts on the limits a very crowded truck compound bring.
“It is always a challenge coming into this show because with ESPN is doing one of their biggest shows of the year the night before, it always stretches a stadium’s capabilities to the edge,” he says. “As nice as it is to be in a beautiful new facility like this, they are still limited on the amount of cable and infrastructure that they have because there is so much going on. So the hardest thing for us to do is sit around and wait. We can get all our preproduction done, but when it comes to building the bulk of the cameras and wiring everything to our booth and various positions, it gets tough for that overnight shift. They have to wait till ESPN gets out of the way before we can get in there.”