On Football Game Day, Pitt Video Joins the Pros
By Carolyn Braff
Many college video directors dream of having access to a professional team’s facilities, but, as the University of Pittsburgh’s director of PantherVision Productions can attest, sharing spaces is harder than it looks. Paul Barto handles all of the university’s game-day operations from Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and, while working out of an NFL facility gives him a distinct equipment advantage, he also has some unique production challenges to solve, week after week.
“Our operations are equal parts relaxed and hectic,” says Barto. “For the most part, we’re pretty comfortable with our show.”
Entering Another Dimension
The video board at Heinz Field has a unique 4:1 aspect ratio, which means that every piece of video played on that board has to be created especially for it.
“This board is super widescreen, so I need to take content and squeeze it, put it on a background, and re-render it out so that it’s actually viewable,” Barto explains. “There are a lot of little things that go into working on that scoreboard that people really don’t consider, and it can be challenging at times because it takes an extra step.”
To accommodate the widescreen board’s dimensions, the five freelance camera operators that work on Barto’s game-day productions must change the way they shoot.
“Those guys shoot with a really large crop area,” Barto explains. “They leave a lot of space on top and bottom, so a lot of our footage from Heinz Field looks kind of strange because it looks so wide.”
The unusual dimensions of the board make it tough for Barto to incorporate network-television feeds into his show, since with a 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio, the action might be lost in conversion to the 4:1 board. Occasionally, the network taps into Barto’s reserves for an additional replay angle, but, for the most part, there is little overlap between the network show and the scoreboard show.
To make the process even more complicated, for any highlight reels he wants to run, Barto has to edit his 4:3 and 16:9 road-game footage to fit the widescreen board.
“When I shoot tight for footage on the road, I find I have to do a little squeeze or really move it around in the frame so that I hit the right spot so you can actually see what’s happening,” Barto explains. “It was something that I was definitely not used to when I got here. It took me a couple years to feel completely comfortable working with it.”
Working with that system is now second nature for Barto, who has been with Panther Athletics since 2004, when he left the Pittsburgh Penguins to join the college ranks.
An HD Addendum
Although the video board at Heinz Field is HD-capable, it does not receive an HD signal. Barto mandates that at least some HD footage be collected from every game for highlight use, so he supplements the full scoreboard crew at Heinz Field with three student camera operators who take the field for each game.
“There are three cameras on the field on any given time for us, in addition to the five for the scoreboard,” Barto explains. “We have a cameraman shooting game action in HD on a Sony XDCAM; then we have students shooting HD B-roll, sidelines, and behind the benches on Panasonic cameras, using P2. The standard-def footage is great, but, in a couple of years, it’s going to become more difficult to use something that’s been recorded in DV.”
The Essentials of Planning
Broadcasting from a professional facility also requires planning, since a forgotten cable or flash drive loaded with still graphics is no longer a quick jog away.
“The first few years, it was really hard,” Barto says. “You’ve got to finish everything, double-check everything as you normally would, but then also make sure that you pack everything down to your extra credentials, batteries, cameras, this massive amount of equipment that we move.”
Barto generally takes his gear over to Heinz Field the Friday before a Saturday game, sets up on Friday night, and then is ready to go by show time on Saturday.
“We take a couple of computers down every week as well,” Barto adds. “We operate on a Final Cut Pro platform, so we’ve got students who are working on highlights of the game. The P2 HD footage that they shoot from the sidelines, they’re bringing that stuff upstairs during the game and inputting that into our system so that we’ve got the footage and highlights as fast as we possibly can.”
A Second Control-Room Language
Barto and his team do all of their production of sponsor inventory, highlight reels, and special intros and outros from the Peterson Events Center on Pitt’s campus. Barto then puts the content on tape, transports it to Heinz Field, and loads it into the video servers at the stadium about four hours before kickoff.
“Based on the equipment that they have, the simplest solution was using Dixon Sports replay software,” Barto explains. “Basically, it’s a video server, a big hard drive that we load everything into. We build the clips, queue everything up, and they’re available in a one-click move.”
In the Peterson Events Center, where Pitt’s basketball teams play, the control room is all Daktronics equipment, while the Heinz Field control room is quite a bit more complicated.
“The switcher there is massive,” Barto says. “There’s a ton more monitors and decks. There are very few similarities between the two, aside from the fact that they do the same thing in the end.”
That massive switcher is a Sony DVS 7250. The control room is also equipped with a Sony BKS 3219 & R3240A router, 2 FX Deko character generators, a 12-channel Dixon with Leitch servers, and Soundcraft K3 audio console.
Pitch and Catch
In a few years, Heinz Field will be upgrading its control room to HD, and once that happens, Pitt will have to follow suit.
“When they eventually do it, then we have no choice but to upgrade our facilities on campus, at least in terms of production,” Barto says. “In my office, we’ve put in a giant video server, so you can sit down at any one of our workstations and edit video. We know now we’re going to have to go out and buy some HD equipment so we can master on HD.”