ESPN Enters the Ring With Single-Truck 2D-3D Approach

With more than 60 events in the can, one would think that 3D production is becoming old hat for ESPN 3D. However, the eight-month-old network continues to tread new ground and seek out new challenges, as highlighted by this week’s production of Friday Night Fights from Salisbury, MD. Friday will mark not only the debut of boxing on ESPN 3D but also the network’s first telecast to use a single mobile unit for both the 2D and 3D productions.

“This is analogous to the HD-SD model where there is a single HD production that provides coverage for both HD and SD simultaneously,” says Phil Orlins, coordinating producer for ESPN 3D. “We’ve often shared elements of the coverage like individual cameras, especially at X Games. But we haven’t gone down the road of just being a single-truck production for 2D and 3D.”

ESPN also plans to deploy this approach for the ESPN and ESPN 3D telecasts of the Georgia-Florida NCAA men’s basketball game on Feb. 24.

Meshing 2D With 3D
ESPN2 will use the left-eye feed from the 3D production for the 2D telecast. ESPN 3D primary director Doug Holmes and FNF producer Jim Zirolli will man the front bench in NEP SS32. Joe Tessitore (who incidentally called the majority of ESPN 3D’s football broadcasts) and Teddy Atlas will call the action for both telecasts, which will feature three fights, including the Fernando Guerrero-Derrick Findley 10-round main event.

“From a content standpoint, [the Friday Night Fights production team] is driving the ship,” says Orlins. “We’re providing most of our 3D technical crew for support, but our goal is to have no effect whatsoever on the content decisions they make to produce their coverage.”

Many in the industry see the single-truck 2D-3D technique as the Holy Grail of a sustainable business model for live 3D production. However, the need to place camera positions closer to the action for 3D has prevented ESPN 3D and others from using a single production unit for both formats.

Ringside cameras positions are already key to 2D boxing coverage, making Friday Night Fights an ideal testing ground for ESPN’s first 2D-3D combo production.

“The concept of using the left-eye feed from 3D to make 2D is hardly an extraordinary technical challenge in itself,” says Orlins. “The real challenge is accommodating the shots and the graphics in a way that works for both. That’s where a sport like boxing is particularly suited to this, because it takes place in such a confined area that allows you to work close.”

BSkyB’s Sky 3D network has produced 3D boxing for its UK subscribers, and HBO Sports performed 3D tests in the ring in December, but Friday will mark the first-ever live 3D boxing telecast in the U.S. Although ESPN has yet to conduct any 3D tests for boxing, Orlins says he is “very comfortable with the idea of shooting two individuals in a ring when you compare it to a football field with play-action passes and pump fakes.”

A 2D-3D Camera Complement
ESPN’s six-camera complement for primary fight coverage is in line with the typical Friday Night Fights production (three handhelds, one jib, one hard camera, and an ultra-slo-mo), with a few exceptions.

The ringside handhelds will be pushed back 3-5 ft. to avoid any unusable negative parallax shots (when the ropes appear too far into the audience space, creating an uncomfortable image to watch). In addition, the ultra-slo-mo 3D rig is too large to serve as a ringside handheld, so ESPN will place it 40-50 ft. away from the ring.

“You’re going to see a little bit of a different take in the 2D broadcast,” says Matt Sandulli, senior coordinating producer on FNF. “We will probably have a little bit more of our handhelds on the ring. But I don’t see it being anything drastically different from what you see week in and week out, simply because we’re already cutting handhelds in on a regular basis anyway.”

As for the transmission side, ESPN will send discrete left-eye and right-eye feeds back to network headquarters in Bristol, CT. The left-eye feed will be distributed as the 2D telecast.

Graphics: From Bottom to Top
The biggest change to the 2D Friday Night Fights telecast will come in the graphics department. FNF’s round-clock graphic will move from the bottom of the screen to the top to avoid creating a depth conflict for the 3D telecast. To create an ideal 3D experience, ESPN 3D has placed its scorebug graphic in the top corner of the screen for nearly every telecast thus far.

“We’ve moved those graphics from the bottom of the screen to the top of the screen, where we can position them so there won’t be as many depth conflicts,” he says. “We moved the constant mini dashboard to the top of the screen, but we didn’t change anything about it from an informational standpoint.

Up Next, Basketball
ESPN will write the second chapter of its single-truck experiment the following week at the University of Florida, putting the 2D-3D combo approach to the test for the Gators’ matchup with the Georgia Bulldogs.

“I’m betting on basketball being manageable,” says Orlins. “A [single-truck production] is most viable for events in which the action takes place in a close-proximity area. Basketball fits that description. But I don’t think football is something we would ponder at this time.”

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