NEP, ESPN Set Standard for Future Mobile Production With Four-Unit EN1
Rarely do a premier sports network and truck manufacturer get a year — never mind, two — to discuss, design, and build a mobile-production unit for a major television property. But when they do, the results can be breathtaking.
NEP’s EN1 — complete with A, B, C, and D units — is the newest, and most technologically advanced, addition to the company’s fleet. Originally slated for a 2014 roll out, the 1080p-capable EN1 will hit the road this Monday for the first game of ESPN’s Monday Night Football doubleheader.
“We actually pulled it out a year early, but we still had effectively two years with a really experienced team that we had partnered with since the beginning of what [is] now Monday Night Football,” says NEP CTO George Hoover. “Everybody really knew what they wanted to do, what they needed, and, going forward, it was easy to define the requirements early on and then spend that two years working on how to come up with innovative solutions.”
A Plan Comes Together
With so much time to devote to designing and building the truck, NEP focused first on innovations for the truck’s foundation: the trailer. From issues like metal and paint fatigue to larger environmental concerns (the truck is EPA Smartway certified), the company designed a new platform for EN1 that has since been adopted by an additional 10-15 units.
Next came the layout. As anyone who has walked through a mobile-production truck knows, space is at a premium. However, by spreading production elements throughout four units, NEP was able to create corridors that would allow ESPN to walk people through: affiliate partners, sponsors, ESPN employees not associated with remote production.
“For me, there’s a couple of obvious things [that will make producing MNF different from last season]. Number one is the comfort factor,” says Chris Calcinari, VP of ESPN and ABC Sports remote productions. “These trucks are huge. All four of these units operate as one truck, so you’ve got tons of space in there. Whether we’re giving tours or just giving our staff room to breathe, I think that’s a big part of this. The truck is over 3,300 sq. ft. of working space.”
Another driving factor was flexibility. Although the core Monday Night Football crew has worked together since MNF was on Sunday night, other positions may shift from year to year; not to mention, EN1 is not exclusive to Monday Night Football. That led to the workstation concept: a graphics workstation can transition to a replay station without the space having to be rebuilt.
“The things that most people won’t notice are the fine details that NEP focused on,” says Calcinari. “Every individual workstation is set up as that, very individual. Everybody has their own light controls above them; air-conditioning is evenly distributed; everybody can program their own monitor in front of them up to 32 sources. Everything is so individual, and anyone working at a station can just decide what they want.”
Four Units, One Show
EN1 comprises four 53-ft. double-expando units, each outfitted for a specific aspect of the Monday Night Football production. The A unit serves as the main production-control room, anchored by a Grass Valley Kayenne Elite switcher with 9M/E split among game, studio, and booth. In addition to the producer, director, and TD, a second TD will sit in the A unit and control feeds up to the booth. Graphics, predominantly from Vizrt, are housed in A alongside the MNF research team, and small portions of the unit are dedicated to switching and producing the ESPN Deportes broadcast and powering Jon Gruden’s in-booth telestrator.
If A unit is the brains of the operation, then B unit is the heart. Known as “the engine room,” it houses the gear, including an Evertz EQX router. It handles video input from the 30+ cameras deployed for each MNF broadcast (the crew uses Sony 2500s), as well the main audio mix (a Calrec Apollo mixes the main show). A generic workspace in B unit is dedicated to robo-cam operators for MNF. Mirroring a venue “engine room” concept, B unit houses the noisy equipment, which combined with a focus on acoustical design, makes EN1 surprisingly quiet.
“We have 92 chairs in the mobile units,” says Hoover, “so there’s 92 people operating and 92 people talking and 92 people working, which, if you had done hard walls, hard floors, hard ceiling, everybody would drive each other crazy. There was a lot of effort done on acoustics and lighting to make a much more pleasant work environment.”
C unit is dedicated to replay (NEP went with EVS XT3 servers), with replay operators organized by functionality: super slow motion, normal speed, and highlight packages. The EVS servers are tied together with EVS IP Director.
Lastly, D unit is studio-focused, with a small control room and audio mix for pre- and post-game coverage, sound-effects mix for the game (a DiGiCo console does the studio show; a Calrec Artemis, effects), and craft edit bay for features and packages (the crew uses Apple Final Cut). D unit also houses the Sportvision First & 10 yellow-line team and the transmission hardware that connects EN1 to ESPN’s broadcast center in Bristol, CT.
Says Hoover, “The design is such that, when you reach the point of the game’s over, you can disconnect and turn off A and C — production, graphics, and replay — [and] continue to do the postgame show and continue to feed and compile melts back to Bristol at the same time you’re beginning to tear down.”
The four units are connected entirely by fiber; the only copper connectivity is in the power cords. Audio connectivity and monitoring runs on MADI. A large Thinklogical router enables any workstation to access any functionality the operator requires, rather than rely on patching.
“I think the most important piece for ESPN is that all four trucks operate as one,” says Calcinari. “Why that’s important is, it’s a multiplatform environment. So, within that environment, you’re supporting game, studio, ESPN Deportes, ESPN International, and social media. The way the technical environment is structured, everybody shares all of the video sources and all of the audio sources, so they can pull anything. That hasn’t always happened. In a lot of cases in the past, people have been in separate trucks, [and] they don’t have access to the same sources and same material that everyone else has. So this is one big content machine that supports all of our platforms.”