NBA Season Tip-Off: ESPN Emphasizes Super-Slo-Mo, Enhanced Audio

ESPN hits the hardwood tomorrow night with a doubleheader featuring the New York Knicks vs. Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder. This season, ESPN returns many of the production enhancements that have become staples over the past few years, including enhanced in-game audio, super-slow-motion replays, and 4K experimentation.

“We’re looking forward to the new season,” says Wendell Grigely, coordinating director, remote production operations, ESPN. “It’s great to be back with the NBA and certainly is going to keep us busy for the foreseeable future. We’re really excited about it.”

Replays: Resolution, Camera Placement, and More
After introducing a Sony F55 camera to its complement during the 2012-13 playoffs, ESPN continued to experiment with 4K throughout last season. As with its football and baseball coverage, the network found that 4K had the greatest impact when used to zoom in on a replay.

However, Grigely notes that the production crew has found success with its complement of Sony HDC-3300R 3X super-slow-motion HD cameras, and he sees these factoring heavily into ESPN’s ability to show replays.

“On the NBA, we’re very happy with our super-slo-mo systems that we are currently using: the Sony 3X systems,” he says. “We really get a lot of bang for our buck in that respect: we end up getting great replays, and it works very well for us.”

ESPN will continue to mount an I-MOVIX ultra-slow-motion camera behind each backboard, a signature camera shot that will be used during marquee matchups on both ESPN and ABC.

In total, ESPN plans to deploy nine to 13 cameras — and a variety of trucks from Game Creek Video and NEP — to capture 90 regular-season games across ESPN and ABC (75 national broadcasts and 34 doubleheaders on ESPN, 15 national broadcasts and seven doubleheaders on ABC). For selected games, ESPN may opt to add more super-slow-motion cameras for a total of 15 cameras.

Although ESPN plans to experiment with super-slo-mo placement, the production crew has found that the best location is a “reverse handheld” at center court across from the announcers table. According to Grigely, one super-slo-mo camera is always stationed in that location. Additional locations include under the right basket and an upper-level position traditionally occupied by a regular hard camera.

Letting Fans on the Floor, in the Huddle
ESPN will return its “wired-for-sound” audio package to its coverage as well: wireless microphones provided by Quantum5X through Bexel will be worn by coaches, referees, and, occasionally, players.

“We utilize that to enhance some of the experience by getting inside the huddles with audio at timeouts,” says Grigely. “Oftentimes, when we are lucky to get a player to wear the mike, it gives you some kind of special behind-the-scenes communication between players as well.”

ESPN’s commitment to enhanced audio extends beyond wearable microphones. The network continues to focus on placement of effects microphones around the court, on hard cameras, even on the baskets themselves.

“This is a process that is similar probably throughout NBA coverage, but we obviously put a lot of emphasis on it and capturing the best-quality audio that’s possible,” says Grigely. “The broadcast is transmitted in surround sound, and we utilize 16 channels of embedded audio that we transmit back to Bristol and broadcast with, so we put a lot of emphasis on that. We get the great effects out of those positions on the basket and on the floor and physically on the cameras.”

Continuing the Relationship
Less than a month ago, ESPN and Turner Sports made headlines when the two networks secured nine-year broadcast deals with the NBA projected to cost a combined $24 billion. Although the deal garnered substantial press attention, it does not take effect until 2016-17. For the time being, ESPN’s focus remains squarely on the 2014-15 season.

“From our standpoint, we’re just working on the season this year,” says Grigely. “We’re trying to make this the best possible broadcast we can make. In general terms, we’re really excited that we have this project we’re working on for several more years to come, and that makes us all happy to be involved in it and to be part of it.”

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