NFL Kickoff 2016: Fox Sports’ Tech Effort Builds Toward the Super Bowl

Whenever Fox Sports has a Super Bowl on the horizon, viewers can expect big things on the technology and production front, and 2016 will be no different. Now in its second year using Game Creek Video’s massive Encore mobile unit, Fox’s A-game production will ramp up operations as it heads toward its Super Bowl LI telecast with a full complement of tech toys, including an army of high-speed and POV cameras and use of virtual graphics on the SkyCam Wildcat aerial camera system.

NFL_on_Fox“This is a perfect year for Encore as we gradually crescendo to the Super Bowl,” says Mike Davies, SVP, field operations, Fox Sports. “For a regular-season football game, Encore is actually more than we need. It’s certainly nice to have an absolute behemoth like that on a regular-season game, but Game Creek and Fox built this truck for the U.S. Open [golf tournament] and the Super Bowl because those were the two highest-level shows we have. So, as we get into big shows like Thanksgiving, Playoffs, and NFC Championship and on to the Super Bowl, we can build on what we have in Encore for our [regular-season–level production] instead of wiping it clean and rebuilding a big show.”

Encore (A, B, and C units), which made its major-production debut at the 2015 U.S. Open, pioneered the use of an IP router in a truck environment with an Evertz EXE IP-based router. This year, the router has been enhanced via a firmware update that doesn’t implement new features but does improve stability.

All About High Frame Rate
Encore will serve as the home of a Fox Sports A-game production with plenty of camera firepower. Depending on the week, Fox Sports will deploy as many as 15 cameras during the regular season, including five Sony HDC-4300’s (four operating at 6X slo-mo and one at 8X) and the Phantom Flex 4K system supplied by Inertia Unlimited.

“High frame rate has always been key for Fox,” says Davies. “We were the first people to use X-Mos in NFL, and we’ve continued to build on that now with the A crew having 4300’s, as well moving to 4300’s for some of the other crews. 4K and high frame rate is also a big initiative for us. It’s not enough right now to do 4K; it’s got to be 4K high frame rate. It’s all well and good to have 4K resolution, but it doesn’t mean anything when you’ve got a whole bunch of motion blur.”

He notes that Fox is investigating the new Sony HDC-4800, which is capable of 8X slo-mo in 4K or 16X slo-mo in HD, but plans to stick with the Phantom 4K Flex for the near future.

Skycam Wildcat Takes Next Step With Virtual Graphics
After debuting the use of virtual graphics, including the 1st-and-Ten line, on the Skycam Wildcat system last year, the feature will become standard this year on all Fox A games. Fox worked with Skycam, Sportvision, and Vizrt during the preseason to perfect the virtual-graphics-on-Skycam workflow and plans to make it a staple moving forward.

“Virtual graphics and augmented reality have been a big part of football coverage for 25 years now, since the yellow line came out. Now we’re finding ways of pushing the envelope,” says Davies. “We had some really good results in the preseason game in Houston, where we were able to put 3D graphics on the field and maneuver the Skycam around it. It is very, very cool, and we’re just scratching the surface in terms of what we can do with that.

“And then,” he continues, “the 1st-and-Ten line on Skycam was not just something that could be done even a couple years ago [but has] become much more standard. The way Fox uses the Skycam, where we use it live and sometimes as an iso, is very aggressive. It made for a tough job for Skycam, Sportvision, and Vizrt to keep up with it, but, this season, we’re pretty happy about that and looking forward to the possibilities of what we can add to the game through augmented reality for the NFL.”

POV Cameras, MōVI, and More
Fox is also looking to increase its use of POV cameras and the roving RF MōVI three-axis gimbal system that has been deployed on high-profile events, such as the MLB All-Star Game.

Fox will look to Marshall (provided by Inertia Unlimited) and Admiral Video to provide its complement of POV-camera systems this year in an effort to gain more access to the action on and off the field.

“POVs are getting cheaper and easier to use,” says Davies. “They end up being pretty handy as a small camera that can go anywhere in terms of coach, booth, tunnel, and goalpost shots, where you don’t want to [deploy] a full-on robo [system]. We’re getting a lot of mileage out of those [angles].”

High-profile games, such as the Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys matchup on Thanksgiving, will have coverage by the MōVI system deployed for MLB All-Star. The new integration features a CP Communications RF system and Flare 4K SDI camera.

“I think that, with a few tweaks, [the MōVI] will end up being a pretty robust [tool] that’s also sustainable,” says Davies. “Possibly starting at Thanksgiving and certainly for the postseason, that’ll be something that we’ll be using on NFL as well.”

He adds that the Fox Sports Lab continues to experiment with new cameras and tools, which could be seen at some point this season.

“I think that we’re going to be using some of the larger events during the year to roll out additional cameras,” he says. “We definitely have some things that we’re working on at the Fox Sports Lab, [which] are evolving as we test week after week. There are some cameras and some systems that you just can’t test anywhere else but an actual game, and, because Encore is so big with such vast resources, it makes the perfect mobile laboratory for those types of experiments. Hopefully, in due course, we’ll be able to debut some of the things that have graduated through the season.”

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