Live From the U.S. Open: Fox Sports and Partners Make an Innovative Difference
Production features 4K HDR, expanded shot-tracing and other tech, enhanced IP workflow
The 2018 U.S. Open from Shinnecock Hills Golf Club gave the Fox Sports team challenges in production planning that led to innovations, the opportunity to refresh old workflows and core infrastructure, and a chance to chart some new directions for golf coverage.
Game Creek Video’s Encore production unit is at the center of the coverage for Fox and FS1 with Game Creek Pride handling RF-video control and submix and providing a backup emergency control room. Pride’s B unit is handling production control for one of the featured groups, Edit 4 is handling all iso audio mixes, and Edit 2 is home to five edit bays with equipment and support provided by CMSI. And there is also the 4K HDR show, which is being produced out of Game Creek Maverick.
“All the Sony 4300 cameras on the seventh through 18th greens are 4K HDR-native with a secondary output at 720p SDR,” says Brad Cheney, VP, field operations and engineering, Fox Sports. There are also six Sony PXW-Z450’s for the featured holes and featured group, the output of two of them delivered via 5G wireless.
“We are producing two 4K HDR shows out of one mobile unit with four RF-based 4K cameras,” he adds. “That is another big step forward.”
In terms of numbers, Fox Sports has 474 technicians onsite, making use of 38 miles of 24-strand fiber-optic cable to produce the event captured by 106 cameras (including 21 wireless 1080p, 21 4K HDR units, six 4K HDR wireless, three Inertia Unlimited X-Mo cameras shooting at 8,000 fps, a Sony HDC-4800 at 960 fps, and three Sony HDC-4300’s at 360 fps) and 218 microphones. Tons of data is being passed around: 3 Gbps of internet data is managed, along with 83 Gbps of broadcast data, 144 TB of real-time storage, and 512 TB of nearline storage.
A Second Compound
Each course provides its own unique challenges. At Shinnecock Hills, there is is the presence of roads running through the course, not to mention the hilly terrain, which also has plenty of deep fescue. But, from a production standpoint, the biggest issue was the small space available for the compound.
“We came out here 18 months ago,” says Cheney, “and, when we placed all of our trucks in the compound map, [they] didn’t fit, and that is without the world feed, Sky, TV Asahi, and others. At Erin Hills last year, we had a support tent, and that gave our camera crew more space, dry storage, and a place to work.”
The decision was made to expand on what was done at Erin Hills last year: move the production operations that most benefit from being close to the course to a large field tent located along the third hole. The field tent is about a half mile from the main compound and is home to the technology area (shot-tracing technologies, etc.); the camera, audio, and RF areas; and the robotic cameras provided by Fletcher. Inertia Unlimited President Jeff Silverman is also located in the tent, controlling X-Mo cameras as well as robotic cameras that can be moved around the course to provide different looks.
Cheney says the team took the field tent to a new level by providing an integrated source of distribution and monitoring so that it could effectively be an island to itself. “It has worked out well. People are comfortable there. It’s dry and offers direct access to the course.”
According to Michael Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports, some of the operations in the field tent, such as those related to enhancements like shot tracing and the Visual Eye, could ultimately move even farther from the main compound.
“Typically, they would be in the main compound,” he explains, “but, once we figured out how to connect the two compounds via fiber for a half mile, it [indicates] how far away you can put things [like the shot-tracking production]. It gets the mind going, especially for events like this that can be hard to get to.”
Also located closer to the course is the fiber cabin, a move that allows the team to more quickly deal with any connectivity issues on the course. The 37 miles of fiber cable used across the course is monitored in the cabin, and Carlos Gonzalez, technical producer, Fox Sports, and the team troubleshoot and solve any issues.
“We’re isolated from the compound, which can make it a challenge,” he notes, “but we are actually liking it.”
Cheney says that placing the cabin closer to the course means a reduction in the amount of outbound fiber and also makes the operation a true headend. “It’s something that we will continue to do at Pebble next year [for the 2019 U.S. Open] because of the setup there. This has been another good learning experience for us.”
One big step taken in preparation for the 2018 events was that the IP router in Encore was rebuilt from scratch.
“All of the programming in the router was there since day one [in 2015], and we have found new ways to do things,” says Cheney. “To strategically try to pull things out of it just wasn’t worth it. So we started from zero, and it paid off in terms of how quickly we could get up and running.”
Also playing an important part in enhancing the workflows was CMSI and Beagle Networks, which made sure networks and editing systems were all ready to go.
“The team from CMSI and Beagle Networks has been phenomenal in wiring up our networks and making sure it’s robust and all-encompassing,” says Cheney. “We also figured out new ways with IP to control things, move signals, and offer better control for our operators no matter where they are.”
RF wireless coverage this year is being provided completely by CP Communications. There are 26 wireless cameras on the course plus 18 wireless parabolic mics and nine wireless mics for talent on the course. All the signals are run via IP Mesh control systems, and CP Communications also provided all the fiber on the course.
Fox Sports is at the forefront of wireless innovation, working with Ericsson, Intel, and AT&T on using next-generation 5G wireless technology to transmit 4K HDR signals from Sony PXW-Z450 cameras to the compound. The 4K cameras are wired into an Ericsson AVP encoder, which sends an IP signal to an Intel 5G MTP (Mobile Trial Platform), which transmits the signal in millimeter wave spectrum via a 28-GHz link to a 5G cell site mounted to a camera tower. That cell site is connected to the Fox IP Network and, in the production truck, to an Ericsson AVP that converts the signal back to baseband 4K.
The potential of 5G is promising, according to Cheney. First, the delay is less than 10 ms, and, conceptually, a 10-Gbps (or even 20-Gbps) 5G node could be placed in a venue and the bandwidth parsed out to different devices, such as cameras, removing the need for cabling.
“You can fully control the system as a whole versus allowing direct management on the device level,” he says.
And, although the current setup requires a couple of racks of equipment, the form factor is expected to get down to the size of a chip within a year.
In terms of production elements, Fox Sports’ commitment to ball-tracing on all 18 holes continues in 2018, with the network equipping each tee box with Trackman radar technology. Eight holes are equipped to show viewers a standard ball trace over live video, with enhanced club and ball data. The other 10 holes have Fox FlightTrack, a live trace over a graphic representation of the golf hole, offering more perspective to the viewer.
Beyond tee-shot tracing, three roaming RF wireless cameras are equipped with Toptracer technology, providing trace on approach shots. And new this year is FlightTrack for fairway shots on two holes, Nos. 5 and 16.
Zac Fields, SVP, graphic tech and innovation, Fox Sports, says the goal next year is to expand the use on fairways. “We want to do more next year and also find a way to use that on taped shots as well.”
Virtual Eye, the system at the core of FlightTrack that takes a 3D model of a hole and uses shot data from SMT as well as from the Trackman and Top Tracer shot-tracking systems to show the ball flight within the 3D model, has also been expanded. The Virtual Eye production team began its U.S. Open preparation a couple months back by flying a plane over the course and capturing photos to map the topography. Then, a few weeks ago, a helicopter shot video of the course, and pictures were extracted from the video and laid over the topographical images.
One of the goals, says Ben Taylor, operations manager, Virtual Eye, has been to make the system more automated and to allow it to be used on taped shots. For example, the EVS-replay users themselves can now trigger Virtual Eye to be active with the push of a button. And, when the ball comes to a rest, the graphic slides off the screen.
“The system will reset in the background after the shot,” he notes.
Fields and the Fox team have been happy with the performance, particularly the ability for EVS operators to control the graphic overlay. “It’s pretty slick,” he says. “The system takes the EVS feed and runs it through the graphics compositor and then back into the EVS, so the EVS system is recording itself. It seems complex, but, once the operator gets used to it, it’s easy. And now they can do FlightTrack a lot more.”
When Fox Sports took on the challenge of the U.S. Open in 2015, the industry watched to see how it would change the perception of golf coverage. Four U.S. Opens later, it is clear that the innovative spirit that has been part of Fox Sports since its early days continues unabated, especially as the era of sports data takes hold of the visualization side.
“We want to bring the CG world into our coverage and create animations to tell stories like comparing every tee shot a player took on a certain hole or comparing Dustin Johnson’s fade with another player’s draw,” says Fields. “And now we can show how the wind will affect a shot.”