For Fox Sports, the Biggest Challenge in New NASCAR Virtual Studio Is the Infinite Possibilities

Graphics execs discuss the opportunities and challenges in using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine

Last month, Fox Sports dropped jaws across the sports-video industry when it unveiled plans for a new virtual studio for its NASCAR coverage driven by the Unreal Engine software system developed by Epic Games, the gaming company best-known for the wildly popular Fortnite online game.

The super-flexible and customizable 60- x 60-ft. facility can generate 3D racetracks, cars, shops, pit rows, and more, taking the concept of an augmented-reality or virtual-studio space into a new stratosphere.

Fox Sports’ virtual studio for NASCAR coverage will debut at the start of the racing season.

Although the set won’t debut until the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season, Fox Sports graphics execs are hard at work running the system through tests in preparation for the on-air debut in February. It’s an extremely daunting task but one that top executives seem to be enthusiastic about.

“The biggest challenge is that the opportunities are endless for us,” says Michael Dolan, SVP, design and creative services, Fox Sports. “Every time we sit down and talk about a concept that we want to do for the set, it turns into 10 other things that we want to do. Then you talk to production, and they have their ideas. It’s fun, but it can spiral out of control.”

It’s a major graphics effort, so Fox Sports brass, even up to President Eric Shanks, wanted to ensure that it was truly innovative and, frankly, worth the effort.

“The real challenge,” says Gary Hartley, EVP, graphics and creative services, Fox Sports, “was that, if the former set had a touchscreen in the physical world and all we’re doing is re-creating that touchscreen, then we’ve failed. So we needed to know what the pieces of the show are and figure out how can we reestablish that reality and present that information in a different way.”

According to Fox Sports SVP, Graphics/Integration, Zac Fields, the new set isn’t a huge obstacle for the tech and operations folks working behind the scenes: rehearsals have shown a relatively seamless transition.

“From a production standpoint, a lot of the workflow is the same,” says Fields. “While [the crew] may not necessarily see the real output, [camera operators] do have it in their viewfinders. They will be able to see the return of the virtual set and see the composite. In the control room, the workflow is completely the same [as with the physical set]. The way the cameras track, the automation systems we use, and even the graphical playlist elements are the same.

“There has been a lot of work,” he continues, “that we’ve had to do behind the scenes getting our artists up to speed and trained on the software, along with our software-engineering team. We need to create applications to bridge the gap between creation and playout.”

As for those that might be the most affected, the show’s on-air talent, a lot of work has already been done to prep those folks for working in a vastly different environment from the physical set they’ve come to know.

“The biggest challenge with our talent was, obviously, how are they going to react when they are in just a large green room?” says Hartley. “Part of the effort was to reorient their focus to the composited playback, so they know where they are in the space and what they should be reacting to. Surprisingly, it was pretty smooth.”

Adds Fields, “There was a huge amount of optimism from the talent. They were really excited to try something new. They recognized, immediately, the possibilities that are there with this. They are all in on it.”

In the months leading up to the set’s debut next year, the minds behind it will continue to tinker, but perhaps the most important takeaway is that this will remain, at least for the short term, a work in progress.

“Day 1 is only Day 1,” says Hartley. “We need to have a constant and evolving vision of where we want to go with the technology. We’re never settling. However, we also have to manage the expectations of directors and producers that want to do everything on the first day.”

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