Fox Sports Sets Pace for NASCAR Studio Ops With New Virtual Studio in Charlotte

The facility will serve as backbone of all Fox NASCAR studio programs

Fox Sports is shifting its NASCAR studio operations into high gear with the launch of a virtual studio at its Charlotte, NC, production facility during Daytona Speedweeks this month.

Announced in October, the ultra-customizable 60- x 60-ft. facility allows instant 3D analysis of racetracks, cars, race shops, and more, with the ability to create unique and changeable spaces within the high-tech studio environment in a matter of hours. The studio officially launched Feb. 4 in conjunction with the first day of Daytona Speedweeks and will serve as the backbone of all Fox NASCAR studio shows.

“We’ve designed this unique space in a virtual world for our talent and production teams to flourish,” says Zac Fields, SVP, graphic tech and innovation, Fox Sports. “By now, we are comfortable with the basics, so we’re trying to accelerate [using] the tools more extensively. There’s a lot of AR components within the set that we’re using, and there are even larger possibilities that we haven’t even begun using yet. That will come in due time, but I think we’re really hoping that, over the next few weeks and supporting our Daytona Speedweeks coverage, we’ll be able to show off the bells and whistles that are built into that virtual set in Charlotte.”

Fox’s new Charlotte, NC-based virtual studio is playing a major role in its Daytona coverage.

The virtual set features graphic elements powered by Epic Games’ Unreal Engine (the technology behind the popular online videogame Fortnite) suite of tools.

The studio features five Stype Red Spy encoded cameras, including one Steadicam and a jib. In addition, the facility is equipped with Zero Density studio software, including the advanced keying features. The keying will make use of a 50- x 47-ft. green-screen area, while maintaining the ability to shoot 360 degrees.

3D tracking technology from Blacktrax is used to automatically trigger events on the set. Whether it’s automated lighting following an analyst on set or AR activated by an analyst, this technology opens the door for unique storytelling opportunities.

Fox Sports new virtual studio is leveraging Epic Games’ Unreal Engine to create hyper-realistic virtual elements.

“We knew it was going to be challenging,” says Fields, “but I don’t think we realized just how many moving parts were involved in building out the infrastructure and capabilities that we wanted to have in the long term. All the custom software that needed to be written and how that integrates into production was a really large lift. At the end of the day, the entire show is a graphic going through a graphic engine, so every single component that populates that set needs to be taken into consideration. You have to account for not just how it looks but also the efficiency in which it runs since it needs to run in real time.

“There are just a lot of considerations to be made around every little component of the set,” he continues. “We knew it was going to be a growing process because it’s completely different from the things we’ve done before. But already, in the first few days, we have made enormous strides. Our production team is getting familiar with everything in there, [learning] how to interact with the set, and getting a lot more comfortable with the space.”

The new virtual studio serves as the home to Fox Sports’ NASCAR Race Hub, NASCAR RaceDay, and other NASCAR programming.

Fox will also deploy real-time AR using a combination of set elements and 3D graphics: for example, raising a race car through the floor or changing the content that texturizes the set. Although photorealism is extremely important, Fields says, one of the key factors for the Charlotte team will be finding a balance between realism and taking full advantage of the set’s dynamic and futuristic capabilities.

“We want to make the set as realistic as possible,” he says, “but we also understand that you have to strike a balance between realism and taking advantage of the virtual capabilities. We want to be on the cutting edge of graphic exploration and find the best way to portray the information within the set. It’s a set that needs to feel as realistic as possible but also needs to be dynamic.”

Fox will also deploy real-time AR using a combination of set elements and 3D graphics

The studio serves as the home to Fox Sports’ NASCAR Race Hub, NASCAR RaceDay, and other NASCAR programming. Since its launch, the studio has been interacting with the live, onsite Fox NASCAR programming from Daytona. The set’s dynamic capabilities mean that it can transform into remote locations, bringing the location to the studio instead of taking a physical studio to the venue.

“We’re looking to use the studio in ways that have never been seen before for Daytona,” says Fields. “For example, [analyst] Larry McReynolds will be based at the studio, and he’ll have access to multiple video feeds to be able to support the race. He’ll also have access to the virtual car that he used to use in the booth, so, at a moment’s notice, Larry will be able to explain the inner workings of what’s going on with the car and integrate that right into the broadcast.”

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