Live From MLB All-Star 2019: Fox Sports Debuts Virtual Eye Graphics and 4DReplay, Revives DirtCam for the Game
Also returning are Skycam, HelmetCam, and in-game miked-up players
Coming off massive shows at the U.S. Open, FIFA Women’s World Cup, MLB London Series, and Gold Cup, Fox Sports could just maintain the status quo at its MLB All-Star Game production in Cleveland this week. However, in true Fox form, the broadcaster has rolled out its largest and most technology-rich All-Star production ever, including transporting Virtual Eye Graphics from the golf course to the ballpark, deploying 4DReplay for the first time, and reviving the DirtCam after a three-year absence.
“MLB All-Star is obviously one of our huge tent poles and one of our favorite events,” says Mike Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports. “We put all this technology into one event here, but the All-Star Game is, almost by definition, a short game without a lot of time to put all these cool elements in. So, as much as we like to get this technology on TV, the All-Star Game also functions as a very valuable testing ground for this technology in a real-world environment. Then we can have a better gauge whether to use the technology [for MLB Postseason] in October and on other events down the line.”
Virtual Eye Shot-Tracking Goes From Tee Box to Diamond
Fox Sports worked with Animation Research Ltd (ARL) to bring the Virtual Eye graphics system that has become a staple of the network’s U.S. Open coverage to baseball.
The Virtual Eye was provided with MLB ballpark data to create a 3D virtual representation of Progressive Field and the surrounding area in downtown Cleveland. For the All-Star Game, the system will leverage MLB Statcast tracking data to provide AR graphics that track and compare pitches (for example, fastball vs. curveball), home runs, and other key moments in the game.
“We’ve been working with Virtual Eye for a while,’” recounts Brad Cheney, VP, field operations and engineering, Fox Sports. “Obviously, they make phenomenal 3D models of golf courses, so we asked them, ‘Could you do this for baseball?’ And they said, ‘Sure. If we have the data, we could build the model. Then you can pretty much do anything you want.’ The outputs have been pretty stunning so far.”
“It’s a new view on what we can do, because we’re no longer limited to a certain way to show a pitch or to show a ball being hit,” adds Cheney. “We can actually morph it and move with it to [illustrate] how a ball travels — either from the pitcher to the plate or off the bat. We think that there are a lot of opportunities out there to use it; this is really just the tip of the iceberg.”
DirtCam: In-Ground System Returns for All-Star
Tonight’s All-Star Game will see DirtCam again deployed, with three buried Inertia Unlimited camera systems at home plate, first base, and, for the first time, second base. Previously used at an All-Star Game in 2016, the system — in what Inertia Unlimited President Jeff Silverman refers to as version 1.5 — now features a new prism that dramatically improves the system’s picture quality.
“It’s a great shot. It has been something that we’ve always liked, and we’ve missed in the last couple of years, but, as imaging technology advanced, we felt that it didn’t fit in [the broadcast],” says Cheney. “Jeff Silverman and the team at Inertia have done a great job rebuilding it and breathing some new life into it. And it looks great so far.”
The systems at first and second have full pan-and tilt capability (home plate is a lock-off shot), allowing capture of a variety of angles along the base paths. The system is also entirely wireless, relying on unique underground RF transmitters that cannot be touched once the system is buried.
The only part of the system above ground is the 4-mm prism (with a ½-mm sapphire window to make it waterproof), which has been painted to perfectly match the color of the Progressive Field infield dirt and is almost imperceptible to the naked eye.
“We started testing it in Minnesota with the Twins about four weeks ago, and it’s worked great,” says Francisco Contreras, director, technical field operations, Fox Sports. “MLB has been really great in working with us on DirtCam. The casing is painted brown to match the dirt so you literally can’t even see it. We think it will be especially cool to have at second base, and we’re hoping to get a great shot of a close tag or a runner being thrown out at second. We have full pan-tilt control at first and second base, so we can get a lot of different shots. We think it’s going to get a lot of use.”
4DReplay Makes the Jump to the Main Event
After debuting on ESPN’s coverage of Home Run Derby during last year’s All-Star festivities, 4DReplay will appear tonight in the main-event telecast for the first time.
The system relies on 60 4K cameras mounted on the concourse level behind home plate and stretching from first to third base. The cameras are tied together, and, for each play, the single operator selects the pivot point on which the camera axis turns. The operator can then manipulate the replay from side to side and can zoom in without losing resolution (thanks to 4K).
Since the 4DReplay system simply stitches together 60 camera feeds and does not have to virtually create filler frames, no rendering is required, allowing clips to be ready in under 10 seconds and sent on to the Fox Sports EVS replay room in the truck.
“We’ve been interested in what [4DReplay] can do, and we’re excited to check it out here,” says Davies. “I think the biggest advantage 4DReplay brings for sports is the quick turnaround time; a lot of the other [360-replay] technologies require a bit more turnaround time. We’re going to give it a shot and see what we get. It’s the first time we’ve seen it, so it’s going to be a little different for our replay folks, but we think it’s going to give us some very interesting looks.”
Skycam, HelmetCam, and More Slo-Mo Than Ever
Both Skycam — which made its All-Star debut last year in Washington, DC — and ActionStreamer POV-style HelmetCams are back this year for Fox’s game coverage.
The Skycam system has been deployed just behind the left-centerfield wall and will be used for both game coverage and beauty shots of the Cleveland skyline (as well as coverage of the today’s Red Carpet Show on MLB Network).
“The skyline is always a big factor for having the Skycam at All-Star, and we have a great view this year of the city,” says Contreras. “What’s also great about this spot is that our [position behind left centerfield] is not really in the field of play, so now we can actually use it more for the game itself. That will be a big difference from Washington, where we were still in the field of play, so we had to wait until the ball was hit to move the camera and follow the ball.
Fox will deploy ActionStreamer wearable POV HelmetCam systems on the first- and third-base coaches for both the AL and NL squads. The technology was used at last year’s All-Star Game, and Fox continues to look to push the envelope when it comes to POV cameras on the field.
“We feel like there’s a real place for point-of-view cameras,” says Davies. “It’s a slow evolution, but baseball broadcasting has been supportive in terms of letting us try it. It’s a bit of a lightning-in-a-bottle type of shot, so we’ll see what we get.
“We feel like there’s a real place for point-of-view cameras in sports,” he continues. “When, we have an opportunity like this — it’s an exhibition game, maybe a little bit more opportunity to do that kind of thing — we want to take it. We’re experimenting with and using worn cameras in other sports — obviously, college football — and we’re looking at it for other sports, too.”
The All-Star Game production will also feature a record 15 high-speed cameras: two Phantom cams running at 2,000 fps, eight Sony HDC-4300’s running at 6X slo-mo, and five HDC-4300’s at 2X slo-mo.
Between game coverage and studio shows, Fox is deploying a total of 39 cameras (up from 36 last year). The complement also includes seven Sony HDC-P1 robotic systems (provided by Fletcher), an RF MōVI rig and RF handheld system (provided by CP Communications), and an aerial from the Goodyear Blimp (provided by Wingedvision).
Upping the Ante for Miked-Up Players
Fox is taking one of the most popular elements from its recent All-Star Game telecasts — in-game interviews with players on the field — to the next level this year by miking multiple players at once during the game.
“We will have a couple innings where we will have two players miked simultaneously, talking to [announcers Joe Buck and John Smoltz] and to each other while they’re on the field. At some point, we hope to have up to three miked players,” says Cheney. “It’s really amazing to hear what goes on out there on the field and hearing from players as they are out there, so we’re trying to take it to the next level this year.”
Fox will have 15 microphones buried in the field, plus four parabola mics, a mic on the umpire, and mics on first- and third-base coaches for both teams.
In the Compound, on the Field: Encore and a Pair of Studio Sets
Fox Sports’ flagship production trucks — Game Creek Video’s Encore A, B, and C units — are back in the All-Star compound for the second consecutive season, along with Game Creek’s Edit 2 truck. The primary control room inside the Encore B unit will handle the game production, and a second production area has been created in the B unit to serve the onsite studio shows.
“When we built Encore with Game Creek, we always hoped that it could be on every one of our jewel events,” says Cheney. “Having it here for the second year at MLB All-Star has been amazing. Encore allows us to be a much more collaborative environment and be able to produce a more compelling programming for everybody. In addition to the game and pre/postgame productions, we are using Encore for the First Things First morning show, which is a hybrid [at-home] show for us [produced] back at Fox News. So Encore spans from the earliest part of the morning to the end of the day.”
For the studio shows, Fox also worked with Filmwerks to create an on-field rover set (dubbed “the Frover” for Fox rover) along the first-base line that can be struck and carted off the field in just six minutes in advance of first pitch. In addition, Fox is using SportsTime Ohio’s set in centerfield, which is based on the set that Fox used at the 2016 World Series, which featured the Indians.
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