SVG Sit-Down: ESPN’s Jamie Reynolds on US Open Production in the Age of COVID-19
When it comes to understanding the challenges of producing tennis, there is no better person to chat with than Jamie Reynolds, VP, production, ESPN. He is at the helm of ESPN’s coverage of the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, and, this week, he and the ESPN team are hard at work wrapping up a busy few months at the US Open tennis tournament. Reynolds took some time away from the court to chat with SVG.
Let’s start with a simple one. As a viewer at home, I have really enjoyed the coverage, and it is always a big part of my Labor Day Weekend plans. What’s your take on the show that you and the team are putting together?
We know that we can cover the event and cover the actual field of play as well as, if not better than, what we’ve historically done it at a major. And that really is because the field of play, the competition is wide open right now, and we also are not encumbered by fixed camera positions or our ability to move around the grounds or the venue and capture the essence of the competition. We knew that 90% of our coverage was going to be as robust and as strong as possible, assuming that the players showed up, were fit, and ready to go five sets or three sets.
When you knew that there were not going to be fans, how did that affect the camera plan?
We spent the last three months with the USTA effectively pushing all our camera heads down lower into the bowls, closer to the action. We wanted a more dynamic, robust coverage scheme that could accent the physicality and the tenacity of these players on court. We also brought up the number of isolation cameras that we could dress around Ashe and Armstrong to give unique perspectives.
When fans return next year, is there a way to use robotics to capture those angles?
I still think that the manned camera strategy is demonstrably different. The reaction time, the versatility, the ability to react with a pan, tilt, or zoom and use the glass still needs [manned-camera] coverage.
Right. Many of the handheld cameras are looking for artistic shots, and I guess those are harder to get with a robotic.
It really is. With a manned camera, you can get moves off of the coach to the player. You can follow the dynamic of a visual cue that only a camera person who’s actually in the arena can get, because they can see activity on the perimeter that you wouldn’t necessarily get from a robotic position.
I wanted to talk about the enhanced audio and crowd noise a bit. How has that evolved?
This was an initiative that we had gone back and forth with the USTA on as to the best strategy to convey the event. You have to begin with the perspective that tennis is an individual sport and any enhanced audio would really be playing to an audience of two. But, at the end of the day, because of the restrictions and no fans, the loudest voice, the loudest customer in our opinion, is really the at-home audience and what they are experiencing. We debated and went through a variety of different audio strategies, [such as] pouring the audio into the arena like what is [being done with] baseball or hockey versus customizing it farther downstream in our own audio positions. So we started from the premise that the authentic on-court audio was the priority.
We decided to harvest that [authentic on-court audio] as best we could and supplement it with our own broadcast-quality tracks of audio that were automatic in nature. We went back and harvested original sounds from Ashe and Armstrong in 2019 and mixed it down to the most basic level of crowd-murmur noise that was authentic. And then we have submix stations for each court to, as I call it, feather the edges after every point to be responsive to the action on the court. It’s the most tactile dynamic approach to give an authentic audio base to the live action in real time.
One of the challenges to me seems to be that a tennis match is unique in terms of how fans respond. Their allegiance can ebb and flow, and they can find themselves rooting for the underdog at the beginning and then the favorite at the end. It seems it would be hard to replicate that without making one or both players upset.
Right? And New York can be a very polarized audience. That’s a very important factor of this. I was more concerned that I was going to get calls from agents asking me why I’m cheering for the opposite side. But the mixers we have found are unequivocally strong tennis fanatics who know the game and know the rhythm of when a ball is mishit so they can anticipate and know if it’s going out or not. You need something tactile that can anticipate and create that swell of emotion and anticipation in real time. That gives it the realness.
Without fans in the stands, are you picking up new things audio-wise? During Serena’s match. you could hear how loud she could really yell, and the announcers also mentioned they could hear how heavy she was breathing.
There are really only four voices on the court, right? You’ve got two players, the chair, and then a linesperson. Those are the only four voices in an arena for 25,000 people, which is fascinating.
And then you start thinking about the air-conditioning systems. You think about the planes, the sirens; I hear cars out on the Cross-Island Parkway. You do get a lot of audio spillage into the arena that you probably were not cognizant of when there were 25,000 people there. We figured out a way to neutralize that and have the parabolics on court pushing authentic real-time audio on the court louder.
When planning started, how did you and the team go about planning?
Putting the technology aside for a little bit, we think we had a pretty robust approach to what we wanted to do here on this footprint and to take care of the event. We had all the assets lined up, but, as the other restrictions came in to play — social distancing, drawing the numbers down to a finite headcount — we had a decision tree of technology solutions if we needed a different game plan or had to change the production style.
Then we started to realize that even moving things offsite still add inherent costs. And there were pitfalls that didn’t necessarily make it as efficient or as robust as that historically had been. It’s great to be able to move people out to a safe bubble somewhere else. But, at the end of the day, you almost start doubling that workforce. You’ve got people here rigging, maintaining it, putting it here onsite. Then you’ve got to put people offsite somewhere to manage it. That becomes an inherent challenge.
And then you have to start looking at Hawk-Eye or SMT or other suppliers that were also now outboarded. And how can you make that complex web for activities that are operating 24/7 through the three weeks? Because it was not only the two weeks of the US Open but also the Western & Southern Open the week before.
It came down to a fundamental convergence game of waiting for a drop-dead date, so to speak, to decide if we would have to activate other solutions. It was a fascinating exercise to go through virtually every aspect of the technology available and whether we had the headcount that could accommodate it here or whether the technology offsite was more of a burden than a benefit.
Historically, you and I have had a chance to catch up at Wimbledon and discuss the season’s storylines. What has been the challenge this year in terms of storylines?
Our biggest thing is, simply, we can’t recognize anybody. When you put on a cap, sunglasses, and mask, we’ve got no idea who these players are walking around or heading out the practice courts. It’s almost a game of who am I?
But the beauty of this is that we are the only people onsite. We don’t have to navigate around the fan base or other vendors or other things. It has been a straight line of access and getting close to players, not from a physical standpoint but from telling their story. But, with social distancing, you also aren’t able to read people’s reactions because of the mask and the body language. Nobody looks warm and cozy or looks like they’re having fun.
So you have this dynamic that challenges the storytelling of what the event is before you even start thinking about the backstory of what 2020 has been for these players, because that’s where we began. How have you been spending the last six, seven months? What have you been doing to stay in shape? The players are not necessarily battle-tested through a Grand Slam season, so now you have this fitness component coming in.
What are your favorite storylines this year?
We were happy with what the young Americans had done early on and certainly what the Canadians are doing now. It has really become a catalyst for this evolution of new stars to come through as we’re going to have a first-time Grand Slam champion on the men’s side [for the first time] since 2014.
But this is the women’s draw’s year. Serena chases 24, the moms all coming back, you’ve got the American women that are coming through. There’s a lot of positivity that is starting to show how deep the roster can be and how these young stars are taking this opportunity to declare their ownership.
Your talent seems to have a different attitude, and it seems the energy is different, like they are filling in for the lack of the crowd energy. They seem to be more opinionated. What’s your take on how they are doing?
It’s a combination of three things. First, I think the fact that nobody has been working, so start there. A lot of their correspondence has been Zoom calls, Facetime-ing each other, or just texting back and forth. We have a lot of people that were ready to share their enthusiasm for the sport being back. They’re motivated.
Number two is that we don’t have the cutaways anymore. You don’t have kids eating ice cream; you don’t have people in the stands chasing their Honey Deuce drinks. Everything is just a real-time lens on the players. Even at the end of a match, we’re watching the defeated walk off because we don’t have any other shots to go to. And that gives more time back to the studios, to the set, and to a variety of voices. We find ourselves going back to our talent to be the voice more frequently because they are now the applause. They are the excitement or the defeated.
What we’ve done is to get the talent to fill the gaps and offer their opinion, find a new rhythm to tell a story.
The third thing is, this is as much about having sport return and being an escape for people. I also think it’s a window on what our future world might look like from this. How do people organize themselves, going to practices, bags, masks, walking around? How do they engage? For a lot of people that might be very conservative and are staying home, this is a window on what the world looks like on the outside.
The NBA in Orlando is its own unique bubble. But you can’t possibly think you’re going to have a completely sealed bubble in Manhattan. But I think the policies, the procedures, the protocols have been good pointers on how the world might look moving forward.