NFL Playoffs 2021: Fox Sports Boosts Super-Mos, PylonCams and Brings Back ‘Megalodon’ for Postseason
Fox broadcast of Saturday’s Rams-Seahawks game to be available in 4K
Fox Sports shifts into playoff mode this Saturday for the first of four NFL postseason broadcasts over the coming weeks. Despite a taxing regular season threatened by the pandemic, Fox Sports is looking to ride a wave of innovation that has seen the launch of “The Vault” remote-production workflow, a second season of Thursday Night Football 1080p HDR productions, the advent of the ‘Megalodon’ mirrorless camera system, and other technological advances.
However, while there has been plenty of invention on the technical side, the Fox Sports operations team’s greatest triumph this year has been keeping its crew as safe and healthy as possible.
“We all have worked together — along with so many others in the industry — to essentially rewrite the book in terms of how to safely produce [live football]. And all the credit goes to our team, who have been just amazing,” says Mike Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports. “To have everybody singing from the same hymnbook has been fantastic. Frankly, I learn something from this group every day, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Playoff Playbook: Backend PylonCams, Plenty of Super-Mo, and Megalodon Returns
Fox Sports’ playoff coverage should feature plenty of unique angles in the end zone with the addition of end-line PylonCam systems for all four games. Fox will now have a 3G Wireless PylonCam (each featuring five miniature cameras) at all four corners of both end zones (Fox will also have a line-to-gain PylonCam system).
“That’s usually something we don’t normally get to until a Super Bowl,” says Davies, “but, this time, we were able to put in two end-line pylons at each side. That will help us in getting some more ground-level angles because we now literally have the entire end zone covered.”
Fox also continues to work with EVS on its “extra motion” replay system, which uses artificial intelligence to create additional frames in a 60-fps replay, enabling it to have 180 frames per second and be played back as a super-slow-motion replay. Fox first used a prototype of the EVS system at Super Bowl LIV and has looked to leverage it more for this season.
“That EVS extra motion could very well be used to derive super-motion on the PylonCams,” says Davies. “It takes a little while because it has to go from the EVS server to the AWS cloud, where the processing is done, and then back down. But that has been increasing in frequency every week, and super-motion on PylonCams looks absolutely amazing. So we’re taking a close look at that.”
Aside from the additional backend PylonCams, Fox plans to deploy a camera complement similar to its Thursday Night Football productions. However, Davies says, Fox will have super-slo-mo licenses activated on every single camera covering the field for playoff games: “Basically, every camera on the field is going to be super-motion of some kind.”
Saturday’s Rams-Seahawks matchup will be the latest outing for the cinematic-style roving camera that Fox has dubbed Megalodon, or Mirrorless Gyrostabilized Lightweight DSLR Nonorig (MGLDN). First deployed at the Week 16 Seattle-Washington game in place of a traditional Steadicam, the system features a Sony a7R IV mirrorless DSLR camera and Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens on a Ronin-S handheld gyrostabilized gimbal with a 1080p wireless transmitter provided by CP Communications. The shallow depth of field delivers cinematic visuals previously unheard of in live NFL-game broadcasts. Megalodon will be used for all four of Fox’s playoff games and focus on capturing end-zone shots following scoring plays.
“That camera was one of the more surprising things for us because we’ve been using it in various ways for some time, especially during the pregame,” says Davies. “But, by using it in a live environment and really picking our spots for touchdown celebrations, behind the bench, and even around huddles, it heightens the production and makes people take notice. We are definitely bringing it to all of our playoff games, and we’ll continue to try to enhance it and make it better as we go.”
Also included in Fox’s roughly 30-camera complement for this Saturday (not including PylonCam systems) is a Sony 4K high-speed HDC-4800, which has become an integral part of Fox’s A-game coverage since being introduced in 2019.
“The 4800 has been amazing because you can have as many as 10 different replays from that one camera,” says Davies. “You wouldn’t believe how many replays that make their way into [the broadcast] come from that camera.”
A Hybrid Production Model: Encore in Seattle, The Vault in L.A.
In the compound, Game Creek Video Encore (home to Thursday Night Football this season) will handle this weekend’s Rams-Seahawks game in Seattle with director Rich Russo and producer Richie Zyontz at the front bench. The game will be produced in 1080p HDR (as has been the case all season for TNF) and be available for distribution in 4K.
In addition to Encore, Game Creek Bravo will handle one of Fox’s two games next week with director Artie Kempner and producer Pete Macheska overseeing the production.
However, Fox’s NFL operations have gone well beyond the four walls of a mobile unit this year, having launched The Vault at its Pico facility in Los Angeles. To limit personnel onsite due to COVID safety protocols, Fox took a space that was previously a tape library and transformed it into a work area where nearly 30 crew members can perform replay, graphics, and other functions for productions taking place hundreds and even thousands of miles away. For example, on Saturday, four EVS replay operators and several graphics and stats/research crew will be back at The Vault rather than in Seattle.
“I think the advent of The Vault has blurred the line of what is a remote and what is a studio production and our team now casts its net from coast to coast every week,” says Davies. “You’re going to see a mix of both [onsite and remote ops for the playoffs] just like we’ve done all year. We do have a few people extra onsite [for playoffs], but we won’t dispense with what has been working for us all season in terms of production anywhere. And The Vault is not going anywhere.”
The COVID Factor: Fox Continues To Put Health and Safety First
Although the pandemic is nothing new to Fox’s operations team, spiking numbers of cases will make logistics for playoff-game production in the ensuing weeks that much more challenging.
“It has certainly gotten more challenging to ensure that the crew is safe,” says Davies, “but I think that, based upon the protocols we’ve put in place — many of which have been in place since the NASCAR days in April — we feel like we have a good plan in place.”
He adds that about eight additional people (some local, some traveled) are deployed onsite solely to deal with COVID-related matters, including cleaning and sterilizing facilities, testing and screening, and logistical management. Most notably, the new position of COVID manager was created to oversee health and safety personnel and responsibilities at each event.
“One of the first things that we learned was that you could not absorb COVID responsibilities into people who already had a job; you couldn’t just tell a tech manager to look after COVID [protocols] or just reassign someone to handle it,” says Davies. “We took some of our very best young production managers and put them through training to certify them as COVID managers.”
Director, Field Operations, Sarita Meinking and Operations and Production Manager Linsey Shea have helped spearhead these efforts on NFL games, managing logistics for testing, onsite protocols, catering, transportation, and so on.
“The COVID managers have been vital to our success,” says Davies, “ensuring that things don’t devolve into chaos onsite and allowing people to do their jobs in a similar way to what they did before but safely. We feel we’ve got a pretty good recipe, and we’re looking forward to having a very safe three weeks with everybody involved.”