ESPN’s Monday Night Football Crew Tests Rare S35 PL Mount FUJINON Lens on Near Sideline Cart Camera
On the field, camera operator also finds comfort zone with new wireless rig
Much like other broadcasts across the National Football League, ESPN’s Monday Night Football has gotten off to a rip-roaring start in 2021.
Through the first four weeks of the season, ratings for MNF game coverage are up 24% compared with the same stretch from last last year and up 26% over the first five games of 2019.
Thanks to competitive games (like the Week 1 overtime thriller in Las Vegas), the new Monday Night Football With Peyton and Eli simulcast on ESPN2 (with ratings increases in each of its first three weeks), and noticeably rising interest in the league across the board, the historic Monday-night franchise has thrived this season. Even the Week 3 game, a decided blowout of the Philadelphia Eagles by the Dallas Cowboys, was the most-watched Week 3 MNF game since 2012.
This season of Monday Night Football has also seen notable, innovative acquisition tools added to the production, from a new take on the on-field wireless-camera system to the latest: the testing of a rare 8K S35 PL Mount broadcast lens during the Week 3 game in Dallas.
Keen-eyed viewers might have noticed a higher-quality image from one of the main broadcast cameras on the sideline. It was coming from a FUJINON SK 20×35 full-sensor Cinema Box lens affixed to a full-sensor Sony HDC-4800 positioned on the higher perch of a dual near-sideline cart camera.
“This lens fills the need for a sports-style broadcast lens that has a PL mount,” says James Munn, senior operations specialist, ESPN. “That has been the key. We’ve had PL lenses that have been designed for Hollywood but none designed for sports. This dials it in for sports with familiar controls, an extender, familiar mounting to a camera on a sled the way you’d expect it. It’s a very big, very fast lens. There are longer PL lenses, but they aren’t fast enough. So it hits all of the points that we need from a sports lens. It’s pretty impressive what we have seen so far.”
The lens is pretty rare as a small bundle was sold to the Japanese broadcaster NHK about five to six years ago to support their 8K work. Its reemerging in a big way as broadcasters have made a hard shift to cinema-style tools over the past year. ESPN got to use it for the first time at NBA Summer League this past August when Senior Remote Operations Specialist Eddie Okuno and his team tested it during some games in Las Vegas at the low slash position.
“The fact that we were able to get our hands on it was quite remarkable,” says Monday Night Football Director Jimmy Platt. “It looked just awesome. The crispness of the image in super-mo was incredible. Seeing that image in high speed and how clear it was opened my eyes.
“This has potential,” he continued, “and it may change how well we view the game and the level of detail that a camera can produce.”
According to a representative from Fujifilm/Fujinon, the native PL-mount cinema broadcast zoom lens shoots out to 700mm with an aperture rage of f2.8 to f4.8. It is also a 220mm front element. Compare that with FUJINON’s Cinema Premier Zoom 75-400mm T2.8-3.8, which is a staple for high-end shooting of concerts, and that is a 136mm front element. It has a 1.4x extender and weighs 69 pounds, making it the heaviest box lens the company has ever made. It’s about 10 pounds heavier than the company’s UA125X8. It’s also 28 inches long, which is three inches longer than the UA125X8.
The ESPN folks note that this was a bit of a one-off test, although they are hoping to use it again during a couple more regular-season games, as well as during the network’s game on Wild Card Weekend in January. Although they didn’t identify specifics, Platt adds that, for selected MNF games throughout the remainder of this season, the crew will deploy and test out new tools with the goal of further blending the lines between broadcast and cinema-style techniques.
“This will all be done with the mindset of the cinema and broadcast worlds and how they potentially weave together,” says Platt. “Is that the future of broadcast? Can we do things with cinematic tools but adapt and modify them to suit our needs? There’s a difference between film and live TV, and depth of field is a large difference. There are use cases for depth of field, and there are use cases where you don’t want it. We need to be able to get in and out of it just like a movie gets in and out of it, but we don’t have time to reset the scene, relight it, and ask the player to make that touchdown run again.”
Naturally, Monday Night Football is not delivered to homes in 8K or even in 4K. ESPN transmits game coverage in 1080p at 59.94 fps. So, outside of zooming in on replays, what does a 4K-capable camera shooting with an 8K lens contribute to the show. According to Munn, the more you raise the quality of the image’s origin, the better it is for the final product.
“When you start with the best quality at the top, anything you scale down to looks better by far,” he explains. “We noticed that way back when we transitioned to 1080p: even if you were doing a show in 720p, if you use 1080p [equipment] and downconvert it, it looks better than native 720. It’s like a xerox of a xerox. By the time you run through all the compressions, it automatically gets worse. If you start with the best product, you will notice the difference at home, without a doubt.”
Platt notes that, although it might not be obvious to the average viewer, using the lens delivers sharpness across the complete image.
“If you push it like a normal sports lens, you have edge-to-edge clarity,” he says . “It’s not just the sweet spot in the center. You see that clarity on the outer edges. You might not notice it if you’re not looking at it closely, but your eyes notice it, even if you don’t know what you’re looking at.”
Keeping on the cinematic theme, as previously reported, ESPN is working with what it considers to be version 2.0 of one of the hotter trends in sports broadcasting: the wireless shallow–depth-of-field rig. Monday Night Football’s on-field version, taking the place of the traditional Steadicam position in the show’s lineup, is a Sony FX-9 camera with a 40mm prime Zeiss lens affixed to an ARRI Trinity camera-stabilization system.
Platt notes that the prime lens is a key piece of the camera’s success, allowing the image to autofocus more quickly than with servo controls. He adds that the workflow, which skewed away from using a focus-puller, allows the camera operator and technicians in the truck to adjust aperture in real time, granting more control over the shallow–depth-of-field effect while allowing focal forgiveness.
“I think it’s a tremendous look,” he opines. “I’ve been very pleased with that because the area where there have been questions [about this type of camera] is in the shots of celebration moments. There are so many things in the shot and entering the shot that you want to stay in focus, too. We’ve seen the camera perform very well in those environments, which I think is a huge win.”
The rig is run by Camera Operator Clay Loveless, who Senior Operations Manager Steve Carter says has been pleased with the shots the system has contributed to the live show. The rig is noticeably heavier than a traditional Steadicam, and the operations team has gradually taken measures to lighten the weight of the system while Platt bakes more breaks for Loveless into the live show.
ESPN’s Monday Night Football returns for Week 5 on Oct. 11 as the Indianapolis Colts visit the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Kickoff is at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.