Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest minds in sports production. Everybody involved in the production side of things has brought their own unique style and expertise to the table - outstanding producers and directors, technical directors, audio engineers with mad skills, rock solid camera ops, and dare I say hundreds of other technicians, grips, and production assistants, and just a lot of other people that make great sports productions happen. But all of the people I have just mentioned whether they were part of a big crew, or of just a crew of two have one thing in common.
“Singularity of Purpose”
Now I know what you are saying - there are about 2.5 million listings or descriptions for “Singularity of Purpose” on Google. That is true, but let's just look at it from a sports production perspective. “Singularity of Purpose” in my world is pretty simple. At least it always sounds simple. Basically, it means getting the shot. It means immersing today's sports fans as deep into the game as you can. Taking the right shot at the right time. Dialing up the audio because. Yes, just because it was the right time. Read my little sports audio oops at the end. I promise you will get a good laugh. So it’s all about demanding excellent work from others and yourself. Sports production at every level can be hard but rewarding. Excellence is hard! But don’t be deterred.
The Game Changers
When I think of monster (as in very large) sporting events a few pop up right away. The Olympics, The Super Bowl, World Cup, The Daytona 500, NCAA Final Four, and the Kentucky Derby. Those are just for starters! These are the productions with millions of viewers. Yet, there are hundreds, if not thousands of other local, national, and international sports productions every day. Some are produced live, some produced and recorded for later, and some both. But before we get lost in the stratosphere of production, let's look at just two of the simpler, yet profound technologies that have changed production value and perspectives both big and small.
Like I said there is just some equipment that has redefined sports coverage. What better way to get up close and personal that with a GoPro6 or Marshall Electronics CV343-CSB? Small footprint, big shots! Of course, I always cringe when I hear the term ”throw away” cameras. But let's face it, sometimes in order to get “the shot” POV cameras are on the losing end. It's hard to think of any major sporting events that don’t have a dozen or more of these cameras strategically placed throughout the venue. Do you have a favorite? I do. I love when directors take the pylon cam in the end zone. About as up close and dramatic as you can get.
Of course, it doesn't have to be a team sport. Use of POVs are everywhere from kayak races to in car at Daytona or on a body. So what is the second most in my opinion? Drones both big and small. Which is interesting because not only are drones covering action they sometimes ARE the action. A good drone pilot can help us experience a race or event from a whole new perspective. Isn’t that what it is all about a whole new perspective? But alas, sometimes you need more. A LOT more. So yes while single camera shoots or GoProing (is that a word?) can be fun, there will come a time when you have to break open the piggy bank if you want to do sports production the right way. Check it out.
Sports Production by the Numbers
Like I’ve said before it takes a huge amount of gear along with people and stuff to do a big sporting event and do it well. With that, let's take a look at some of the production numbers provided by the NBC Sports Group for the Super Bowl this year. I’m pretty sure these numbers will blow you away. I was speechless. Here goes.
- 1 ND1 – NBC Sports’ state-of-the-art, remote production unit designed and built by NEP. The Emmy Award-winning Sunday Night Football production team, led by Fred Gaudelli (executive producer) and Drew Esocoff (director), used ND1 to produce Super Bowl LII.
- 2 SkyCams NBC used to cover the game (including “High Sky”), marking the first-time any network has featured dual SkyCams for Super Bowl coverage
- 3 Number of Super Bowls streamed on NBC Sports Digital, powered by Playmaker Media.
- 7 Number of 4K UHD cameras being used to cover the game
- 10 + NBCUniversal shows onsite or reporting from Minneapolis
- 14 Mobile units
- 19 Super Bowls NBC has broadcast (including LII)
- 50 Miles of camera and microphone cable
- 106 Cameras used for Super Bowl (76 – including 20 pylon cameras) 30 for the pre game
- 130 Microphones
- 264,000 Feet of camera and microphone cable
- 500 + NBC Sports Group employees on site in Minneapolis
Did you get all that? And….to think that the Olympics are literally just days after the Super Bowl! Staggering. But producing the Super Bowl is more than just numbers. Here are some excerpts from a recent press conference that lends a great deal of insight into some of the thinking that goes into the event.
Comments and Overview by Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBC broadcasting and sports. Executive Producer Fred Gaudelli, Director Drew Esocoff.
Mark Lazarus: I'm excited to be here with what I think is the finest group in sports television production. They put on the biggest games in the best possible way. This is the 19th Super Bowl that NBC Sports has done over time, and it's the fourth in what I'll call the modern era, since the beginning of Sunday Night Football. It's always exciting to be at the center of the media universe and the pop culture universe with what's annually the biggest event on television.
Fred Gaudelli: It's the fourth Super Bowl for NBC in this new, modern era. I think I speak for everybody on the team, we can only hope this game is as good as the previous three we've done -- all last second thrillers with memorable plays and memorable performances by the players in those games. I think we're really excited about this one. We have the two No. 1 seeds; the two teams that were clearly the best this year in their respective conferences, and we are looking forward to a great game on Sunday.
Drew Esocoff: I’m really excited about the game as well. Great matchup; two rabid fan bases. We have some great technology that we hope to present. We have two SkyCams for the first time, I believe, in Super Bowl history. We started using high SkyCam a little bit during the season. We got to it three or four times in three or four games, and it really provides a great view of football action without being a gimmicky view. We have a good plan. The basic blueprint is our Sunday Night Football plan with expanded facilities. We think we have a plan to cover any defining play that needs to be covered, and we are looking forward to it.
About Two Skycams
Fred Gaudelli: It's just been a nice complement to what we already have. We try to use it strategically based on the schemes the two teams run, obviously, the game situation, down and distance. It's a great look at offensive line plays, especially offensive lines that run that wide zone scheme, things of that nature. We've experimented with receivers and routes and seeing all those things develop. It’s a really nice complement. I don't think it supersedes the other SkyCam, but it's been a great complement to our coverage.
Drew Esocoff: I think it gives a football coach's perspective from a little bit more of a dynamic view than your All-22 50-yard line camera or your high-end zone camera. It has more movement to it. It has some dynamic traction to it, and I just think, especially on a show like the Super Bowl, which is a game that a lot of people are probably watching as their first game of the year, I think it gives the football purist what they want to see and the casual fan a shot that's, quote, unquote, not boring, like a coach's film session would be.
Fred Gaudelli: Yeah, we're going to be debuting a virtual 3D system. We did body scans of six players. And during the game, when we do graphics on the players, not all the time, but a few special ones, you'll see them in full; the players themselves in full three dimensions with their information, obviously, designed into the shot. We're really excited to take a look at that. The ultra-slow motion, the cameras that are running at 600, 800 frames, we'll have more of those for these games. They always seem to be the cameras that really provide that definitive view on the big plays of the game.
Drew Esocoff: We've added some high-speed cameras. A lot of the stuff we have is to add what we consider a defining view of a critical play. It's 4K cameras, high-speed cameras. We've added pylon cams for the Super Bowl, which we don't use for the Sunday Night Football season.
So a lot of these things I describe are add-ons that get, at least from the director's point of view, added to the outskirts of my monitor wall. In other words, I try to keep the monitor wall the same as it would be for the Sunday night game, and I'll look to those specialty cameras in game-specific instances.
It’s the biggest sporting event in the world, and our goal is to have the best look of any scoring play, any penalty that comes into question, so on and so forth.
The Really Deep Dive: It All Starts at the Lens
Now we have the big picture from the top of the sports production mountain so to speak, it is cool because it gives us a really good perspective of just how much work goes into all of this. But I wanted to go ever deeper because there is so much more. You might have heard the saying “The devil is in the detail." This is so true in production. But you already knew that. I got my start as a handheld sports guy (I really got my start pulling cable) but you get my drift. I learned that in reality, great imaging starts with the lens. You can have the greatest cameras ever, but stick a crappy lens on it and well, you know. But there are a ton of just great lenses so, so many.
But for perspective, I wanted to catch up with two people Elizabeth Pratt and Rich Eilers both from Canon. They really know their stuff when it comes to not only the technical side of lenses but just how important it is to be there literally for the client. Remember “Singularity of Purpose”? These guys are livin’ it….
ProductionHUB: Can each of you tell us about the role Canon plays in these historically epic sporting events?
Rich: Canon TV Production Group (which handles the BCTV lenses) has been very fortunate to be the primary lens provider for both of these major events, dating back to the early 90's. We've been able to build a trust and confidence level with our network and truck partners over that period of time to become a solid and reliable resource. I've been working for Canon USA for over 25 years, and that entire career has been with the Broadcast lens division. Being based in the Northeast, I've had the honor of working with the Sports Groups of all the Networks and well as the major remote production facility providers that support their variety of sporting events. My role is to ensure that both our Network and Remote Truck clients have the proper lens equipment, support, and services to execute their key events on a high level.
Elizabeth: Canon Professional Services (CPS) is on site here at Super Bowl making sure that credentialed photographers have the back up they need when covering this important assignment. CPS is a member organization that supports professional photographers and filmmakers with equipment loans, expedited repairs and more every day - and we do special activations at big media events. Pros like the security of having technicians at the ready in case they drop a piece of equipment or have a problem. Sometimes there's a need for extra equipment - like a lens they didn't think to bring along or another camera body for a remote. We bring a lot of loaner cameras and lenses and also provide free clean and checks on gear to make sure everything is operating at factory specs. We also have Professional Market Specialists (a fancy name for a Tech Rep) from all over the country here to provide advice and guidance on our technology.
ProductionHUB: Can you tell us your titles and about your respective backgrounds? Are you excited to be a part of these events? Do you have on site-specific roles?
Rich: My current formal title is National Accounts Sales Director, but when I'm at these events, I prefer to be known as the "Lens Guy" for our clients. While we have talented technical support people that can fix our lenses onsite, my goal in these settings is to be available to find answers to their lens questions and needs. Also, being able to work with Elizabeth Pratt and her Canon Professional Services team at the large events, it provides another great layer of imaging resources that our broadcast clients can utilize.
Elizabeth: My title is Director of Professional Client Development & Support. I started with Canon 16 years ago as a Professional Market Specialist and now lead a team of 20 Pro Market Specialists along with the Canon Professional Services organization. There is nothing I enjoy more than being on site in a situation like Super Bowl. It's incredibly rewarding to see our clients in action and know that we're providing them with the tools they need to be successful. Before I came to Canon, I made my living as a photographer so I identify strongly with our clients.
ProductionHUB: How much has getting ready for these types of games changed?
Rich: The overall scale of the events has grown exponentially. There are cameras everywhere that require lenses, in very unique areas of the stadiums and venues. It certainly challenges us every year with these new positions that the production teams create, but it also helps us to learn the needs so we can develop better tools to make these new shots happen.
As for preparation, it does begin for us to support the events well in advance. Preparation of gear and technical resources (most importantly our Technical Support team who goes to site to handle repairs) for international events begin about a year in advance, domestic events can compress that time, but we begin discussions with our friends at the networks and remote truck companies at the start of the season to allow us to effectively prepare and plan.
Elizabeth: We start preparing for an event like the Super Bowl, Olympics, Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500, political conventions (and more) months in advance. We reach out to CPS members to see how we can help, we start preparing equipment lists of cameras and lenses we know will be needed, and in some cases, we plan a great party for our clients in advance of the event to show our appreciation.
ProductionHUB: How would you describe your working relationship either with the Olympic Committee, the NFL or other individuals working in the same space? Are there a lot of restrictions that make it hard to do your job?
Rich: We coordinate closely with our friends at the networks and remote truck companies, as our lenses are an integral part of the overall facilities they provide. Both the networks and truck companies welcome us into their facilities and give us great access to locations where the lenses are. We essentially become members of the Network Production team at that point, making sure the lenses are at their best for when the event starts. Once the event starts, we are in standby mode in case an issue arises, which we'll be ready to triage when it does.
Elizabeth: We have a wonderful relationship with the IOC, the NFL, and other similar organizations. I think they understand the value of what we do to support the media who cover their events. Better prepared media means better coverage so it's a win for everyone. We do have restrictions, of course. Canon is not an official sponsor of these events in many cases so we need to keep a low profile. What we do is entirely behind the scenes and in support of the media, not aimed at the attendees of the event or the fans at home.
Just Scratching the Surface
So much goes into winning sports productions. Time, money, hard work, you name it. A lot of behind the scenes production professionals that just make it happen. It all counts. But like I said we have barely scratched the surface! The production equipment for sports is awesome that is so true. But in reality, it is the production professionals that make it all happen.
The Audio Oops…..or why an audio delay would have been cool
Years ago, I was directing a live NCAA basketball game. Suddenly a shoving match happens and a player was ejected. I had a handheld camera on the team as the coach tried to figure out what to do next. The ref comes over and the coach keeps asking what did the player do to get thrown out? Like three times. The ref knew that camera was hot. So finally the ref mumbled the answer. I had audio really crank it because the ref was mumbling. The problem was the coach couldn't hear him over the crowd. The ref gave up and yelled as loud as hey could “Coach he called him a !@#$%^&**!" No audio delay. Right? Ahhh ya gotta love live.