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3D Takes the Mound

The world of Major League Baseball had plenty of front-page news last week with the deaths of two New York Yankees legends, announcer Bob Sheppard and owner George Steinbrenner, and the first All-Star Game win by the National League over the American League since 1996. So, it’s understandable that another potentially historic development happened mostly under the radar: the league’s first foray in stereoscopic 3D production.

For the last major U.S. professional league to experiment with the 3D format, MLB’s All-Star Week created a flurry of activity, with two regular- season games, the State Farm Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game all broadcast in 3D in a span of four days. And while no further 3D broadcasts are scheduled, the early verdict from network executives is that baseball in 3D is nothing short of a home run.

“I always thought baseball would be one of the sports least conducive to 3D,” says Ed Delaney, VP of operations for YES Network. “After seeing this, it may be one of the best.”

“Everybody was very surprised at how really cool baseball looked in 3D,” adds Jerry Steinberg, senior VP of field operations for Fox Sports. “It was amazing.”

Steinberg and his Fox team, working with personnel from DirecTV, 3D specialist PACE and YES, produced the regular-season games on July 10 and 11 at Seattle’s Safeco Field between the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees. Those games, which were sponsored by DirecTV and Panasonic, were broadcast regionally by YES and FSN Northwest, and carried by DirecTV, Verizon and a host of major cable operators.

The Fox team then headed to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., to produce the All-Star Game on July 13, which was broadcast exclusively in 3D on DirecTV’s new n3D channel. Fox used the same NEP 3D truck, SS32, that had supported ESPN’s 3D coverage of the Home Run Derby the previous night. Another NEP truck with PACE gear, SS31, was used to produce the games in Seattle.

While Fox had done some 3D testing at Angel Stadium this spring with high-school players to work out camera positions and angles, the real-game experiences in Seattle and Anaheim still surprised Steinberg, who had previously produced the 2009 BCS college football championship game in the format. “Baseball looked different,” he says. “You can see the depth, you can perceive the heights of the pitchers on the mound, and you can get the perceived distance to home plate better.”

The Seattle 3D productions used six 3D cameras on the field, in traditional positions such as “low-first” base, low-third, high-home and center-field, plus low-home, a position that isn’t available in many stadiums. A seventh camera, a Panasonic 3D camcorder, was used in the booth to capture shots of the announcers. The All-Star coverage in Anaheim used 13 3D cameras, including Panasonic camcorders that shot B-roll footage around the stadium and of All-Star players inside the clubhouse.

Steinberg originally planned to only use seven 3D cameras for the All-Star Game, but MLB afforded more access than expected. For example, Fox was able to place cameras in the dugout and behind home plate, with a 3D robotic camera mounted on the screen in a “mid-high-home” position. The extra angles allowed Fox to really “tell the 3D story,” Steinberg says.

“Evidently, MLB became 3D believers after seeing the stuff in Seattle, and thought that this thing could be pretty cool and possibly have a big future,” Steinberg adds.

Steinberg and Delaney agree that the low-home camera position in 3D, which was employed extensively during the Yankees/Mariners contests, was particularly dynamic.

“It was the money shot,” Delaney says. “When A-Rod [Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez] got brushed back, you felt the speed. And when a ball would skip in the dirt and come right to the camera, you were ducking away from the ball.”

The shots from low-first and low-third were also impressive, he adds. “You could take a shot of a batter, and see the background of the dugouts, the depths of the guys in the dugout and the crowd standing behind. It really popped.”

Shots from center-field and high-home positions were less exciting, as they didn’t give as great a sense of depth. But they still worked for game coverage. “If you’re shooting from center field, you don’t get the ‘Holy Cow!’ 3D experience,” Steinberg says. “But that doesn’t matter; you’re still getting depth.”

ESPN also used traditional positions for some of its 12 3D cameras, such as high-home, to track the ball during its coverage of the Home Run Derby on July 12. “There are certain cameras you can’t get away from, as you have to document the event,” says Chris Calcinari, ESPN VP of event operations. “Some cameras you need to tell the story; others you need to give the best 3D effect.”

But since the Home Run Derby competition doesn’t make use of the infield, except for the placement of a batting-practice pitcher, ESPN was able to experiment with some rather unconventional positions. For example, in addition to a bevy of PACE 3D rigs with Sony cameras and Fujinon lenses in traditional spots, ESPN positioned two pairs of Panasonic compact cameras on the left and right side of the infield, very close to home plate, and aligned them for a 3D effect.

“They were only about five feet away,” Calcinari says. “So, you had the batter in the foreground, and tons of background.”

Another innovative 3D look was provided by a new ultra-high-frame-rate camera from Vision Research and I-Movix, which ESPN rented from camera specialist Fletcher. That camera, which ESPN mounted down the third-base line, recorded 3D images at 1,000 frames per second for dramatic slow-motion replays.

ESPN also used a new camera system for 3D called MastCam, which consists of a vertical pole about 12 feet high with a 3D camera system mounted on a robotic head. ESPN placed the Mast- Cam three feet behind the pitcher, with a view looking down on the pitcher as he released the ball. ESPN took the risk of a line drive coming back over the pitcher’s head and hitting the Mast- Cam, but that didn’t happen.

ESPN is considering using the MastCam for 3D coverage of college football this fall, by placing it on a cart that can be moved up and down the sideline. Robotic cameras, such as pan-bar systems that can be controlled by an operator in a truck, will be important to 3D sports coverage in general, as their smaller footprint cuts down on expensive “seat kills” in stadiums and arenas.

While there is a buzz over 3D baseball coming out of All-Star Week, network executives concede that only a handful of early adopters actually saw the coverage on 3D sets. No further 3D MLB broadcasts are currently planned by YES, Fox or ESPN for this year. 3D production is still tremendously expensive, as much as seven times that of a conventional HD production, according to one network chief. While set-makers are covering costs now, questions about a long-term business model remain. And technical glitches persist, such as a transmission problem during the July 11 Yankees/Mariners game that degraded the 3D pictures on DirecTV for the first couple of innings.

But production veterans like Delaney still think they may have glimpsed the game’s TV future last week. “I was never a skeptic about baseball in 3D; I just thought it would not be in demand,” he says. “But I realized you could sit and watch a baseball game in 3D for a full three hours. And if you watched 10 games in 3D, it would be like going back to SD when you saw a regular HD game.”

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