NEP Bets on 3D's Potential

While stereoscopic 3D HD technology is still in its relative infancy, mobile-truck giant NEP Broadcasting thinks the medium has gained enough traction to build a live production truck designed specifically for 3D HD.

The new Supershooter 3D (SS 3D) truck, which NEP built in partnership with 3D production specialist PACE, was first used by ESPN last month to produce a live broadcast of the USC-Ohio State college football game. NEP expects it to handle several more 3D jobs over the next six months, including both entertainment and sporting events, though the company isn't yet revealing details.

The strategy behind SS 3D was to make a live 3D HD production more affordable, says NEP Broadcasting CEO Debbie Honkus. “We've been trying to figure out how to do it more efficiently, since everybody has been complaining about cost,” Honkus says.

NEP decided to overhaul an older HD truck it had acquired from now-defunct mobile vendor NMT and retrofit it for 3D live production. In doing so, NEP formed a joint venture with Burbank, Calif.-based PACE, one of two major U.S. suppliers of 3D HD production technology. The other is 3ality Digital, which is also based in Burbank.

PACE was founded by cinematographer Vince Pace and counts director James Cameron as a major investor. It has supplied its 3D Fusion system to the National Basketball Association for several 3D HD productions, including the All-Star Saturday Night skills competition last February that was broadcast to digital cinemas around the country.

Both firms use 3D camera systems based on combining two Sony HDC-1500 cameras, though their approaches to handling the 3D signals differ. 3ality combines the left- and right-eye signals in the system and uses image processing software to automatically correct image alignment problems in the feeds coming from the cameras to avoid viewer discomfort. It says that approach lets its cameras work with conventional HD trucks.

PACE takes a more labor-intensive approach. It backhauls the camera feeds separately and uses dedicated “convergence operators” for each 3D camera who manually adjust the depth of field to reduce blurring and eye fatigue.

“It's a required function, so as you go from shot to shot, you're not radically changing the depth of field,” explains Steve Hellmuth, NBA Entertainment senior VP of operations and technology, who first collaborated with PACE on a private 3D telecast of the 2007 All-Star Game in Las Vegas.

For that event, the NBA and PACE outfitted a double-wide trailer with the necessary 3D monitoring equipment. For the latest All-Star production last winter, PACE brought its own dedicated 3D production truck.

SS 3D combines what previously required two trucks into one 3D mobile production platform. It features a 3D production viewing area, where the production team can monitor the action on 3D LCD monitors while wearing special 3D glasses; a convergence station for multiple camera operators; and 3D-capable tape, video and engineering rooms. It is wired for eight 3D cameras, two six-channel EVS XT-2 replay servers, and 10 tape machines, and includes a Solid State Logic Aysis digital audio console.

NEP was able to reuse the truck's existing audio console, router and communications systems, so it kept its investment in SS 3D relatively low. NEP owns the Sony HDC-1500 cameras that SS 3D relies on, but PACE owns the specialized Fusion camera rigs the company has developed. “Our truck has a value of about $5 million, while Vince's stuff has a value of maybe $30 million because of the technology he's invented,” Honkus says.

That type of technology isn't cheap to rent. Previous PACE productions have been estimated to cost $250,000 or more. While Honkus won't divulge exact pricing for SS 3D, she says that for a college football game it might rent for five times as much as a normal 3D truck, while for an NFL game it might be four times as much. That means that a major 3D event could cost close to $500,000, depending on how many cameras are used.

NEP doesn't have any formal contracts for SS 3D lined up, though the USC-Ohio State game has generated considerable buzz. CBS has thought about producing either the Super Bowl or NCAA Final Four in 3D, according to Honkus, though those plans are tentative. The NBA and NASCAR have also expressed interest, she adds, as has Showtime for its boxing coverage. NEP is also working on a 3D screen for its concert business.

Honkus predicts that the mass adoption of 3D HD production will take as long, if not longer, than the industry's adoption of HDTV. She says that with the creation of SS 3D, NEP is at least open for business: “No one's going to commit to use anything until they see it.”

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