ESPN continued to blaze the automated-production trail earlier this month when it produced eight high school basketball games over two days for ESPN+ utilizing the SimplyLive ViBox production unit and the Fletch Follow automated robotic camera system. This follows on the heels of ESPN’s automated-production efforts for the nine outer courts at the US Open in September, which allowed ESPN to cover all 16 courts for the first time.
As part of its GEICO High School Basketball Showcase, ESPN presented three days of high school hoops at the HoopHall West in Scottsdale, AZ, from December 6-8. The first day featured a linear broadcast of San Joaquin (CA) vs. Pinnacle (AZ) on ESPN2 that was produced out of a mobile unit using traditional manned cameras and a full production and technical staff. However, on December 7-8, ESPN utilized an automated-production model to produce four games each day, allowing the network to deliver games that would otherwise would not be covered.
“This initiative falls in-line with our on-going effort to innovate at the large events, as well as the smaller events where we are focused on new technologies and work-flows that allow us to operate more efficiently. The key is to also maintain quality, which both the ViBox and Fletch Follow systems provide,” says Chris Calcinari, SVP Remote Operations, ESPN and ABC Sports. “As a next step, we hope to evolve the workflow by controlling these tools from our centralized hubs, creating additional efficiencies long-term.”
Fletch Follow: Automated Cameras in Action on the Hardcourt
Fletcher, ESPN’s primary robotic-camera partner, developed an automated robotic system built around camera telemetry data. The system deployed for these games, included robotic cameras placed at the main game and tight positions, as well rigged under the backboards. The tight camera was controlled by a human robotic operator, with the ability to have all the other cameras robotically follow similar camera movements with appropriate framing. Fletcher provided on-site engineers capable of revising code to focus on robotic performance and accurate framing throughout the event.
SimplyLive ViBox: Streamlining the Production Workflow
ESPN worked with Bexel to design a small flypack built around the SimplyLive ViBox production system to support cutting of the show sources similar to a traditional switcher. Additionally, the ViBox supported record and replay functionality similar to a traditional replay system. For this initiative, the user interface for the ViBox consisted of two 27-in. touchscreen work surfaces. These control surface screens also served as the monitor wall. Alternatively, users can also use mouse control or an outboard shuttle wheel as replay control options.
In addition to having one robo operator control all cameras, workflow efficiencies included combining roles. The Director/Technical Director and Producer/Replay Operator/Assistant Director roles were combined and handled by two production staffers.
Bringing It All Together: Graphics, Audio, and Comms
For this game, graphics were limited to clock and score. Not having clock or scoreboard data pushed ESPN to think outside the box. Using the AJT Livebook with OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities, ESPN was able to use a camera to automate the clock and score throughout the event. The Livebook was integrated into the ViBox via NDI.
Commentary and effects audio was supported by a small traditional console, which was incorporated into the ViBox via a Dante network.
Communications was supported with a compact communications matrix for belt packs and panels, leveraging a Dante IP network, while telephone interfaces connected the remote to Bristol.
“Because Bexel and Fletcher are now both part of the NEP Worldwide Network, this project came together seamlessly. All of our divisions operate as one team very effectively, and have the same eye towards innovative, client-centered solutions,” says Mike Werteen, Global President, NEP Broadcast Services.