TV jumps on 3D bandwagon for live sport

But filming an NHL match presented surprising challenges

As 3D flatscreens appear in stores and 3D networks gear up for launch, sports events are taking the lead in driving programming for new TV format.

Covering a live sports event in stereoscopic 3D means rethinking almost everything about a sports telecast — from pacing to camera placement, even sound and graphics.

“It’s a total philosophy change,” said Sherali Najack, executive producer for the CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada.” “Our thinking — and what we know — is still 2D. It’s kind of a re-education about what would look great.”

Najack attended Wednesday’s screening of the first 3D telecast of an NHL hockey game and was impressed with what he saw. “I watched it side by side with an HD signal and the HD signal really looked old-school,” Najack said.

While hockey has been out front this week, it is just one of several sports getting 3D coverage this year. The NCAA Final Four games will be screened in selected theaters in 3D. Soccer’s World Cup will get 3D treatment as well as India’s IPL cricket matches in April. Some NFL and college football games already have been telecast in 3D. The NBA is enthusiastic about it and Major League Baseball is likely to join in soon.

MSG Network and 3ality Digital collaborated on Wednesday’s telecast of the Rangers-Islanders game, using broadcast technology licensed from RealD. Cablevision sent the game via a dedicated HD channel to subscribers, who could watch in stereo if they have one of the new 3D TVs. MSG also screened the game live to 2,500 guests and fans at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

National Hockey League chief operating officer John Collins said that while fans often say hockey is great live but not so great on TV, “the reaction of most people last night was it was more intimate and maybe better than being at the arena live.”

The game was shot with lower angles than is traditional for 2D, to emphasize depth.

The high-side shots typical of hockey, basketball and football coverage are problematic for 3D. Natural stereo vision depends on the left eye and right eye having different views of an object. Beyond roughly 50 feet, that “binocular disparity” becomes negligible, diminishing the stereo effect.

That makes field sports challenging for 3D, while ring sports like boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts that let the camera stay close to the action are ideal. However, for hockey, getting next to the action means shooting through the protective glass that surrounds the rink. Before the Rangers-Islanders game, that worried Ted Kenney, 3ality’s telecast producer.

“If the glass isn’t clean or is marked up heavily, those marks are going to be in the shot and are going to feel like they’re right in your face,” he said. Before the telecast got underway, the glass was carefully cleaned and buffed.

Perhaps because of that, MSG Media prexy Mike Bair said, “Artifacts from the nets and glass turned out not to be that big an issue. And small things, like someone selling cotton candy walking in front of the camera, created this ‘Wow’ effect because it feels like they’re coming right at you.”

2D sports coverage thrives on the use of small cameras, with fast cuts and closeups that take the viewer inside the game.

But a fast-cutting style with many cameras doesn’t work for 3D. Instead, Kenney said, “It’s about treating the viewer as if they had the best seat in hockey. Let them look around the frame and watch the game in comfort.”

That raises the question of what’s the “best seat” — and whether there’s a way to get a camera there. “The camera positions are going to be a nightmare,” Najack said. “It’s almost like they have to be perfect, but positions at hockey venues are dictated for you by building configuration.”

One way to get the traditional high-side shot is to use a camera rig with two telephoto lenses placed farther apart than human eyes, perhaps three feet instead of 2.5 inches. That gives a rough approximation of the 3D view from close to the action.

Those rigs, though, can be misused in ways unique to 3D.

The director of ESPN’s USC-Ohio State 3D football telecast last fall called for that rig for a sideline shot of his announcers standing fairly close to the camera, and the shot had the disorienting illusion that the men were about 2 feet tall — an effect 3D experts call “hyperstereo.”

Bair also said the MSG crew found they needed to move the camera more slowly and, to their surprise, they discovered they needed a different sound mix.

“Turning up the ambient sound on the ice itself where you could hear the blades on the ice, and in particular the crashing into the boards, that sound combined with the 3D had a startling impact,” Bair said.

To keep that 3D intensity, telecasts need 3D graphics, too. Flat 2D graphics on a stereo image look drab, but 3D graphics “give you some of that sizzle,” Najack said.

Bair said the event showed there’s demand for 3D from both consumers and sponsors. “A sponsor can literally own an entire 3D telecast and create graphics…that are a much more effective way to present their messages.”

Najack, who said that pubcaster CBC is looking at 3D for the future, said there’s still work to be done and new gear needed, especially robotic rigs that will allow the cameras to get in tight.

“Sports is about emotion and expression,” Najack said, “and for that, you need closeups. We have to figure out how to have that in 3D coverage. But it’s a challenge worth figuring out, because I think it’s here to stay.”