NFL’s close calls need close scrutiny

On Super Bowl Sunday, replays bring to bear a wide array of technology, but humans are the wild card

Sometime during Sunday’s Super Bowl game there will be a close call — a questionable fumble, an uncertain touchdown — and to resolve a coach’s challenge or a question about the officials’ ruling, the National Football League will turn to a higher authority: NBC Sports.

It’s taken largely for granted now, but the TV coverage of the game can and does affect the game itself. The league relies on video from the TV broadcast to overturn incorrect rulings on the field.

This isn’t a theoretical issue. The quality and availability of replay footage affects games every week of the NFL season. This year, both conference championship games hinged on replay reviews. Officials at first missed the fact that a punt had glanced off the knee of a San Francicso player, enabling the New York Giants to recover. Replay revealed the muff. Earlier in the day, the Baltimore Ravens came within fractions of a second of scoring a game-winning touchdown against New England. Replay showed the ball was stripped from the player before he could complete the catch.

In an NBC conference call earlier this week, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus and Super Bowl game telecast producer Fred Gaudelli seemed mostly resigned to the system.

“That is the broadcaster’s oblgation and what we have to do,” said Lazarus. “We take it very seriously.”

Gaudelli said, “Whether you like it or not you’re a major part of (the game) so you’d better have it right.”

Getting it right requires a deft coordination of men and machines. The technology NBC will throw at Super Bowl coverage and replays is impressive. Yet the league and the network are both mum on a human factor that could undermine the whole system.

The referee and the replay officials see the same video fans see on the telecast. The NFL provides no video of its own to watch. Replay reviews are supposed to be completed in one minute from the time the referee goes “under the hood” to look at monitor on the sidelines. If a replay shows up after that minute is over, it shows up too late — at least in theory.

To capture critical replays and air them quickly, NBC Sports will deploy an impressive array of gear: 40 game cameras, including positions on both sides of each goal line and shooting up and down both sidelines. For slow motion there will be two Sony super-slow-motion cameras using Canon 100 x 9.8 HD Digital lenses and four NAC Ikegami X-mo cameras that can slow action down even more than the Sonys.

Recording all that are 29 digital video replay sources: 27 six-channel EVS XT-2 video servers, most continuously recording three or four channels of high-def video (Continuous recording means there’s no danger of missing something, even during playback.) Video from those servers is fed to five Avid editing suites for pre- and post-game shows and two Final Cut Pro suites for bumpers and in-game highlights. There are also two super-slow-motion EVSs and 10 Sony Linear tape machines. Video can be recalled from the EVS servers instantaneously, and in only a second or two from the tape machines.

Ultimately, though, all that technology just records data. The images have to be reviewed by human eyes very quickly and then moved over.

“You’re searching to find the absolute defining angle of whatever the play can be, as it was with Santonio Holmes or James Harrison in the last Super Bowl we did,” said Gaudelli.

They narrow their search to the part of the field where the play was made. “Once you see it,” said Gaudelli, “you try to get it up as quickly as possible (in case) a coach has to challenge or the replay booth has to stop (play). Then you start searching for more angles to confirm what it is you’re seeing and hopefully not dilute the best angles.”

One of the dangers of this replay system, though, is that no mattter how good the technology, people are corruptible.

The late Chet Forte, the first director of Monday Night Football, was an admitted compulsive sports bettor throughout his TV directing career.

“I bet everything,” Forte told Sports Illustrated in 1991, “But football was my worst sport. And Monday night was the worst of the worst.”

By the time Forte left ABC in the mid-’80s, he had amassed $1.5 million in debt. Those who knew him said he cared more about the telecast than the money, so he laughed off the losses. Forte’s betting never stirred a public scandal, but in his era the broadcast’s instant replays weren’t used by the league and never affected the games.

Late in his life, as a sports-talk host, Forte warned about the dangers of relying on the TV production team, which might include gamblers, to help decide a game’s outcome. Those warnings have been ignored, at least publicly. Under the current rules, a gambler on the broadcast team in the truck wouldn’t even have to bury a critical replay, just delay it from airing until after the officials’ have made their call.

The NFL told me flatly, “There is no reason to believe that this is an issue.” But I also asked if there are background checks and screenings for crew in the NFL production trucks, mentioning Forte’s example. NBC declined comment.

Bits & Bytes

Deluxe’s Encore has expanded into New York at the Deluxe facility 435 Hudson St. Deluxe New York’s TV post business is being rolled up under the Encore name. Encore N.Y. topper is Bill Romeo, senior VP, Deluxe Entertainment Television. There is a grand-opening party at the facility tonight . …

Creatasphere’s Spring Entertainment Technology Expo is skedded for March 1 at L.A. Center Studios in Los Angeles. …

SMPTE’s Technology Forum, skedded for May 13-15 in Geneva, Switzerland, has added IBM Media Practice leader Martin Guillaume to its panel on future media business models. The executive-level confab is being produced in collaboration with the European Broadcasting Union.

The Visual Effects Society has announced its Board of Directors officers for 2012: Jeffrey Okun, head of vfx for Prana Studios, has been re-elected board chair; vfx supervisor Michael Fink has been elected first vice chair; Pam Hogarth, marketing director at Look Effects, is second vice chair; Bob Coleman, prexy of Digital Artists Agency has been tapped as treasurer; and vfx producer Kim Lavery is secretary. …

Digital Domain has hired David Lipman as VP of its features visual effects division. Lipman is a former exec at DreamWorks Animation and London vfx studio Framestore. He will be based at DD’s Venice, Calif. office and report to Jody Madden. Madden has been upped to senior VP of global studio operations. … MasterImage 3D has hired Adam Macdonald as sales manager for EMEA and Russia. Macdonald will be based out of Pinewood Studios in Blighty and report to general manager Brian Kercher. … David Garber has joined Pixomondo’s Los Angeles office as executive producer of motion graphics. Garber will focus on creation of main titles and graphics for features and commercials. … Pixomondo completed 546 shots, about one-third of the pic’s total, on Lucasfilm’s “Red Tails.” Bjorn Mayer and Boris Schmidt were Pixomondo’s vfx supervisors on the project.

Dilated Pixels of Hollywood has been tapped as sole vfx vendor for season 12 of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” A longtime “CSI” vfx supervisor, Rik Shorten, has joined the staff of Dilated Pixels as vfx supervisor. Shorten’s vfx credits also include “Fringe,” “I, Robot” and “The X-Files.”

Deluxe’s Efilm developed a new workflow for Warner’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” the first U.S. feature to shoot using Arriraw on the Arri Alexa camera. Pic started shooting before the camera was officially released. Deluxe New York handled deliverables and color grading was handled at Deluxe subsidiary Company3’s New York facility. Stefan Sonnenfeld was colorist. C3 artists did cosmetic work on about 125 shots. Deluxe’s Method Studios did 120 vfx shots for the picture.

Technicolor has renewed its agreement with World Wrestling Entertainment for DVD and Blu-ray replication and packaging services. … Technicolor’s M-GO app, now gearing up for a spring launch, has hired Ted Hong as chief marketing officer. Hong is a veteran of Fandango and Movies.com.

Litepanels is shipping its Hilio high-intensity LED lighting fixtures. The Hilio is a small-footprint LED capable of 5600° K over 20-25′ without a ballast. … Texas-based video production company AMS Pictures has purchased a Karrera Video Production Center switcher from Grass Valley.

Singular Software has released auto-sync add-on PluralEyes for Final Cut Pro. … e-on Software’s Vue 10 products are now available in French and German versions … CoreCG has released MentalCore, a standalone plugin for using Nvidia Mental Ray with Autodesk Maya. MentalCore’s soft launch was in December 2011.

Vfx software maker Digital Film Tools has released its Film Stocks plug-in, which simulates the look of 288 film stocks — including color, black-and-white and motion picture stocks — on digital images. Film Stocks is compatible with Adobe After Effects and Adobe Premiere Pro among other software applications. … CyberLink has launched PowerDVD 12, the latest version of its media player.