ESPN Deploys More Robotics, Two Shallow Depth-Of-Field Platforms For Robust On-Site Championship Production
Game Creek Video and NEP Broadcasting Anchor Complexes in Milwaukee and Phoenix
Around the same time last year, the production and operations teams of NBA on ESPN were in the early stages of a completely new project: the NBA Bubble.
Almost a year to the day after the first exhibition game at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, ESPN will be on-site in a noisy Fiserv arena in Milwaukee for Game 6 of the NBA Finals (9 p.m. ET, ABC), as Milwaukee Bucks seek the franchise’s first title since 1971.
For those scoring the points, that’s well over 365 consecutive days of planning and execution for an ESPN operations team dedicated to bringing the NBA to the global masses of sports spectators. And the stretch won’t end until the conclusion of the NBA Summer League in August.
“We are concerned about our employees at the forefront,” says Mike Foss, Senior Director, Remote Operations, Professional Sports, ESPN. “This is a non-stop freight train. It’s a huge level of commitment: time on the road, time away from families. It is a positive and uplifting experience to see the level of dedication of our teams [onsite]. As we celebrate where we are and where we have been, I am always concerned about the fatigue and personal situations of the hundreds of people supporting this event.
Bubble’s unique set of circumstances from last year allowed ESPN to experiment with some interesting production improvements, such as integrating microphones into the playing surface and installing a rail camera at the edge. of the short, which are not (currently, anyway) reproducible in an NBA arena full of fans. According to Foss, there are some takeaways from that experience that have been applied to all NBA broadcast operations: most notably, the more aggressive deployment of robotic cameras. The overall game broadcast camera add-on includes 15 robots, positioned in places such as under the basket and in the bowels of the arena for player entry and exit.
“It’s not that we’ve never used robotics before,” Foss points out, “but I think we’ve learned the angles and are finding ways to leverage them more. “
The main arsenal includes high-end cameras, including a small increase in the number of Sony 4300s and a combination of Sony P43 and P50 capable of filming in 4K.
The increased use of the ESPN version of the shallow depth-of-field camera, the use of which has exploded on live US sports television, is also attracting attention in this year’s finals. ESPN’s platform – which has been rolled out at other recent events, such as the College World Series and the MLB Home Run Derby – is a Sony Alpha1 mirrorless camera fitted with a Canon EOS C500 lens. Both models have a MōVI stabilizer mount.
ESPN mixed it up, not only using this rig for dead bullet shots of players on the ground, but turning the camera around and pointing at fans in the stands. “Seeing fans again in the arena is a celebration for all of us,” says Foss. “Engaging them in this way and providing that kind of angle to our audience is a really positive thing.”
The return of fans to NBA arenas certainly gave a boost to this Finals TV project, and the game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns fueled the success of the audiences. And a lot of ESPN’s behind-the-scenes team and all of their on-air talents are on hand for this series, which was not the case when the playoffs started in mid-May.
The broadcaster, however, still offers regular COVID-19 testing to its crew members and adheres to social distancing protocols in adjacent arenas and production complexes.
This means that more facilities are needed to support remote staff. Each arena has a configuration of four trucks dedicated to the production of games. Tuesday night for Game 6 in Milwaukee, the resort features Game Creek Video 79 units A and B (named for ESPN’s founding year and built for high-profile events like this) and Game Creek Video Spirit. The Milwaukee Backstage Team is led by Senior Operations Specialist Eddie Okuno. In Phoenix, in the event of Game 7 Thursday night, are the four NEP EN1 units. Operations Specialist Phil Abrahams keeps the compound there. Senior Director of Operations Patty Mattero, meanwhile, oversees both sites.
For the 14th consecutive year, the front row of the NBA Finals is held by producer Tim Corrigan and director Jimmy Moore. This series marks the last live event for longtime ESPN veteran Moore, who is retiring.
“We’re thrilled for him,” says Foss, “but we’re certainly sad. We are losing a legend.