Using Cinema Cameras For Live Sports Broadcast

We discuss the business case and technology challenges of using cinema cameras in live sports broadcast with Mark Chiolis of Mobile TV Group.

Sports tournaments such as the NFL, FIFA World Cup and English Premier League can be worth billions in broadcast contracts, so the drive to push the presentation of those events to ever greater heights is intense. The idea of deploying cinema cameras for live broadcasts is not new, but its popularity has grown with the deployment of 4K and HDR displays in homes and the need to compete with the gloss of streaming providers with a catalog of beautifully-shot single-camera drama.

Mark Chiolis is director of business development for Mobile TV Group, one of the most respected companies in the US mobile production scene. He connects the rise of cinema cameras in broadcast work to one of the oldest traditions of American sports broadcasting. “It goes back to NFL Films, who were shooting 16mm film cameras sixty years ago,” Chiolis begins. “They weren't doing it live, but they were piecing together the story using a cinema look, focusing where they actually wanted people to look.”

Electronic cinematography theoretically made similar things available to live television some time ago, although, Chiolis suggests that interest peaked around the time that Sony’s F65 and F55 were ascendant. “I don't know how many F65s they converted for live output,” Chiolis ponders, “but the F55s were rigged in studios and other places with transmission backs for live events. They would use those in 4K with cine lenses to get that look.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the push for cinema-grade gear found ready support with people with both technical and commercial responsibility. “I thought it was just engineering people and maybe some creative technical people who'd like to try it,” Chiolis reflects, “but talking to more people you're seeing this at the executive level. They realize two things: one, you're able to tell a better and different story by mixing the different capabilities, and two, it gives them a different look and sets them apart from their competitors.”

In the hyper-competitive world of broadcast sports, the concept was universally viewed as attractive. “At least for the time being, those who are leading the technical edge of this, are getting a lot of buzz,” Chiolis confirms. And things are growing, if imperfectly: “two years ago, the Super Bowl tried one or two cameras. There were some out-of-focus moments and they were trying to figure out how to use it. Then golf picked it up, and they were trying to use it in more places.”

Making the application of cinema cameras to broadcast practical, meanwhile, meant that the technical approach common to feature and drama work could not work. “We'd started testing with some large corporate clients under NDA,” Chiolis says, “testing cinema cameras for their internal corporate projects, for their large meetings and things like that. But on a feature you're going to go into the camera house try different lenses and so on. One of the goals was we couldn’t do a live event with multiple cameras and have to prep for two, three or four days in advance.”

The solution, as Chiolis describes it, was to prepare and test known packages of equipment that could be relied on for a variety of jobs. “One of the things we'd done was prove that we could prep the cameras in advance, so they were somewhat standardized. They’d accommodated ninety-plus percent of the work people wanted to do, at the same price point, and we could set up in the same time frame as a normal mobile unit. That way, you could charge them the same price.”

MultiDyne’s Silverback adapters were widely used for integration into a broadcast environment, while lens choices leveraged the growing desire of the single-camera world for the flexibility of zooms. “There were Fujinon Cabrios, Arris, we may have had a couple of Canon lenses as well,” Chiolis continues, “so when the truck rolled up, the cameras, the transmission system - which was the Silverback - and the lenses with accessories were all ready to go.”

Camera control can differ from what a traditional broadcast vision engineer might expect, especially combined with the now-common demand for both HDR and non-HDR output. “What we're seeing when we do projects like this is one of two alternatives,” Chiolis says. “They might be shading it like a traditional camera but potentially putting a LUT in there and maybe doing a bit of tweaking with livegrade. Or, they’re potentially using a remote control panel, although the functionality of the Sony Venice with the RCP doesn’t, I think, quite give you control of everything.”

That sort of integration might reasonably be expected to improve as popularity drives cinema camera sales into the broadcast market. In the meantime, the precise requirements, Chiolis suggests, depend on the job at hand, and might vary considerably from the conventional broadcast approach. “We did a concert with Billie Eilish with a truck, but the truck was only there for communication. They had a director and nine cameras, a mix of Sony Venice, Arri Alexa and Alexa Mini LFs, because they wanted an IMAX output. Plus, they went and got some old classic lenses that have a certain look, a certain flare.”

“They put a real cinematographer on each camera and gave them an area to focus on,” Chiolis recalls. “When the director was directing the show, instead of calling out what he wanted from them, if they had a similar shot to someone else he'd tell them to go get a different shot. They had full control of the camera, they had a camera assistant. The engineers had a LUT they were streaming for the live cut, and they were doing in camera recording for the IMAX and the traditional 2K post.”

Wider adoption of cinema cameras might tend to exacerbate the issues attending HDR delivery, though the huge performance of high-end modern broadcast cameras has already made it a source of extra work. “A traditional broadcast camera is already capturing fourteen or fifteen stops,” Chiolis confirms. “Previously, we've stuck a knee in there, so when you've got white snow on a dark background, it’ll try and balance both of those. The goal with HDR is to be able to show that range in a more lifelike environment, in its proper dimension, so you can see the snow, you can see the reflective properties but you can see the darkness that's behind it. That’s a balancing act.”

Meanwhile, the fact remains that most of the audience will not see the HDR image. “No more than ten or twenty per cent of the audience can see HDR,” Chiolis accepts. “You have to make sure your SDR audience is not being offended because you're balancing only for HDR. So, do you go out and provide two separate signals and have one person to balance each? For the Olympics you can do that, but you can't do that for every sporting event. Or is the technology capable enough that you can ride the HDR signal and it will provide automatically an SDR signal that's the best it can be – to the eighty or ninety percent of viewers? I don't think the technology is there.”

The transition from standard to high definition, Chiolis points out, is not necessarily a model – because converting from HD to SD was always possible, and usually trivial. “At some point the critical mass of HD televisions flipped and you were able to provide an HD signal without having to protect 4:3 SD. You didn't have to have two trucks, or two sets of people. I think we'll get there for HDR, we're just not there yet.”

It’s hard to avoid the idea that interest in cinema cameras for broadcast has recently experienced something of a step change, though Chiolis accepts that the reality is more gradual than the buzz might suggest. “Most events are going to want to mix things up. You're not going to follow a golf ball at three or four hundred yards with a cinema camera - I don't care how good your autofocus or operators are, it's not going to happen. What I think you're going to see is technical and creative people being brought onto the crew with a mixture of broadcast and cine experience. You'll see crews evolving and being cross trained to make this stuff work.”

In the end, the desire to grab a viewer’s attention is as fresh as ever. “Here in the United States we're seeing more and more sports teams purchase their own cine cameras and combine that with their in-venue show during the game. They broadcast using broadcast cameras, then they cut away to interviews, or life story segments which are pre-taped using the cine cameras.”

The desire, Chiolis concludes, is simple: “I want to look different. I want to stand out from my competitors because I need to build my audience, or go after a new audience. Does this get me a younger audience, maybe, or an additional audience that may not be watching game after game or show after show? I believe in the future every mobile truck will roll with some complement of cine cameras. You're going to see mobile units having one or two or three of these cine cameras mixed in, or you're going to see units that are entirely cine cameras for live work.”

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