If you weren’t one of the lucky ones that attended the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh this Saturday, you no doubt watched NBC’s coverage and noticed a heavy reliance upon the aerial camera angle that’s so familiar to NFL audiences.
Those of you that follow me on Twitter know that I was less than excited was about this. To be clear, it’s not the technology itself that bothered me but rather how it was used. I’m a firm believer in trying new things to enhance how the game comes across on the broadcast. We’ve installed the dasher cams here at Consol Energy Center and have looked seriously about an aerial camera both at the Civic Arena and here at the new barn.
But bottom line, you have to know when it’s working, when it’s not, and be able to adjust.
One of the most basic rules of TV production is the “180 degree” rule. In hockey terms, think of an imaginary line running down the center of the ice, stretching from net to net. All main game cameras are on one side of that line, thus ensuring the goaltenders are consistently in the same spot – right or left – of your screen. Those that “cross the line” are the reverse angle.
This is my main problem with how the aerial camera was used. The camera repeatedly crossed the center line, leaving me confused as to which way the puck was moving and who was in possession. When they would then cut back to main game camera, it was actually jarring.
With all that in mind, I think that this is something that could work for hockey, although frankly I think this would be difficult with the elevation of the center hung displays.
Here’s what I see as the pitfalls, and what has to be overcome to make this viable.
1. Have a plan for the breakouts
I think that the toughest thing with this shot was the fact that it’s impossible to predict which side of the ice the breakouts are coming from. Let’s say that the Penguins enter the zone on the near boards. Aerial camera is right above them so they are moving left to right. Caps take possession behind the net, aerial camera is now centered at the blue line moving towards puck carrier. Caps breakout comes up the far boards, aerial cam now crosses the 180 line to follow behind puck carrier but because of angle he needs to widen his framing a little bit giving the perspective of the Caps now going left to right. Now since the camera stayed live the entire time, our brain was able to reconcile the fact that the Caps are moving to the correct goal since it was one extended shot.
Problem comes when the director cuts back to the main camera, the Caps are now going right to left. It’s jarring. It takes a second to realize that the Caps didn’t lose the puck, we just got the direction change from going back to our proper side of the 180 line.
There’s a fix for this, and it’s simple consistency. The skycam operator has to have an assignment on what to do when the puck is in a certain spot on the ice, and he has to to the same thing each time. The director needs to develop the rhythm to optimize both the traditional camera and aerial came so it enhances, not distracts.
In baseball for example, there are specific assignments for the multitude of cameras that dictate what shot gets used when depending on the play and location of the action. Something like that would certainly help to integrate aerial cam.
2. Zoom in
When using specialty cameras there’s a tendency to show off. Aerial cameras and jib arms are usually brought in for color, and as a result there’s a lot of the ‘rise up, pan, and zoom’ type of moves to, for lack of better words, pretty things up.
Integrating this type of camera into live play means that you have to remember that the action is the most important thing. I think there were several examples where the camera just ended up zoomed out way too far to properly show the play. I think with the non-stop, change on-the-fly aspect of hockey makes this even more important. While the Eric Fehr goal was from the blimp camera and not the skycam, it serves as a perfect example of this. I was left trying to see what was going on instead of really understanding what was happening at that moment.
3. Get lower
When we were investigating something similar to this here in Pittsburgh, one of the draws for me was the ability to drop that camera down very low (10 feet) between whistles to catch the drama that goes on between plays. I have to go back and re-watch to see how much of this that they did, but I think if there’s a way to get it low enough to feel like you are in the middle of a scrum, or be a few feet away from two players jawwing back and forth on the way to the bench it would be exceptional.
4. Use, don’t abuse
With anything new, knowing when to use it is paramount to user/viewer acceptance. I think in this case, there was an effort to work it in as much as possible whether or not it was fitting for that moment of the broadcast. This should improve in time.
Again, as one who loves to push new technology and newer ways of delivering the game, I’m excited to see the effort to bring something different to the broadcast. Judging by the complaints heard on this particular application, there’s work to be done to make it something we look forward to having on telecasts and maybe it should have been used a little more sparingly. On the positive side, it gave NBC and other networks an ample look at the good and bad with this technology, and I would expect to see it a lot smoother the next go around.