Jeff Simon spends all year preparing to direct the Stanley Cup Finals. Beginning with the regular season and continuing through the playoffs, the NBC Sports director hones his suspended-disbelief style of directing so that he can spend the last week of the season working on a bigger stage to draw in non-traditional hockey fans along with the die-hards. With 24 cameras at his disposal, an assortment of lenses, and plenty of fast-paced action to cover, Simon makes tough decisions in the truck, but his philosophy remains the same, from the season’s opening week through the hoisting of the Cup.
Same Concept, Bigger Stage
“With the Stanley Cup, you want to do pretty much what you’ve done throughout the regular season and playoffs,” he explains. “You just do it with a little bit more equipment and on a bigger stage.”
That equipment includes 24 cameras, including robotics mounted at the bottom of the scoreboard over center ice, a new low angle for the super-slo-mo camera, a roving RF camera that provides a feel for the fan environment in each arena, and additional in-net cameras to give Simon and the NHL three angles on each of the goals.
“I think you’ll see a lot of different looks,” Simon says. “I think hockey is one of the hardest things to cover in that the puck is pretty small. You have to pick your spots for when to get off the main play-by-play camera, as play moves so quickly that it’s easy to miss something.”
Up Close and Personal
Simon’s philosophy is to give viewers an overview of the action from his main play-by-play cameras and, when the opportunity arises, to bring them closer to hockey’s speed, power, and hard hitting with cuts to handheld cameras closer to the ice.
“We cut to cameras to see up close the collision of players going into the boards and into each other, so you feel it a little bit,” he says. “We try to use our handheld cameras in the corners when players are up close, struggling for control of the puck. We try to go low and tight to give viewers that sense of speed and power without ever losing that good overview of the game.”
Wide Angles, Close Shots
Simon instructs his operators working the handheld cameras to use wide-angle lenses. From their corner positions, those lenses cannot capture extremely tight shots at the far end of the ice, but that tradeoff is worth it for the close-ups. When the puck comes to their corner, the wide-angle lenses give a great view of the struggle, with some context.
“When a guy gets crunched into the glass in front of the camera, with a wide angle, you can see that it’s two guys, with a little bit of room around them,” Simon says. “If a puck pops out, with the wide-angle lenses, there’s a sense of where it’s going. I try to use those and do the timing as best I can.”
Never a Good Time…
Timing is tough on a hockey director. When it comes to replays, there often is not enough time to show every great angle of a play that the director and producer have available, so they have to make some tough decisions. And sometimes, Simon is willing to be late in getting back to the action.
“Occasionally, we miss a faceoff,” he points out. “We try not to miss them in the offensive zone, where you could get a scoring opportunity right off of the faceoff, but we’re willing to be late in neutral ice. We don’t do it gratuitously; we only do it if we think there’s something that’s really worth showing. But sometimes, because of the nature and the timing of hockey, you have to do that. We try to pick our spots and only do it when it’s safe, and get in as many of the looks as will help.”
Unfortunately, some of those looks do include the 4:3 aspect ratio.
“We’re still at a point where we protect 4:3,” Simon explains. “I tell the cameramen before the game to shoot for 4:3 but protect 16:9, to make sure that the main part of the play can always be seen in 4:3. We’re living in sort of a hybrid world, HD vs. SD. There’s such a large percentage of people who watch in 4:3 that you can’t just write it off. Because of that, it minimizes, in certain situations, the benefit of HD, and I think hockey, more than any other sport, benefits from HD.”
For Two Hours, a Suspension of Disbelief
Hockey also benefits from a director like Simon, who has a very specific philosophy when he sits in the director’s chair.
“I want people when they watch it to not be overly aware that they’re watching a game on television,” he explains. “I compare it to the suspension of disbelief when you watch a movie. The cuts, the flow of it should not be jarring or make a viewer overly conscious of the fact that they’re watching a game on TV. It’s almost as if, if you were a viewer here at the arena, you could instantly move to any vantage point depending on where the puck is, like a director cutting cameras. I try to pick the spot where you would naturally want to look.”
If the series goes to five games, the Stanley Cup Finals will continue on NBC on June 6.