Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage is getting a bit of a technical refresh this year. An updated and revamped Hollywood Hotel hits the road for studio hosts to call home, the Gophercam in-track camera system is getting a technical uplift, and then there is Super Zoom, the analysis tool that will help ensure that viewers never miss a crucial development.
The Super Zoom system captures 2K video using an Inertia Unlimited X-Mo and then uses software from PsiTech to allow the operator to take a clip on the EVS server and zoom in and extract 720p images, providing race fans an up-close look without resolution loss.
“NASCAR is an interesting application for Super Zoom because it allows us to do some revisionist camerawork,” says Michael Davies, VP of engineering, Fox Sports. “We can get a shot of the entire pack of cars and then zoom in close on an incident the cameraperson never would have been able to have guessed would have happened.”
The system is also an exercise in real development by Fox Sports, he adds: the network took existing products and built it from the ground up.
“We’re finding that certain sports lend themselves to this [more] than others,” he points out. “When we used it on baseball, it was good to get our reps in and figure stuff out during long hours with the team from PsiTech.”
All the advances reflect a Fox Sports philosophy that permeates NASCAR coverage.
“Daytona is a great place to experiment with different products, and we always find new tools to use,” says Davies. “I think that NASCAR is a sport that doesn’t turn away from too much technology.”
In the Hollywood Hotel
Also not turning away from too much technology is Game Creek Video, whose Fox unit is at the core of Fox Sports’ coverage.
“The engineers at Game Creek came in and did some real house cleaning this year, rebuilding the show from scratch with new monitors and improvements to routing,” says Davies. “There was too much baggage in the overall setup, and that is saying a lot, considering that we always had the smoothest and quickest full faxes. Now we have an even cleaner and more efficient system.”
Game Creek also played a major role in developing the new Hollywood Hotel, the 53-ft. Game Creek Video production unit that houses the studio set and rolls from track to track. The original Hollywood Hotel was built five years ago, and, since then, there have been many developments in display and set technologies that could give the Hotel a new look.
This time around, Fox Sports took conceptual designs to the next level, with a full-scale mockup in Los Angeles that allowed the designers to make sure the studio was everything the production team needed.
“The mockup allowed us to avoid major errors,” says Davies. “[We] were even able to move the mockup into the Hotel itself and use it as a way to make sure everything matched our needs.
The biggest changes include an LED ribbon wall that can change colors instantly and a new video wall comprising a 103-in. Panasonic plasma display with a 60-in. vertical display on each side.
“It gives the wall a more panoramic view,” he notes, adding, “With software called Watchout, we can split the video signal up into creative ways.”
The LED ribbon wall provides a compelling new look as well, with in-wall elements that can be individually addressed with different colors, brightness, and gradations. When the set is used for a specific segment or network (Speed also calls the Hotel home), a completely fresh look can be delivered to viewers.
Gary Hartley, EVP/creative director, Fox Sports, says the LED ribbon adds depth and flexibility and gave set designer Jeff Hall an opportunity to create a set that echoed a track in full motion. The inspiration? A photo of one of the tight turns at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“In the LED wall,” he adds, “we can do things like gradations and fake horizons that make it like we are lighting a 3D scene.”
The new LED wall provides almost unlimited flexibility in terms of colors and gradations, and the design team is “walking before running” by creating only segment-based animation changes that give subtlety to the broadcasts.
“We are setting a monochromatic foundation and then adding complementary colors with one setting for race breaks, another for ‘gas and gos,’ and more,” adds Hartley.
Adding a sense of depth and size to the set is a small 4-ft. camera jib from JitaCam.
“We typically use much larger jibs with lengths up to 30 ft.,” says Davies. “This smaller arm, mounted on a 4-ft. track, allows us to achieve lateral and vertical floating shots in a limited amount of space.”
The final new set piece is a touchscreen 55-in. multitouch wall. Powered by a Vizrt engine, it can take viewers inside a virtual car via 3D renderings.
On the Track
As for changes in on-track coverage, the biggest improvement will be a new Gophercam from Inertia Unlimited. Besides a wider lens to deliver widescreen HD images, it has a new prism that will keep images level when the camera is mounted into a portion of the track that is on an angle.
“It also has less of a profile,” says Davies, an improvement that could allow the camera to be used in new locations.
Inertia Unlimited is also providing a new version of X-Mo that Davies says will make a difference to viewers. “We’re putting it into an area where a lot of the incidents happen so we can capture all the closeups and details. This camera is going to be an amazing replay source with color fidelity that is more improved and can allow it to be used more and more as a live camera.”
The Daytona 500 on Sunday kicks off a 15-week sprint for Fox Sports, which will handle the first 15 Sprint Cup races of the season. Week after week, Fox Sports, ESPN, Speed, and NASCAR Media Group will travel back and forth across the country, setting up cameras and mics that ride on advanced fiber backbones put in by NASCAR Media Group on a temporary basis.
“The fiber guys at NASCAR are the best in the world,” states Davies. “Everything is set for these huge events, and the fiber is lying there and ready to go when we arrive.”
Despite the number of changes this year, he says, there is one theme: visual clarity. “Whether it is the new studio with better ways to explain a car through a touchscreen, Gophercam with a wider lens, or a 2K camera to dive into replays, the trend is to get those pictures out to viewers.”