Pushing the boundaries

The comedian Robin Williams once referred to cricket as “baseball on valium,” but there is nothing remotely relaxing about televising the sport. Last month's Sharjah Cup utilised 23 cameras, 17 microphones and a 36 strong crew. Digital Studio padded up to see how the coverage came together.

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By  Marcus Webb Published  April 21, 2003

I|~||~||~|The first televised cricket match was in 1938. Armed with just six cameras, the British Broadcasting Corporation set up a small outside broadcast unit at Lords to watch England’s draw with Australia. Skip forward 65 years and cricket broadcasts are big business. The world’s hunger to watch 22 men beat willow against leather has led to massive investments in the latest technology to take viewers into the heart of the action. Last month the bulk of that technology landed in Sharjah for the mammoth task of televising the Cherry Blossom Cup, a six-day tournament featuring four international teams. To ensure the coverage matched the occasion Taj Television, the company responsible for broadcasting the action, orchestrated an elaborate 23-camera crew helmed by the finest team in the business. “The Sharjah cup is a fantastic event and we are very pleased to be here,” says John Gayleard, who directed the action. “We have a brilliant, handpicked crew who are the best in the industry. The coverage of the tournament itself will be second to none.”

In today’s fast paced, adrenaline-fuelled world cricket is often seen as quaint, almost relaxing game, an unfair assumption claims Gayleard. “Cricket is a test of endurance, both for the players and the production crew,” he says. “You have over seven hours of action and you can’t let your concentration slip for a minute. If you do you may miss a vital piece of action. What’s more, for this tournament we have to do that every day for a week.”

Gayleard came to the tournament fresh from directing the cricket World Cup and says that after that the 44-match extravaganza in South Africa, the seven-game Sharjah series was a far more manageable affair. “The world cup was very challenging,” he remembers. “We did 42 games in 28 days during the preliminary round with seven outside broadcast units of 350 people. The beauty of the Sharjah Cup is that we move 10 feet [to change wickets] rather than 1,000 miles, which makes it a lot easier. The coverage will be just as good as the World Cup, if not better.”

||**||II|~||~||~|Catching the action

Featuring two World Cup finalists (Kenya and Sri Lanka), Zimbabwe, who upset England to reach the Super Six in South Africa, plus crowd favourites, and eventual Sharjah Cup winners, Pakistan, the world’s cricketing eyes were firmly fixed on Sharjah and Taj made sure every inch of the ground was covered. “A TV crew positioning their cameras is very similar to a captain positioning his fielders,” says Gayleard. “The captain places his fielders in certain positions to perform specific jobs — slips, silly mid and so on — and a director does the same thing. Each camera is in a set position for a certain shot. It looks complicated, and it is complicated, but when you have a crew as good as this one they all know what they have to do and it all comes together fairly seamlessly through the vision desk.”

Most of the manned cameras used for the coverage were Sony BVP-950Ps with two LDK 23 mark IIs super slow motion cameras from Philips. All cameras were equipped with Canon high definition lenses. “Truth be told, the lenses we are using are far better than necessary for standard definition television,” says Wayland Twiston Davies, senior project engineer for Gearhouse, who supplied all the equipment for the shoot. “But they contain excellent image stabilisers, so even at large zoom extensions you can get a very sharp image.” Not all of the cameras were manned, the shoot also employed a variety of fixed speciality cameras, including two stump cameras, two run out cameras and two LBW mattes.

“Tools such as stump cameras are great because they take you out to a place where only players are allowed,” says Gayleard. “Before stump cameras you were restricted to boundary views, nowadays viewers can be placed right in the thick of the action.”
While working for Channel 9 in Australia, Gayleard was actually involved in the development of the very first stump camera. “I was the first person to bowl at a stump camera,” he says proudly. “We drilled a hole in a stump, had Ian Chapel batting and thought the footage was fantastic. We then gave the engineers the task of doing it properly. What you are seeing today is basically the product of twenty years of hard work.”

Since those early days the stump camera has developed to become an essential piece of kit for television crews. “The stump cameras we are using for this tournament are from BBC special facilities,” says Davies. “It’s a fantastic system, the cable that connects the stump to the equipment is a Cat 5 computer networking cable, which is cheap, easy to reterminate if it gets damaged and easy to use.”

Another camera innovation employed for the cup was the LBW mattes. “The mattes work by grabbing a frame of the wickets before the game with nobody in shot,” explains Davies. “You can then superimpose a graphic that shows a track that runs inline with the wickets. By mixing that with live video you can see how the ball has turned and bounced to prove LBW decisions. There is nothing special about the cameras, just the way they are used.”

While these cameras certainly add an extra dimension to the footage Gayleard is quick to point out that they are only for entertainment purposes and should not be allowed to interfere with the game. “What you have to remember is that these innovations are commentary tools,” he says. “There are people wanting to use technology for decision-making, but they are all subjective, they are not exact. They’re great for TV coverage but leave the decision making to the umpires.”

||**||III|~||~||~|Adding spin

Specialist cameras were not the only tool elevating the coverage from the run of the mill — the team’s use of slow motion and graphics added yet another string to Sharjah’s bow. “Graphics are a very important part of cricket; it’s a statistical sort of game,” says Gayleard. “We have three people doing graphics here, plus a statistician. It is important to keep people firstly aware of the score — team score, batsman scores and so on — as well as the personal milestones players are reaching, it’s these sorts of things we like to keep people up-to-date on.” But Gayleard does not believe in stats for stats sake.

“Numbers don’t mean a great deal, but when you can represent things graphically it is much easier to comprehend and thereby enjoy,” he says. “If you have to explain a graphic it’s not worth using.”

The task of presenting all this data in an easily comprehensible form fell to a brand new graphics system from Aston Elliot called Viz. “This is the first time Viz has been used in cricket and it’s working fantastically,” says Davies. “The great thing about Viz is that it provides graphics that not only have the capacity for linear motion, but can also spin in and spin out. It looks great on screen.”

The slow motion effects were added by using LSM-XT networked servers from EVS. “When EVS servers first came onto the scene in 1995 they were capable of recording one camera and producing one output,” says Davies. “This new system can look at four cameras and produce two outputs. What’s more they can be networked so each operator can look at all of the recorded streams coming from all the cameras.” Normal television works at 25 frames per second while super slow-mo shoots at 75 frames per second, so a lot of light is needed, not a problem in Sharjah claims Gayleard. “The lights here are excellent” he says. “So apart from a few sections around the boundaries, there is no problem.”

||**||IV|~||~||~|Spreading the play

The feed from each the cameras was directed into a distribution amplifier, which is a single input with multiple outputs. The emerging signals were sent to several destinations including a programme monitor, so the director can see what that camera is showing, to a routing matrix so feeds can be monitored and to the vision mixer as an input source.
The vision mixer is at the heart of all live productions and the Sony DVS 7350 vision mixer used during the Sharjah event is complete with three ME pegs, programme presets and four downstream gears. “The DVS 7350 is a very powerful tool,” says Davies. “You can do some pretty impressive effects on it. It can control external devices, so we have it integrated with a replay transmission device, which will get transmissions into and out of groups of replays.”

According to Greg Meade, who worked as an engineer on the Sharjah project, the mixing process has been greatly improved by the introduction of digital technology. “When I first started working on cricket, some 30 years ago, all the coverage was analogue, which gave trouble with timing,” he says “Today’s completely digital environment not only improves timing but also gives much cleaner pictures worldwide; it’s in the digital domain so errors can be corrected.”

A Pro-Bel Freeway 642 digital video matrix links the entire system. “The advantages of a routing matrix is that we can monitor any source, including the main transmission source,” says Meade. “Another advantage is that if we have to do line-up tests we can put out our test signals without interrupting any production work that is required. Because we don’t have to go through the mixer, they can carry on doing their pre-record items while we do our engineering tests down the line. Then, with a push of a button we put programme back to line and we’re ready to go on air.”

||**||V|~||~||~|Knock on wood

Amongst all the visual trickery knocking the audience for six, it is easy to forget the crucial role sound plays in bringing sports coverage to life. The cheers and jeers of the crowd, the shouts of the players and the knock of ball on bat all add to the atmosphere of a game. A total of 17 microphones were used to soak up Sharjah’s sounds; two stump microphones, six effects mics, three commentators, three host microphones in the studio, a radio mic for interviews and the toss, plus two roving cameras equipped with effects microphones.

“What I try to do is create sound that matches the pictures,” says Dave Shellard, sound supervisor for the tournament. “This is especially important around the wickets.”
To catch the sound around the stumps, Shellard used two mini microphones enclosed in polystyrene and buried just behind the wicket. “The stump mics are one of the most crucial parts of the whole coverage,” he claims. “Not only are they used for the on air programme, but I also feed that sound into the headphones of the cameramen so that they can tell whether a ball has hit the bat or a pad and get an idea where the ball is going to go. There are some very tight shots in cricket so that audio clue is essential for the cameraman to know which direction to turn.”

The stump microphones also allow for another technological innovation, the Snickometer. “The feed from the stump mics is fed directly into the snickometer,” explains Shellard. “The Snickometer then represents the sound as a visual graphic. From that display viewers can tell whether the ball hit a pad — which a flat, dull display — or hit the bat, which is a lot sharper graphic.”

All the sound for the event was mixed on a Soundcraft Series 5 48 channel, 10 group, 12 Aux, audio mixer, a piece of kit more normally found front of house at a stadium rock gig than covering the cricket. “It’s a pretty massive desk,” agrees Shellard, “But we are using just about every one of those 48 channels. There are 16 videotape machines, which have two channels each, so they all have to be fed into the sound desk. When the audience sees a slow motion replay and you hear the ball being hit, that sound comes off each different machine, so I have to listen to the director very carefully so I know which machine he is putting to line.”

All the feeds from Sharjah stadium are being fed back to Taj Television’s uplink facility at Dubai Media City via a fibre connection. “This why Sharjah is such a good venue to work at,” says Davies. “It’s unusual outside the UK to have a fibre in the venue, so Sharjah is well ahead. This system means the signal that reaches Taj is practically as good as when it leaves us.”

Four signals are sent up the fibre, one video and three audio. “We normally send three signals up the fibre,” says Shellard. “A full mix, with sound effects plus commentary, a clean effects feed, so other countries can add their own commentary, and the other is a director feed so everyone knows what is going on and what to expect.”

||**||VI|~||~||~|At the end of the day

Being a day/night tournament, the Sharjah Cup added an extra challenge to the production team. “There are colour changes when you shoot day/night games, especially when the lights go on and daylight fades,” says Meade. “Because we are working digitally we can correct these and make very subtle adjustments when a camera is not on air. We are in constant communication to make sure everyone is happy and the pictures match. Then over the dinner break we will run a full line up on the cameras ready for the night session.”

Despite this extra work Gayleard believes day/night matches are worth the effort. “Day/night games are fantastic; they’re a great spectacle,” he says. “You get lovely sunsets, which, when shot from the lighting tower, look fantastic and after dark you get this lovely green patch of grass amongst all this darkness which looks brilliant.”

Gayleard is not wrong; the entire coverage of the tournament was jaw-to-the-floor brilliant, rivalling any pictures from the World Cup. So what’s the secret of Gayleard and the team’s success? “What we try to do with cricket is to make it both entertaining and informative,” he says. “You can’t bombard people with facts but if you work to a ratio of 80 percent entertainment to 20 percent information then I think you’re producing a good product. Everyone has to work together to make a programme that is bright and entertaining and enjoyable to watch. The producers, directors, the commentators, everyone has to do their bit,” he says before smiling. “Plus some of the cricketers as well you would hope.”

You would imagine that spending their professional life watching cricket would have turned the crew into experts: not so claims Davies. “I watch matches, but I will have no idea what is happening in the game itself: I won’t know the score; I won’t know who is in to bat; I won’t know anything about the match,” he says. “But if there’s anything wrong with the picture then I’ll know straight away.” Lucky for the world’s cricket fans that Davies and the team have their eyes firmly on the ball.
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