My 2/3/08 Missoulian column
Chances are very good I’m not going to watch the Super Bowl. Call it blasphemy, sacrilege, whatever. I’m much more inclined to watch the scrappy snow-and-ice-bowl games during the playoffs, then ignore the big game as it’s usually a blowout. And when there’s a team with a record of 10-0, 12-0 or better, I just want it to lose – unless, of course, it’s Green Bay.
What’s interesting about watching football on TV is the technology involved. I can’t even scratch the surface of all the high-tech equipment that will be eating up electricity: dozens of flatbed trailers filled with high-definition TV equipment, editing rooms, hard disk arrays, miles of fiber optics and satellite uplinks. Fifty or more HD cameras for the Super Bowl alone, some shooting 1,000 frames a second for super slow motion. And brand-new virtual effects that will remain just rumors until they debut during the game.
Two techno-football things that will be in heavy use at the Super Bowl – two of the most visible and invisible – are the on-field graphics systems and flying HD cameras.
The on-field graphics are officially called the 1st & Ten system, which was first used in 1998. Sportvision, the company behind it, has won several Emmy Awards for its first-down lines, yardage markers and other special effects for commercials.
How does 1st & Ten work? First, technicians survey the field with a rotating laser set at the 50 yard line, generating a three-dimensional map of the field with – what else? – computers. Then, in the production booth, the 3-D map is superimposed on the cameras’ field of view. As the cameras turn or zoom in and out, sensors send position data to the computer to make sure the graphics are adjusted on the screen in the production room before the TV signal is transmitted.
The same basic idea is used for weather forecasts on the TV news. The screen behind your favorite weather person is green, and while they gesture at a blank screen and watch themselves on a monitor, those fancy maps are added in the production booth. Sportvision takes it a step further, programming all of the different shades of green grass or synthetic turf, as well as all the colors of the players’ jerseys into the 1st & Ten system so the first-down marker or the scrimmage line doesn’t appear across the players themselves.
And the flying HD cameras? If you’ve never been to a live sporting event and seen one of those cameras zipping around on a wire grid over the field, you’ll usually only get a glimpse on TV when the control room makes a mistake.
First widely deployed around 2001, Cablecam and Skycam – two different but competing systems, among others – do the same thing: deliver HD footage from right behind the quarterback as he fires off a pass, from behind the receiver as the ball comes in and, sometimes, of the victory dance in the end zone.
The camera is controlled by a video game-like joystick, while motors quickly wind and unwind Kevlar-reinforced fiber-optic cables to position the 30-pound camera and provide the bandwidth for the HD signal. Operators use a fast personal computer to control the camera’s movement and picture.
Mistakes happen: A game last fall was stopped when the camera dropped to the turf due to human error, narrowly missing players. (I’m waiting for the time when a critical kick or pass is deflected from the camera or the cables; it’s said that when the camera is zipping around in tests before games, punters warming up their legs sometimes place bets on who can hit the camera.)
The true ancestor of modern football technology and style is NFL Films, a division of the National Football League itself that began as a father-son operation in 1962. The rest is history, as they say. Now, NFL Films’ fireproof archives holds 100 million feet of archival footage.
The company sends out more than a hundred employees in dozens of film crews for the Super Bowl, above and beyond the network crews. It must single-handedly keep Kodak in business, shooting 25,000 feet of color 16 mm stock each game. NFL Films is famous for the slightly grainy slow-motion footage with saturated color in all those melodramatic football specials on TV.
Maybe the most important question this Sunday is, who’s going to win? Boston.com took a run at it using the “Madden NFL 08” video game for Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The site predicted the New England Patriots would defeat the New York Giants, 34-14. That’s probably a good point spread – but if you’re looking for a bookie, you’re on your own.