NBC used the camera system for its coverage of Super Bowl XLVI.
Perhaps the most pivotal play during this year's Super Bowl XLVI — Mario Manningham making the big catch along the sidelines — was captured with a reverse angle ultra slow-motion camera system recording the action at 300fps. Without it, viewers might not have seen that the receiver skillfully got both of his feet down in bounds and thus was awarded the catch. It kept the drive alive and allowed the New York Giants to go on to win Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on Feb 5.
That camera was a new Hi-Motion II ultra-motion system, which NBC refers to as an “X-MO” camera. It's made by Ikegami in partnership with a Japanese company called NAC Image Technology (with U.S. offices in Simi Valley, CA) that was being tried for the first time in an NFL Super Bowl game (and the first U.S.-based production). Sold and supported by Ikegami, the unit is a dual-format 1080i/720p HD camera system that provides simultaneous output of live normal-speed video and ultra-slow-motion replay video.
The camera portion uses three 1in monochrome CMOS sensors with built-in memory to deliver more than 10X-speed recording capability and stunning ultra-slow-motion HD playback by capturing up to 120fps during record. At the Super Bowl, a crew from NEP Broadcasting — this year's main provider of technical facilities for the big game — used four Ikegami/NAC units with Canon box-style telephoto lenses, in addition to another three Sony HDC3300 3X Super SloMo cameras with similar Canon 75X HD lenses.
One of the Ikegami/NAC cameras was used on a roving cart located down low, and the other three were used in the reverse positions of the typical camera positions in the stands. Signals were sent back to the truck via fiber, using a Telecast Fiber Systems SHED/HDX box attached to the camera system's output to convert the baseband (HD-SDI) signals to light.
The Hi-Motion II works with the Ikegami fiber interface, allowing the camera to send signals more than 6000ft using SMPTE fiber as well as single-mode fiber with local power. The camera can be used with a variety of solid-state storage options, as well as HD video servers. Last year, NAC Image Technology was using Panasonic as its exclusive camera partner for the first-generation camera, but the company has since partnered with Ikegami.
Operated by NBC cameraman Nick Utley, the camera that got the pivotal play shot was located atop the 20-yard line, across the field from where the play physically took place. It was cut in with images from a Sony 3300 “3X” Super SloMo camera system, shooting at 90fps, and fed into a Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher before going to air. NBC's Mark Griffard used another of the X-MO cameras to provide the reverse 50 angle. Both angles were shown on-air.
A perfect match
The challenge for David Birdy, a freelance video engineer who regularly manages slow-motion cameras used on NBC's “Sunday Night Football” telecasts and also served the same function at the Super Bowl, was to match the images coming from the Sony 1500 and 3300 systems and from the Ikegami X-MO systems, even though their frame rates were significantly different.
“I wasn't sure we could make the two cameras match perfectly for the viewers at home, but, due to those CMOS sensors in the NAC camera, I was able to make adjustments and match the cameras 100 percent,” he said. “Having the three (red, blue and green) sensors to work with made all the difference in the world.”
To match the cameras, Birdy set up a matrix using a MacBeth Color Chart (commonly used to calibrate and match digital cameras) and set both camera systems using similar color parameters. He used an analog vectorscope with an HD-SDI converter to set up a Sony HDC1500 camera in front of the MacBeth chart. He then put a clear piece of acetate and marked all of the spots on the vectorscope that the 1500 camera represented. Then he set up the Ikegami/NAC camera system and adjusted the Matrix color knobs accordingly, using a dedicated menu within the Ikegami camera.
Fletcher Camera & Lenses in Chicago supplied the Ikegami/NAC camera systems to NBC and provided training a few days before the Super Bowl telecast. Fletcher recently purchased 12 such systems (at a cost of $3.5 million) for its rental inventory.
The camera system itself was five years in the making. While current state-of-the-art systems capture slow-motion at about 90fps, this Ikegami/NAC camera can actually capture up to 1200fps at 720p HD resolution and 1000 fps at 1080p.
“Everyone was seeing these cameras for the first time ever, so there was a bit of a learning curve we had to overcome,” Birdy said, “but we did and the images looked stunning. We really felt like we were pushing the limits, although we stayed at 300fps because we wanted to ensure that all of the various cameras we were using would match up. You can't have the replay display too slowly, or viewers will get annoyed.”
A video technician and broadcast engineer by trade, Birdy was in charge of shading and matching the X-MO cameras with the telecasts' regular Sony HDC1500 cameras — from inside NEP's ND-3 HD production truck, which is used by NBC's “SNF” telecasts during the season as well. During the NFL football season, he used the Vision Research Phantom 640 ultra slow-motion camera system (at 210fps to 300fps) in a special housing made by I-Movix. The Vision Research Phantom camera, which was originally designed for highly accurate monitoring of manufacturing processes, uses a single CMOS chip.
“Trying to match this CMOS-based camera with the Sony 1500s (three CCD chips) was a real challenge, especially when producing the show in the 1080i HD format,” Birdy said.
During the season, a team of video engineers, led by Harvey Szajt, senior video control for NBC, carried one spare in case of failure, but the I-Movix package worked reliably every time. Whereas Szajt's job is to manage the video engineers and oversee the regular HD cameras (at the Super Bowl he was responsible for 46 cameras), Birdy focused solely on the X-MO camera systems.
“Magic” signal processing
Birdy said that the camera is unique in that all of the “magic” signal processing is performed in the camera head, so it can be used as a standalone or handheld unit if necessary. The base station is used strictly for power, intercom and data communications.
“The [Ikegami/NAC] cameras worked very well, right out of the box,” Birdy said. “We had a few software issues, but anything I needed for the game was resolved quickly.”
He said the system's control panel can be used with any Ikegami camera. The camera can be used as both a traditional HD portable/field camera and an ultra-motion HD camera that can work side-by-side with other HD cameras. Birdy said the camera is slightly lighter than a typical shoulder-mount ENG camera and that the camera's menu structure is very similar to a standard Ikegami camera.
“With CMOS technology, we can get to incredibly high frame rates, and we can match the pictures to the standard HD cameras in ways we never could before,” Birdy said. “One can get very creative with these cameras. We're talking about a live camera system with three separate RGB controls.”
He continued, “At the end of the day, the proof is in the Super Bowl and that amazing catch. The three CMOS chips make a big difference. I can say that the Sony 1500 is one of the best-looking cameras on the market and for me to be able to match it with this NAC/Ikegami X-MO camera is, in my opinion, a milestone for live slow-motion camera systems.”
Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.