Jan 06, 2005New York Times

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A Chance to Peek Over the Quarterback's Shoulder

By HENRY FOUNTAIN

In televised sports, the cameras know no bounds. They are embedded in the dirt in front of home plate in baseball, hanging from the goal pipes in hockey, perched above the rim in basketball.

"What you see visually in sports coverage is a constant attempt to get more intimate, to bring the viewer closer to the action," said Ed Goren, president and executive producer of Fox Sports.

But for intimacy combined with panache, nothing can match the mobile aerial cameras used at football games. In these systems, a camera suspended from a cat's cradle of ropes hovers a dozen feet or more above the field, behind the offense. It can move as a play develops, following the blockers down the field on a kickoff, say, or a running back as he plunges through the line. 

Fox uses an aerial system provided by Cablecam International of Los Angeles for National Football League games, and will use a Cablecam setup at the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 6. CBS uses Cablecam as well; ABC and ESPN use a competing system, Skycam, owned by Winnercomm of Tulsa, Okla., for professional and college games. 

Although the two systems are somewhat different, both use ropes, pulleys and computer-controlled winches to move the camera in three dimensions around the field at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. An operator using joysticks moves the platform while another technician operates the camera.

Jim Rodnunsky, inventor of the Cablecam, said that in addition to the computer controls, what really made his aerial system feasible was the development of ropes made of Kevlar and other high-strength materials. These are much lighter but almost as strong as steel ropes. 

"You couldn't do this with wire," he said. "You wouldn't want to put that much weight over people's heads." 

Mr. Rodnunsky, a former professional freestyle skier, has been working on aerial camera systems since the mid-1980's. Back then he was making films of skiers in action for use as a training tool. He hung a cable down a slope, hooked a basket to it, climbed in with a camera and rode down alongside the skiers he was filming. 

Eventually he switched to remote-controlled cameras, which made for a much lighter payload "and less of a safety issue," he said.

Mr. Rodnunsky has since developed aerial systems for movies ("Troy" being one of the most recent), commercials and other sporting events including the X Games, Nascar and horse racing. For the football broadcasts, he uses a gyro-stabilized high-definition camera that can race down the field yet still produce steady images. 

Fox uses the aerial systems on its lead broadcasts, and would use them more if not for the cost, about $40,000 to $50,000 per game, Mr. Goren said. "There are things that broadcasters do that average viewers wouldn't even notice," he added. "Then there are things you do where the reaction across the board is, 'This is something different.' " 

Part of the appeal, he said, is that the cameras produce the kind of in-the-middle-of-the-action views that video game players are familiar with. "We have a generation of kids who aren't gym rats but have very well-developed thumbs," Mr. Goren said. "This is the angle that they can play on video football games."

Mr. Rodnunsky described it as the "GameBoy shot," and said it had become critical to the networks. "They want that young audience to become interested," he said. 

Anytime you have a camera system soaring over the heads of high-priced athletes, safety is a concern. Both Cablecam's and Skycam's systems have built-in redundancies, so if a rope breaks or another problem develops the camera is safely immobilized and, if need be, maneuvered out of the way. (At the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., last week, a Skycam system developed a problem that delayed the game for several minutes.) 

Dick Maxwell, senior director for broadcasting services at the National Football League, said the systems were approved for use two years ago after tests. In addition to addressing safety concerns, the league wanted to make sure the cameras and ropes would not interfere with play. 

The league stipulates that the cameras always be behind the play and at least 12 feet above the turf. "Only in extreme situations do any of the wires get into the path of the line of scrimmage," Mr. Maxwell said, and the systems have never interfered with a punt, kickoff or pass.

It's not that the kickers and punters haven't tried, though, at least in warm-ups. Before the game, Mr. Rodnunsky said, "we're out in the field doing our testing, and they're out doing their testing." 

"I'm sure they have some sort of pool for whoever knocks the camera down," he added. So far, though, that hasn't happened. "I'm sure the prize is getting bigger," he said.

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