Before Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas, PetaPixel spoke with Mike Francis, CBS Sports vice president of engineering and technology, about the camera technology that underpins not only the broadcast on CBS and Paramount+, but also the cameras that help referees make the right calls.
Francis and hundreds of others at CBS Sports and Paramount have been hard at work in the weeks leading up to tonight’s big game, bringing 20 mobile production units and hundreds of cameras to Vegas.
One of the significant advances this year is the massive increase in Sony broadcast cameras compatible with 4K zoom. While the game is broadcast in Full HD on CBS, the 4K resolution allows for significant zooming potential and allows viewers at home to get closer to the action.
4K technology also helps referees during video reviews, which can sometimes mean the difference between making or missing a call. As any football fan knows, the Super Bowl is a big agreement, it is therefore crucial that the technology is up to the task and ensures that referees have all the tools to make the appropriate decisions.
“We have done a certain level of [4K Zoom] for the last three Super Bowls,” says Francis PetaPixel by telephone. “Obviously the increase was from one angle in the Super Bowl, from 50 to 10 angles in Super Bowl LIII, to 12 in Super Bowl LV and to 24 this year, in Super Bowl LVIII.”
“And what’s unique this year is that it’s not just our large broadcast cameras, but we’ve also integrated them with some smaller point-of-view (POV) cameras that didn’t have not used this technology before.”
Francis admits that these 4K Zoom cameras may be of little importance during typical broadcast action, but will be vital during any potential instant replay or review by official referees.
“What we’re doing with 4K imaging coupled with a high framerate is extracting a 1080p image from the 4K frame, which gives us the ability, beyond what we do with the lens zoom optical, to zoom a replay in an additional way. 400% without loss of image clarity. This is therefore very important on parts where [refs must determine] if a player was in bounds or out of bounds, or breaking the plane of the end zone, or seeing if anyone made a catch, if the ball hit the ground, things like that.
As for high frame rates, Francis says CBS has two mid-level 4K cameras shooting at 480 frames per second. Additional 4K cameras shoot at 480 fps on the goal line pylons, end zone end line and sidelines. With a speed of 480fps at their disposal, referees can significantly slow down footage while maintaining fidelity. For example, playing at something like 24fps, a 480fps stream is slowed down 20 times.
“There’s not a blade of grass on the ground that we can’t capture with this technology,” says Francis. “There’s never an angle we don’t have [in the endzone].”
From helping referees make the right calls to showing amazing replays to viewers at home, this year’s Super Bowl is poised to deliver the highest fidelity and highest technology camera never seen before.
Since the cameras record in 4K, sometimes at very high frame rates, each camera must be wired. The feeds are sent to production trucks — CBS brought 20 to Vegas, four times the typical CBS regular-season “game of the week” — via fiber optic connections.
“That’s 12 gigabits of data per second when we’re talking about 4K images,” Francis explains. “And then you can double that number when you’re talking about the high frame rate part. We must rely on the large amounts of data coming from these camera systems to operate in uncompressed 4K video.
Nearly all of the cameras CBS Sports brings to the Super Bowl are native 4K cameras, even though the broadcast production is still in Full HD.
“Our standard cameras that film play-by-play action, we use in HD at a frame rate of 59.94. So it’s a big mix. [of resolutions]but everything ends up being broadcast in HD.
As for the total number of cameras used, Francis says that between the game’s production, the studio and CBS’ simulcast with its partners at Nickelodeon, there are 165 cameras, not including backups in case something needs to be replaced .
“This is by far our biggest event yet,” Francis says, adding that this is about 25 more cameras than CBS used during Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Fla., in 2021, the last Super Bowl broadcast by CBS.
All of these cameras must also be operated by a person, even remote-controlled cameras. However, for remote cameras, a single operator can manage multiple cameras. Beyond the camera operators, engineers, technicians, producers, directors and many others help make sure the broadcast work comes to game time. CBS has nearly a thousand people working on the event.
“We have 20 robotic cameras, plus probably around 20 additional POVs. So we probably have close to a hundred operators as well. Some operators use multiple camera angles, especially in the world of robotics,” explains Francis.
POV cameras sometimes aren’t traditional Sony broadcast cameras either. While the broadcast cameras are models like the HDC-3500, HDC-4800, HDC-5500 and HDC-P50, CBS also uses smaller FX series models, like the FX6 and FX9, to more intimate cinematic shots at ground level.
Fast focal length lenses are widely used on FX6 and FX9 cameras, showcasing shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh.
“In recent years, we’ve started to give our series a more cinematic feel,” says Francis. “We do a lot of hero shots with players running on and off the field and just give that shallow depth of field where the subject is in focus and everything behind it is a little exaggerated. This gives you a nice artistic cinema feel compared to the traditional broadcast look. This has been a great creative tool for our production team.
“We use a wide variety of full-frame prime lenses depending on the camera we are using and the preferences of the operator and director. This is a great initiative. I would say that sports coverage in general over the last three to five years has mixed with the more artistic look and feel of traditional broadcasting.
Most Sony cameras used by CBS Sports are also HDR compatible. While the main broadcast on CBS is in SDR, CBS will broadcast the game in HDR on its streaming service, Paramount+.
“Those reflections, those low-light details and those colors really pop,” Francis says of the Paramount+ show. “This should be a pretty amazing video.”
Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.