Fox Sports is distributing football in 4K HDR for the rest of the season on Thursday evening, meaning that on September 26 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles is the first time that an NFL game is delivered in ultra high definition. It is a big day for Fox Sports, which has been testing and preparing its 4K HDR distribution system for several weeks from the preseason. Tonight is the first time that system is being put to the test, and it is during a national prime-time match between two very popular teams. And Fox Sports tells us that some MLB postseason games will also be in 4K HDR, so there is much more coming from other sports.
It's an exciting step forward for live sports in the US, but the press release came with a reservation: the game is still being produced in 1080p HDR and is being scaled up to 4K for delivery. That's because the broadcast equipment needed to produce a full NFL game, especially the slow-motion systems, is still in 1080p, according to Mike Davies, SVP of field operations for Fox Sports.
"With 4K, I mean, you're clearly talking about a ton of pixels," Davies said The edge. “Many of the broadcast equipment that does special things, such as super slow motion and replay and things like that, are technically possible in 4K. But with the volume that we have for a Thursday night football game, which is more than 40 cameras, you can't pack that in terms of a 4K broadcast. So we do the next best thing, namely 1080p HDR. And we focus on the [HDR] color space, which is really cool. And we do that so that we don't endanger the majority of the audience watching, which becomes the good old 720p broadcast. "
We went to talk to Davies about how Fox Sports produces the first NFL game in 4K HDR, why HDR is a more difficult problem than 4K itself, and how he thinks the future of 4K HDR formats is getting out of hand.
For the sake of clarity, this interview has been slightly modified.
In terms of equipment, Fox Sports must produce the game in 4K HDR:
Many of the broadcast things available today can do exactly what it normally does in 4K SDR, but there is a lot of equipment that doesn't, and one of the big ones is super motion. Some broadcasters will say that they broadcast everything in 4K, and that may be true. But when you get to the replay part, it is possible that they will scale up their entire replay device, or that a large part of their cameras will actually be scaled up to the truck.
So we actually have a few 4K cameras here. And we use them primarily for what we call "zoom trimming" – basically shooting a very wide field of view and then using scaling-up technology to enlarge interesting areas. But our eight super motion cameras, these cameras that go 4-6-8 times [slower], that kind of thing doesn't work in 4K yet. They do have high-speed 4K cameras, but the workflow is such that it would actually be a disadvantage for the end product if you were to go and do everything in 4K.
What happens is that we capture everything directly at the camera heads with 1080p HDR, and then we produce the entire show as we have done it since the preseason in Miami. We all do that in 1080p HDR. And then do two things: number one, we scale it up to 4K for the 4K distributors, and then we have to reduce it to a good old 720p SDR for the wider public.
About what you can expect with the game in 4K HDR:
Especially & # 39; at night you see the great reflective highlights of the helmets. The grass looks richer, the team colors look more true and you also get a lot more in the blacks. So when you shoot into a helmet and try to get a player's reaction, you are limited because they wear a helmet. You can actually see a little more of that kind of expression.
It's pretty cool to see it, especially in a night game. It really pops. It looks more like a cinematic broadcast than a TV broadcast.
It sounds like you are actually more focused on HDR than on the 4K resolution itself.
Yes. In contrast to only upconversion and downconversion where it is simply a function of mathematics, [HDR] is a function of subjective writing in terms of what the colors look like. Yes, you get the larger color space, but ultimately it is up to the viewer to say whether it looks good or not. And that has to do with look-up tables and other types of conversions that make the color come true on both sides. Honestly, it's annoying.
And then you have to make sure that you serve two masters equally: you serve the HDR empire with the best possible HDR color space, and that comes directly from the people who control video in the back of the truck here, and shadow from the camera & # 39 ; s in high dynamic range. But when you do that, you need to make sure that what is translated for the wider public is not messed up in SDR.
The most difficult part is actually the downward conversion for everyone else. So if you feed the stadium here in Lambeau [Field], they don't take HDR. When you feed our partner here, the NFL network, in their pregame show, they don't take HDR. So a lot of conversion takes place, not only from SDR to HDR, but actually, more importantly, from HDR to SDR.
And you look at certain colors that are important. For example, if you have a sponsor and this has a primary color of red [Ed note: Verizon clear.], you want to make sure that red looks the same in HDR and SDR. You don't want to go inside and start mocking the colors. You must actually do tests where you are going from SDR to HDR and then back to SDR, and then ensure that all colors in those translations are still true for both target groups.
So is the yellow line shown in HDR?
The yellow line is in HDR. It has to be like this. This was one of the things that would have been a different conversation last year. Some virtual things were not ready, not just to go to 4K, but even 1080p. So we often took some of the main cameras & # 39; s and we had to shrink them to insert the stuff and then scale it up again.
This year we actually did the shows in 1080p HDR in the last three games, although it really doesn't go anywhere except testing. So now that we are here in Green Bay and people are going to see it in HDR, hopefully we have a good experience.
About the brilliant war in HDR format between Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HLG:
Most broadcasting equipment – especially the Sony gear, that is the cameras & much of the infrastructure that we use – they work in HLG.
You know, it just becomes "4K HDR", and then the only fight to be fought is: okay, does Dolby Vision win or HLG win? And to be honest, that is a bit of a tricky issue because the distribution formats are heading in the direction [Dolby Vision and HDR10]. But you know, in production, especially live production, and maybe we're a bit more into this now, it's HLG. And that is now a battle between suppliers. Go talk to Sony and they really love HLG.
So yes, we deliver it in HLG. We are in this interesting time where I can do [4K HDR] on the TV side and set it up and take it to a transmission point. And then it's clear that your 4K TV can do that HDR, it can also get it.
It is so & # 39; n bit that is now resolved in between.
What do you like best during the broadcast?
By doing the first, we learn what the fans think. Can they see the difference? Because I have looked at it and, quite frankly, the case that needs to be made for 4K HDR UHD versus SD to HD is a bit harder to make. With HD you could at least say that the screens were larger. This requires a slightly more subtle eye to see it.
That is really the challenge that I am looking for, to be honest, in the technical world I have done this three times.
What is the next step for sports in 4K HDR?
If I were to say that what we do in September 2019 is exactly the same as what we will do in September 2020 … the exciting and somewhat frustrating part is that I just don't know. I'm trying to build facilities that can handle anything up to 4K, and we're definitely watching the manufacturers and super motion and things like that.
You know, the Tesla that you buy today is not the same as the Tesla that you have tomorrow because of software upgrades. And that now applies to everything in these trucks. In the past this was not the case. So that at least gives us the opportunity to buy things that allow us to be flexible for the market.
So I think the answer to your question is that we did a lot less UHD last year than we did today. So I would imagine that we will do much more UHD next year than this year.