The present and future of graphics with BBC Sports
Sports graphics. Value added to emotion
In this era of so much competition, the graphic section that a channel adds to its content is of utmost importance to consolidate the audience that consumes it. Differentiation is essential in order to achieve the prized goal of attracting an ever-increasing audience. Offering a quality service on specific content is the first step and precisely the stage where technology can help us the most.
Today we offer you an in-depth look at one of the elements that most help to add quality to the signal, as well as increase the value of the content. The graphics that surround a sporting event add information, but also increase the excitement of the sport to an extent that even surpasses the excitement of watching a sporting final in a stadium full of fans.
Just imagine a specific case such as the one described in the following. An ordinary spectator enjoys a soccer match. It is a final and the team of which he is a supporter is playing to win the competition. Excitement is guaranteed. But can it be even more intense? How? Simply by using a chart that appears at the right time and provides very specific information to increase the value of what is going to happen.
Let’s imagine now that this spectator witnesses a penalty kick in favor of his team in that same final. What would happen if, just before the kick, we knew that the player who is about to take it is living a really important moment in his career? Let’s say that a graph tells us that this athlete has just come back from a very important injury and that the goal he could score would be his first goal in many years. Undoubtedly, the emotion that the spectator would feel would be even greater.
Graphics provide us with just that, in addition to beautifying, establishing editorial lines or providing information at sporting events. But how are they designed? What technology is behind them? Where are the best techniques? What are the differences between sports? Which events are the most challenging? How will graphics technology and the departments that design and implement them evolve?
To answer all these questions, we have interviewed two heavyweights of the international television industry: Ben Wickham, Director of Creative Output at Sky Sports; and John Murphy, Creative Director, Motion at BBC Sport. TM Broadcast International exclusively offers their experience in specific projects, their opinions on the technology and its evolution, as well as the perception that these two professionals feel about the current and future state of these solutions.
A content edited by Javier Tena
“I’m charged with finding and implementing any technology that will help us drive visual impact on any screen,” John Murphy
John Murphy, in charge of graphics for BBC Sports has a keen interest in making the best possible use of the technology available on the market. His job is to ensure quality in the design and execution of the graphics surrounding the BBC Sports brand. John does not rule out lesser technology if, in return, he is able to deliver the same quality at a reduced cost and with less effect on the environment. In fact, at BBC Sports, they have embraced the possibilities offered by lesser graphics solutions to develop world-class content if quality is assured. This is the path the BBC is following to bring to life the cutting edge of graphics technology.
Who is John Murphy and what are his responsibilities at BBC Sport?
My role is to create, develop and manage all visual presentation and brand for BBC Sport. This includes the searching and implementation of any innovative technology which helps drive an on-screen visual impact. This can be VR, AR or any creative graphics delivery.
Regarding BBC Sport, which manufacturers has the company relied on to develop its graphics?
We use various manufacturers to help us drive our studios and graphics. It depends on which is best suited to the project and our suppliers. For the majority of our in-house projects and events it is Vizrt. But also for other live events it has been ZeroDensity, Brainstorm, Ross and others.
Top-level sporting events, let us say a Premier League match for example, require a very high level of infrastructure, but an event that attracts a smaller audience can be solved graphically with HTML tools, for example. Why is this difference made? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each solution depending on the content?
There are various reasons.
Firstly, the first being that budgets depend on the event or project. We have created a suite of branded templates in HTML which can be utilised on a quick turnaround basis and where we do not have the budget for extra designers to create bespoke content.
Secondly, now that the brand and visual identity of on-screen graphics tends to be a more flat and 2D experience, this allows for tools in HTML to deliver packages of graphics which do not require the capacity for 3D and heavy rendering.
Looking ahead, can the use of these simple graphic systems become commonplace at top-level sporting events?
I would say so yes, again due to the fact that the style and brand of on-screen graphics tending to be simpler this will then enable those tools to deliver what is required for the broadcaster. However we have to remember that there is a limit to what the simpler graphic systems can deliver and there is still the clear need for heavier rendering platforms.
Also everyone has to be mindful of the budgets in place and if a simpler system can deliver the visual requirements without it impacting the quality and therefore reducing costs then it should not matter the scale of the production.
There is also a question around support and workflows that would have to be answered prior to the event to make sure that required redundancies are in place.
Looking back, how did the pandemic change your ability to generate graphics?
To be honest, for us it did not affect too much. Obviously we had to arrange for systems to be in place so that our designers could work remotely, but we generally had the infrastructure for them to be able to access the tools that they needed. I suppose the requirement for remote production just seemed to accelerate because of the pandemic even though plans and broadcasts had started in this area prior to COVID.
It should also be remembered that sporting events were scarce in the first part of the lockdowns, which gave us a little time to plan the work remotely.
What pandemic-driven workflows have remained in your company?
It would be the remote working and productions from our central base in Media City, Salford on a more regular basis. Not only does this help to reduce production costs, but it is also a great boost to our sustainability campaign. It’s a very important issue for us at BBC Sport.
Has the pandemic accelerated the process of bringing simpler graphics solutions to highly professional broadcast environments? Is this way of working going to stay forever?
Yes, I think simpler graphics systems are here to stay. But not just the simplest graphic systems, but the way we use all computer systems and programs. As we all know, game engine technology in the broadcast sector has accelerated greatly. It is now a question of how the industry keeps pace with the constant evolution of these graphics solutions. Being able to utilize the fantastic scope of game engine rendering capabilities while having the operational tools to drive your broadcast needs is a key process, whether for virtual studios, XR or on-screen graphics.
Talking about recent projects you have been involved in, which one would you highlight as particularly challenging? What challenges did you encounter and what solutions did you develop to overcome them?
The most pleasing project recently was our virtual studio for the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022.
We had created our own internal green screen space at Media City a year previous to the Winter Olympics and had run various programmes from it. However once we knew that we were delivering the Winter Olympics from an 84 metre squared box then we had to be creative in how we gave the programme a presentation space which truly captured the Winter Games.
We created seven different virtual presenting positions from only two physical positions within the studio through the design of a Winter ski resort. This allowed us to change the virtual positions whilst the transmission was on live events so that the viewer got a different landscape at various stages. This was all done utilising Unreal engine, Viz Engine 4 for the virtual backdrops and, Viz Arc for the data and manual control of the studio and it’s elements within it.
Apart from the virtual studio design, which was done by Jim Mann and Toby Kalitowski, everything was created in-house by BBC Sport. It was a very collaborative effort, as normally at big events we have to rely on our external suppliers to help us because of the small number of people we have in our team.
Regarding extended reality and augmented reality, what capabilities does BBC Sport have today to generate these graphic contents? Which manufacturers have you relied on?
As I have mentioned previously with regards to the Winter Olympics, we have our own green screen studio which is driven by Unreal Engine with Viz 4 integration and Viz Arc and the camera tracking is Mo-sys.
When we have the time we are also using this space and set-up as a development area. So we can track and trial new technologies as they arise. I think it’s very important when looking for a new innovative technology to be able to test and trial it in the space itself if possible.
What do these capabilities bring to the audience?
With the advances in real time rendering and improvements in keying/realism, virtual studios and environments now give us, as broadcasters, the ability to have editorial presentation in virtual locations.
While there’s no pretending or fooling the audience that we’re not in a VR studio, the fact that the quality of the texturing/lighting/realism makes for at least a question and a talking point.
What does this technology need to achieve mass use?
The technology is there for the virtual studios side of production, however it is still about the creative and design. Once everyone is comfortable with the creativity and design they use to make virtual rendering the best it can be, hopefully you will see production cost benefits and sustainability results. I think it’s important to understand that virtual studio production and design has a significant upfront cost to get the quality required, but once you have your own studio, you have real creative flexibility moving forward.
We are already talking about graphics adaptable to the different distribution windows that the digital world has provided. Apart from this capability, how should the broadcaster adapt its graphic content to digital distribution?
My feeling on this is that all broadcast designers should now have the desired knowledge of digital platforms and required output guidelines. Although there is the technology which helps the transformative process from broadcast to digital it is still a requirement for good design practice in the translation of assets across all platforms.
Generally speaking, where is graphics technology headed?
The virtual landscape has changed a lot in the graphics arena, whether it’s virtual studios using game engines or remote graphics operations using HTML rendering tools. Most people are aware of all this and it’s all about making it all work together and to the benefit of the productions.
Now it seems that in broadcasting we want more for less money and it has to be as sustainable as possible. This is very important because of the challenges in the world, especially in the last few years, so what we have to do is find the solutions through technology, great design and great minds in our industry.