Friday at 4: Notre Dame’s sideline Skycam that almost wasn’t, but may be again

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You didn’t like it, and for most of Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, Rob Hyland was not a fan of the sideline Skycam, either. The NBC Sports producer of the Irish football broadcasts wasn’t a fan of the system for most of last week.

The new camera angle was designed to run via cables hung from two 135-foot cranes outside Notre Dame Stadium, but winds reaching 25 mph last Thursday and Friday made testing the system impossible. Admittedly, the Blue-Gold Game was understood to be a publicly-viewed trial, but gaining some familiarity with the new setup before the broadcast went live was also expected. Saturday’s winds did not reach those speeds, but they were enough for concern to trump innovation. The cranes would not be used; instead the traditional Skycam would be re-appropriated to the sideline view.

As a result, the first half of the Blue-Gold Game became the initiation for both the production truck and the viewer. In some respects, those two approaches are one and the same.

“It was really tinkering throughout the second half, and the first half, to find what’s most pleasing as a football fan,” Hyland said this week. “I knew in the first half, this is never anything I want to watch, but we had to try it just to completely rule it out, just to make sure we could try that movement at different heights, different distances.”

Watching the spring exhibition, the tinkering was distinct and distracting. Late in the first quarter, the broadcast returned from commercial with the camera swooping in toward the line of scrimmage, beginning high up in the stands and only aligning with the line of scrimmage as Phil Jurkovec received a shotgun snap, the camera never quite becoming stationary until after it aggressively zoomed in on C’Bo Flemister as he caught a pass in the flat, whistles blowing the play dead because Khalid Kareem had slapped Jurkovec on the rear end well before he got rid of the ball.

Just six game minutes later, though, the broadcast exited a commercial break with the sideline Skycam already in position, ready for a Lawrence Keys reverse off a pitch from Kyren Williams.

The curtailed pregame experimentation deserves only some of the fault for these early touch-and-go moments. Some things can be learned only in the flow of the game.

“We were still able to pull off what we wanted to achieve, which was how does this camera angle look? What can we do to achieve a more dynamic approach to play-by-play coverage?” Hyland said. “Those questions were answered. Unfortunately they were answered throughout the first half. Director Peirre Moossa and I kind of landed on what we really liked at the start of the second half, which was much less movement prior to the snap.

“If you watch the game back, we were drifting into the snap. In theory, it sounded like a cool idea. A sky camera is much more of a fluid image, but when it came down to it, when we stopped moving the camera in the second half, we were all much happier with the presentation.”

Hyland points to a sequence with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter as a good example of that presentation. At the shotgun snap, all 22 players on the field are in the frame. The camera angle includes all of the opposing sideline and the down marker on the near sideline. Perhaps 52 of the 53 yards of the field’s width are in screen. At the snap, the camera zoomed in down the line of scrimmage on a Mick Assaf rush up the middle. Two plays later, the camera operator anticipated yet another Assaf dive up the middle and zoomed in before the snap to the extent that one receiver-defensive back pairing was offscreen.

While the sideline Skycam took more than three quarters to settle upon this view at the snap, it is the view that encouraged the production truck of the innovative angle’s viability. (NBC Sports)

Compare that visual to those from last year’s Notre Dame home finale against Florida State. With the ball at the 16-yard line and the pivoting camera above the 22, the action is about 25 percent off-center of the screen. On the Seminoles reverse, the swarming Irish defensive line obstructs the camera angle, those six yards off-center proving detrimental.

Jump forward in a replay to the longest play of the game, a 40-yard reception by Seminoles receiver Nyquan Murray. A shotgun snap at the 19-yard line is nearly centered on the screen, but the camera immediately zooms in on the Notre Dame pass rush, which almost got to Deondre Francois. As he released the ball, not a single receiver or defensive back was in frame. The camera cut upfield to Murray with Nick Coleman in coverage, rather than following the ball to an already-in-frame receiver.

The angle of the Skycam might be able to avoid that, maybe not for every player, but much more of the routes should be visible. On the Blue-Gold Game’s longest play (pictured at top at the snap), a 43-yard completion to Chase Claypool from Ian Book, Claypool was out of view as Book let go of the ball, though two receivers and defensive backs were still in the screen. The camera did not harshly pivot to Claypool, though, instead tracking Book’s pass such that Claypool came into the screen with the pass still closer to its peak than to him. A far better idea of the play was conveyed than the Murray completion.

It took until five minutes remained in Saturday’s broadcast for Hyland and Moossa to consistently find the proper camera height and depth to provide such an angle. This was very much a test run. No offense to the Blue-Gold Game, a better-spent afternoon than most in April, but if there is any day to test and tinker, it is during a practice. That is, after all, exactly what Brian Kelly and the Irish were doing on the field.

Finding that view by the end of the day sets up the sideline Skycam for potential future use. There are logistical issues to figure out so winds do not spark safety concerns, let alone shake the camera. By no means is it a certainty the sideline Skycam returns as the primary play-by-play view in the fall, but by no means is it inconceivable.

“Still has a lot of room for growth,” Hyland said. “I hope the Notre Dame faithful don’t give up on this yet. I think there’s lot of room for growth, and I think it is ultimately better.”

Hyland unflinchingly sees it as better because he realizes some things the common viewer does not, yours truly included. NBC’s Triple Crown broadcasts, which Hyland also produces, offer more extreme examples of the issues he faces at Notre Dame Stadium, or at any football stadium.

During the Kentucky Derby in two weeks, a camera will run along the rail on the backstretch, a view first used last year. For years, Hyland had lamented the infield obstructions blocking his cameras from following the race throughout those 30 seconds of the most exciting two minutes in sports. The rail camera’s success in solving that issue and also in bringing the viewer closer to the horses led to some of the thoughts about getting closer to the action on a football field.

A normal broadcast, the one we are all used to and comfortable with, utilizes three cameras for primary play-by-play: one at midfield, and one at each 20- or 25-yard line, per Hyland. For the vast majority of the game, the camera is not along the line of scrimmage, not even within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The sideline Skycam fixes that, plain and simple.

“I want this for the fall. I want Notre Dame to have a non-traditional play-by-play camera to hopefully bring the viewers closer to the action, to see the passing lanes, to see the running lanes,” Hyland said before delving into the challenges needed to be overcome in order for that want to become a reality. “… There’s a lot of potential to be at the line of scrimmage with a camera on any given play.”

Hyland’s ideal features both the traditional and the sideline Skycams, the original plan for Saturday. A logistical and production dance must be orchestrated to operate both cameras, but he has ideas for that choreography. No graphics need be lost, not even the first down line which was absent from the Blue-Gold Game.

“Discount the first half. That was our rehearsal,” Hyland said. “When we got the second half, even though it was a running clock, we all felt a little bit better about where we were.”

By then most judgements had been made. Hyland knows how anyone feels about change, Irish fans in particular. In a poll held here Monday, 40.5 percent of respondents felt it was an acceptable experiment for the Blue-Gold Game but nothing more, while 37.9 percent were open to regular use. On Twitter, 60 percent argued for use only in replays and 8 percent wanted the sideline Skycam as the primary play-by-play view.

Hyland (and, well, NBC) should be encouraged the responses are even that open to this idea after this experiment that was adjusted from its start Saturday and took 55 minutes to find its groove. Viewers should be encouraged that somewhat-improvised product fared as well as it did, offering a tangible hint at the sideline Skycam’s future potential.