REVEALED: Sky Sports’ behind-the-scenes look at the coverage of the 150th Open, the trick to making non-live golf look live and the army of 650 people and 125 cameras needed as Sportsmail puts the tech to the test with Nick Dougherty
- St Andrews plays host to the 150th Open and final major of the year this week
- Sky Sports gave Sportsmail a behind-the-scenes look at coverage of the event
- We put the Sky Zone to the test as Nick Dougherty demonstrated the technology
- Sky Sports’ Director of Golf, Jason Wessely, talked through the mass operation
- 60 broadcast trucks, 650 people and 60 support vehicles make it possible
The calm of St Andrews was broken this week when over 60 broadcast trucks, well over 650 people and 60 support vehicles, 125 cameras and a fleet of buggies rolled into town to execute the mass operation of bringing the 150th Open Championship to countless screens.
The 150th Open is a momentous occasion for the sport that has drawn in millions to tune in or make the sacred pilgrimage to the Home of Golf but Sportsmail is treated to an extra special view of the final major of the year at St Andrews.
Making the almost six hour train journey up to St Andrews, Sportsmail are provided with a unique look from the behind the camera courtesy of Sky Sports.
It had been glorious sunshine over Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning but naturally the minute we’re buggied through the TV compound to the Sky Zone on the final practice day the wind picks up and the rains starts. Welcome to Scotland.
At the Sky Zone, located in between the driving range and the putting green – not a bad vantage view – presenter and former professional Nick Dougherty is waiting to welcome us.
Somehow in between the host’s busy schedule, filming sections, interviewing players and being on air, he has found time to squeeze in an exclusive tour of the zone.
Sportsmail were given an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Sky Sports Open coverage
St Andrews, Scotland, plays host to the 150th Open and final major of the year this week
Dougherty talks through the various technology used throughout Sky’s technology from augmented reality graphics to the Zen Green Stage and explains how it has helped the production move towards a more dynamic coverage.
The Open Zone allows Sky to invite the best players in the world to come on stage and demonstrate aspects of the game. McIlroy, Rahm, Morikawa… and now, Sportsmail.
Following, Dougherty’s explanation, it’s time for us to put it to the test.
In typical fashion, the wind chooses that moment to pick up and whether it’s the drop in temperature or the nerves of offering up a swing for analysis in front of Dougherty and the rest of the Sky team, the legs start to feel a bit wobbly addressing the ball.
Presenter Nick Dougherty gave a tour of the Sky Zone and explained the technology
Sportsmail then put the Sky Zone to the test as Dougherty analysed the golf shot
The Sky Sports team were on hand to film the tutorial from the zone as if part of their coverage
First shot out of the way without any topping – or worse an airshot – Dougherty is kind enough not to rip the swing to shreds and offers a couple of tips.
Instantly, there is a vast improvement on the second. It’s almost like this man should be a professional or something.
A test of Sky’s technology and a free lesson from one of the best in the business is undeniably worth the long haul up to Scotland and Dougherty jokingly asks where he should send the invoice to.
Later, sat on one of the fleet of buggies at the TV compound – because where else would you conduct an interview at the Home of Golf – Jason Wessely, Sky Sports Director of Golf, gives Sportsmail an in-depth explanation of the inside workings of their coverage for this week’s historic event.
He first references the touchscreen in the zone which enables graphics from the hub in the compound to be available to be seen at the touch of the presenter’s finger.
‘The presenter operating the touchscreen knows that when he touches something it is going to activate something on the touchscreen,’ he explains.
The Sky Zone is located in between the driving range and the practice shortgame area (above)
Sky Sports Director of Golf, Jason Wessely gave an in-depth explanation of the Sky Zone
‘The great thing about that is that the viewer knows that the presenter is driving the editorial narrative and no one from behind the scenes is doing it and that establishes a nice link between the presenter and the viewer.
‘We have a touchscreen in the Sky Zone and also have one in the interview area so that when players come off the 18th green, our reporter can operate the touchscreen and show them what they’ve done on the course and show them stats, great moments and social media posts and that becomes a really interactive way of talking to a player.
‘The player really buys into that because they can see things on the screen. That’s been a real success in recent years.’
Back in the Sky Zone, there is the Zen Green which is a moveabale putting mat that can simulate putts or replicate certain lies on the course thanks to a mechanism that tilts it.
Sky get players into the zone to demonstrate different shots from different angles and combined with their Toptracer technology viewers at home can track the ball’s flight path.
A key feature of Sky’s coverage is Sky Scope which allows virtual graphics to be superimposed over the top of live imagery.
The presenter will be standing in the Sky Zone and Sky can animate a swing of any player who has previously swung in front of a green screen for them.
In actuality the presenter can’t see it but special software projects that onto the screen so the viewer at home is seeing the image of say Rory McIlroy swinging in front of Dougherty.
Sky Scope allows virtual graphics to be superimposed over the top of live imagery
The presenters in the zone are unable to see the player in front of them in the zone
Of course, Dougherty or other presenters have got a monitor in the zone that they can view the output on and see themselves standing next to the player to talk the viewers through the swing.
It all sounds like simple magic but as Dougherty had earlier pointed out it takes a while to get used to the mirror image – don’t get your left and your right confused live on air!
Wessely also explains: ‘We also use other augmented reality graphics in other ways. We can animate tee times and stills of players into wherever we want – a camera shot will be able to track an image of a player in the sky and it’ll look fairly realistic. The pictures will be still images but it’s a nice engaging way of showing certain graphics basically.
But viewers at home can see players such as Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm on their screens
The presenters on air can view the output a monitor in the zone as they talk through the swing
‘We have the map of the golf course with built-in augmented reality as well in the Sky Zone. Nick can start talking about the golf course and it will suddenly appear in front of him and it will animate the hole, show different holes and Nick can talk through them – the hardest, the easiest et cetera – so that becomes an engaging way of showing off the golf course.
‘We can also show individual holes in AR so they’ll be animated in front of you. You can see the entire hole and then the camera pushes in and then you can talk about the lies, the bunkers, where to go, where not to go.
‘The purpose of augmented reality is to add graphics in an engaging way to a real life picture. It becomes a good source of information.’
Viewers will be used to seeing Dougherty and presenters use the AR in the Sky Zone as visual tools to enhance the coverage but some might have spied a new addition to the technology this week.
Sky are using a new initiative for the first time this week at St Andrews branded the Strike Meter, which is essentially a dial graphic that appears on certain drives provided by technology on the fourth, fifth, 13th and 14th holes that takes different data such as ball speed club, head speed and apex and generates a score.
Wessely says: ‘The idea behind this is that a lot of the time in golf there’s a lot of information for the uninitiated viewer or the general viewer, they don’t necessarily understand what all that stuff is – even golfers don’t understand what that stuff is and what it relates to!
‘What we are trying to do here is give you one number, which is sort of gameified like an Xbox or a PS4 reading, that immediately gives the viewer a sense of how well players hit that drive. It’s done as a little speedometer dial. It’s out of one hundred and it lights up yellow and red.’
On the Strike Meter a very good drive will be in the nineties, a good drive will be the eighties, a decent drive will be in the seventies, an average drive would be in the sixties and a poor one will be in the fifties or forties.
Ian Poulter must count himself lucky that the technology was not in place on the first tee on day one as his toed drive would surely have registered at a forty – or lower.
Ian Poulter would be thankful the Strike Meter was not used on the first tee on day one
Poulter had a shaky start and nearly pulled his tee shot out of bounds on golf’s widest fairway
‘It immediately gives you a sense of how well they have hit it, but there’s real data going into that,’ Wessely adds.
‘The top tracer units on those tees are translating ball speed, club head speed and launch variation and feeding that into an algorithm which spits back out that one number.
‘It’s an automatic, easy visual based on incredibly complicated science at the point of which the players hit the ball.
‘It’s incredible to think that within three or four seconds, we’re getting that data fed through and able to animate that on screen. It’s an interesting proposition. I’m sure the golf nerds will think it’s a little bit simplistic, but it’s not really for them.
‘It’s for the football fan or the cricket fan that just wants one number to say, “oh, he has hit that really well”. So we’ll see how that goes. It’s the first time we’ve ever used it this week.’
The Sky Zone also features a Zen Green to demonstrate putts or certain lies
When asked how the use of technology has affected viewership, Wessely insists it is still too early to tell but claims it is undoubtably appealing to the younger generation.
‘I think it’s early days, because I think technology and golf has really gone through a growth spurt in maybe the last 18 months,’ he says.
‘We’re still learning about what the impact is, but we do know that young people and young viewers really like technology. They like the information they can pick out on the screen, and golf lends itself to technology.
‘We’re seeing incredibly sophisticated club designs and ball designs to make the game easier and also more effective for the top pros and I think people want to see behind the curtain.
‘They want to understand what goes in behind club and ball manufacturing and why these athletes are so incredibly gifted and good at hitting the ball a long way or understanding the ball in the air and what goes behind it.
‘I think generally the modern audience is hungry for that sort of information. So that’s what we are learning and we’re trying to slowly give it to them.’
As he is talking, we’re sat on the edge of the TV compound at St Andrews which is essentially a mini village.
The set up is vast giving a real sense of the massive scale of buildings, technology, transport, equipment and – most importantly – bodies needed to provide the coverage from the Home of Golf.
There’s over 60 broadcast trucks, well over 650 people in the compound and another 60 support vehicles carrying cameras and buggies and hard drives, which are all centred around a central hub called the international broadcast centre, which is a hard but temporary structure.
It’s a pretty impressive building and inside the R&A outsources the production to European Tour productions to create a world feed.
The TV compound at St Andrews felt like a village with 60 broadcast trucks and 650 people
All the camera feeds come into one gallery and all the international broadcasters take that output as their core coverage.
The world feed have about 105 cameras. Added onto those cameras, are all the unilateral productions, like Sky, NBC or Canal+, and their own cameras to either put their presenters in vision or a beauty shot or introduce things and go to breaks.
And suddenly it is abundantly clear why the temporary village is needed.
Huge cranes tower over the compound that can be seen from all over the course, ensuring no one can ever lose their way back, while hundreds and hundreds of miles of cable link cameras from all over the course back into the TV compound.
People even stay on site, residing in little Porter cabins or camper vans because the hours are so long.
Wessely explains: ‘We’re on air at 6.30am and off air at 9.30pm. So what’s the point of going to your hotel room for certain people?
‘It is a huge, huge operation. As big as there ever has been probably. It is the 150th Open, everything’s thrown at it.’
Golf, he explains, is an incredibly difficult sport to broadcast.
Viewers want to see all their favourite stars in action as well as all the beauty shots from across the course throughout the day.
But while McIlroy is playing his tee shot at 15, Brooks Koepka is hitting his putt at 17, meanwhile Francesco Mollinari has hit his second shot to 18.
Production teams therefore have to reorder shots, decide which ones are shown live, while others are shown at a later time.
Golf broadcast is made difficult by the playing field and the amount of shots at one time
But Wessely reveals the trick is to make non-live golf look live.
‘If you go into the world feed production, you’ll be amazed at how calm they all are,’ he says.
‘They’re incredibly gifted professional producers and directors and, and submix operators. But under the surface, golf is an intense sport to direct and produce because there’s so much happening at the same time.
‘Basically golf production is made up of a live gallery where the producer and the director choose which shots to go to live. The submix is in charge of all the shots that aren’t live.
The R&A outsources the production from the World Feed centre to international broadcasters
‘So, during a golf shot, which is covered live and may last 30 to 40 seconds, you’re also missing 10 other shots that are happening at the same time.
‘It’s the submix’s job to pick and record shots and then advise which of those recorded shots to play out in an order that makes sense to the producer and therefore to the viewer.
‘That makes for quite a busy communication process where people are telling the director to tell the producer, “you’ve got this lined up after this shot, you need to go to him and after that shot, you need to go to them”.
‘Meanwhile, during the live shot, you’ve got graphics being put up at the same time and the graphics producer is saying, “Yes, that’s ready and animate now”.
It is the submix’s job to pick and record shots and then advise which of those shots to play out
‘You’ve got the director telling the production where we’re going next, “Okay. Cut camera two. White, VT five.”
‘You’ve got this constant communication. If you put a headset on as just a random person coming in, you’d be bamboozled by the amount of voices going on. The trick is that everybody knows which voice to filter out at the right time.’
When watching the coverage from the comfort of your sofa at home, it is hard to fathom the current of constant chaos that is going on behind the scenes, especially in a sport as stereotypically serene as golf.
But Wessely reveals the process begins to feel smoother as the week goes on.
‘I think day one definitely does not feel smooth,’ he says. ‘I think by day four it should feel smoother.’
Having been warned about the bamboozlement of being an outsider witnessing golf production, stepping into the central gallery the serenity inside is shocking.
It is day one but the operation already appears to have hit a smooth cruise. The director and producer are in constant communication, which with all the camera names and codes seems like a foreign language.
The director (right) and producer (second right) dictate the narrative and camera shots used
The producer’s job is to dictate the narrative and relay that to the director who calls the shots, working out which camera footage is needed to tell the story the producer wants. A huge responsibility but they are talking in calm, hushed tones with not even a hint of panic detectable.
Wessely says: ‘It is important to be calm because any panic in that situation and you lose control. So calmness in the communication process is vital.
‘I think there are hairy moments in TV. Things go wrong all the time and there might be one or two occasional raise voices or voices that portray a little bit of being out of control, but on the whole it’s a calm process.’
And even though Sky appear to have a small army on the front lines at St Andrews, that isn’t even the extent of the operation.
More staff are in action back at the Sky campus in Osterley, where the footage is being cut and fed to the satellite.
Wessely explains: ‘We remote broadcast on Sky, which means that we have a team on site and we try and put our talent on site because they’re on camera and the viewer is then assured that we are here in presence.
‘Nick Doherty, standing in the Sky Zone is important. Wayne Riley standing on the 17th Green is important. That’s the most important thing to the viewer, I think.
‘But we’ve learned during Covid-19 and previously to that, how to remote produce using a mixture of production at Sky and an onsite production, using technology to get all the feeds back.
‘So the main product is cut at Sky and then goes to the satellite from there.
Jason Wessely explains that it is important to have talent such as Wayne Riley on site
Sky also remote broadcast from their campus in Osterley, combined with on site production
‘The advantage of that is that you don’t have to travel quite as many people. This week at the Open, it’s not a huge deal, just up from London to Scotland, but in America it is a big deal and we’re covering lots of events out there.
‘Then the less people you travel, the better it is. There’s an advantage to that in that it’s cost effective and it’s more, environmentally responsible, of course.
‘It is incredible operation. There’s a lot of people here on site, but there’s just as many people back at sky making it all work.’
Sustainability is becoming a key part of Sky’s messaging throughout their sports coverage and the golf is no different.
In addition to the TV compound and the Sky Zone, they also have a Sky 0 set up near the driving range, which is the last instalment of their campaign that has travelled to Silverstone and Magic Weekend, encouraging fans to pledge to one of three ways to help towards sustainable living.
Sustainability is becoming a key part of Sky’s messaging with the Sky 0 set up at St Andrews
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