When you’re watching a football game, you’re not supposed to notice the cameras. But with the Super Bowl approaching, and the world's attention on the biggest game in American sports, let's look at how the game is captured. It's all run by an ingenious system rigged with the same super-reliable steel cable that we provide everyday to our customers.
The Skycam system traces its origins to a filmmaker named Garrett Brown, who was also one of the inventors of the handheld Steadicam. Back in the Eighties, he came up with the notion of mounting a Steadicam-type camera to a remote-controlled, aerial rigging arrangement that would enable cinematographers to capture even more startling moving shots for the movies (for which he would eventually be honored with an Oscar Award).
By 1984, Brown’s system was adapted for TV coverage of NFL football games, where it soon became a standard part of the broadcast. Today, nearly all big sporting events, and even political conventions, employ some type of Skycam (or the competing Cablecam) system to provide live coverage of the action close up.
Officially, the owners of the Skycam system (Skycam LLC of Fort Worth, Tex.) describe it as a “remote controlled, computer assisted, cable suspended mobile platform for the conveyance of equipment such as a camera.” Unofficially, though, the term “skycam” has become something of a generic description of any cable-controlled camera system (as the original patents have expired). For example, Fox Sports (which will be airing the Super Bowl) uses a system called the DLP Ultimate Picture Cam.
The intricate Skycam system at football games consists of:
A mobile spar made up of a gyroscopically balanced control unit with gimbals and stabilization sensors, a power distribution module, electronics for radio and fiber-optic signaling, and a high-definition video camera with pan and tilt functionality mounted in a yoke.
Hardware and software controls linked by a fiber-optic cable link from the camera to a customized computer workstation where operators pilot the spar and manipulate the camera to focus on particular images using joysticks.
And an arrangement of four steel cable reels anchored at high fixed points at corners of the stadium, affixed to the gimbals, equipped with a 3.4-kW electric servo motor and disc brakes using winches and pulleys to ride along a path above the field.
Using joysticks, the pilot operator has the ability to move the spar at speeds of up to 25 mph to follow the action while the camera operator can simultaneously tilt, pan, and focus the gyro-stabilized camera to zoom in on every angle. Here’s a video clip of how the system works.
So, while you’re enjoying the big game on Sunday, take a quick timeout to consider the humble role that those steel cables supporting the Skycam are playing. And think of us whenever you have a question about steel cable for your next project when you get back to work on Monday.