Tuesday, 17 February 2009

If You Read One Article This Week...

...make it Behind the Scenes on FA Cup Matchday with Setanta.

Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/Guardian

I've always been fascinated by the theory behind television coverage of football. The philosophy of televising a game can go one of two ways: 1) mimetic representation 2) ultimate representation.

1) The idea of mimetic representation is that it attempts to provide a faithful, authentic replica of the experience of attending a live football match. This is the classic model. The fundamental feature of this is the gantry perspective. Where is the best seat in the stadium to watch a match? Bang on the half-way line, maybe three-quarters of the way up the stand. It was a logical move for this to become the default angle for television coverage. It covers as much of the pitch from a vantage that's physically easy to access. Simple geometry!

What's interesting is that the gantry angle never switches sides. Obviously this would involve setting up cameras on both sides of the pitch, which is an extravagance, but at no point that I'm aware of in the explosion of football coverage has anyone ever attempted this. It may be pointless to have a flip/reverse gantry option, but most matches have cameras on either side of the touchline. Is that really necessary? What this points to is the desire to maintain authenticity. Every football fan knows that the teams swap sides at half-time, and so television coverage represents this switch.

I've discussed the philosophy I think lies behind the gantry perspective. But few football matches now, especially in the top leagues, are covered with just one camera. The rudimentary diagram to the right (thanks, Photobooth!) shows what I think are the basic principles of covering a football match. You've got the gantry camera (1), two cameras behind each goal (2/3), then I've been generous and allowed for two cameras on the touchline, one on each half (4/5/6/7). If we're being stingy, we could squeeze this down into two touchline cameras, on the half-way line (8/9). There are probably lots of variations on this, but I think this gets the idea across.

OK, so you're the director of a team of seven cameraman, and you're covering a live football match. How do you mediate all of this? When do you decide to jump to close-up shots? Can I just use the gantry camera for 90 minutes? Help! This is why the Guardian article is so interesting. Directing a football match, especially a live one, is an insanely complicated job. It's an art form. You're creating what will hopefully be a dramatic and suspenseful experience for millions of viewers. You're conducting an orchestra for a captive audience in pubs and homes around the country. Nuff respect to the man/woman who takes on this job. (Incidentally, Mikey Stafford's article points out that you probably benefit from being an ex-footballer if you want to be involved in this field.)

To elaborate on this a bit, let's watch a brief clip: Shunsuke Nakamura's goal against Rangers from an Old Firm derby last season (Yes, I'm a Celtic fan. No, this isn't shameless. Also, while I'm here, I might as well recommend watching it via Quietube - this lovely little bookmarklet removes all the crap from a Youtube page to let you watch in peace.).

0.00 - 0.03: gantry shot of some passing along the Celtic back line. This is your basic shot.

0.04 - 0.07: switches to a touch-line shot of Gary Caldwell receiving a pass, taking stock of his options, and lofting a ball forward. Why did the director choose to switch to a close-up here? The action was in Celtic's half, with the defence. What were the risks? Minimal. What were the potential benefits? A bit of texture, on the off-chance that Caldwell's pass might lead to something positive. And it did! Good work, director. I'm not sure these sort of cuts are welcome in football - too often, I'm shouting "JUST SHOW US THE GAME!" at the TV, but there are times when it works OK, like here.

0.08 - 0.12: back to the gantry angle for one of the sweetest goals in history. We get the traditional vantage point for this, which is appropriate as we're all sharing in the same experience, and it's in the traditional codification of the 'fans angle'. There are those horrible moments when we see a goal via a close-up first, and it causes dissonance. Have we watched a replay by mistake? Who hit that? What was going on? The gantry angle leaves everything neutral, the perfect medium for us to enjoy the action.

0.13 - 0.17: cut to a touch-line focus on Nakamura as he reels away to celebrate. The classic post-goal shot.

0.18 - 0.27: the benefit of extra cameras; we get more of the 'story' this way, seeing Nakamura face-on as he yanks on his badge with Celtic Pride.

And so on. The replays give more on the luxuries extra cameras afford, but the twenty-seven seconds above show the intricacies of mimetic representation. Just to finish up, it's worth noting that the mimetic mode only gives the 'luxury' angles during replays. You won't get a shot from the opposite touchline, or an angle from above the goal during the live action. These features are reserved for when the ball is out of play, so to speak, so as not to disrupt the realism of the presentation.

* * *

2) Ultimate representation, then, is a style of coverage that takes advantage of the technological advances of the last decade. More specifically, it foregrounds how it uses this technology. The director of this style of coverage breaks with the codes of mimetic representation, embraces the pleasure of the text, if you will.

The apotheosis of this was the Champion's League final a couple of years ago, between Porto and Monaco. I can't find any footage of it, unfortunately, but they had a Matrix-effect set-up where they had multiple cameras positioned so that they could pause a reply and spin around behind a player. It was pretty flash, but as the guy says in his blog post, pretty useless.

Watching the Milan derby on BBC Three this Sunday, we had the usual range of camera angles, with a bonus one that is best imagined as a toy-helicopter camera. The majority of the action was covered using the mimetic mode, but every now and then we'd get this floating swoop across the pitch. This angle comes from a gyroscopic camera on wires, that hangs above the pitch and can give some incredible shots. You can catch a glimpse of it in the first two seconds of this clip. It was pretty disorienting, as you don't expect to get given such freedom of viewing within the real-time flow of the game.

They used it for free-kicks a lot, and the effect you get is that you're virtually standing right behind Pirlo as he gets ready to strike the ball. It's useful for giving you an idea of the kicker's chances, but it takes you outside of your comfort zone. But perhaps this is the future of television coverage!

The question comes down to (and this is where you get involved, Badgekissers readers) whether or not we want to maintain the pretense that watching a match on TV should replicate the experience of watching it in a stadium. Should we have the same limitations and restraints that are involved in that experience? Or should TV take advantage of the possibilities of technology and give us a fully immersive feast for our senses, getting as close to the action as possible?

1 comment:

  1. I prefer the mimetic displays myself, but that probably comes from mostly watching UK football. European coverage (specifically I'm thinking of Spanish, French, and World Cup 2006) loves to cut to a touchline camera during a live game, which I always found disorienting. This could be partly because I'm not used to it, but also because the gantry shot allows us to watch as much as the pitch as possible, and half the fun of watching footie for me is seeing the teams organizing and reorganizing themselves on attack or on defense.

    I can't explain why Europe loves to cut into the live action so much, aside from their desire for a bit more flair. Spanish coverage is obsessed with immediate replays of fancy footwork, often using an extreme close-up of the feet and the ball during a step-over or some other fancy-dan routine. This is probably why they're willing to embrace the sky-cam while the UK has tended to stay away from it.

    I remember watching one of the first games that it was used at Nou Camp, and it basically stuck to a really high over-head perspective, mostly in replays to show the tactics of a move forward. This was used (more sparingly) in some of the Germany World Cup matches as well. I hadn't seen the use of the sky-cam to the extent the Milan derby did during live play before, but I imagine that has to do with getting comfortable with the technology.

    The Sky Cam is widely used in American football, and has been for some years now. The reason for its use in live play there, and during free kicks in the Milan Derby, is probably due to the safety of the camera itself, as football and free kicks are (for the most part) only going in one direction so there's little chance of the ball coming back to interfere.

    I can't imagine the kind of hell it must be to direct a football match. The Arsenal-Cardiff game had one or two moments of desperate panic when they tried to show a replay as soon as they could, and they frantically cut back to the live gantry shot when Cardiff would counter-attack into the Arsenal box. Must be terrifying.