Perched on a hydraulic scissor lift 50 feet up in the air, for decades the camera crews of NFL teams filmed daily practices often battling thunderstorms, gusty winds and sheets of sideways rain.
Mike Dougherty was the Philadelphia Eagles video director for 37 years. On a sweltering late summer morning a bolt of lightning struck Dougherty's all-metal camera and bounced off his head. His hair shot straight up. An assistant coach got Dougherty down to the ground. Luckily, he wasn't seriously hurt.
Fast forward to 2017. Twenty four NFL teams and 18 teams from the college power-five conferences have switched from the traditional manned scissor lifts to the new mobile “mast cams.” The systems boast high-definition cameras atop a 55-foot telescoping mast-- sort of like a periscope on a submarine-- that are controlled remotely from the ground. The video station that looks like the front of a boat includes a comfy bench seat with protective canopy, color monitors and the capability to run for several days on a single charge.
Rated for 55 miles per hour winds, the MastRcam operator sits at a console with a pan zoom tilt control to shoot practices. The cart can easily be moved around the practice fields. Coaches and players can replay practice highlights in one-on-one meetings and film sessions.
8K Solutions, a Titusville-based sports technology firm, started developing the revolutionary camera system in 2013. Longtime Titusville resident Dan Aton is the founder and CEO. An industry pioneer in sports video technology - audiovisual systems design and integration, Aton founded XOS Technologies, Inc. in Orlando in 1999, a software company that did business with a number of NFL franchises. Aton was joined at 8K Solutions by Bob White, a former offensive lineman with the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1980s who worked as a NFL and strategic account manager for Avid/Pinnacle/XOS from 1998-2011.
"It's a complete paradigm shift to what these guys were doing filming practices from the late 1960s and early 70s," explained White, Vice President of Marketing and Sales. "We've proved our technology works in all types of extreme weather conditions. Teams just need to get over the fear factor of doing something new. It's amazing how quickly the concept has been accepted and become the standard for the industry."
Safety is the biggest issue.
“The biggest thing was the liability,” Mike Perkins, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ video director, told the Associated Press. “Every day you worry, at least from my standpoint. You worry about bad weather. You worry about something happening. And then the whole thing at Notre Dame, that really hit home.”
In 2010, a 20-year old Notre Dame student was killed when the hydraulic scissor lift where he was filming football practice tumbled to the ground due to a blast of strong winds.
"There are hundreds of close-call stories," said White, relating examples of lightning strikes, the lift catching fire and cameramen nearly falling out of the lift. "We've eliminated all of that."
A turn-key system, MastRcam is delivered installed and ready to shoot. Each unit lists for $75,000. With MastRcam a video director can monitor practice on three mast cams using robotic cameras and joysticks from the comfort of his control panel. It allows for better camera and broadcast quality video which can be transmitted to coaches faster. The technology eventually will be able to send a portion of practice to a coach with a synced tablet on the field during practice. The MastRCam has also been acquired by a handful of NBA and NHL teams.
“You can do just about anything with them," said Perkins. "Our guys love them. They’re different if you’re used to shooting a camera. But I could literally put my 9-year-old in one and he could learn it faster than I could because all these kids are gamers and it’s literally a video game."
Currently, 8K Solutions is building 60 to 70 units a year, constructing the individual chassis and frames during the football season. In January the company starts delivering three to six units a week.
There have been countless hours of design and engineering put into the new camera system. 8K Solutions has been fortunate that a number of their initial partners in terms of ideas and materials are located in Central Florida. They work with a local business that builds boats and boat trailers.
"They showed us the ropes," White noted. "We couldn't use a standard boat trailer since we needed more width to support the mast. We have a custom frame, console battery and recharging system. There have been 10,000 lessons learned in building these. Lots of trial and error and good guesses."
With Aton and White's background dealing with the NFL for nearly two decades, they had a deep knowledge of the market.
"We had a huge head start with our contacts and how the NFL operated," White acknowledged. "We get great feedback from the teams. Each year we're evolving, producing a better camera system."
The company has about 20 employees, with roughly eight in the shop in Titusville building the units, and another six or seven out on the road installing the system which takes about a month and a half to set up and test.
While the MastRcam unit can work alone, it can also be paired with Lyvve Coach, a new technology from 8K Solutions that provides instant replays during practice. Lyvve Coach offers three video boards at practice, two in the end zone and one on the sideline that alternate between showing live action and instant replays to assist players and coaches in evaluating what’s going right and what’s going wrong on the fly. White declined to give the cost of Lyvve Coach.
Easily towed around the field, each practice play is automatically created and then continuously looped on a 12 foot by seven foot rotating LED screen until the beginning of the next play located at the edge of the practice field.
"Position coaches and video staffers can pause, rewind or review each play as they dive deeper into the analysis and breakdown footage even further," White explained. "The instant feedback saves time on the practice field and allows coaches to highlight specific plays while they’re still top-of-mind with the players versus waiting until film study."