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In 1929, when Hockey Night in Canada began broadcasting from Arena Gardens in Toronto, the information offered was limited to descriptions of the third period of play so as not to discourage local ticket sales. Today, hockey-related economic activity is estimated at more than $11 billion a year, and Sportsnet’s NHL coverage comes from a gleaming, custom-built Toronto television studio that’s part of Rogers Communications.
Broadcast Exchange: Building the home of hockey in Canada, Sportsnet’s new broadcast facility
Sportsnet Studios is a key part of the network’s reinvented approach to traditional hockey broadcasting, as well as content production and distribution. State-of-the-art technology, including visual reality game extensions, augmented reality, and 3D capabilities, enables interactive and immersive content that brings fans into the conversation. In addition to “Hockey Night in Canada,” the studios feature “Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey” and regional coverage of the NHL. Future plans include live NBA, MLB and other shows.
Lighting director James Downey, a veteran of a wide range of lighting jobs of all kinds, was on board in January 2020 as the new studio was designed from the ground up. The work would be the last of more than two dozen installations overseen by Downey. The actual installation was carried out between August and October 2020.
“The impetus was hockey coverage, but we knew the studio had to be versatile for in-house or other shows, like the Raptors, for example,” Downey said.
“Rogers had owned the hockey rights for several years, so there was a model of the existing studio. But it was an opportunity for a refresh and a redesign, to create a more versatile and dynamic studio designed for a variety of coverage across the country. So we had a rough idea of what the set would look like, where the desks would be, and how the lights and the camera would work together.
The space is divided into two studios – Studio 31 and 32, which share one wall. Everything, down to the shiny black floor, has been designed to offer maximum flexibility and efficiency.
“It’s a very well-constructed space – they can shoot close to 360 degrees in one studio and around 270 degrees in the other, with some sort of lighting technology that frames all angles,” said he declared.
“At any given time, there are typically four or five primary desk positions, as well as standing positions, which can be migrated to different positions or looks within this set depending on the application. There’s a ton of brand new lighting technology involved, as well as plenty of video walls, and there’s LED lighting in the desks and in the walls, which is extremely versatile and looks great in front of the camera.
The Cove is a 50ft floor-to-ceiling LED wall, one of many video walls used for a wide range of applications – statistics, players, sponsorship, etc. “The graphics team is very busy, creating content to fill it all in,” Downey said. “And they do an amazing job.”
Even with 13 cameras, Downey said that although perfect color balance is much easier to achieve than before, he still uses his eyes to find the right mix in the images.
“What matters is how the camera sees things,” he said. “There’s kind of a magical, happy place between the lighting, the video and the internal LED lights where the cameras like to be. We work with the engineering team and the video department to blend them all together, finding a balance of colors. Every LED wall and every monitor is different. Some monitors don’t like being crushed – the color balance shifts and quality can be diminished if you adjust too far. Cameras can be tricky. Some cameras tend to be hotter. While it gets a lot easier, it’s not as easy as saying, “OK, the lighting is 4,000 degrees Kelvin,” and everything responds to that.
“You have to find the right place, and my lights can’t be an obstacle to that,” he said. “That’s what’s great about ARRI lighting – I can set to 4700 degrees Kelvin, and with a bit of green more or less green, I can find that magic combination. Lights can be reliably adjusted to exactly where we want to be.
Color is especially important when dealing with dozens of big-budget sports teams who manage their branding very carefully. The studio includes a lighting board with presets that can light up sets with one of over 60 colors representing one of 30 professional hockey teams or 30 baseball teams. This effect can be adjusted with an LED accent that backlights the talent of the built-in sources. Rather than a single look that remains stable for the duration of the show, different looks can be crafted for different shows – or even within the same show.
“If one of those many elements is off in terms of color, your talent doesn’t look great,” Downey said.
“Your set doesn’t look great. So there’s a ton of coordination. I worked closely with lighting programmer Corey Saunders on the setup, and he’s doing a terrific job maintaining and creating the looks as we go along.
Downey also makes its own gripping tools, like cutters, honeycombs, snouts and barn doors, so the rich colors can be precisely controlled and directed without spillage. To program and control everything, Downey chose the latest generation of grandmA3 lighting control platforms, which communicate with each luminaire via DMX. The system was chosen in part to provide a robust and stable signal given the huge amount of potential interference swirling around downtown Toronto. So far it works without any problem.
“I put ARRI in studios, because if I get the chance, that’s what I rent,” he said. “I want to give the customer what I want. I never want them to have to call me with a problem. Their urgency is my urgency, but I feel comfortable knowing that the weight of the ARRI team is behind me. The product is well built. I’ve always liked what ARRI lighting products show on camera. We all see the beautiful richness that comes from the panel – whether it’s crisp daylight or warm tungsten – and there’s no compromise.
Environmental stewardship is important to Rogers, and the company has demanded that Downey’s tools be chosen with this virtue in mind. “Replacing a light fixture with something that uses 60% less electricity and produces 60% less heat that needs to be cooled later means a huge amount of savings,” Downey said.
“It’s also good for the talent to feel more comfortable. It’s a win-win. Rogers is to be commended because they didn’t try to talk me into using lesser quality equipment. They also made sure we had time to set things up the right way. Everyone is extremely satisfied with the results.