Every golfer loves watching the action unfold on the back nine of a Major championship on Sunday. As the tension mounts and players start struggling or begin making their charges, the action comes alive. That is due to a combination of the mesmerising shots, the insightful commentary and the visuals that come across your screen.
Down in Dunedin, a small team at Animation Research Limited (ARL) is leading the world in “sports graphics” with its Virtual Eye suite of products and golf is a big part of the company’s story. In recent years you are likely to have seen their work on cricket, sailing, Formula One, World Rally Championship, the Olympics and Red Bull Extreme Events involving skiing.
ARL is now recognised as one of the industry leaders in sports graphics, having worked with golf broadcasters that include ABC, ESPN, The Golf Channel, BBC, Channel 10, The Seven Network, Fox Sports, BSkyB, European Tour Productions, Turner, TVNZ and TV3 (NZ).
Many would know of ARL through its Virtual Eye Cricket system (launched in 2009), which tracks the ball and then graphically recreates the visual of ‘what might have happened’ with the delivery. The International Cricket Council adopted this as part of the DRS (Decision Review System). The Virtual Eye ball-tracking assists the third umpire when it comes to upholding or overturning any decision involved with an LBW (Leg Before Wicket) review.
Other Virtual Eye Cricket innovations are the batsman’s shotmaking ‘wagon wheel’, pitch maps, deviation of seam/spin, field placement charts, measurements of six distances plus 3D flyovers of stadiums and cities.
ARL told the exciting story of the America’s Cup in Bermuda with its Virtual Eye cameras on board the catamarans, which enhanced the overall coverage with course mapping and boat-tracking graphics.
“For the ARL Team it is about creating a 3-D graphic experience where the viewer can virtually ‘see; what is happening and be seamlessly immersed in the live footage without realising they are crossing the two worlds.”
Ben Taylor (inset) has spent the past six years following the sun, predominately on the European Tour for up to
46 weeks a year. Taylor heads the golf division of ARL, which was founded by his father, Ian, in 1989.
Travelling to Major golf tournaments may appear pretty glamorous, but the reality is somewhat different. In June, Taylor travelled from Dunedin to Erin Hills in Wisconsin for the US Open with nine laptops and other pieces of equipment among 72 kilograms of gear.
On arrival at the television compound the preceding Saturday, he firstly had to find the ARL ‘office’ inside one of 70-odd television trucks at the course and begin the process of organising the week’s logistical arrangements. His 80-hour week was spent mostly inside the truck looking at computer screens so as to have everything ready for broadcast’s producer.
It’s a long way from Taylor’s early days in the back of an old refrigeration truck that had a fold-down table and some power leads. As soon as the tournament finished he would have to pack up quickly so the tour could load everything into its golf cart fleet and head to the next event.
In reality, preparations for the US Open had begun much earlier when Erin Hills was mapped graphically over a number of months. Visuals were taken the previous September and then six weeks prior to arrival the team had course footage taken by a drone. They bounced it through their US servers to the New Zealand-based team that includes a computer scientist in Dunedin and graphic designers in Wellington and Queenstown.
At the start of Open week, there is a complete course walk-through to ensure the graphics are accurate – precise to the point where it is difficult to recognise the difference from what is real and what has been graphically rendered on screen.
For Erin Hills, extra time was needed to re-colour the ‘graphic’ because extra rain in the weeks prior to the tournament had increased the ‘greenness’ of the course. Then when US Open organisers decided to cut back up to three metres of rough, including 200 metres down the sides of four fairways, the graphics team were back on the job to retouch course visuals so they would be 100 percent accurate.
Setting up for a Major championship involves more than 150 hours of painstaking work. But at a regular European Tour event there may be only two days needed to touch up the previous year’s graphics. However for this year’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth there was 10 days of work due to a course redesign.
Taylor is quick to acknowledge there are exciting technologies being provided by companies they work alongside around the world. Together with ball-tracking company Trackman, ARL received an Emmy Award nomination for the ‘Flight Track’ innovation it first developed during the New Zealand Open in Arrowtown. That product has now been used at all four Majors, including the recent Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. And, yes, they have been involved at the Masters Tournament but privacy agreements preclude Taylor from revealing details of their involvement.
“It’s a very collaborative environment these days,” says Taylor. “At Royal Birkdale we were visualising data from both Trackman and Top Tracer as well as providing ball-positioning data for Hego to deliver ‘Distance To Pin’ graphics over the live pictures.”
These graphics have really enhanced the viewing experience with how the golfer is playing the course. For the ARL team it is really about creating a 3-D graphic experience where the viewer can virtually ‘see’ what is happening and be seamlessly immersed in the live footage without realising they are crossing the two worlds.
nlike the European Tour where ARL does up to 30 tournaments a year, the US Open is a ‘one off’ where the crews need to get a feel for the production style in the days leading up to the broadcast. On the European and Australasian circuits where ARL provide all the graphics, the crew are fully ‘in sync’ and Taylor sees his role as being ready to tell any and all stories.
For instance, if Adam Scott has a tight chip from the left side of the green, Taylor will have the ‘dot’ graphic ready to show how many players have gotten up-and-down from that side of the green so that commentators can clearly describe the shot’s level of difficulty.
One of the more challenging events is usually The Open Championship where the weather graphics get the full work out. This is when you will see the wind arrows blowing across the screen. With a few taps of the keyboard, they can transform the visuals of the golf course from a calm sunny day into hurricane-like conditions. And on the European Tour they have occasionally had to use the snow graphics!
Depending on the event, ARL may have anywhere from three to six operators on-site plus up to a dozen hired hands for the week. This will vary depending on what third-party technology is available to them. (A smaller three-man crew may be required if ‘Shotlink’ is collecting scoring and statistical data to create the yardage graphics and ball-mapping.)
At the US Open, ARL had a dozen people working nine laptops (each focusing on one hole) with Taylor coordinating the information and two of the team roaming the course to capture ball positions with handheld GPS units. While for the US PGA Championship they had a team of 16 people with 14 laptops capturing all the action.
Taylor is amazed at how technology has changed the industry and what they are now able to visually bring to those watching at home. It has come a long way since he started in 2010, lugging around 15-20kg backpacks with big discs on top of a pole that captured GPS data of where golf balls had come to rest on the course.
He loves the big events and rates St Andrews as his favourite location. But he also really enjoyed the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles where the atmosphere was electric and all the television crews and key personal stayed on-site in sleeping pods. Having everyone in one location with no commuting back and forth to the golf course was a bonus, especially when there were weather issues and they were working 16-hour days.
Once you get Taylor talking about the ups and downs of the past seven years, he begins to reminisce about the logistical challenges. His number one rule is to never let his Dad and boss, Ian, near the technology. According to Ben, he can make any computer stop working and has broken more handheld units than anyone. “We have no idea what he does to these machines. But they are perfect before. And after he has used them, no one can get them to work!”
But the challenges can be very serious. Lightning strikes in Malaysia have affected computers, graphic cards have suddenly stopped working 10-minutes before going live to air, GPS units have gone out of range and communications have been mysteriously crossed with nearby air traffic control.
Every event is a challenge but the prospect of an 18-hole Monday playoff at the US Open is the most nerve-wracking. At Chambers Bay for the 2015 US Open, the team had a very tight time frame to travel to Germany for the next European Tour event. Taylor reckons he was more relieved than Jordan Spieth when Dustin Johnston three-putted from 12 feet on the 72nd green to miss a playoff by one.
So next time you’re looking at the great visuals that enhance a golf telecast, think of that little company in Dunedin that is leading the world in 3-D graphics. And if you happen to see a guy at the airport rushing to check in 80kgs of luggage in big black cases, then it very well could be Ben Taylor heading to his next tournament.