Not much went right for the 3-3 Bears in their 36-25 home loss to the Saints, but there was a heroic moment for fans of both camera tech and TV production. Bears fans: it’s not too late to jump off that sinking ship and bandwagon either, and will probably be more profitable.
In the first quarter, Cordarrelle Patterson returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown. Even more notably, the entire return was broadcast live by Fox’s Skycam, the remote-controlled camera suspended on criss-crossed wires above the field, allowing the cam to swoop around—and seemingly down into—the action.
Patterson’s return and Skycam’s angle proved a perfect marriage of play and perspective:
All credit to Fox’s producer and camera operators for this shot, as it was no easy task. The Skycam is a two-person job, with one operator piloting the camera across the field and the other pointing and focusing—here’s a quick segment from a couple of years ago showing how it works. (That was NBC’s booth, but it’s the same system. Skycam is a brand name—there are competing systems like CableCam and SpiderCam—but all the NFL broadcasters use Skycam, the originator of the technology.)
Skycam goes back longer than you might expect, having first been deployed in an NFL game in 1984. But it remained a novelty for a long time, and it wasn’t until the XFL made heavy use of it in 2001—even going so far as it make it the primary camera angle in Week 1, before realizing that was a little much—that it became omnipresent at football games. ESPN’s Sunday Night Football used it regularly in 2002, and now it’s a standard part of every network’s NFL broadcasts. In fact, the new trend is to deploy two Skycams—the original, which hovers between 12 and 40 feet above the turf, and a second at 40–80 feet.
Skycam isn’t universally beloved. Certainly not by players, who have seen it interfere with punts and thrown balls and even had to dodge the camera crashing to earth. And not by viewers either. Skycam makes it difficult to see what’s going on away from the ball, compared to the conventional sideline camera angle, and where the ball is in relation to the first-down marker. It can often feel like a shiny toy, technology being used only for the sake of showing itself off and not because it makes anything clearer to viewers. But it is useful for giving a sense of the speed and chaos of football, things that can get lost from a wider angle. And so every once in a while you get a play like Patterson’s TD return, for which Skycam is perfect and no other angle could quite do justice.