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Super Bowl XL Review

Annual extravaganza astounds, but has audio problems By Charlie White

The ABC production of Super Bowl XL did justice to its grand subject, showing a worldwide audience of a billion people that yes, it is possible to field 36 HD cameras and make it all look easy. Indeed, there was a first-rate, all-HD football production in between all those extravagant $5 million-a-minute commercials on ABC, most of which were also in HD this year. This production was also notable because it was the first Super Bowl that was shot with all HD cameras, and it was the last NFL football production for ABC Sports.

The broadcast, in the capable hands of ABC Sports director Drew Esocoff, was a tightly-knit and well-executed extravaganza, with a few glaring flaws. Ironically, none of those flaws had anything to do with video. Beginning with the opening bars of the national anthem, even those with nearly deaf ears could immediately perceive that something had gone terribly wrong. As Aaron Neville held the microphone to his mouth, you could see his mouth moving but what we heard was pretty much an annoying whine, even more so than his usual nasal singing voice. Then the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin stepped up to her microphone, and what did we hear but the same echo-ridden, far-away sounding cry. You could hardly understand what they were singing. Our national anthem has never sounded worse. Thatís right, there were audio problems, and although viewers didnít know it at the time, those problems were there to stay. Weíll get back to that in a few paragraphs.

On a positive note, this Super Bowl production was a feast for the eyes, with its spectacular graphics created especially for this Motor City venue. Appropriately, the theme this year apparently was Shiny 50s Automobiles from Space. It was a lovely idea, and appropriate because cars are, indeed, built in Detroit, or at least some of them are, even though less so as each day goes by. My favorite part of this dazzling graphics package was the shell that was created for player introductions. The various components of this graphic tour de force would fly onto the screen from all directions, as if they were car parts to be assembled in the middle of the screen. As they locked together with a resounding steely clap, they would continue to vibrate as if they were straining against some unseen horsepower rumbling underneath. In a charming flourish, as if to display the power of these ersatz machines, there were exhaust pipes on the right side with a fiery glow emanating from within. Of course, there were moving video cutouts of each football playerís head and shoulders intertwined within this shiny and elegant-looking machinery, but it didnít make the players look like they were just disembodied heads. It was the best intermingling of graphics and human beings Iíve seen. And of course, there was a shiny chrome typeface used in certain places on this graphic and throughout the show that looked like it could have been lifted from the back quarter panel of a meticulously-restored '57 Chevy. There were a few different versions of this overall graphic subset; some were used for lower-thirds and others were used full screen. The lower-third version was the most eye-catching, where it would continue to wobble and jitter as it sat on the screen. Brilliant.

The more-servicable graphics for game stats during the game were equally gorgeous; however, I was annoyed with the excess of sound effects that went along with these graphics. There are various schools of thought in this area, but I think if each graphic has to make a noise as it enters the screen, that sound effect should be something thatís rather subtle, not the huge metallic bangs, squeaks and pneumatic noises that these graphics made. After a few minutes, I was looking for a can of oil to stop all that squeaking. It was too much, it was distracting, and Iíd had just about enough of it, even when it was only about ten minutes into the first quarter.

Another standout was the new Super Slo-Mo cameras used by ABC. The video from these high definition cameras, one of which was an experimental 180 frame-per-second unit from Sony, was almost film-like, with no jitters at all even at the 33% speed at which it was played on the air. This technology represents an obviously giant leap beyond its predecessors. Each time the Sony Super Slo-Mo camera was used, it was immediately obvious. Bravo.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the Steadicam work from the sidelines. Equally adept was the SkyCam crew, which flew their HD camera around the stadium with the crisp efficiency of Air Force pilots. These SkyCam jockeys, pilot and operator working in perfect tandem, seemed to get more and more bold with this Super Bowl outing, arcing the camera along the sidelines and behind the players with reckless abandon. It was utterly entertaining every time the director took their shot.

Another subtle but tasteful touch were the interstitial segments, otherwise known in the industry as ďbumps,Ē placed at the beginning of each segment of the game after a commercial break. The segments were composed of reduced-color, almost black-and-white stills of various players and coaches mixed with full-color sound bites from those players. The people philosophically talked about why this football game represented the pinnacle of their profession and a fulfillment of their dreams. Meaningful music played in the background as the camera slowly moved across these still photos, which were artfully interspersed with the actualities. No hype, just raw feelings, poignant music and beautifully-shot photographs. It was art.

Another group of inventive bump segments were presented, with a cute idea of reminiscing about the Top 40 Super Bowls. To the beat of Motown music (of course, this was Detroit, after all), we saw clips from past Super Bowls inside yet another nicely-designed set of expertly-arranged and executed graphics. Later in the game, ABC was interspersing football footage from earlier in the game in this format, which turned out to be unusually effective. It was another good example of the high quality of this stellar production.

There were numerous instances during the actual football broadcast where it was noticeable that the audio mix wasnít driving enough level to the center channel in the Dolby 5.1 configuration. It consistently seemed low compared to the crowd noises, which many times nearly drowned out the voices of the first-rate announcers, Al Michaels and John Madden, perhaps the best football announcers ever to wear a noise-canceling mike in the booth. By the way, even though they were difficult to hear at times, these two consummate professionals were even slightly better than last years' stellar FOX team of Chris Collingsworth, Jack Buck and Troy Aikman, and certainly left the lame and inane CBS team of the year before that in the dust.  

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Related Keywords:ABC, Super Bowl XL, 36 HD cameras, all-HD football production, review, Drew Esocoff, directing, television

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