Beating Up on a "Classic"
By Jason Haggstrom, January 4, 2011
Did I say this blog was going to be about cinema? Well, it is… mostly. The primary goal of this site is to explore movies, but you can expect the occasional deviation into other realms of interest. Like hockey. It’s not unusual for me to watch a movie every single day of the week, but on those nights where I don’t take in a film it is most often because I am watching hockey. This past weekend, the National Hockey League (NHL) presented their annual "Winter Classic," an outdoor game aimed at drawing in new fans. The unfortunate reality is that the Winter Classic is actually televised hockey at it’s worst.
The concept flies in the face of logic: match up the league’s best players, best teams, and best rivalries in a heavily marketed and nationally televised outdoor game where poor playing conditions take away from everything that makes the game great. It’s difficult enough for crews to maintain the ice surface at state-of-the-art hockey arenas. Create a one-time use playing surface in an outdoor setting with fluctuating temperatures and weather conditions and you create a hockey game’s equivalent of bedlam. Instead of showcasing the the unbelievable skill of the NHL’s greatest players, the Winter Classic is populated by slips, falls, and a level of play that is dumbed down by players who know better than to attempt the spectacular on such an unreliable playing surface. Still, it appears that the game did indeed draw in casual fans. In keeping with the three previous Winter Classics, the Penguins/Capitals game place among the five most-watched NHL games since 1975. This is unfortunate. If the Winter Classic was my first hockey experience, I wouldn’t feel driven to seek out more.
In his piece assessing the annual event, columnist Scott Burnside decreed that "if spectacle is OK, then the Winter Classic is once again a winner" before getting down to the more critical assessment that "if you believe the integrity of the game should never be compromised regardless of how many additional eyes were on this game and the league, then Saturday’s waterlogged Washington victory is a debacle." At the heart of Burnside’s assessment is the difference between the build-up and broadcasting of the game, and of the game itself. What NBC and the NHL did very well was to profile the players and teams much like they would for an Olympic broadcast. They spent months promoting this game as a showcase for the league’s two greatest stars: Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. What makes players like Crosby and Ovechkin so exciting to watch is that they often make plays that are completely unexpected, even to those of us that have watched thousands of hockey games. Unfortunately, the Winter Classic provided a sub par ice surface that diminished the very spectacle that such players could have provided. How is this good for the growth of the game?
Equal to the B grade level of play that occurs in the annual outdoor event are the methods used in capturing and televising it (you see, hockey does relate to the cinema after all). In their attempt to turn the Winter Classic into an "Event," the producers and directors of the broadcast display a true ignorance of how to best film and present a hockey game. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to claim that there is a standard, best practice way to film a particular sporting event. For baseball, the shot of batter vs. pitcher from center field is critical because it gives us all the visual information we need and it puts the dueling players together in the visual space. That’s not to say that television producers shouldn’t attempt new things, but what I see in the Winter Classic tells me that they need to get a better grasp of the fundamentals.
The filming of sports is the purest form of documentary. Unlike feature films, the recording of a sporting event should not have the voice or mark of the filmmakers. It should aim to simply capture the event at hand in the most unobtrusive way possible while also attempting to show each moment in the clearest detail. The cinematography of a game should never call attention to itself; the camera exists in order to simply capture the event as it occurs. Any narrative that comes out of the presentation of the game should be limited to the editing of shots and replays during moments of inaction and through the commentators who are speaking during the action itself.
Because hockey is a team game—more so than any other major sport I can think of other than that incredibly similar sport of soccer—it is imperative that players be framed in context with their teammates rather than in isolation. Exceptions to this rule abound only during moments when the clock is stopped. Even then, the director should cut to a new shot rather than utilize the zoom. A zoom only reminds the audience of the camera’s presence. During play, the framing of the shot should allow the audience to see the passing/playmaking options of the puck carrier. It is the dynamic nature of playmaking—and the way our brains rapidly envision plays a split second before they happen—that makes watching hockey so much fun.
The camera should be as still as possible in order to truly capture the speed of the game; camera movement works against player movement. The tried-and-true way this is handled in the broadcasting of hockey games is with a single camera that is placed at the midpoint of the rink, 20 to 30 degrees above ice level. In working within the "move as little as possible" theory, good hockey camera operators simply pan left and right and zoom in slightly as the edge of the frame approaches the goaltender (the three screen captures below illustrate a perfectly filmed hockey game). Watch a poorly shot hockey game and you’ll see the camera operator zooming in and out with reckless abandon which not only reminds you of the camera’s presence, but also causes great confusion. In such cases, the camera ends up chasing the puck and players instead of capturing their movements. Zoom in too far and the audience can no longer see a puck handler’s teammates or—more importantly—developing plays. Isolate a few players in the frame and watch as the camera quickly darts left or right in a flailing attempt to catch up to a flying puck. The golden rules of filming a hockey game are to keep it simple and stick to the basic shot except when showing a replay. That’s why the theatrics of Winter Classic are not only frustrating, but are counterintuitive to the idea of providing a great presentation of the game.
NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood notes how the Winter Classic uses a "CableCam" in order to differentiate the game from a typical hockey broadcast. He describes the CableCam as "a camera used in football games that flies over the play so we can move it up and down, along the boards, move it up in the stands. Wherever we want to be to capture the event and capture some of the speed of hockey, which will be one of the fun things we get to do with it."1 I admit, the CableCam has its place in the presentation of instant replays especially in a game such as football where the object is to continually move the ball down the field. But unlike football, the CableCam can’t simply track forward to capture a play during a hockey game. Hockey is a game that will often reverse directions several times per second. The operator of the CableCam has to constantly track, pan, and tilt the dangling camera in order to keep up with the play. This isn’t just a horrible way to view the action, it’s downright dizzying. Even worse, the producers of the Winter Classic didn’t just use the CableCam for replays, but insisted on repeatedly cutting to the device during the game. Can you see the puck or the developing action in either of the CableCam shots below? Didn’t think so.
For the purpose of making the Winter Classic an “Event,” the NBC Sports also employed the use of a camera fixed to an airplane. Again, Sam Flood: "Once again we’ll have an airplane. That was a thrill [during the 2010 Winter Classic] in Buffalo doing the first replay in history of a goal from an airplane angle."1 Sorry, Sam, but watching the game from 2,000 feet in the air is not my idea of "fun." Sports fans are accustomed to the establishing shots provided by the Goodyear blimp (among others) in most nationally televised sporting events, but to utilize a camera from that distance in the middle of a game is just asinine. Take a look at the two screen captures below that show the airplane camera at it’s most zoomed out and zoomed in. Keep in mind that this shot occurred not only during play, but during one of the most crucial points of the game: a power play. They would go on to repeat this shot several times throughout the evening (and always during play).
I understand that the Winter Classic is supposed to be a spectacle, an "Event." If the intent of this game is to draw in new viewers, why do the producers insist on utilizing methods that negatively impact both the game and it’s presentation? Surely, no casual viewer enjoys the disorienting CableCam shots or the distanced shots from the airplane circling overhead. And anyone who saw the fantastic game the Penguins and Capitals played in Washington D.C. just nine days before the Winter Classic (a Penguins victory won in a shootout after the teams took a 2-2 tie through overtime) would no doubt be disappointed to see how much player skills were diminished when they took to the soft, wet, and bumpy outdoor ice at Heinz Field. This is not the way to woo people into watching more hockey. “Event” or not, the Winter Classic leaves me cold.
Stream the Winter Classic… if you must.