U.S. Open: How the Fox drone gets those amazing shots at Pebble Beach

- Geoff Shackelford | Golf Week

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Fox Sports promised to push the technological boundaries with its U.S. Open coverage. Never have the efforts been more noticeable and at times, jaw-dropping, than in 2019 at Pebble Beach.

While mics in cups have continued to catch player audio — but no longer the annoying sound of balls hitting the cup bottom — the network’s greatest advances in golf occurred in the form of repeated incorporation of mind-blowing live drone shots and a major advance in TopTracer technology.

To get the never-before-seen views off the coast of Pebble Beach, Fox originally set out to use a tethered drone off shore by taking advantage of technological breakthroughs since 2015.

That’s when a drone off the coast of Chambers Bay proved limiting in how long it could stay in the air and how much it informed viewers.

But according to telecast director Steve Beim, the plan to use a tethered drone with its longer power supply was dashed late in preparations when kelp beds offshore prevented getting close enough to make a difference.

Instead, the Fox boat and drone operated by Kaze Aerial were freed up to roam the entire coastline with a restriction of 400 feet, though they’ve stayed much lower with shots of Pebble Beach and completely out of view of all. The result?

Some of the most stunning images ever seen on a sports broadcast, delivering scene-setting landscapes and even action that capture the grandeur, scale and surreal qualities of Pebble Beach.

The DJI Inspire drone sports a 120 mm lens and works in two shifts during the day, with longtime Fox cameraman Lewis Estes handling the shots while John Duesler navigates. The team works in two waves, allowing for a safety check and brief break. Diem credits Estes’ knowledge of golf as a huge reason the images have been more than just beauty shots.

The drone shots have proven handy as the marine layer has restricted the blimp’s effectiveness, but it’s the drone’s seagull-level view that delivers a sense of not just the scene, but in several cases, punctuates this amazing meeting of golf and nature. The high point may have been watching Phil Mickelson tee off at the 11th hole Friday, as producer Mark Loomis kept the live drone shot instead of a jarring and unrevealing close-up of Mickelson from the tee. Throw in the dynamic cliffs and an ability to see the ball leave Mickelson’s club, what was an otherwise ordinary moment made any longtime viewer feel fortunate to be watching something so undeniably groundbreaking.

“We’re thrilled with the way it’s turned out,” said Beim, a 30-year veteran who has directed everything in golf and events like the Indianapolis 500 and Super Bowl pre-game show. “We’re trying to take the technology to enhance viewers enjoyment and understanding of the golf course.”

He said the drone images would not have happened without the Pebble Beach Company and its longtime leader, Paul Spengler, who helped Fox with the various agencies requiring approvals to work in such an environmentally sensitive area. That list included the Coast Guard, FAA and California Coastal Commission.

Beim also confirmed that Fox called an audible this week as the new FlightTrack setup, which so dramatically tracks and moves during sixth hole tee shots, was proving unnecessary from behind the 14th green with so few players going for that green in two. Instead, after capturing the magnificent sixth hole’s vital tee shots, the vertical Jitacam atop a booming arm will again move on a modified golf cart to behind the 17th tee. During Saturday’s third round, the move allowed Fox to provide an improved view and tracking of shots on a par-3 that has traditionally been difficult to capture.

Beim says viewers can expect both breakthroughs to come to Winged Foot next year, though only if they enhance the viewing experience. But given the power of the images from Pebble Beach, Fox has raised the bar in ways that will make drones and tracers even more vital in years to come.

Original article at Golf Week, here.

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