The so-called “megalodon” camera rig returns Sunday, when the Sony-DSLR-on-a-Ronin-gimbal will get its biggest audience yet during the Packers and Buccaneers’ NFC Championship game.
The camera made its debut in December, taking Twitter by storm en route to enthralling the sports, tech and film communities. Fans compared the unique shots to Madden clips, erroneously hailing them as 8k. Other networks took notice too, coming up with their own versions of the close-ups with blurry backgrounds.
This camera angle is insane 🤯🤯
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 20, 2020
But before all of that, Jarrod Ligrani used a similar setup to capture home video of his young son. When he brought a version to his FOX NFL crew, they dubbed it “Sexy Cam.” And when he was told, “Your camera is blowing up on Twitter,” Ligrani had assumed his colleagues were joking. What’s happened since, Ligrani told Sportico, is “a bit unreal.”
The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
What is your background at Fox?
I began working with Fox in 2014 as a freelance fill-in TD (Technical Director) on their college football broadcasts. In 2015 I filled in on both college and NFL games, and in 2016, I was placed on their NFL “C” crew for the full regular season, and have remained in that position since.
What does a technical director do?
The technical director is the person on a live broadcast who programs and operates the production switcher during the show. It’s kind of like a live editor. I take orders from the show’s director, and as he makes the calls, “Take camera 1, add font 2,” etc. …, I am the person who is physically pushing the buttons to make those things happen.
What was the inspiration for megalodon?
Megalodon started a few years ago. I had been shooting home video and documenting my first born with a DSLR and my iPhone. But as he learned to walk and eventually run, it became more difficult for me to hold a steady shot while running alongside him. So I began looking into small gimbals.
I’ve always been the type of person who tinkers with ideas. When I see something cool, in a movie, commercial or big show, my mind always goes to “how can we accomplish that same look without the resources that they have?”
The celebration camera is back, love it!pic.twitter.com/Vu3htESSJM
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 27, 2020
How did the pieces come together?
I started out with the first DJI Osmo camera to shoot home videos of my kids. But I always preferred the look and quality of my DSLR. So when DJI released the Ronin-S gimbal, I jumped on it, because it was like an Osmo that you can put your own camera on. I started bringing it to shows to play with. I would try to shoot some art shots before games to give to our editors.
Eventually, I began handing the camera off to our camera operators to use for player arrival shots and warmups. We would record these shots and again give the files to our editors to use and send to the FOX studio in L.A. We then decided that the next logical step for the camera would be to find a way to get the shots to the television truck in real time. So we fitted it with an RF transmitter. After several weeks of transmitting the camera during pregame warmups, (FOX SVP, Field Operations) Michael Davies called our production team and said, “I want to see what this thing can do during game action. So he hired an additional camera operator for the Seahawks at Washington game. And the rest is history.
My understanding is that the name “megalodon” is a long standing joke of Davies’s. Any new camera that gets introduced he would call it the “megalodon”. But for some reason, it stuck this time. Internally, our football crew never called it that. Everyone seemed to have a different name for it. Fancy Cam, Sexy Cam, J-Rod Cam, etc. The first time we heard it called “megalodon” was on Twitter.
What did you like about the camera?
I always thought it was a great camera for “art” shots. Things that we can shoot behind the scenes with a more cinematic look for editors to use in features.
Was the kit designed with shallow depth of field in mind or was that a byproduct?
I’ve always shot with a shallow depth of field to give the video a more cinematic art look. And our director Bryan Lilley, had always commented that he loved that look as well. So when it was decided that we would try to use it live, we actually had a conversation about whether we thought it would be too jarring to have that cinematic look on just one camera. But after taking a look at it, we decided that we didn’t mind it, and we’d give it a try.
When did you realize how popular it was?
During that first game using the camera live, someone on headset said, “Your camera is blowing up on Twitter.” I assumed that was a joke. When the game was over, people started showing me some of the tweets. The next morning at the airport was when the flood of text messages began with online articles, tweets, videos, etc. … That’s when I knew that this was much bigger than I had thought.
A few friends of mine who don’t work in the business sent me texts saying, “Have you seen this new camera Fox is using?” All I could really reply with was, “Yes, I’ve seen it.”
What other messages did you receive?
(I got one) from my mentor, Jim Armintrout, the Seattle Mariners director for Root Sports Northwest (shown right). The picture is me helping him fix his sprinkler line, digging a hole with a spoon. He’s my Mr. Miyagi I suppose.
What did you think of so many fans thinking it was ‘8K’?
It confused me honestly. If anything I would have thought that viewers would complain because parts of the image are out of focus. I tell people, it’s not an 8K camera, it’s an $8k camera.
What did you think of people comparing it to video games?
I didn’t understand that either, at first. The tweets saying that it looked like a movie made sense to me, because you see that shallow depth in films all the time. But not being a video-game guy myself, I didn’t understand that correlation. Until I did a Google search for Madden and noticed that the background in that video game is out of focus.
What has it been like to see that look proliferate across NFL coverage?
It’s a bit unreal. Within two weeks of taking the camera live, CBS rolled out their version of the look on their existing Steadicam. Their approach on focusing the camera is a bit different from ours, though.
FOX also organized a Zoom meeting with WWE and myself a few weeks ago. They said they wanted to give the camera a try. So I gave them all the specifics of our setup, and they went out and purchased the gear. They debuted it last week during a wrestler’s entrance, and WWE fans seemed to love it.
I’ve been contacted by a handful of regional sports networks, as well, who are looking into incorporating the camera into their broadcasts.
How is CBS doing it differently?
CBS has put a new camera on their Steadicam to try to accomplish the same look. The camera they are using is beautiful, but the operator is focusing manually. That’s extremely difficult to do with such a shallow depth when you are shooting fast-moving subjects compounded with the fact that the camera itself is on the move also.
We tried pulling focus manually a few years ago on player arrival shots and realized that it just wasn’t working. And with advancements in Face/Eye detection autofocus, it just made more sense to let the camera take care of it for us.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 10, 2021
How will the affordability of this rig and commoditization of camera tech generally affect broadcasts going forward?
I think you will continue to see shows adding more cameras. There is always going to be one more angle that the director or producer wishes they had. And when affordability and picture quality improve on prosumer gear, it just makes it easier to justify on the accounting front. That being said, there is a reason that typical broadcast cameras cost $200,000. And I don’t see the broadcasts’ main cameras ever getting swapped out with a prosumer camera. But adding them to the show as supplemental cameras can really advance the production quality of a show.
Has megalodon’s popularity affected your career?
A little, I guess. I’ve been asked to tag along to all of Fox’s NFL playoff games to help out with this camera since many technicians aren’t familiar with it yet. And I have a little more name recognition within Fox Sports. But that’s really about it.
In my eyes, this camera is still experimental. Since we’re using a rig that was never meant for a live broadcast, there were many workarounds we had to implement. So I’m still working on how to clean up and simplify some of these workarounds and develop the system further.
The night before I flew out to Seattle for the wild card game, I checked the weather in Seattle, and it said rain on game day. I raced to Target and bought a $20 rain jacket and a clear plastic pencil bag. I stayed up until 2 a.m. that night at my kitchen table cutting up that jacket and sewing it into a rain cover for the camera and gimbal. … It never rained on game day.