It's no secret that Epic Games has enabled a number of gaming studios to create more-realistic visuals with its Unreal game engine. Since its debut in 1998, powering the first-person shooter Unreal, the technology has evolved to power hundreds of games, from Fortnite to Street Fighter V, and with that process, the virtual has become increasingly more realistic. Now in its fourth iteration, Unreal Engine is no longer exclusively being used for gaming, as other industries have taken notice of the possibilities. Unreal Engine 4 has become a key element for film and television in recent years, and Fox Sports is using it to power its new, completely virtual studio set.
"Virtual sets have been around for quite some time, and we've done our fair share of using them," Zac Fields said. "But it's always been a struggle to give that sense of photo realism." Fields oversees Fox Sports' Graphic Technology and Integration department, which includes the addition of new gear during a studio build. He said the team started thinking about the idea of a virtual set about two years ago. Around 15 months ago, the network started getting staff familiar with the software and began tests. Then last winter, the broadcaster did a virtual show. Fields described this as a "full run-through" of a show on the virtual set that was built in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Charlotte is a NASCAR city. While the official headquarters may be in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the governing body of stock car racing has offices in other cities, Charlotte is the epicenter of all things NASCAR. The Hall of Fame and a major portion of NASCAR's offices are downtown, and a lot of the race teams are headquartered nearby. Plus, Charlotte Motor Speedway is just a few minutes north, in Concord. So it makes sense, then, that Fox Sports would coordinate its NASCAR coverage from a facility just north of downtown -- the same spot where the broadcaster made its final preparations for the World Cup earlier this year.
Inside the former home of the Speed Network, Fox Sports broadcasts its NASCAR Race Hub show every weekday. Think of it as a news hour for NASCAR. During the hour-long broadcast, hosts, commentators and experts analyze the previous weekend's action and preview upcoming races. The Race Hub studio needed a refresh this year, though, and Fox Sports Senior Vice President Zac Fields explained the network had some specific goals for the overhaul.
Realism and versatility were at the top of the list.
Unreal Engine allows production teams to expand their bag of tricks exponentially. "In the past, virtual sets were used as a cost-saving venture, but with new technology -- specifically what we're doing with Unreal Engine -- the level of realism that you can achieve opens the doors to so much more," Fields said. "You're not limited to a space, and you're not limited to graphics to convey storylines during your shows."
He noted that most of the work was behind the scenes, creating a custom application that can link what they need for television production to a video game engine. Fox Sports plans to start putting the new space through its paces in the lead up to the 2019 Daytona 500. That race is scheduled for mid February and is basically the Super Bowl of NASCAR -- even though it's the first race of the season. That's quite the debut for your production team's new crown jewel.
The most impressive thing about this virtual space is that it looks like a normal studio. Having seen the current Race Hub set, if you told me this was just a redesign of that physical space, I would probably believe you. But it's the details that really make this a showpiece. In a demo reel that previews the studio, the virtual set itself looks massive -- much larger than it is in real life. The space allows Fox Sports to "park" 10 stock cars on set, which is probably about eight more than the actual studio will accommodate.
When it's time to preview a specific event or venue, Fox Sports can easily put a section of the track -- Daytona International Speedway, for example -- with a race car rolling on it behind the host. A balcony around the the top of the virtual set gives producers even more perspectives to shoot from. The result is a regular-sized studio that's tucked into the corner of a building but appears to offer the space of an airplane hangar. In the future, if Fox Sports needs to move on to another show for the next hour, the whole thing can be swapped out in minutes, and without any literal heavy lifting.
The virtual set itself looks massive -- much larger than it is in real life.
So if a broadcaster is going to invest in its "most advanced studio," why put it in Charlotte instead of its Los Angeles headquarters? A few reasons. First, NASCAR is a huge part of the network's coverage. There's racing content broadcast every single day. The second is available space. Fox Sports had the room in North Carolina to build out this 60-foot-by-60-foot production space. And last, the Race Hub set was due for an overhaul.
"It was the perfect spot for us to experiment," Fields said.
He explained that the sport itself is very tech-heavy, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for production visuals. More specifically, where a 3D model of a dissected stock car may have been on a display before, now it will be just like a full-size car is on set with the hosts. Multiple cars can rise up through the floor and be not only on the set but also moved around easily -- a feat that's not easily achieved with actual, very heavy stock cars.
Fox Sports can also bring a remote location to the set instead of having to send a team there. In the demo reel, there are examples of things like track elevations and examining specific sections of a track in lifelike, and life-size, detail. One minute analysts are explaining key parts of a 3D model, and the next they're standing on a track.
"It creates this seamless transition from the virtual set into the 3D world," Fields described.