Sunday’s game between the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints may have ended in a blowout, but the first half featured the most thrilling 20 seconds of the NFL season. Late in the first quarter, Chicago return man Cordarrelle Patterson ran a kickoff back 102 yards for a touchdown. The play itself was electric, but what made it particularly enthralling was Fox’s use of an overhead camera angle, which allowed viewers to ride along with Patterson in real time.
It takes two people to operate that overhead camera, which is known as SkyCam. The pilot moves the rig above the field, while the operator pans and focuses the camera on the action. It’s a complicated dance, but when it’s pulled off, the results are spectacular. To learn more about SkyCam’s role during the Patterson touchdown, I spoke with its operator, Darin Haggard. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nick Greene: You work in tandem with the pilot. What’s that process like?
Darin Haggard: Everybody uses SkyCam slightly differently, and every director and network seems to have a different idea of how it should be used. Fox tends to be on the more aggressive side. It’s really fun to fly these shows with these directors who let you do your thing and trust you. Other networks have more strict guidelines. They never want to see the camera. That’s one guideline. I don’t know if you saw the replay, but from the [on-field] cameras, we were in the shot the entire time. But at that point we were live, so we didn’t care about anything else but getting the shot.
[In the video embedded below, you can see SkyCam starting at the 0:07 mark. Hello, SkyCam!]
Kickoff returns are exceedingly rare now, so this must have been really special, especially with the shot being live.
Yeah. That’s a cool thing. Most of the kickoffs are going out the back of the end zone, so our odds of getting a big run back [aren’t great]. It’s one of our most exciting shots. We’re never really used on a live snap. We’re a big reset camera and a big storytelling camera and a big replay camera. We’re always getting the shot, and if it’s really good they’ll use it as the first replay. NBC has been experimenting with going live with SkyCam and trying different things. I was actually at that game, the fog bowl. I was the high sky [a SkyCam set at a higher altitude] operator for that game.
What was the lead-up to the kick like?
Kickoffs usually come out of commercial breaks. We try to do some big, dramatic scene-set shots with the fly-in timed perfectly. But of everybody who flies SkyCam, [pilot] Alex [Milton] is just a master at reading body language. I’ve never seen anyone with that ability to just know when [the kicker] is standing back there with his arm up—he knows he’s gotta get from 110 yards away from the upper-left-hand corner of the stadium all the way back around. It’s uncanny when you watch him fly, to get back there exactly when he needs to get back there. The guy is approaching the ball and Alex has got just the right amount of speed to time it out perfectly.
What was it like between you and Alex during the Patterson return?
He’s in control of the X,Y, and Z axis and the computer, which gives us all the feedback on loads. As we’re flying, the camera actually gives you feedback. If you’re flying into a headwind, it will say “This is the limit of my abilities” or whatever. You have to watch those things. Depending where you are in the stadium, the motors have tensions the closer you get to certain lines. There’s a ton of things that go into it for the pilot. I’m also always looking over his shoulder. He usually sits to my right. I’ll glance over and I can see where we are on the grid to give myself a reference.
To appear as if it’s seamless, I have to read what Alex is doing. I know he’s going downfield, and then [Patterson] breaks right and I can feel Alex sliding to his right and then he’s coming underneath us. At that point it gets tricky, because if he goes straight underneath us we call it getting “handcuffed.” Once you tilt the camera straight down the only option you have is to pivot. And if the pivot is completely straight down then basically the shot’s blown. If you’re live then that’s the worst thing that can happen. The guy leaves the frame and you’re like: “Sorry! You have to cut to somebody else to pick up the rest of this play.”
There’s a huge amount of trust. Rich Russo is the director on that Fox “A” show, and he has an incredible amount of trust in the team up there. His stuff’s on the line, too. Most directors will just cut to Camera 2. We basically showed off every aspect of [SkyCam]. We had the downfield speed. We had the sideways trucking. We had the reverse motion of the player with the ball coming right at us, and then the pivot with a bunch of guys flying. It was a perfect storm.
That moment with the pivot is pretty incredible. Was that the point when you realized you really had to nail it?
One hundred percent. I’ve seen it go wrong, and I’ve been there when it’s gone wrong. It’s one thing if it goes wrong when you’re a replay camera, but when you’re live, everything’s on the line. I had ultimate faith that Alex was going to move the direction that I was predicting he was going to move. All of that worked out perfectly. We were on the near–side hashes and we ended up at the opposite hashes by the end zone on the other side of the field. I can remember every frame. I was like, “OK, there’s blockers, keep him head-to-toe a little wider.” And then I see the ref in the corner and I’m like: “Let me see if I can pay this off if the ref’s going to give the signal but I can keep the guy in frame. Should I snap and go tight? No, there are other guys who have the tight shot, so I’m going to show the crowd, the signal, and [Patterson].”
At what point did you think he might go all the way?
That first zone he cleared, at about the 35-yard line. Usually I think they’re going to get caught around the 50 after they get to the second set of guys coming in. But once he broke that first series and I saw what was coming and everyone was sort of shifted, I was like, “Hey, this could go.” I don’t know if we were completely silent or if we were yelling, I can’t remember. Our operator station at that stadium is basically in the crowd at the top of the second level. Three feet in front of us are crazy fans. It’s super loud. We’ve got headsets on and we’re listening to the announcers and we’re listening to the director. There’s a lot.
What was it like after you got the shot? That must have been a rush.
There’s another part of the story. Alex and I started out at SkyCam together. We flew a college season our first year and got in a groove. We realized that we had something good working. We did two seasons together and then SkyCam picked up an NFL package with CBS. We got on that NFL package. It must have been six or seven years ago, and we did some big playoff games that year. It went well. The next year, they ended up splitting us up. I went to do college and Alex went off to do Thursday and Sunday games. They needed to spread us out. We hadn’t flown together for like four or five years, but we always talk about how good it would be to fly together again. So when I got the call last week to come fly with Alex, I was so excited.
Wow, this was the first time you’d flown together in over four years?
Yeah. There’s an operator who does that show on a regular basis and he’s great, but he had some commitments that day and I was so happy to get that call. I don’t usually get nervous, but I got nervous a little bit. Good nervous, because it’s a big show. They have a pattern, and they use SkyCam like every other shot. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to step in cold with Alex and this crew because they use it so much. It ended up great.
How much of a heads up did you get before the Patterson return that you were going live?
Probably four or five seconds.
Was there anything you would have done differently?
I’ve watched it a few times. I don’t think there’s anything I would have done different. There was a moment where I thought I should be tighter on him catching the ball, but there were the four guys out in front blocking that I think were important. I could have been head-to-toe on him when he catches it, but does that tell the story?
The response online has been awesome.
It was like trending, right?
I think so. You almost never see things on Twitter where the response is universally positive, but that was the case for your camera shot.
There were like two guys who said something bad. I wanted to show it to my mom, but I had to make sure it was mostly good.