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Sports Illustrated's digital workflow
Tuesday, March 16, 2004 | by Eamon Hickey

Steve Fine is looking at two pictures every second. He's been keeping up that pace, with frequent short interruptions, for over four hours, and he'll keep it up for three more. Four-megapixel JPEGs of football players, coaches, fans, entertainers, and certain assets belonging to Miss Janet Jackson go flashing across his computer screen in a dizzying sequence.

Virtually the same speed is maintained even when unrotated verticals appear. Fine and colleague George Washington, who is looking over Fine's shoulder, just instantly tilt their heads 90 degrees and then instantly straighten them back up again when horizontals reappear. Their unison is perfect, as if they're practicing a little hip-hop move. (And, yes, if you suspect that the pace slowed for Miss Jackson's appearances, you might be right.)

"Think we edit fast?" Fine asks, as more images flash by. "I'd be going faster if this shitty computer wasn't so slow." That shitty computer is a dual-Xeon 2.4GHz machine with 1.5GB of RAM.

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Sports Illustrated editors and photographers pore over the take from Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston on February 1, 2004, in the magazine's editing trailer outside of Reliant Stadium. Pictured, left to right: Steve Fine, Director of Photography; George Washington, Deputy Editor; Walter Iooss, Photographer; Al Tielemans, Photographer; Nate Gordon, Assistant Editor acting as an assistant to Walter Iooss; Bob Rosato, Photographer. (Photo by Eamon Hickey/Little Guy Media)

But Fine, who is Sports Illustrated's Director of Photography, has a monstrous job in front of him, and there's no such thing as too much computer. He's chewing through SI's take from Super Bowl XXXVIII, 16,183 digital pictures shot in Houston's Reliant Stadium by eleven of the magazine's staff photographers over the course of about six hours. It's 11:00pm, an hour-and-a-half after the game has ended, and Fine is stashed in SI's media trailer outside the stadium with six other SI employees. The photographers, their work done, left half an hour before.

Fine is darting through the photos in ACDSee 5.0.1's single-image view mode and lip-syncing off and on to a Southside Johnny CD playing through the tinny speakers of a nearby laptop. He's still seeing mostly shots from the game's second quarter. Frequently he will stop on one picture, enlarge it to check its sharpness, get the opinion of Washington, a Deputy Photo Editor for SI, and either skip it or copy it to a sub-folder labeled "selects". That whole process might take three seconds. Fine has copied dozens of images to the selects folder, but he's edgy and, so far, unimpressed with the work of his photographers.

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Single-image viewing mode in ACDSee. Super Bowl XXXVIII photo taken with a Canon EOS-1D by Bob Rosato, Sports Illustrated staff photographer.

"I've never seen so many guys say so many good things about their own take, and there's nothing but shit on the screen," he says. Later, unable to find a good shot of a particular Patriots touchdown catch, he gestures at the screen. "Eleven guys. Eleven versions out of focus."

Fine's editing station is at one end of a long table on which SI has duplicated in miniature much of the workflow found at the magazine's New York headquarters. It's a workflow based on using JPEGs for most editing tasks and RAW files to make the highest quality images for the printing press.

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Sports Illustrated "digital valets" download incoming Super Bowl XXXVIII photos to 10 IBM T40 laptops in the SI media trailer outside Houston's Reliant Stadium. (Photo by Eamon Hickey/Little Guy Media)

The process starts with the photographers, the large majority of whom are shooting this Super Bowl with Canon EOS-1D cameras, which they are instructed always to set for simultaneous RAW+JPEG shooting. The photographers began trickling into SI's trailer earlier that day, and by 4:00pm all eleven had left to take up their positions inside the stadium two near each corner of the field, one roaming each sideline, and one in the stadium's rafters for overhead views.

The first CompactFlash cards full of their images mostly shots of the pre-game show began arriving at the trailer early in the first quarter, ferried from the stadium by half-a-dozen runners. In the trailer, the cards 512MB or 1GB Lexars in speeds from 24X to 40X are fed into Lexar USB 2.0 CompactFlash card readers connected to ten IBM Thinkpad T40 laptops. The ten laptops are in turn connected to another T40 acting as an Oracle server and to two HP Proliant DL380 servers with dual-Xeon 2.4GHz processors, 1.5GB of RAM, and twin Ultra-III SCSI hard drives. (One of these servers, attached to a Sony CPD-G520 21" monitor, is Steve Fine's editing machine.) The Thinkpads are 1.5GHz Pentium M machines with 768MB of RAM and 35GB hard drives.

Immediately after arriving at the trailer the CF cards are inserted into the card readers by five SI employees, each of whom mans two Thinkpads. The images on the cards are retrieved and saved to the laptop hard drive by a custom application written by Sam Greenfield, a Senior System Engineer at the magazine.

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Screenshots from Sam Greenfield's custom photo transfer application

Greenfield's application gives each RAW/JPEG pair a new, SI-specific name, identical for both images except for the three-letter file extension that differentiates JPEGs from RAW files. If a camera without the ability to capture simultaneous RAW+JPEG was used, Greenfield's program will create a JPEG for each RAW file. It also creates a basic caption assignment number, photographer's name, and other information for each image pair.

By the beginning of the third quarter, most of the pictures shot during the first half had already been downloaded. Fine and Washington returned from the stadium and sat down to begin their edit, one eye on the computer screen, the other on the still-in-progress game playing on a TV in the trailer's corner.

The shots are grouped into "takes" roughly one for each quarter of the game, in this case and the JPEGs from each take are copied into a single folder and then fed to Fine's computer for him to browse with ACDSee. The copying is done by Phil Jache, officially a Deputy Photo Editor but really the photo department's information technology guru. The original RAW images are stored on hard drives for later use.

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Deputy Photo Editor and technology guru Phil Jache. (Photo by Sam Greenfield/Sports Illustrated)

As midnight passes, Fine still hasn't found the great images he needs and especially one killer shot for the cover. As he moved through shots of the second quarter and into halftime and the third quarter, he found a few nice images, but pictures of the halftime goings-on overshadowed them. SI staffers made several great frames of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction". There was also a halftime streaker on the field, a stocky middle-aged guy, clad in a skimpy g-string, with a body apparently made from lumpy mashed potatoes. With eleven photographers on the job, no angle of the guy's little Shirley Temple dance went undocumented.

But the game's fourth quarter was full of scoring action. As Fine begins looking at these images, the "selects" folder starts ballooning, and he gets visibly happier by the minute. SI's Managing Editor, Terry McDonell, will make the final decisions about which photos run in the magazine's Super Bowl story, so Fine and Washington make their selections with McDonell's preferences in mind.

For covers, he is said to favor emotionally evocative shots over action images, and when a shot turns up of New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, the game's MVP, smiling and holding up the Super Bowl trophy, Washington says, "That's the cover. That's a Terry cover. The trophy. The smile."

But the images, though grouped roughly by quarter, don't show up on Fine's screen in strictly chronological order. They show up roughly in the order that the CF card they were captured on was downloaded. And an hour later a new sequence of images emerges, shot as the last seconds of the clock ticked off. Fine suddenly slows the pace.

"Oh," he says. "Oh. Here we go. What's this. What. Is. This." Washington leans in closer as Fine enlarges one image to full size. It's part of a continuous sequence of Brady running onto the field in celebration as the game ended, shot from one end of the field looking down the Patriots sideline. The MVP is frozen in mid-air, jumping to high-five a teammate and smiling about an ocean wide. The picture is dead-on sharp.

"Wait," Fine says, leaning back in his chair. "Let me just look at next week's cover. Who shot this? Phil, who shot this?" The answer comes back: John McDonough. "Johnnnny Mac," Fine says, drawing out the name as he studies the picture. "Johnnnny Mac. After 15,000 pieces of crap, we got a cover."

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