Winter X Games Coverage Continues Tradition of Technical Innovation

The Winter X Games on ESPN continued a long tradition of allowing the network to roll out new and innovative workflows. Among this year’s advances was a move to more robotic cameras to capture the action and low-res browsing of video assets on EVS servers with the help of EVS IP Director.  “The low-resolution server recorded the program stream without having to pass around material that required high bandwidth,” says Steve Raymond, coordinating technical manager for ESPN. “That allows us to cut down on the number of channels, makes it easier to interconnect, and also offers good financial savings.”

EVS Multicam 10 also made its X Games debut, giving the network more flexibility in terms of adding layers of embedded audio and also administration tools that allowed staffers to maintain the servers. The configuration tools made it possible to adjust server setup without having to get to the back of the units.

IP Edit, meanwhile, allowed editors to build packages that were posted to an FTP site and made available to the media. “Craft editors still used the Avid editing systems,” adds Raymond.

The production centered on three trucks. NEP SS21’s four units covered venue D, which included the downhill, X Course, and big-air events. NCP X’s two units handled the moto venue events. And the two units of IMS HD1 from IMS Productions in Indianapolis covered slope-style and super-pipe events. A unit from Total RF and CP Communications handled wireless audio, video, and IFBs.

In terms of covering the action, the move to robotics, according to Severn Sandt, operations manager for ESPN Event Operations, has evolved from using no robotic cameras three years ago to having 18 cameras. Nine cameras alone were featured on the X Course, home of the skiing and snowboard racing events. Because ESPN does not need to build camera towers along the course with expensive cameras with expensive lenses, there are substantial cost savings. Also, the unmanned cameras require less maintenance.

“One change this year is, we have custom housings that are heated to prevent fogging of the lenses,” says Sandt. “There is also a windshield wiper.”

Seven operators controlled the robotic cameras at the various events, with all signals coming into the trucks via fiber. The use of 24 fiber strands on the X Course resulted in big cost savings.

“Fiber is here to stay, and there are a lot of savings,” says Sandt. “Troubleshooting copper wire for a 7,000-ft.-long course was a nightmare, with guys chasing down hums and buzzes. We don’t have that anymore.”

All robos, supplied by Fletcher Chicago, were controlled in the B unit of IMS HD1. Fletcher also supplied two manned super-slow-motion camera systems. “Those were used on the pipe, and we had spectacular results,” says ESPN Senior Producer Larry Wilson.

Another addition this year was the use of wireless HD camera systems on the back of snowmobiles. Wilson says, after a lot of research and development work, Total RF figured out a way to make rugged, small systems suitable for the snowmobiles. The battery was located in the back of the snowmobile, the camera in the front.

“HD transmitters were previously too large and heavy,” notes Sandt.

The use of Hydra fiber connectors on the course improves both video and audio. According to Kevin Cleary, senior technical audio producer for ESPN Event Operations, there are no prepackaged effects for coverage. “Everything is MADI [multichannel audio digital interface] and all live sound. We also have DTS encoders, decoders, and stereo monitor boxes for all three trucks,” he adds, “and they have been tremendous.”

As always with the X Games, the ESPN Digital Center was heavily involved with creating the final on-air product. Graphics were inserted from an Avid Deko unit there, and the nightly recap program was, for the first time, produced in Bristol, CT.

Previously, the recap was handled with a full mobile unit and small crew on-site. This year, talent remained in Aspen, but feeds from the studio camera and IP Director were sent back to Bristol, and highlights were played back from there. “That was a big transition,” says Sandt. “When we’re operating by remote control, communications are crucial because we need to make people feel confident that they can reach other staff.”

Henry Rousseau, senior technical producer for ESPN Event Operations, says Telex intercom systems connected the X Games crew not only to the ESPN Digital Center but also to the Australian Open and the Pro Bowl in Miami. “There was an Australian racer here, and we were able to pass information directly to ESPN in Australia.”

With the Winter X Games behind the team, the next challenge is figuring out how the 3D coverage of the Summer X Games will impact the plant and workflow. The 3D production is expected to be a side-by-side production in an effort to minimize the impact on the 2D product that helps pay the bills.

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