Live From X Games: ESPN’s Rosenfeld Behind the Scenes in Austin

The X Games arrive Austin, TX, this week, and ESPN is once again out in full force with an army of production equipment and crew. Split between the sprawling Circuit of the Americas (COTA) and downtown Austin, ESPN’s production team is juggling 64 cameras to 110 unique positions across 11 disciplines — plus streaming Metallica’s concert live on ESPN3 on Saturday night.

Amy Rosenfeld at the Big Air Ramp at COTA

Amy Rosenfeld at the Big Air Ramp at COTA

The event marks ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer Amy Rosenfeld’s first Austin X Games production after she segued into the role late last year. SVG sat down with the longtime ESPN soccer-production stalwart to discuss how the network is covering the action at COTA and Thursday night’s Moto Step Up Final at the state capitol downtown, as well the impact of ESPN’s REMI production model, the role of drones (or lack thereof) in Austin, and the challenges that go along with covering an event the scale of X Games.

This is your first year working X Games in Austin. What has stood out most about the venue thus far?
This is definitely new territory for me. I was in Brazil this time last year [for the World Cup]. The first thing that I recognize is the relationship with Circuit of the Americas. To have the infrastructure of a world-class racing facility significantly helps. The staff here knows how to hold big events, and it’s been a great marriage between them and ESPN, [which is] coming in and creating courses in their world. But they just roll with that.

I think there have been a lot of lessons from last year both for the track and for ESPN, especially in dealing with weather. With the wind, the rain, the temperature, how do we structure the courses, how do we give the best fan experience, and what’s best for TV? So that’s been a really great relationship because you’re working with pros.

And how has the Moto Step Up production downtown gone so far?
I think that the excitement of and scale of having motorcycles high-jumping in front of the capitol will be fantastic. Austin just fits so perfectly: it’s such a progressive, vibrant, young crowd, and everyone enjoys the atmosphere. The integration of downtown [with COTA] has some challenges, but I think they slayed a lot of beasts last year when they had to do Vert. So we get the benefit of having one year under our belt.

How much will the REMI production model play into that portion of the show?
We are definitely using the REMI [model]. The infrastructure is back here, and that behaves as a remote infrastructure, where we are able to communicate. All the guts will be back here [in the facility at COTA]; the production team will be here operating it remotely. It’s going to ultimately be 10 transmission paths coming back over fiber, and we also have an uplink to back up three of those. We have a jib, a Strada crane, a [NAC Hi-Motion II ultra-slo-mo], a helicopter, a POV, and several handhelds. The announcers will be here, but [reporter Nicole Briscoe] will be [downtown], and we will have SportsCenter integration from down there.

My position on the REMI is — and I know this to be the case on MLS [coverage] — is that it’s a way to redeploy money to better the production. It’s not about saving money and being efficient, but being able to do more. We could not have put a camera in the goalposts, which we just did at Manchester City-Toronto FC [on May 27]. We couldn’t put cameras in the goalposts without having an efficient model. So we were able to redeploy the money into innovation and technology.

Besides your joining the X Games team, ESPN motorsports veteran Rich Feinberg has come back on board. How do you see his presence impacting the X Games motorsports coverage this year?
Rich’s experience with X Games and his expertise with racing specifically give us such a leg up in terms of coverage. We will be very aggressive in terms of on-board [cameras], RF, mics in helmets, expanding on what we did at Winter [X Games] with the RF GoPros, which I thought was one of the key elements of coverage. We are looking at RF GoPros, trying to figure out great mounts on the Flat Track and on the motorcycles. A lot of this will be experimental, so we will see. Rich is always trying to capture speed, sound, and access, and I think that’s what the on-boards give you.

We are also looking to be able to mike Rusty Wallace in the trucks so we can talk to him on the course while he’s driving. For us, being able to mike the athletes is the biggest component. We did it at the [Winter X Games] Snowmobile with one of the competitors who is also sort of our reporter. How was the course? How did it feel? What was it like? That’s one of the benefits of X Games: the athletes are so cooperative. They want to grow the sport. For them, it’s [progress for] the events and the action, but it’s also [progress for] television.

In terms of sheer square footage, COTA is a massive venue. What challenges does that create for ESPN in terms of camera coverage?
You’re absolutely right. Having blanketed RF coverage is critical because you have to be so nimble. Really, it is like a Rubik’s cube trying to figure out the [repositioning], because we’re trying to be efficient. It would be easy to just say, let’s have 300 cameras, but that’s not a good financial model. So it’s being strategic about placement: I can get this great shot of this venue, but I can swing the jib arm over here and have the same shot of another course. This is where the work of the event and staging side, COTA, and production have to work hand-in-glove.

If you look at the whole big picture, we’re at 64 overall cameras, but a lot of that is RF and GoPros. There are three jibs; when you think about it, that’s not a lot. Super cranes [and] Strata [cranes] really help. Every X Games is sort of an experiment: we’ll try this, see how this camera complement worked, then decide whether we bring that back.

Will ESPN be using drone-based camera systems as you did in Aspen for Winter X Games?
We were not able to get that this year in Austin. In Aspen, we were able to isolate [the drone] from the crowds, which, frankly, required a lot of legwork and paperwork. With the FAA limitations on how close you can be to spectators, we were just not able to adequately and safely secure an area here. So much of X Games is about the fan experience. We would have to push [fans] so far away. At this point, we felt that there wasn’t an appropriate venue that could handle [drones] safely.

You mentioned the GoPro-Vislink HEROCast RF POV cameras, which debuted at Winter X Games and then made a big splash at NAB 2015. How do you see them enhancing the X Games coverage?
Ultimately, we’ll have two systems, but we will be moving them all over the courses.

It’s pretty much the same RF GoPro infrastructure we did at Aspen, but it has come a long way. It was a great partnership in Aspen because they were taking a leap of faith, we were taking a leap of faith. And then, let’s not forget the operators, who were taking the Big Air jumps right behind [the competitors], which was incredible. But it is a bigger challenge here.

I think [GoPro cameras] will be the most useful on the racing. Basically, we are going to rig things that move fast and get a live feed off of that. If this motorcycle Flat Track [camera] works — they’re [attached] by the kickstand so you can see the foot come out — that could be cool. We would also like to see them on Big Air somehow. We haven’t totally given up on that, but it would be more of a challenge.

With Metallica and dozens of live acts performing here, plus the seven themed festivals, how will ESPN try to capture and convey the ambience here beyond the X Games competition itself?
It has become as much a lifestyle event with the music and [activities] as it has a sporting event. I think we’ve got sort of a dual mission: to document the events but also to put the entire event on display. That’s a critical part. We also try to serve the viewers, so the Metallica concert will stream on ESPN3. We did that with Snoop Dogg, and it was very successful and popular with viewers.

CLICK HERE to read all of SVG’s in-depth coverage of X Games 2015 in Austin.

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