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Mobile Production’s Olympian Achievement

Vendors Meet Vancouver’s Technical and Logistical Challenges

By Mark R. Smith and Christine Bunish

The outdoor Olympic cauldron at the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Center.
The outdoor Olympic cauldron at the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Center.
Photo Courtesy of Jason Johnson, Metrovision

It was big, international and, stretched over multiple venues — most of them outdoors — it was tough to cover. Vendors supplying production and satellite transmission trucks to the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver met myriad challenges to bring the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and all the sporting competitions to fans comfortably ensconced at home.

Games Mark Pinnacle for NEP
The crew at Pittsburgh-based NEP Supershooters (www.nepinc.com) can revel in having had a well-rounded Olympic experience, with eight HD expandos on site at various locales. Two trucks were at the Pacific Coliseum for figure skating and two at B.C. Place for the Opening and Closing ceremonies and ice hockey. Four were in Whistler, creek-side for Alpine skiing, on the Nordic combined run, at the Richmond Oval for speedskating and at the Whistler Olympic Center for cross-country skiing. NEP covered the events for a pair of unnamed American and European networks.

While reporting that most systems ran smoothly, George Hoover, Chief Technical Officer for NEP, did have one wish that was not fulfilled — initially, anyway: “It would have been nice to have snow,” he quips.

Working the Olympics is like no other job, he emphasizes. “It’s 37 times harder to broadcast the Olympics than a regular sporting event in the U.S.,” Hoover notes. “You have to consider that the games last two weeks; then there are the security concerns, and dealing with the sheer number of broadcasters who are trying to share camera positions without tripping over each other and basically just trying to get along.” There are more TV and media personnel on hand for the Olympics than athletes, he points out.

Representatives from Canada's First Nations gather during the Opening Ceremonies at B.C. Place.
Representatives from Canada’s First Nations gather during the Opening Ceremonies at B.C. Place.
Photo Courtesy of Jake Dodson, Clear-Com

At the games, host Olympic Broadcast Services (OBS) made all of the arrangements. “It’s all very well planned, but every country approaches their broadcast in their own fashion,” Hoover observes. “If that wasn’t the case, one camera from one truck would work.” NEP provided Ikegami HDK-79EC cameras, Thomson LDK-8000 and LDK 6000s, and Sony HDC-900 and HDC-1500 cameras to its Olympic clients.

All countries have their favorite sports — and sports where their athletes are favorites. Take figure skating, for instance. “Broadcasters want to use more cameras (there) because that’s a very popular event; so maybe they have an extra camera or two on the judges’ table, in the warm-up areas in the hallways, or at the kiss-and-cry spot where they find out their scores,” Hoover says. “But remember, OBS wants to put on a generic broadcast for the feed of record that provides the foundation of the broadcast. It doesn’t favor any one country.”

Metrovision's HD-3 control room with the technical director (left) and director from Dutch broadcaster NOS at work.
Metrovision’s HD-3 control room with the technical director (left) and director from Dutch broadcaster NOS at work.
Photo Courtesy of Steve Bikofsky, Metrovision

Also consider the downhill events where it would have been impossible for broadcasters from many nations to have cameras set up in the middle of the course. “But what they could do,” says Hoover, “is set up their cameras at the top and bottom of the (run) for reaction shots, then take that generic mid-course feed from OBS.”

OBS ran triax, SMPTE and fiber for the alpine events depending on whatever broadcasters ordered for their camera positions, he notes. The same applied to cross-country skiing.

Canon HDTV Lenses and Remote-Control Robotic HD
Cameras Feature in NBC’s Olympic Coverage
Canon's XJ86x9.3B covering figure skating in the Pacific Coliseum.
Canon’s XJ86x9.3B covering figure skating in the Pacific Coliseum.
Canon U.S.A. Inc. had a significant presence in Vancouver providing advanced HDTV lenses, remote-control robotic HD cameras and a Canobeam Free Space Optics HD video transceiver system for NBC’s coverage of the games. Canon has supplied NBC with lenses for its Olympic coverage since 1992.An extensive array of Canon HDTV lenses were used at the Olympics, including HJ14ex4.3B wide-angle portable HDTV lenses, presently the widest-angle portable HD zoom lenses in the professional arena of 2/3-inch lenses. The result of newly-developed glass elements and highly-advanced optical coatings, they combine an extended 14 times zoom range and unprecedented 4.3mm wide angle with exceptional optical performance. A new Digital Drive unit provides improved operability and ergonomics.NBC also used Canon’s XJ27x6.5B HDTV studio lenses that feature impressive wide-angle performance and deliver a focal length of 6.5mm to 180mm, as well as XJ1000x9.3B and XJ86x9.3B long-zoom HD field lenses with Canon’s Optical Shift-IS image-stabilizer technology.

In addition to lenses, Canon also furnished NBC with its BU-45H remote-control robotic pan-tilt 16:9 HD camera system that was used for beauty shots of Vancouver. Designed for HD POV sports shots and other camera positions where an operator cannot be present, the BU-45H features a Canon HD camera equipped with three 1/3-inch CCD sensors, a Canon HD zoom lens with 20X optical zoom ratio, a remote-control ND filter, genlock input and HD-SDI output with embedded audio as the primary video.

NBC also tapped the Canobeam DT-150 HD wireless video transceiver system that employs point-to-point Free Space Optical light beams to provide reliable bi-directional, uncompressed 1.5Gbps transmission of embedded digital HD video, audio and camera-control signals on a single HD-SDI stream with no delay. A particularly good choice for RF-heavy environments, the Canobeam DT-150 requires no frequency licensing or coordination and sets up quickly. It has a range of up to one kilometer and an exclusive Auto Tracking feature to maintain beam alignment despite vibration due to wind, rain or unsteady platforms which surely came in handy at the games.

As diverse as were countries’ individual needs, everyone had the same goal of delivering a once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience to those watching at home. “Anyone who worked the Olympics is glad that they were there,” Hoover says. “The days can be long, the food Spartan and the accommodations not so great. But it’s the pinnacle of your career.”

Sure Shot Taps Olympic Experience
One might surmise that Sure Shot Transmissions (www.sureshotsat.com) of Middletown, Ohio, rates among the companies that made the wisest use of its time and gas money at the games. The company arrived in Vancouver in early February and didn’t depart until late March at the close of the Paralympics.

Sure Shot had two contracts for the Olympics — one with German network ARD, the other with OBS. ARD had the company provide them with a combo truck, called Natalie Michele, that provided the transmission for its six-HD camera production of a studio show at the Jack Nicklaus North Country Club in Whistler.

Metrovision's HD-3 alongside NEP's SS14 a the Richmond Oval.
Metrovision’s HD-3 alongside NEP’s SS14 a the Richmond Oval.
Photo Courtesy of Steve Bikofsky, Metrovision

Natalie Michele is a 40-foot truck that combines a mid-size production truck with Ku-band satellite transmission capabilities. “We aimed to put the same level of production on (the truck) that you would find in a 53-foot mobile truck with no drop-off in quality,” says Dennis Kunce, president of Sure Shot. Its equipment complement included six Thomson LDK-8000 cameras, a GVG Kalypso switcher with a 3ME bank, up to two 6-channel EVS systems, two Sony HDCAM and two Panasonic DVCPRO decks, a Chyron HyperX, plus a fully-digital Yamaha audio board. But it’s the additional satellite capability that sets this truck apart, Kunce reports.

ARD’s studio at the Jack Nicklaus North Country Club was “a scaled-down version of the studios you would have found in Vancouver,” he notes. Sure Shot used an MPEG IV for a double-hop from Vancouver to an East Coast teleport; from there the show was retransmitted to Germany.

Sure Shot also had a pair of satellite trucks on hand for OBS: one in Vancouver, the other in Whistler. It was the possible perils of heading up and down a mountain that led OBS to go for two. “But the weather cooperated to a large degree,” Kunce says. “Not only were there were no major snowstorms during the games, we didn’t even have to get the chains out for the tires.”

The Richmond Oval, the Olympic long-track speedskating venue.
The Richmond Oval, the Olympic long-track speedskating venue.
Photo Courtesy of Jason Johnson, Metrovision

The satellite trucks were used to deliver the world feed from selected venues. “For instance, the first Vancouver truck was at GM Place for the Opening Ceremony, supplying the world feed for an audience that OBS estimated at 4.5 billion,” he reports. From there, Sure Shot went to set up the primary events of any given day in Vancouver, as well as Whistler.

As is often the case at events as huge as the Olympic games, Sure Shot’s deal with OBS called for an additional engineer to be on site for emergency purposes, with back-ups amplifiers and encoders in tow. The company’s prior Olympic experience in Salt Lake City provided the “in” to work in Vancouver this go ’round.

Overall, Kunce was impressed by OBS’s preparations for the games. “They did a great job setting everything up,” he says. “They were much more organized than Salt Lake. The security was extremely tight, and the logistics handled well, considering not only the road traffic, but the general congestion in Vancouver and Whistler.”

MIRA Mobile is King of the Hill
Having a fleet of five HD trucks and being based in one of the metropolitan areas closest to Vancouver might sound like an obvious revenue generator. But, given contractual arrangements with its regular clients, Portland-Oregon-based MIRA Mobile Television (www.miramobile.com) was able to furnish only one of its trucks to the Olympics.

Nevertheless, MIRA, which maintains an office but no vehicles in Vancouver, took the opportunity to show off its latest addition: the 53-foot expando M9, which rolled up to Whistler Creek for OBS.

Sure Shot's HD truck Natalie Michele traveled to Vancouver to cover the games for German network ARD.
Sure Shot’s HD truck Natalie Michele traveled to Vancouver to cover the games for German network ARD.

Director of sales Steve Meyer says the truck focused on Alpine skiing events like the downhill, slalom and combined events such as the Super G. “Worldwide, downhill skiing is thought to be the most popular event” at the games “except for perhaps the Opening Ceremony,” he notes. “It was nice to be at a premiere venue” with the M9, which was outfitted with 10 Sony HDC-1550 portable HD cameras, various Fujinon lenses and eight EVS systems.

“We caught the skiers coming out of the gate as they flew down the hill, at which point the Cor-Plex trucks picked them up,” Meyer explains. Lake Bluff, Illinois-based Cor-Plex (www.corplex.tv) had two trucks at the mid-point of the ski runs where the OBS truck’s feed originated.

OBS had 57 cameras at the venue, all told, “with about 40 set up at any one time for the various runs,” according to Meyer. That total included MIRA’s 10 Sony 1550s plus some specialty cameras from other vendors.

“A good portion of what the viewers saw on NBC came from the world feed via our truck,” says Meyer. The production crew on the Alpine slope was primarily Swiss, and they employed a helicopter to move some equipment “from one run to another for logistical reasons,” he reports.

Gerling-Built Trucks Turn in Winning Performances
Fred Gerling has an interesting perspective on the vast number of trucks that queued for the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver: That’s because his company built about a third of the 100 (or so) support and uplink units on hand.

As the games got underway Gerling, president of Gerling & Associates in Sunbury, Ohio (www.gerlinggroup.com), had a bit of dÈj‡ vu leftover from the recent Super Bowl XXIV where, again, one-third of the units were the result of his insight, influence and handiwork.

At the Super Bowl and especially at the Olympics, the units were used for split feeds by different nations that speak different languages. While that sounds impressive, no special customization was involved in the preparation for either event, he says.

“Our clients today are asking for trucks that can be used in any environment,” Gerling reports. Trucks are typically outfitted with 24 to 30 cameras “and have a considerable patching capability, which makes them versatile. It’s not uncommon to find more than 30 patch bays in trucks of this caliber.”

Game Creek Video was among the Gerling clients that traveled to Vancouver.
Game Creek Video was among the Gerling clients that traveled to Vancouver.

Master production for these events was handled by Gerling’s 53-foot expandos that widen by 60 inches. “That,” he says, “is what networks need today for major productions like the Olympics.”

Gerling notes that his company sticks to manufacturing trailers and his customers, in the case of the Olympics, Dome Productions, MIRA Mobile, Game Creek Video and Cor-Plex are interested in reliability and quick maintenance.

“Production on any sports event runs long hours before the actual event,” he reminds us. His clients tend to record all the practice runs for a competition “in case there’s something to show the audience, like an extraordinarily fast time or a major injury,” in addition to the actual events themselves. He understands that these sessions often go well beyond 12 hours in duration.

“This isn’t like covering a football game,” he emphasizes. “What they do at the Olympics takes several more days to cover than the actual events.”

While Gerling was only on site for two days to ensure the contentment of his clients, two of his lieutenants were at hand for the games’ two-week duration: an air-conditioning technician and a maintenance worker. “Happily, neither was called much” by Gerling’s four clients who owned the 30-plus trucks that his company built, he says.

Gerling’s trucks were designed “for major league sports coverage and everything that helps our customers bring those events to the broadcasters, and the viewers,” he notes. “We were very fortunate that everything we had onsite was extremely reliable and worked very well.

“Where the work really was at the Olympics was with Olympic Broadcast Services (which had to) figure out how to configure the units onsite for the networks at the various venues,” he points out. “You have to understand that NBC, for instance, had the biggest investment in the games. They had a fixed compound and all of the feeds had to find correct destinations. And that can be an overwhelming task.”

Metrovision Hits The Ice
New York City’s Metrovision Production Group (www.metrovision.tv) sent two trucks to Vancouver: its HD-1 40-foot expando was at the Pacific Coliseum to cover figure skating and short-track speedskating for Korea’s Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) and its HD-3 40-foot straight truck was at the Richmond Oval to cover long-track speedskating for Netherlands broadcaster NOS.

Metrovision EIC Jason Johnson reconfigured HD-3 to accommodate the needs of the Dutch using extensive audio and video patching, installing an RTS Cronus intercom set up they were familiar with and adding a second 6-channel EVS for playback; both EVS systems ran with remote controls.

HD-3 received seven clean SD feeds from the venue’s host truck, an Italian mobile unit with a Dutch crew, plus four HD graphic feeds. “The feeds from the host truck came via the TOC trailer which was the distribution center for the Oval,” says Johnson. “We had several feeds from the TOC that had embedded audio and had to de-embed them with X-75 frame syncs.”

Since the TOC was over 300 feet away, the cable run was too long to use traditional copper cabling for the HD signals, he points out, so HD-3 had to take the HD feeds via its TAC 6 fiber and Telecast rattler system. “It worked like a charm,” he says.

Four of the HD feeds were official Olympic graphics (two key signals, two fills) that had to be downconverted with the correct aspect and referenced for use in the production switcher. “Nearly every input and output on the curb panel was used,” Johnson reports.

MIRA Mobile brought a complement of Fujinon lenses to the Olympics.
MIRA Mobile brought a complement of Fujinon lenses to the Olympics.
Photo Courtesy of Fujinon

HD-3 was equipped with seven Sony HDC-1500 cameras whose HD signals were downconverted for transmission on SD fiber. NOS deployed four cameras, outfitted with long lenses, around the track. Two cameras, with a mini jib on a platform, covered announce positions located “nice and high” in the Oval. And one camera was stationed in The Mix Zone in the center of the ice where skaters were buttonholed for short interviews.

HD-3 also interfaced with an Avid edit suite in an adjacent trailer. “The Avid editor had a truck router head in the trailer so she could choose any video/audio source coming into the truck,” Johnson explains. “We then took the Avid output as one of our sources for our transmission.”

Coverage went smoothly as might be expected from a world speedskating powerhouse like the Dutch. “The camera and audio crew from the Netherlands had it down pat,” says Johnson.

At the Pacific Coliseum Metrovision EIC Paul Wolf’s first task was getting HD-1 into a level position in a parking lot that was anything but even. “We had to raise the front of the truck approximately one foot,” he explains. “If you’re not level you can’t open the expando.” He also had to consider positioning HD-1 for a quick getaway once the last medals’ ceremony was over. “We were due to be in Florida for YESNetwork’s (Major League Baseball) spring training three days later. From our parking position we struck and were out of the lot in 45 minutes.”

The Inukshuk at the top of Whistler.
The Inukshuk at the top of Whistler.
Steve Bikofsky, Metrovision

To meet the needs of client SBS, HD-1 was outfitted with six Sony HDC-1500 HD cameras, two 6-channel EVS systems with Spot Boxes for replay moves and four Sony M2000 HDCAM decks. Audio was 5.1 non-embedded; most audio was delivered on twisted pair connectors that required extra time to get into XLR. Metrovision brought along audio AIC Bob Aldridge to assist the A1 from SBS who lacked experience on the Studer Vista 5 audio console and spoke no English.

Since Metrovision was covering both short-track speedskating and figure skating from the same venue for the Korean broadcaster, cameras had to be repositioned for each event. The camera shooting the announce table, for instance, was also shooting the track and had to be positioned to capture the anchors on air. A camera was also located at the kiss-and-cry area during figure skating coverage. “SBS added mics at each camera position for effects,” notes Wolf, “and audio was sent back embedded on the cameras.”

HD-1 also received six feeds from OBS consisting of the OBS and NBC programs plus four additional cameras. The SBS signal was routed to the International Broadcasting Center for transmission to Korea.

The track in the Richmond Oval, the Olympic long-track speedskating venue.
The track in the Richmond Oval, the Olympic long-track speedskating venue.
Photo Courtesy of Steve Bikofsky, Metrovision

Game Creek Juggles Ceremonies and Slopes
Hudson, New Hampshire-based Game Creek Video (www.gamecreekvideo.com) rolled into Vancouver with three trucks in tow, which were used by three entities: NBC, Canada’s CTV and OBS.

Game Creek’s Patriot covered the Opening and Closing ceremonies for CTV; Freedom worked for NBC at Cypress Mountain in Whistler for the alpine skiing events; and Northstar was on hand for perhaps the most important purpose — as a “hot standby disaster truck in case something happened,” says Jason Taubman, vice president of design and new technology. “Fortunately, it was not used.”

Taubman worked at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and, by the time they aired, knew the drill well. “We were involved in four dress rehearsals for the Opening Ceremony,” he says. “We were set up in the TV compound for CTV” where eight other trucks were also stationed for the opening.

“We were taking feeds from OBS and NBC; NBC was taking feeds from us, and we employed 22 of our unilateral Sony 1500 HD cameras,” Taubman recalls. Fourteen of them were handheld, the rest used in Steadicam or other specialty rigs. Game Creek reprised its complement of 22 cameras for the Closing Ceremony where they “were interspersed throughout the stadium — from every angle — based on production needs.”

Audio room in Game Creek Video's
Audio room in Game Creek Video’s “Patriot” where CTV staff engineers worked on the Opening
and Closing Ceremonies.
Photo Courtesy of Jason Taubman

The skiing events did not require such large camera counts. “NBC would set cameras at the top and bottom of the hill, for instance, with OBS supplying the feed for the middle of the course,” Taubman says. “Several of our Sony 1500 HD cameras were in the start house, and several others were at the bottom of the hill in ‘The Mix Zone’ to accommodate athlete interviews.”

When asked what stood out about the overall broadcast effort during the games, he cites “the sheer quantity of cameras and feeds in use during the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. That made it a challenge, because there were so many broadcasters there that were not used to working together, let alone at an event of that magnitude.”

However, Taubman reports that everyone rose to the challenge. “We were all on the same team, and we worked together to get the job done. The broadcasters’ technical managers did a good job of managing the high volume of signals and keeping the crews on the same page.”

Clear-Com’s Hybrid Network Works Opening and Closing Ceremonies
Clear-Com Communication Systems’ (www.clearcom.com) Hybrid Network was the intercom solution of choice for the Olympics’ Opening and Closing Ceremonies and other events. It was deployed at B.C. Place, the primary venue for the ceremonies, and at the arena next to B.C. Place that served as the athletes’ staging area, the International Broadcast Center a few miles away and the Whistler Celebration Plaza venue.

Powering the solution was the Eclipse Omega digital matrix intercom system with 192 panels and 4-wire ports, and two IVC-32 high-density IP connection cards providing an additional 64 channels of high-quality IP connections. A total of 80 V-Series matrix intercom panels, both standard and IP-enabled in both 12- and 24-lever varieties, were deployed for directors, producers, show callers, stage managers and other key users. Eighty party-line beltpacks were connected to the Hybrid Network for use at key positions at the venue. In addition, Clear-Com’s Concert intercom software system, accessible on a PC with Internet connection, was deployed at remote locations to provide intercom access points and communication backup.

Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at the Opening Ceremonies in B.C. Place.
Clear-Com’s V-Series matrix intercom panels at the Opening Ceremonies in B.C. Place.
Photo Courtesy of Jake Dodson, Clear-Com

The Hybrid Network brought convenience, flexibility and ease of use to the production crew working these events. Because the IP intercom panels were connected over the same Ethernet/IP backbone as the other communications systems, relocating panels on the same port to different parts of the venue or to another venue entirely was effortless over an IP network. Adding a new panel at a moment’s notice was also easily achieved.

The selection of the Hybrid Network by The P.A. People, a premier AV supplier and integrator managing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies’ entire communications setup, was “a testament not only to the confidence it (placed) in Clear-Com systems to support the communication demands of large size, live events, but also a visible demonstration of the necessity for a forward-thinking, highly-flexible intercom product such as the Hybrid Network in the marketplace,” says Matt Danilowicz, managing director of Clear-Com Communications Systems.

December 17, 2012