ESPN Plugs Into a Mountain for X Games Coverage

By Carolyn Braff

For all the equipment that ESPN’s 2009 Winter X Games production crew has had to transport to Aspen/Snowmass, CO, the network might as well be broadcasting from the side of a mountain” Buttermilk Mountain, to be exact. More than a dozen mobile production trucks, 50 cameras, and 75,000 feet of fiber will make viewers forget the broadcasting feat and focus on the sights” and sounds” of the world’s premiere winter action-sports event.

A technical team of 365 is on hand to oversee NEP’s SS25 A and B units, SS21 A, B, and C units, and NCP’s 10 A and B units, as well as SS25 (for event production), SS21E (a support unit), and two Total RF mobile units for wireless management, all of which took more than five hours to park and power. The farthest point on the course is 7,500 feet away from the television compound, so wireless management is key for this show” as is fiber.

“From a coverage standpoint, what we’ve changed this year is, we’ve used a lot more fiber technology,” explains Stephen Raymond, coordinating technical manager at ESPN. “We’re bringing in 75,000 feet of fiber for this show. It’s more than 1,000 feet just to get to our announce positions from the compound, but that additional fiber infrastructure has brought us the ability to do some new things.”

One of those new things involves using six Calrec audio consoles for enhanced audio production.

“For the first time in the history of X Games, we’ve got the same manufacture of audio console in all of the trucks,” says Henry Rousseau, technical analyst for ESPN.

“We’ve got 14 hydra boxes in various locations all over Buttermilk Mountain,” adds Kevin Cleary, technical audio producer for ESPN. “Those boxes are all linked to a central switch. Signals come back down via fiber to the TV compound, where any input or output in any of the boxes is accessible from any of the six different mixing consoles in the three different venues.”

Each venue has a main mix and a sub mix, so, in total, six Calrec Omega consoles are working overtime, and any console can access any of the 300 microphones dispersed throughout the mountain. An all-digital compound means the audio operators and senior mixers can spend more time focusing on the mix and less time in the patch room.

“We’ve never had six mix consoles all connected on the same network, so this is a first,” Cleary says. “We put microphones around where the camera shots are, so if you’re going to see it, you’re going to hear it. We have microphones on every trick and every curve for all three of our different venues.”

New robotics for the 2009 show as well as a high-motion high-speed camera will help the visuals match the 5.1 mixed audio.

While running 75,000 feet of fiber does not sound like a walk in the park, “it’s a real pleasure not to have to string all that copper,” says Larry Wilson, senior operations producer for ESPN. “It’s not nearly as cluttered as it used to be with all that copper.”

In fact, the course will be far less crowded than it appears, as ESPN Emerging Technologies will be providing virtual signage and virtual promotions throughout the Games.

“An image composited into the background of a shot is designed with a foreground element that tracks with camera movement but does not actually exist,” Wilson says, explaining the virtual signage. “In terms of graphics, we’ll also have a ‘huck-o-meter,’ which is a graphic display on the super pipe; they’re doing a graphical overlay of a grid over the camera shot to illustrate the distance that the athlete traveled; and they’re also providing on-course signage that they’re generating graphics and video for, as well.”

Like the athletes, Raymond’s team will be testing its heights during this show, implementing demo gear from Panasonic, VER, and Inteltec to test the waters on a Panasonic P2 workflow. EVS’s non-linear IP Edit 5 system will also be implemented, and each EVS-based tape room will have a Final Cut Pro to work with.

The satellite path that the feed takes this year will be carving a new trail, as well.

“This year, we’re using DVB-S2 modulation to split it in two, so we have two full-bandwidth paths out of a single uplink,” Raymond says. “Most of the production arm has been moved back to Bristol[, CT] this year, so we’re going to have an IP director in Bristol controlling an EVS server here on site. They’ll be able to send themselves media using that additional satellite link and using a partial T1 to control that.”

Of all the challenges this X Games team must face, the location is undoubtedly the toughest.

“I think the biggest thing is that we’re at a facility that was never designed for television,” Wilson explains. “We’re in a hotel parking lot, ski parking lot, or parked on the side of a mountain. There’s nothing to plug into, no I/O panel to patch to, so everything’s a home run.”

However, having an experienced crew with several X Games under its belt should ensure that this show is, indeed, a home run.

The Winter X Games airs live on ESPN and ABC Jan. 22-25.