Live from Whistler: Jeff Coleman Keeps the Alpine Action In Focus on Whistler Creekside

Jeff Coleman is a veteran sports producer, having spent the last decade producing a variety of events from countries around the globe. But nothing could prepare him for the challenges of spending 17 days broadcasting eight alpine ski events atop a mountain. Home to men and women’s downhill, super combined, Super-G, slalom, and giant slalom Olympic events, Whistler Creekside is a steep, unforgiving hill, made all the more difficult to navigate because the rest of the mountain remains open to the public throughout the Games. Coleman took a few minutes out of his non-stop schedule to explain to SVG how his team has overcome the early challenges that this venue – and these Games – have posed to his Olympic Broadcast Services productions.

After the first week of competition, when weather delayed several competitions, how are things going on the mountain?
It was a very difficult first couple of days because essentially we were ready and then we sat and waited for each postponement to come through. Every time that happens, it affects us. We have to adapt to the rescheduling and work out whether we’re shooting the women’s or men’s course, and then changes have to occur for that to happen. We don’t have a fully rigged women’s course and a fully rigged men’s course; we shift equipment back and forth.

How long does it take to shift that equipment from one course to another?
It depends what start you’re using. It’s a quick move from the women’s downhill start to the men’s downhill start, but if we’re going from the top of the mountain to a midpoint on the opposite side, it can be quite lengthy. We’re moving a lot of equipment, as some of the specialist equipment goes back and forth, like the jib and sometimes the Dartfish cameras used for special effects.

How many cameras are in place on the mountain?
There’s effectively 40 camera positions for each course, and we leave a lot of cameras out there. It’s simply impossible to shift everything, so we cable both sides and have both sides of the mountain operational. We shift the start group backwards and forwards because it shifts everywhere, and we shift the six super slo mo cameras and some of the specialty equipment.

Are expert skiers required to shift all of this equipment?
We tend not to ski anything that’s heavy. We ski the handhelds into position if we can, but we get our heavy equipment into position either on helicopter, snow cat, a snowmobile, or by using special skis with sleds. Some of the boxes are 60-plus kilos, so they’re very difficult to handle, and they’re in awkward positions, so they’re very difficult to get off of platforms and onto a snow cat.

Of course, you can’t have the snow cats on the course at the moment. The course is too steep for them at certain points, but the mountain is open, so the chairlifts and gondolas are being used by the public, and we can’t fly over those things while they’re being used. That’s the law here in B.C. Access has been very difficult.

Have you had any complications to the broadcast so far?
We lost two fibers two days ago when a groomer picked them up and cut them. One of them was an audio fiber that carries six fiber cores in it, and the other was a video fiber that has 12 cores in it, so it essentially can carry six cameras. Once we lose one of those, the impact can be quite catastrophic; if we lose it at the wrong time, it can have quite a pronounced effect.

Luckily, we were able to fix both. Some of the fiber we can terminate; we get specialist people with equipment to go up on the hill. It takes half a day and they re-terminate the fiber up there. Some of the fibers are very difficult to re-terminate and you can’t really do it on the mountain, so sometimes you have to re-run the whole thing.

Aggreko provides power for us and they sent 20 guys out here on November 15 to install all of the cable on the mountain. It took them two and a half months to install about 200,000 meters of cable. The Telecast sheds where we can send six cameras back on one fiber, that system is fantastic. I’m pretty pleased with the way that was installed.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
Getting the gear onto the mountain, for sure. The logistics involved in getting stuff onto a mountain is far more complicated than it is in a summer Olympics. Getting the gear into position is very difficult.

It’s also a very complicated thing to cover a ski course. It’s three kilometers long and we have three trucks covering it – a Corplex truck that cuts the top part of the course, a Mira Mobile truck that cuts the middle part, and then another Corplex truck that cuts the bottom part of the course and integrates the top and the middle. The complications of getting an audio mix, the visuals, and the communications to all three are all very difficult.

This is the first Winter Olympics produced in full 5.1 surround sound. How much harder is it for you to produce 5.1 than stereo?
Much harder. And particularly hard on a sport where you’re in the open like this, because the athlete is traveling from point A to point B; you’re not looking at a stadium constantly, so surround sound is complicated. We have 170 microphones out on the course. They do a little bit of shifting with the mikes, along with the cameras.

If you could do this all again, what would you do differently?
The one thing that would have made life easier is if the mountain had been closed to the public. That has been unbelievably tough for everybody. We can’t use snow cats on the mountain until it’s dark and they’ve cleared the mountain, so a lot of that work has to happen after 4:30 at night. One thing I would have loved to have different is access.