Winter X Games Live: Emerging Technology Team Speeds VFX Turnaround

The Emerging Technology trailer is always one of the most interesting and innovative spots within the X Games production compound. This year in Aspen, CO, in addition to operating the X Games scoring-and-graphics system, the ET team took its Neartime Visual Effects (VFX) technology to the next level.

Neartime VFX, life-like 3D virtual graphics, and sponsor elements that naturally blend in with the Aspen landscape have long been a staple of ESPN’s X Games coverage. However, this year marks the debut of Rapid VFX, which has been used for ESPN’s College GameDay on-site studio show and allows the ET team to turn these virtual elements around faster than ever.

From left: ESPN Emerging Technology's Will Hogg, Chris Cokas, and Michael Zigmont

From left: ESPN Emerging Technology’s Will Hogg, Chris Cokas, and Michael Zigmont

“[In the past], we have done lots of visual effects, but they are pre-shot [elements] from a month or so before,” says Michael Zigmont, manager, concept development, ESPN Emerging Technology. “So, in order to get the energy of a live event and still have some of those high-end effects, we have introduced Rapid Effects.”

Last week in Aspen, Zigmont sent 2K and 4K lock-off shots of the SnowMobile, SuperPipe, and Big Air courses to two virtual-effects operators at ESPN’s Digital Center in Bristol, CT, via the EVS portal for file transfer. Overnight, these operators matched pre-rendered 3D models to the lock-off shot and played out the new composition for replays in the following day’s X Games telecast. The extra resolution in the lock-off shot allows the VFX operators in Bristol to digitally zoom and pan in the final composition.

Prime examples included overlaying a football field inside the 188-yard SuperPipe, a row of Jeep Wranglers or school buses (à la Evel Knievel) between the jump and landing ramp on the SnowMobile Long Jump, and an 11-story building next to the Big Air Jump. Each of these elements is inserted into a replay to show the sheer size of the courses and difficulty of the tricks being performed by the athletes.

A 3D model of a football field overlaid on top of the SuperPipe course

A 3D model of a football field overlaid over the SuperPipe course indicates the size of the court.

“Our pitch this year has been to demonstrate the sense of scale because people at home just don’t understand how big this stuff is,” says Zigmont. “When you see how big the mountain is and the courses are, it’s amazing. So we are trying to do comparisons to normal every-day objects.”

According to Zigmont, these Rapid VFX compositions could be turned around in less than a half-hour, but the overnight workflow has proved to be the best option for now.

A 3D model of a line of Jeep Wranglers overlaid on top of an image of the SlopeStyle course

A 3D model of a line of Jeep Wranglers overlaid on top of an image of the SlopeStyle course

“We can turn it around within a day. We could do it quicker, but that has become our workflow,” he says. “[Rapid VFX] has its limitations but benefits as well. You can’t do some of the things you would be able to do if you had the time you traditionally have with visual effects, but you can turn around some very cool [elements] very quickly.”

On top of that, the ET department, which took the X Games scoring platform in-house in 2012, continues to hone and cultivate the intricate system as it adapts to viewer habits. Last year, ET attempted to put as much graphical information on the screen as possible in an effort to keep viewers informed. However, in this world of never-ending screens and short attention spans, ESPN shifted to the opposite side of the spectrum this year.

“Last year, we took a big stand on getting viewers everything possible, but our feedback was that it was just too much, so we have really minimized things and made a lot of that content more available on the second screen,” says Chris Cokas, ‎manager, SIG X Games, ESPN Emerging Technology. “[Teenage viewers] are saying they only want short highlight packages, six minutes of packaged content, and only want to watch it on the Internet. So we have reduced the graphics to only the key things that viewers want to know, and we keep them at the top of the screen out of the way of the center of the screen, where all the action occurs.”