Live From Pan Am Games: Gymnastics, Athletics Among Games’ Most Demanding Sports To Produce

Since Saturday, Larry Isaac has worked tirelessly inside Dome Productions’ Thunder to produce one of the Pan Am Games’ most demanding sports: artistic gymnastics. At any given moment in a gymnastics competition, five to six athletes simultaneously compete on five to six apparatuses — all of which must be either broadcast live or recorded for future playback.

Larry Isaacs inside Dome's Thunder

Larry Isaac inside Dome’s Thunder

In addition to Thunder, Isaac has Dome’s 48-ft. Spring B unit at his disposal. Spring, which typically handles Toronto Blue Jays’ spring-training home games, was outfitted with two auxiliary control rooms specifically for the Pan Am Games: Alpha, which features a small Ross Synergy switcher, and Bravo, which features a small Snell Kahuna switcher, submixes audio and video, and sends that to Thunder (which houses a Grass Valley Kayenne switcher) for playout.

As the Thunder broadcasts a particular apparatus, Alpha and Bravo record the remaining apparatuses. For example, if the U.S. men’s team is competing on the floor exercises, Isaac might opt to show the team’s four routines back to back (a solid decision: the U.S. team was projected to win — and did win — the team gold medal). However, a contender for an individual gold medal might be competing on, say, the rings or pommel horse at the same time, which the viewer also needs to see.

“If I’m covering the floor exercises, as soon as one person finishes, we put up their marks. But we know a world-class athlete might just be doing a quick routine on the rings, [so] let’s quickly go over there because we want to show at least who might be a potential medalist in a day or two,” explains Isaac. “Then you go back to your main apparatus, so, if we started with floor, we come back. We try to show as many as possible rapid-fire just to give a sense of how busy the thing is.”

Showing potential medal contenders isn’t just a matter of narrative. Because of the way the gymnastics apparatuses are laid out in the Toronto Coliseum, a viewer watching the pommel horse can see the competitor on the rings in the background. If that competitor dismounts with an emphatic fist pump, the viewer will want to see that routine. The same applies to hearing the crowd explode (as was often the case during Team Canada’s routines): what caused the excitement?

A Sony camera with Canon lens captures gymnastics from the top of the Toronto Coliseum.

A Sony camera with Canon lens captures gymnastics from the top of the Toronto Coliseum.

Isaac’s team has 24 cameras at its disposal around the venue, including one wired camera on a tripod trained on each apparatus (men’s gymnastics has six apparatuses; women’s, five); fixed cameras on platforms at either end of the floor and in the center, at the top of the stands; and a handful of roving handheld cameras and robotic POV cameras. Between the three control rooms, the team has 50 channels of record.

After gymnastics wraps tomorrow with individual apparatus competitions (the U.S. men’s and women’s teams have already secured team gold medals), Isaac’s team will follow Dome’s Thunder and Spring to Pan Am Athletics Stadium on the campus of York University, where track and field take place. Track and field poses many of the same challenges as gymnastics: namely, races take place at the same time as field events, such as pole vault, shot put, and long jump.

“On a track meet, any track race is always priority on the integrated feed,” says Isaac. “If 11 rounds of the 100 meters have all finished and they now have to set up the hurdles — which takes 10-12 minutes for the 400 hurdles — you’ll go to the pole vault or one of the field events. But, once you commit yourself to joining [that event], you have to know that you want to go back to that field event [once hurdles is under way]. You show Heat 1 of the hurdles as soon as you can, you check your replays and the finish, [and], before Heat 2 begins, you better go back to pole vault and continue your story.”

Puerto Rico's Alexis Torres (background) competes on the rings as Canada’s Ken Ikeda prepares for his pommel-horse routine. Microphones near each apparatus capture the sounds of both athletes.

Puerto Rico’s Alexis Torres (background) competes on the rings as Canada’s Ken Ikeda prepares for his pommel-horse routine. Microphones near each apparatus capture the sounds of both athletes.

Isaac, a freelance producer and Olympics veteran, works closely with the host feed announcers to determine which competitors he needs to show. (For example, the rings routine for Brazil’s Arthur Zanetti — a rings specialist who took home the Olympic gold medal in London — was broadcast live.) He also faces the added challenge of communicating what events are going to air to a wide range of announcer pairs from different countries.

“It’s not like when I do a CBC, TSN, or SportsNet show, where I can talk to my announcers and say, I’m going to give you this on the whistle or set me up with this,” he says. “I have to be really succinct in the minimal amount of English as to what they are seeing on a replay, because they have no idea what [we’re going to show next.] That way, everybody follows the flow together.”

Similar to slower-pace sports like golf, the difficulty of producing gymnastics and athletics lies in the sheer number of events occurring simultaneously, each with the potential to play into the broadcast narrative. But, for Isaac, the challenge is a fun one for him and his fellow freelancers working the Pan Am Games.

“I love challenges like this because, [for] many Canadian freelancers, our bread and butter is hockey: 70%-80% of our work during the calendar year is with all the NHL shows we do. So it’s great when there’s a big event like this,” says Isaac. “It’s great to have a variety like this, and, when you have something of this magnitude in our own backyard, that’s great, too.”