VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
If there was ever a world competition for specialty broadcast cameras, the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games would be it. That's because the 16 days of winter events will be covered by over 120 "specialty cams."
Some of these devices will be used as "helmetcams" by the competitors. Others will be mounted on movable overhead cables ("cablecams"), zip along small railroad tracks ("railcams"), or attached to snowmobiles, helicopters, and even tethered blimps—turning them into "blimpcams." As well, a wide range of jibs and cranes will be used to give these cameras a bird's eye view of events.
SUPER SMALL HELMETCAMS
Helmet cameras have long been a staple of major sporting events. But it is one thing to convince a TV-oriented NASCAR driver to wear a helmetcam, and quite another to convince an Olympic skier going for gold. "Athletes taking part are competing in possibly the biggest competition of their lives and would not by choice wear anything that might compromise their performance on the day of the event," says John Pearce, specialty equipment manager for Olympic Broadcast Services (OBS). "Any available 'off the shelf' product was clearly not going to be accepted."
The challenge for Olympic Broadcast Services Vancouver (OBSV; the body that actually shoots TV event coverage of the Games) was to find a helmetcam system—with wireless transmitter to send the signals from the competitor to trackside receivers—that the athletes would be willing to wear. To do this, OBSV worked with one of its vendors to develop a miniaturized dummy prototype. Known as the Mk 1, this prototype was sent to the competitors' federations for comment, modification and approval.
"Once the concept was accepted, the real work on the camera system design and building the RF link into the unit (actually into a wearable beltpack) began," Pearce said. The OBSV got the working "Mk 2" out to athletes at international competitions, where it was put through its paces.
At the 2006 Torino Games, cablecams were deployed to cover snowboarding, while a railcam follows speedskaters around the racetrack.
"With the RF component active, we conducted several 'live tests' with small x2 antenna diversity sets, and were very happy with the RF results," he says. Still, the athletes pushed for and got an even smaller unit and a revised belt arrangement. "The final Mk 3 system was tested very favorably in Austria in January 2010, and got very positive feedback."
In preparation for the Games, the OBSV has pre-installed the cabling for RF networks covering the entire Snowboard Cross, Ski Cross and Parallel Grand Slalom courses, plus partial coverage of the Halfpipe course. For RF, there will be eight individual transmitter packs sharing a maximum of four frequencies; the most channels that are available onsite. "The multiple antennas are positioned at strategic points along the course, and the signal is fed back via single mode fibre to a single location in the Host Broadcaster compound where the diversity switching receivers will automatically determine the best coherent signal and pass on to the OB Van," Pearce said. "Finally, due to the requirement of providing a 'level playing field' for all athletes, OBSV has commissioned more than 30 'dummy' or placebo units to be worn by the other competitors when a live unit is participating in an event."
CABLECAMS FOR CROSS COUNTRY, BIATHLON
Cablecams, those suspended, movable cameras with remote pan, tilt and zoom functions, are an effective way to cover football fields and other large venues without interfering in the action. At the 2010 Winter Games, the OBSV has installed two Cablecam systems: One has a 354 meter run over the Cross Country venue; the other has a 454 meter cable run over the Biathlon track.
"The camera system comprises a camera buggy, to which is mounted a Stab C Compact Gyrostabilised Open Mount head; and into this we mount a standard broadcast handheld camera, which in this case is a Thomson LDK6000 Worldcam fitted with a Fujinon 22x7.8 lens," said Pearce. "The lens is specified by Production and selected based on the distance from the object of the shot and the requirements of the shot dimensions."
The two Cross Country support towers stand at 40 and 30 meters in height; the Biathlon towers at 36 and 20 meters. After spending months planning the installation, "the actual construction took three weeks from start to finish," Pearce said. It was done while facing "problems such as extremely bad weather, heavy mobile crane access to forested areas and flooding of the foundation pits, before finally completing the final platform installation on the 40-meter high tower only two hours before exceptionally bad weather would have forced a delay of what could have been nearly three weeks."
Cablecam pre-rigged the overhead camera cables by hand in January 2010, when the area was relatively quiet. "When the remainder of the system arrives at Games time, our vendor will rig the winches, buggy, gyrostabilized head and camera and test over a period of four days," Pearce said. "All the video, audio and data links are RF, including camera, lens and gyro head control, which required specialized specific modems to be custom constructed to enable the locally available RF bands to be utilized." The RF is received and carried via fiber to the operator position and then onto an OBSV Outside Broadcast Van for inclusion into the live feed.
Getting all the specialty cameras in place for the Games is a race against time, according to Pearce. "Even now OBSV cable crews are working hard in extreme conditions installing the hundreds of kilometers of cables," he said. As for the anticipated results? "The success of the past year's effort will be able to be judged by the quality of coverage during February 2010," he replied modestly. With 120 specialty cameras to choose from, the results should be spectacular.