This summer's X Games 12 continued the tradition of living on the cutting edge of sports. After all, that's why this spectacular display of speed, skill and daring produced by ESPN is called the X Games. (The “X” stands for extreme.) But as exciting as is to see someone doing a double backflip on a motorcycle or taking a header off a vertical pipe, the video production behind this four-day sports spectacular pushes the envelope of broadcasting possibilities.
From Aug. 3-6, ESPN and ABC provided 18 hours of live programming. X Games fans could also tune into 19 other delivery outlets, including wirelessly over ESPN Mobile, online at EXPN.com and in Spanish on the ESPN Deportes network. There was even a pay-per-view post-games special, “X Games Xtended,” that exclusively presented a new medal event, the BMX Big Air competition. Fans could even monitor the event interactively for two hours each night on the DISH Network's DishHOME channel 100, where they could choose from six camera feeds in a mosaic format to select the angle they liked best.
Almost 17 million viewers tuned into this summer's live X Games telecasts on ESPN. That's up 3 percent from the 16.4 million viewers who watched it last year. Portions of the X Games were also televised live on ESPN International to more than 78 countries and territories in the Pacific Rim, Middle East and Africa.
The complexity of the live BMX freestyle, Moto X, skateboard, surfing and rally car racing competitions made this the second biggest televised sports event — right behind the Olympic Games. Most of the competition's events took place in the Los Angeles area, including at the STAPLES Center and the Home Depot Center, with surfing from Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
Paul DiPietro, senior director of remote operations, developed the technical plan to execute ESPN's production needs with the help of his team of 400 operators and technicians. All of the production infrastructure shoehorned into the Home Depot Center stadium broadcast operations hub was provided by National Mobile Television (NMT). This included a 96 × 96 Grass Valley Venus SDI router, with 40 external intercom panels; an Adams Digital Intercom Matrix, with 25 external intercom panels; and a 28-channel MATV system. NMT also provided the production with complete monitoring of feeds from all three event venues, as well as incoming material from the Super Shooter 25 remote truck provided by NEP.
Even though many of the cameras were shooting high definition for archiving and future repurposing, this year's X Games 12 broadcast was all standard definition. It was simply too large an undertaking to upgrade the more than 70 cameras, 50 tape decks and EVS servers, and 14 linear and nonlinear edit bays.
Jeff Wilkov, creative producer, put a great deal of emphasis on the digital graphics that would spice up the visuals. These included keys and graphics for the pre-production edited pieces (called “pretures” in X Games slang), the broadcast shows and the graphics shown to the live audiences on jumbo stadium screens during the actual competitions.
All of the graphics inserted during the events had to be linked to ESPN's on-location Sports Media Timing and Scoring center for timeliness and accuracy. To keep this information constantly updated and fed to the graphics templates in the Avid Deko systems, the team relied on feedback from transducers built onto the race cars, motorcycles or bikes that get triggered at the finish line, along with input from judges entering their evaluations into handheld keypads.
As in past years, ESPN decided to use the Avid Deko 3000 graphics system. Ten of the new graphics systems were installed in mobile units and in the broadcast center. And with the help of a 4TB server system custom-built by ESPN, the graphics were accessible in all the edit bays through an Ethernet network.
ESPN chose the system because it could use templates for pre-produced graphics without being completely dependent on them. That made it easier for the graphics operators to edit their content on-the-fly as the names of the players and statistics of their events changed under the fast-paced pressure of the Games.
ESPN also chose the system because each SD channel could display different clips or DekoObjex scenes. That enabled the operators to animate lower-third formats in one channel and full-screen templates in another, or display tickers, bugs, cel animations and clocks in separate channels. With its new version 4.0 software, the system is able to import QuickTime movies and export Deko-signature Motions to nonlinear editors.
The system can accommodate multiple compositions, permitting simultaneous production of specific formats in HD or SD aspect ratios. An advanced composition tool produces text that fits-to-fill a layer boundary and auto-branding frames that apply to every manual or automated text entry. At the X Games 12, the operators had access to the system's optional FastAction keyboard designed specifically to aid data entry under live production pressures.
A feature crucial to the look of the X Games production was that the graphics system allowed operators and editors to have an audio WAV file associated with each graphic on the Motion Timeline. This allowed the operators to fire off a sound effect as the graphic image moves onto the screen.
These motions automatically adjust to changing text independent of their content, and the graphics system supports the incorporation of sound effects linked to layer, row, word or character motions, regardless of factors such as the number of letters in a player's name. It also enables broadcasters to combine 3-D objects from Autodesk 3ds Max and Avid Deko graphics along with their associated real-time data integration.
A winning combination
The graphic elements for both the winter and summer X Games have been created since 2000 by v12, a design studio based out of Santa Monica, CA. The 400 elements of this year's assortment, called “Book of X,” included both an animated package of full-screen animations and an insert package that would be keyed over live footage, along with scoring and statistical information.
The creative director at v12, David Sparrgrove, used Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for design, After Effects for compositing, and Maxon's CINEMA 4D for 3-D animation. In addition to a redesigned logo, the graphics for this summer's events included a new animated character known internally as “Jenga Man.” The tribute to Hasbro's stacking game played off of the intentionally blocky look of the rest of the game's graphic elements.
Sparrgrove prebuilt as many of the graphics before the show as possible. However, because a large portion of them reflect the ever-changing ramps and race courses of the games themselves, he had to be on site during the production to update their look as the officials revamped the playing fields. New versions would be uploaded nightly to the v12 render farm in Santa Monica over broadband Internet for the next day's performances.
One obstacle that had to be overcome, however, was that the Avid Deko 3000 did not have the ability to include 3-D motion graphics in real time. So, Sparrgrove created moving 3-D clips in v12's graphics system and sent them to the Deko systems as a DV stream. Then, a 2-D animation from the Deko with all of its live scoring data could be matched seamlessly into the final frame of the prerendered 3-D clip.
L.T. Martin is a freelance writer and post-production consultant.