Going to Extremes

When covering outdoor sports this time of year, getting the perfect shot at an outdoor sporting event means dealing with snow, wind, fog, and more.
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HAMILTON, N.J.


(click thumbnail)Cinematographer Bob Scott attempts to stay dry while shooting Olympic action in Torino.When covering outdoor sports this time of year, getting the perfect shot at an outdoor sporting event means dealing with snow, wind, fog, and more. Severe, inclement weather conditions pose challenges for cameras and microphones, especially to their temperature-sensitive batteries, and camera crews go to great lengths to keep the equipment warm, dry, and reliably operational.

Unlike indoor sports where cameras can remain stationary on the sidelines, winter sports often require cameramen to put on skis or ride in snowmobiles while capturing shots of the athletes as they careen down dangerous slopes.

"To capture big mountain action, our cameramen have to be as good on skis and snowmobiles as the athletes they're shooting. Our mountain sports photogs are experienced skiers who can ski 'double black diamond avalanche-prone terrain' sometimes at 50 mph or more, while getting very dynamic shots," said John "Sandy" Santucci, president of John Sandy Productions, in Englewood, Colo. JSP produces extreme sports programs, primarily "big mountain" skiing and snowboarding.

One such program features the annual U.S. Extreme Free Skiing Championships, held in Crested Butte, Colo., which airs this month in more than 50 million households on Versus (formerly OLN) as well as Denver-based Altitude Sports and Entertainment network. Seen in more than 2.5 million homes, Altitude features regular coverage of the Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Eagles, as well as a variety of locally produced sports programming.

JSP camera crews use Sony F-900 HD and HDV camcorders, along with Sony PD150 DVCAM cameras, as well as RF wireless camera systems. For helicopter and other aerial applications, JSP crews use the FigRig camera mount by Manfrotto, and PAG camera support systems. Shaped like a steering wheel, the FigRig allows steady control while using the camera in a multiple of ways. When shooting from a helicopter, they attach a gyro device to improve stabilization.

"We also do a lot of FollowCam, where we place a small POV camera right on the skier's helmet or onto his skis," Sandy said. "Today's camera technology is rugged enough to take the snow and cold and still capture beautiful pictures under very harsh circumstances."

Audio equipment is also susceptible to cold, inclement weather conditions. In particular, the batteries in microphones can quickly lose power in very cold temperatures. According to Jim Eady, president of Broadcast Services International, in Burlington, Ontario, measures have to be taken to ensure that microphones will perform properly.

"We often put small suitcase-sized generators down by the side of the mountain, and run those power cables up to the scaffold, which supports all the production equipment. Scaffolds are typically eight to 10 feet high so that cameras will have a good vantage point," said Eady. "It's also routine to have skiers ski around to every microphone and put fresh batteries into them just prior to competition."

BSI produced the World Snowboarding Championships, in Whistler, B.C., Canada in January 2004, as well as the Cross-Country Skiing Championships in 2006, which encompassed a series of events from British Columbia to Calgary. Eady said they often use shotgun microphones from Sennheiser, such as the Sennheiser 416, as well as shotgun mics from Audio-Technica, because both product lines have proven to be rugged even when covered with rain or snow, and performing well even at low temperatures.

"For the World Snowboarding Championships, among other events, BSI acted as the host broadcaster, feeding SD signals to broadcasters in Canada, Europe, and Japan," Eady said. "This is a growing trend because networks are farming out their productions to companies that specialize in offering host broadcast services."

In addition, Eady said that after the Beijing Olympics, the host country will no longer serve as the host broadcaster but rather it will all be managed by a private company or the production arm of the International Olympic Committee.

17 DAYS OF GLORY

During the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, Cinematographer Bob Scott used the Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam HD camera, as well as the Panasonic AG-HVX200 DVCPRO HD P2 camera, to shoot video of high-profile sporting events for a documentary called, "Torino Olympics: 17 Days of Glory," which will air on Showtime in February 2007.

Produced by Cappy Productions in New York, the program is the official documentary retrospective for the IOC. Cappy in turn hired Scott who hired the crew to shoot the full-length documentary. Throughout 18 days of production, the cameras experienced extreme temperatures as they were moved between warm locations, such as indoor skating rinks and hotels, and snowy, cold sites like the top of the mountains for Alpine events.

In general, "you have to be careful in these extremes because condensation could build up inside of cameras and that could cause an electronic short or the tape to stick to the heads," said Scott, who is based in Orlando, Fla. "You have to be proactive in how you treat the camera." (Panasonic added that VariCam and P2 solid-state cameras perform comparatively well despite harsh, wintry conditions.)

The crew used snow covers with pockets that could hold small warm-packs or hand-warmers, which when activated kept the equipment warm for about two hours. Scott also kept these warmer-packs in his jacket pocket to warm up spare batteries.

"In these production situations, we have to operate out of backpacks, so to stay trim and mobile, we can't lug around a lot of heavy batteries," Scott said. "So it's an ongoing problem to keep batteries warm and dry. For every 10 degrees that the batteries go lower than room temperature, they drop 10 percent of their performance. So if you're shooting in 30 degree weather, a battery that would normally last six hours might only last an hour and a half."

The camera's toggle switchers and other controls are also more difficult to access and operate with gloves on. But Scott said his crew can't retreat to the press tent.

"A lot of times with downhill skiing events, it's too dangerous for the skiers to take to the slopes because it's snowing too hard," Scott said. "But when severe weather is part of the story, we have to stay there and capture that."

EQUIPMENT AT 20 BELOW

At the Torino Olympics, temperatures at the mountain venues ranged from -20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Chip Adams, director of venue engineering for NBC Olympics, in Stamford, Conn., "In cold mountain conditions, equipment has a tendency to expand, contract, and possibly stiffen up. So you need to take precautions that cable connections stay dry and are properly cared for so they won't come apart or allow moisture to get in and interrupt the signals coming through."

In Torino NBC crews used Sony HDC-1500 portable HDTV cameras, Thomson LDK 6000 World Cameras; a helmet mounted camera that "forerunner" skiers wore to provide a skier's perspective of the course; as well as a high-speed super slo-mo camera system, nicknamed the "Super-Loupe," which was provided by Digital Video Sud, a French company.

"The 'Super-Loupe' camera system was used on the men's and women's Alpine ski races to capture the action at frame rates higher than the current SSMO cameras can shoot at," Adams said. "It enables viewers to clearly see the movements of the skier's legs, bindings, and skis as they ski around the gates.

"Due to the high frame rate we were shooting at, [500 fps], you need a lot of light for the best results," said Adams. "Since the Alpine speed races were held during the day, we had plenty of sunlight to make some great pictures. But, the Alpine technical races were held in the late afternoon and under lights, so we were a little more challenged getting good pictures during those events. We even tried shooting at a lower frame rate to help get more light to the imager to help make pictures. We did get some good shots when the racers came through some good pools of light provided by the lighting towers along the course."

LENSES SPEED AHEAD

While condensation can present a problem to cameras, today's lenses handle the extreme temperatures very well. According to Gordon Tubbs, assistant director of Canon USA Inc., in Ridgefield Park, N.J., there's been a world of improvement to lenses over the last two decades.

"When ABC covered the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in 1980, the lenses they planned to use were first brought into our facility where our technicians changed the lubricants and glues to ones that would fare better in extremely cold temperatures," Tubbs said. "We also offered a heater option for the lenses that today is not necessary. And with our new Internal Focus mechanisms, most of the glass elements are sealed and remain relatively stationary and this helps keep air and moisture out of the lenses."

Tubbs added that in the 1980s, ABC typically used 25x lenses, while today 100x is commonly used for the same shots--such as the Canon XS100X9.3B IE-D known as the Digi Super 100 XS.

Canadian-based Water Productions has been testing Fujinon HD lenses, shooting a variety of sports in extreme weather conditions. They've been using a Fujinon HA18x7.6BERM HD ENG/EFP lens on a Panasonic Varicam without any problems.

Water Productions recently covered "Sledsense," featuring the annual Grand Prix Ski-Doo, in de Valcourt, Canada, for The Outdoor Channel 2 HD.

The crew shot close-up interviews as well as 120 mph snowmobile racing around an oval ice racetrack. During the shoot, there was rain and humidity, followed by a temperature drop to -8 degrees Fahrenheit with 40 mph winds.

"We were surprised every day when we turned the camera on and it worked," said Kevin Cullen, Water Productions' owner and host of "Sledsense." "When we play the HD video back, it makes us say 'wow' every time."

Adams said they also used four wireless RF HD camera systems at the opening and closing ceremonies. During the games, these four wireless HD systems were deployed to speed skating, freestyle aerials, figure skating events and various skiing venues. The camera signals, which were 1080/50i HD, were then relayed back to a receiver located in the venue. The output of the receiver then fed a fiber-optic transmitter, which sent the signal back to the NBC OB van, located in the broadcast compound at the venue.