Mush! Panasonic Streams Iditarod in HD
(click thumbnail)Panasonic video consultant Michael Caporale shoots musher Paul Gerbhardt with a P2 camera on the Iditarod trail.ANCHORAGE, Alaska
Between the starting line in Anchorage and the finish line in Nome, it’s a 1,122 mile endurance test that includes hubs in such tiny dots on the map as McGrath and Unalakleet. It’s run up one side of the Alaska Range and down the other, through the bitter cold of the Interior and the whipping winds off the Bering Sea coast.
It’s the Iditarod Dog Race. And if you think it’s tough on the participants, just imagine how the crew felt.
In a word, “c-c-cold.”
“We slept out in the Alaska wilderness in tents,” said Greg Heister, producer of an HD Webcast of the event. “We roughed it.”
And rough it they did, but still accomplished their mission—to successfully Webcast the famed event (www.iditarod.com) in HD using Panasonic’s P2 technology after a tough learning experience in 2006.
IF AT FIRST...
An attempt to broadcast the race in a timely manner on the Web site failed last year, and that had everything to do with the choice of equipment, Heister said.
“We shot with Beta SP cameras, used a big deck and tower CPUs, in addition to lugging around a C-band transmitter” that weighed upwards of 400 pounds, he said.
All of that equipment had to be transported up and down the trail before the crew could transmit any content.
“In the end, it was a waste of time getting the video on the Web site 10 hours after the fact, since viewers come to the Web for the immediacy,” he said.
This year, it was the Internet, combined with Panasonic’s P2 HPX 2000 and HVX 200 cameras, a hard drive, a P2 player that weighs about a pound and can be inserted into a laptop, and an Ethernet line that made the difference.
“Minus the cameras, the equipment weighs less than 12 pounds,” Heister said, “and it all fit in a backpack. That’s a huge deal in the Iditarod, because we’re flying down the course in two-seat Cessnas with wheel skis.”
A gyroscopic Wescam mounted in a helicopter to accentuate the coverage was also used to acquire content in P2. It was part of an equipment list that included products from Canon (lenses), Anton/Bauer (batteries and lights), Apple (computers), Imagine Products (logging software), Porta-Brace (insulated camera cases), Sachtler (tripods) and Schneider Optics (filtration).
The project included two crews who produced the race on snowmobiles between checkpoints; plus three more that would leapfrog each other between the various stops. The result was a huge increase in the amount of content that was produced.
“In 10 days, we posted 300 clips of video and interviews, from one to three minutes long each, within minutes of the action,” Heister said. “This year it was about 25 a day. Last year with the C-band, the best we could do was about five or six clips a day.”
In fact, he said results were so instantaneous that the clips were posted on the Web site “long before any other media covering the race.”
TO THE RESCUE
Jan Crittenden Livingston, product line business manager for Panasonic Broadcast in Secaucus, N.J., said that the plan to cover the race originated with a local district manager who introduced her to Chas St. George, who handled public relations for the Iditarod Trail Committee.
“It made sense that they decided to use P2 HD,” Crittenden Livingston said, adding that the crew had been planning to shoot in SD with DVCPRO 50 before concerns about the storage capacity for the HD broadcast turned out to be for naught.
Indeed, the P2 technology was ready for primetime, so to speak. And she liked the challenge of shooting the race in the extreme weather.
“There are a number of stories on our Web site about cold weather shooting, but nothing quite like this as I recall,” Crittenden Livingston said. “But I liked this concept due to the documentary nature of the shoot.”
The experience of the crew was another plus. “The crew Panasonic sent [consisted of] seasoned P2 shooters,” she said. “The only thing we had to do was to pay for warm clothing and a couple of sleeping bags.”
Each member of the team came to the shoot with his own expertise; like Art Aldrich, who designs Mac systems and teaches Final Cut Pro courses. He was “extremely useful in helping to configure a workflow,” Crittenden Livingston said. “C.R. Caillouet made sure the shooters knew how to run the big cameras and Barry Green, the smaller cameras. Overall, the [images] had a nice look.”
Aldrich, a partner with Odyssey Tek N.J. and one of five consultants that trained the staff, said, “We trained the Iditarod production team on the P2 equipment for a week before the race.” (In addition, the consultants trained one Varicam shooter and a few more crew on using a P2 mobile editor for Versus, the Comcast-owned cable sports channel, which broadcast parts of the race in highlight shows. “Nightline” also broadcast a segment about the race).
When the race started, the training crew left and the Panasonic tech crew took off with the racers. “Last year, the C-band transmitter and the editing system were airlifted to every point where the producers wanted to upload footage,” Aldrich said. “The weather made that a disaster from a daily update standpoint. This year, the portability of the P2 system was the key,” he said.
But Heister was skeptical of the new plan working before the race. “I didn’t know this Panasonic technology well and the trail is the worst place to test gear,” he said.
“I’ve seen every tape format fail, back to 3/4-inch, Beta, etc. in the 45-degree-below cold of a ground blizzard,” he said. “But aside from dropping it in a lake, this technology went through every hardship that you can dream of and held up extremely well. It didn’t freeze up.”
In the end, using P2 technology to produce the race made all of the difference. “We were able to offer viewers something that was never done before,” he said, “and now, we have a solid foundation and can probably find a way go live from each [of the 20-plus] locations at some point.”
The news element made the approach even more justifiable. “When people wanted news, they were coming to us before The Associated Press and any local TV station or newspaper in Alaska. We’re all real proud of our team and we really made progress,” Heister said.
It sounds like being part of what is known as “The Last Great Race on Earth” is easily worth the hardships. “This is the greatest story to tell in sports and, if you’re a storyteller,” he said, “you should want to die to tell this story.”
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By Tom Butts
By Tom Butts