Winter X Games Return to Aspen

ESPN gears up for live nighttime coverage
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ESPN gears up for live nighttime coverage

ASPEN, COLO.

ESPN will broadcast the Winter X Games live for the first time since the inception of the event in 1997.

Returning to the powder of Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colo., for the third consecutive year, Jan. 24-27, the eighth annual winter extreme games will feature the skills of more than 250 top athletes competing in snowboarding, skiing snowmobiling, moto-X (motorcycles) and ultracross (skiing and snowboarding combined).

ESPN will introduce several technological advances in covering the games, including live digital FollowCams, the use of FlyCam on the snowmobile course, lighting for night events, the use of upgraded specialty camera systems and a live on-site broadcast of ESPN's "SportsCenter."

Coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 24 with Women's Skier X and Moto X Best Trick, going into the first-ever night coverage with Women's Snowboard SuperPipe Finals and Snowmobile SnoCross beginning at 9 p.m. ET.

With the inauguration of night coverage, the network is taking precautions to ensure that camera shots and lighting do the games justice. Sony 900 and 950 handheld cameras will be used on the mountain in addition to the Thomson LDK-10s and LDK-20s that have been used in the past. Musco Lighting trucks are new this year, three of which are Mini Muscos. X Games Operations Manager Paul DiPietro said ESPN chose the trucks for the combination of maneuverability and its Musco lighting package.

Musco Minis have a fully articulated crane, and an 80-foot boom capable of complete rotation that can fit into tight spaces. Two full size Musco light trucks, each featuring 15 6,000-watt bulbs, and three Mini Muscos, each featuring six 6,000-watt bulbs, will be used for the nighttime SnoCross events. Musco Light Bars, to be used for SuperPipe events, feature four fixtures mounted on pre-wired pre-assembled bars.

FLYCAMS ON BUTTERMILK

X Games Senior Coordination Producer Rich Feinberg said the games production crew is "always raising the bar in terms of camera angles and coverage." An example is the use of three FlyCams for the flexibility and panoramic coverage they provide. The FlyCams-small Panasonic AWE-800 two-point tracking cameras with a 360-degree field-are pulled along a cable at speeds reaching up to 75 mph.

The FollowCam system, where a cameraman follows an athlete, has been digitally upgraded "due to digital RF," Feinberg said. "Because we are live, there is no room for error."

Six digital Sony DXC-990 3-chip, 1/2-inch color FollowCams will race down the mountain alongside athletes, as will six paths of SnoCross on-board RF cameras.

Sony XC-555 integrated half-type IT CCD color cameras are suited for remote monitoring and will be mounted onto snowmobiles.

The ValleyCam is being phased out because it's too much of a fair-weather system, according to Feinberg.

"We are adding TowerCam, which is a crane in the parking lot of the venue that travels 130 feet in the air with a camera person on top. They can follow any of the courses from beginning to end." Feinberg said. "ValleyCam risked the elements and weather conditions because it was positioned on the other side of the valley. If there was any bad weather, ValleyCam shots would be unclear. TowerCam is closer, with less risk of interruption."

Broadcast Sports Inc. will introduce real-time camera systems for the coverage of snowmobile events. Clay Underwood, business development coordinator for the company, said that because this year's games will take place during both daylight and artificial lighting conditions, it was necessary to develop camera systems that are fully remote controllable.

"Normally, in an effort to reduce size and weight of the systems used for the SnoCross and HillCross snowmobile events, we have previously used what we term 'set-and-forget' camera systems. This works well for applications where shooting conditions do not change substantially. With this year's move to live coverage of the events, a real-time control solution is necessary," Underwood said.

Remote control functionality also was incorporated into the FollowCam systems.

"Zoom functions are controlled locally by the skier carrying the FollowCam, but all other painting functions, including focus, can be controlled via a UHF control signal from the warmth of the production truck," he said.

DiPietro confirmed that ESPN will continue its relationship with National Mobile Television as the provider of digital mobile units. Among the trucks, the DX8, DX11, DX2 and DX6 collectively feature an audio console, studio cameras and lenses, a communications center, videotape facilities, graphics capabilities and Grass Valley Kalypso video switchers.

UP-CLOSE AUDIO

DX11's audio equipment includes an arsenal of Sennheiser 816 and Audio-Technica shotgun mics. ESPN picked up the mics and the accompanying SK250 body pack transmitters to use when the small QT 256s, to be hidden on the athletes' snowboards and in their boots, are not needed. Because operating these mics involves holding them into icy winds, CP Communications is providing pistol grips and Zeppelin windscreens for operators on the hills. They're also making the mics as discrete as possible.

Kurt Hietmann, director of broadcast audio services for the New York-based company, which supplies sports broadcast with rental wireless comunications and audio equipment, said "ESPN wants all of the shotgun operators to be dressed in white, to blend in with the snow, so CP will cover the Zeppelins with white stockings."

Additionally, CP is supplying the athlete mics. ESPN Audio Consultant Ron Scalise was looking for thorough communication among crew members and "more vocalization" from the athletes.

"We use hundreds of conventional mics, including a lot of RF built into competitor helmets and snowmobiles, sleds and FollowCams," he said.

CP will provide DPA 4063 lavaliere microphones to be used in conjunction with 12 QT 256 transmitters, which pack 256 frequencies, 150 milliwatts of output and a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery for up to nine hours of transmit time.

"It sounds like a wired mic," said Scalise.

Along with the QT 256 and the 816s, ESPN will use a contact pick-up element called the X-ducer, specifically designed for the X Games.

"All downhill tricks get X-ducers mounted to them-grinding rails, picnic tables and the 'Titanic,' a large structure with a grind rail atop it. All the start gates get X-ducers, and we will even put them on boards and skis for pre-recorded sound effects. X-ducers will also be mounted on Plexiglass buried in the general landing zones off of course jumps," Scalise said.

Roving talent will use the UT200 handheld microphone transmitter from Lectrosonics, along with UDR 200 receivers and a set of ALP700 batwing antennas. CP Communications chose the UT200 for the higher power output of 100 milliwatts. Lectronsonics' T1 IFB transmitter, also for roving talent, uses dual Shure In-Ear earpieces with 16-ohm transducers for better clarity than with conventional Telex ear pieces.

"Talent can eliminate outside noise from the PA and spectators, and still wear earmuffs or hats to keep warm," Heitmann said.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Noticeably absent from the Winter X Games is the presence of high-definition.

For the past several years, production crews have shot pieces with HDCAM, and will continue to explore HD for producing features and teases, game officials have said.

But it seems the frenetic preparation of the Winter X Games' first live nighttime broadcast overshadowed the push for high-definition. When asked about the lack of HD at his year's games, Rich Feinberg said, "Long-term, the X Games is the perfect application for the use of high definition. Currently, given the volume of specialty equipment required to produce this event, the technology is not as available."