Live From X Games: ESPN, REMI Production Model Return to Austin
ESPN’s X Games are back for round two in Austin this week, with a wide-ranging show that spans from the Circuit of the Americas to the Texas capitol downtown. To produce 20 hours of live coverage on ESPN and ABC (plus another 6½ hours exclusively on ESPN3), the operations team has once again focused on maximizing onsite resources while relying on the REMI (remote-integration model) to tie together downtown Austin, COTA, and ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT.
“The great thing about X Games is that there is no resistance to experimentation from any side — whether it’s Events, Production, or Operations,” says Paul DiPietro, coordinating director, event operations, ESPN. “Everyone is always looking to innovate. That is at the core of the X Games: whatever you can do to make sure the person at home has a better experience, we do it without a second thought.”
The REMI Model in Action
ESPN has consolidated its COTA operations into a single truck compound this year and divided the overarching X Games production into two discrete shows within it: Venue A (Big Air, Park, Street, and Dirt courses for BMX and Skateboard) produced out of NEP’s SS24 (A, B, and C units) and Venue B (BMX/Skateboard Vert, Moto X, and all motorsports, including Rally Car, Off-Road Truck, and Flat-Track Racing) out of NEP SS21 (A and B units with an E support truck). Complicating matters at COTA, the Flat Track course is located nearly 1½ miles from the truck compound, and the main concert stage (from which Metallica’s concert will be streamed live on ESPN3 Saturday night) is nearly a mile away.
“Flat Track is still part of our Venue B operations and runs out of the truck [at the compound],” says Jon Winders, senior remote ops producer, ESPN. “We ran 48 single-mode strands of fiber out there and opted not to put in any type of permanent [fiber] infrastructure just because we don’t know if the event will be there again next year.”
ESPN’s REMI model, which the X Games team played a key role in creating and cultivating in recent years, is onsite in full force to support the Moto X Step Up competition that took place last night in downtown Austin (13 miles northeast of COTA). Although ESPN rolled out NEP’s SS11 downtown for support and to serve ESPN Event Productions’ show, all camera feeds, audio, and communications were backhauled to SS21 at the COTA truck compound via a 270-MBps fiber circuit. Ten camera feeds were sent back to COTA, including a StradaCrane, a jib, a POV, an RF handheld, a NAC/Ikegami Hi-Motion II ultra-slo-mo, a helicopter cam, and several handhelds.
In addition, the announcers were located in an off-tube booth at COTA, unlike in last year’s downtown Vert production, when they were onsite. A 4.1 audio mix was created downtown and sent back to COTA, where the center channel was created and announcers were integrated.
“We are really taking the REMI model to the next level at Step Up this year,” says Winders. We did use it for Vert last year, but we have a bit more experience with it now, and things are going very smoothly.”
Bristol Remains Integration Hub
As has been the case for every X Games production since the stalled Global X Games series in 2013, the X Games broadcast is being integrated in a control room in Bristol.
Using a redundant pair of OC-12 fiber circuits (580 Mbps of bandwidth each), ESPN is sending 13 feeds to Bristol: clean, dirty, and non-sponsored program feeds from both venues; a switched ad hoc/backup; a switched beauty cam; a pair of discrete camera feeds from the host set; selected EVS clips; ESPN International (INET); and a feed for Skype’s X Games Extra postgame show streamed on XGames.com.
In addition, ESPN is receiving eight feeds: selected EVS clips, a domestic production-control–room (PCR) return, a PCR iso camera feed, a non-sponsored world-feed return, world-feed return, switched domestic return (ESPN, ESPN2, ABC), an INET PCR return, and an IPTV mux (four channels mux sent from Bristol and inserted into ESPN’s onsite IPTV distribution system).
ESPN is also sending Bristol backup satellite-uplink paths of the dirty-program (switched between venues) and non-sponsored–program (switched between venues) feeds.
In addition, the X Games features/editing staff and facilities are located in Bristol, with ESPN’s EVS IPDirector file-transfer portal allowing the team to push and pull content between Austin and Bristol.
With an event as diverse as X Games and a venue as extensive as COTA, it’s no surprise that ESPN is once again repositioning dozens of cameras across several courses throughout the four-day event. In all, ESPN is juggling 64 cameras to 110 unique positions across 11 disciplines: 59 handheld positions, 33 hard camera drops, nine POV positions, and 10 robotic positions.
“People ask how many cameras we have, and it’s not so easy to answer because it’s not like a basketball or football game,” says DiPietro. “There can be a single camera that has five positions. And that is what this event has always been about: maximizing our resources. It’s our group’s job to determine what the [camera] needs to do, where it needs to go, and how much time we have to do it.”
Included in the camera complement are three 125-ft. super cranes, three 85-ft. Strada cranes, four spider lifts (two per venue), two NAC/Ikegami Hi-Motion II ultra-slo-mos (provided by Fletcher), six robos, a helicopter cam (downtown Thursday and at COTA Friday-Sunday), three RF handhelds (via BSI, one per venue and one for the host feed), two GoPro-Vislink HEROcast RF POV cameras (shuffled among several courses), and several standard GoPRO POV’s.
“This can be a tough venue to place cameras because it is so big that you couldn’t possibly cover everything,” says ESPN Remote Operations Specialist Joe Rainey. “If you had a million cameras, you’re still going to have holes. We repo cameras and [crew] around a lot to try to cover all we can, so you have to think about all the moving pieces.”
With ESPN VP of Motorsports Production Rich Feinberg joining the X Games team prior to Winter X in January, it’s no surprise that there is a renewed focus on the motor-based disciplines in Austin this year. In addition to deployment of six BSI dual-stream in-car camera systems and the use of GoPro-Vislink HEROcast RF POV cameras on various motorsports events, ESPN Transmission Systems Engineer Dana Underhill has been working with BSI to leverage infrastructure already in place to introduce driver–announcer two-way communications during the Rally and Truck races. NASCAR legend Rusty Wallace, who makes his Off-Road Truck debut this week, will be able to communicate directly with X Games announcers during the telecast.
“The whole group — from ops to production to staging — [is] open to try new things,” says ESPN Operations Manager Patty Mattero. “All of us are in favor of doing something different even if it means making big changes. It’s just the type of group we are, which makes it a really great place to innovate.”
Host Set Takes Rooftop Leap
After locating the primary host set near the Big Air ramp during the inaugural Austin X Games, ESPN has moved the studio skyward this year, locating it atop the paddock building to provide an expansive view of the sprawling X Games setup at COTA. Relocating the set was no easy task, however: ESPN and partner Illumination Dynamics (which is providing much of the power and infrastructure for the set) were forced to use a crane to get all the gear atop the five-story structure.
“We are trying to capture the scope and scale of this place, so we figured, why not go up high and get as much as the whole venue as possible,” says ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer Amy Rosenfeld. “Daytime or nighttime, it is crazy with activity here, so [the rooftop studio] is going to be perfect for the host [feed] and for SportsCenter integration. You have the giant COTA tower and the Big Air in the background; it’s going to be an amazing backdrop view.”
Communications Gets Makeover
A major change is also under way this year on the comms side. In past X Games, all IFBs and PLs in the field would ride over a CobraNet or Calrec Hydra network. This year, ESPN has opted for a different route, installing a DirectOut M.1K2 MADI router in its comms room and using DirectOut Andiamo converters for its PLs and IFBs in the field. These field boxes connect to RTS MADI cards in the intercom via the router. Between trunking and IFB/PLs, ESPN is using seven RTS MADI cards on this show.
“Basically, we divorced our PLs and IFBs from our audio network, so now we have made a MADI [configuration] for the comms network.” says Ryan Zainc, associate manager, ESPN Remote Production Operations. “This new workflow has increased the work load in the comms room with positive results.”
In all, ESPN’s X Games communications operation includes 384 MADI ports (seven RTS MADI cards), 56 RVON channels to Bristol, 16 RVON ports between COTA and downtown, and 32 RVON ports used throughout COTA.
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