Winter X Games Wrap-Up: Aspen Compound Headlined by NEP’s EN1/EN2
The all-star pairing of the massive production units is a first at a major sports event
ESPN’s Winter X Games production reaped the rewards of the NFL Pro Bowl’s return to Honolulu this year: NEP’s EN1 mobile unit was available to work alongside EN2 in Aspen, the first time the two elite trucks have shared a compound.
“As soon as this came on the schedule, I was probably one of the most excited people there ever was, because it was a way to showcase where we’re going from an engineering and technology point of view,” says NEP Engineering Manager Nick Romano. “These trucks really show the future and the progression of NEP.”
The six trailers represented by EN1 (A, B, D, and E units) and EN2 (A and B), which launched in 2013 primarily for Monday Night Football and 2015 primarily for Sunday Night Baseball, respectively, offered ESPN a massive footprint and extensive technical firepower that allowed ESPN and NEP to rethink the production model in Aspen this year.
“It’s our two premiere ESPN trucks that we built with them collaboratively for Monday Night Football and for Sunday Night Baseball, and we thought it was a perfect opportunity to showcase these two great trucks,” says NEP Senior Account Manager Michael Pean. “In addition, providing all that firepower for X Games is great.
As a result of the larger footprint and robust infrastructure, several functions that would likely have previously been housed in office trailers were moved into the two mobile units: TOC operations (EN1 D), Event Productions production room (EN1 A), robotic-camera control (EN2 B), and the Visual Technology group (EN2 B).
“The beauty of it is the flexibility offered by the workstation concept,” says Pean. “We can put an EVS operator, a robo operator, or a graphics operator almost anywhere. The trucks actually evolve from season to season and show to show. It’s one setup for Monday Night Football and another for X Games; [with EN2], NBA was very different from Sunday Night Baseball.”
Romano notes the trucks’ massive Evertz EQX router, the 10-Gbps network connecting the trucks in the compound, and EVS XT3 replay servers across the board among the technical advantages that made the EN1/EN2 combination so powerful in Aspen. In addition, EN2 rolls with four Sony HDC-4300 4K/high-speed cameras, and the two trucks’ combined complement of Sony HDC-2500 cameras (many licensed 2X-slo-mo) totaled 36.
“[ESPN is able to make] multiple camera moves. [For example, at] one of the venues, the 4300 goes from a hard configuration to a handheld configuration. We have them built so they can do that,” says Romano. “We go through all the camera positions and lay them all out to make for the least amount of moves possible. In the past, we’ve had to repo more cameras, but we’re helping make the program more efficient as well as having the production space and the comfort for all the people here at the compound.”
GoPro Boosts HeroCast Complement
Although the GoPro brand has long had a pervasive presence at X Games, it wasn’t until last year in Aspen that GoPro cameras played a significant role in the live TV production when two GoPro/Vislink wearable RF POV camera systems were deployed on athletes as part of ESPN’s live-camera complement. This was followed by the official launch of GoPro HeroCast at NAB 2015 in April and a further appearance at X Games in Austin over the summer.
Judging by social-media reaction, the live GoPro angles were a hit among X Games viewers. ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer Amy Rosenfeld goes so far as to say that the live HeroCast units “elevated the [X Games] product like no other over the past few years.”
Jim Geduldick, marketing manager, cinema, broadcast, and photo, GoPro, points out, “Last year, we were using prototypes, and we didn’t have as many units, but the response from X Games was amazing. Immediately after that first night with Colten Moore [winning the Snowmobile Speed & Style competition while wearing the HeroCast], ESPN asked us to do as much as we could, and they used HeroCast [extensively]. It ended up being, like, the GoPro Games. ESPN was blown away by the wide angles we were able to give them, and that accentuated the production for them. Technical and production people really believed it added a lot to the show.”
This year, GoPro and Vislink have increased the HeroCast camera complement to 16, a mix of tethered unit (a camera and transmitter attached to each side of the athlete’s helmet and connected via HDMI cable) or an all-in-one integrated backpack system. These units were attached to athletes and used in FollowCam rigs by ESPN throughout the X Games production.
The FollowCam angle on events like Slopestyle, in which operators hit a jump directly behind an athlete during live competition, continues to be a hit with viewers and was used live and in replay regularly during this year’s coverage. In addition, HeroCast allows ESPN to rethink established workflows with GoPro, including its course previews.
“This also allows ESPN to do things like a live course preview instead of an edited one,” says Geduldick. “So it is eliminating some of the difficulties in the production process that we would do for ESPN. We are seeing that happen more and more on other events besides X Games as well.”
BSI Ups Imager on FollowCam Units
Longtime X Games staple BSI (Broadcast Sports Inc.) was once again on hand in Aspen in its Core Plus truck to provide RF cameras and microphones, as well as RF coordination and communication infrastructure. BSI outfitted ESPN’s three FollowCam units with new small, lightweight, single-chip imagers based on the on-board/in-car cameras it provides for motorsports coverage.
“We had been using an earlier generation of cameras on FollowCam for a number of years, so it was time to [upgrade] them,” says BSI Business Development Manager Clay Underwood. “We are still playing around with the lens to make sure you get the right distance from the skier. They actually like the wider lens we are trying because it gives them a more of a relationship to the environment.
BSI also deployed three RF handhelds for ESPN’s TV production (one apiece for Venue A and Venue B and another for the host set), as well as RF two handhelds for ESPN Event Productions, which produced the videoboard show onsite. BSI once again provided the receive infrastructure for GoPro’s HeroCast live RF POV cameras, as it did for the first time last year in Aspen and again last summer in Austin.
On the audio side, BSI supplied 27 microphones total for ESPN TV and EP shows, with each venue outfitted with five wireless parabolic mics, four effects mics, and a talent mic.
Fletcher Robo Ops Get Central Locale
Although Fletcher Sports did not provide high-speed camera systems this year (ESPN opted to deploy Sony HDC-4300s instead of Fletcher’s NAC/Ikegami Hi-Motion II systems used previously), the vendor’s robotic camera systems were once again all over Buttermilk Mountain. A total of 13 robos covered the action (including two with new 36X and 40X lenses) along with four more booth cameras in the off-tube announce booths in the compound.
Thanks to the increased footprint and flexibility offered by EN1 and EN2, Fletcher’s robotic-camera–control operations for both Venue A and Venue B were housed in a single truck area, EN2’s B unit, rather than split among multiple office trailers as in years past.
“It really helps in regards to the communication factor and making sure we are all on the same page,” says Fletcher Sports Lead Technician Nick Serna. “We are all able to cover certain things, whereas, before, we would have to make special arrangements for that. It’s so much better to be in one central location and all of our interconnects are here.”
ESPN Doubles Down on Power With Illumination Dynamics
Illumination Dynamics (ID) again powered the TV compound, as well as providing all ESPN’s non-Musco event lighting and ESPN’s set lighting, including its primary host set inside the control tower looking out on the SuperPipe and the new X Games Extra late-night–show set located at the bar inside the Inn at Aspen.
ID’s 18 generators in Aspen included its Monday Night Football quad-generator package powering the entire truck compound.
“The only thing that is a little different this year is that ESPN TV has wanted us to add a little more redundancy to certain positions so we have more backup power for places on the mountain that typically run solely off shore power,” explains ID Director, Broadcast Services, Rich Williams. “In case there was an issue with losing our utility power, we have more backup generators in place at all course start positions, and we will be running them during competition times. If there is something that isn’t already on a redundant twin-pack generator, then we have added backup parallel power.”