Legends Behind the Lens: Bob Mikkelson
The great aerial camera operator has delivered some of sports TV's most iconic imagery
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
If you’ve watched big-time football and big-time golf events, the odds are good that you have seen the work of Bob Mikkelson, president/founder of Winged Vision and a member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Class of 2016. The odds are also good that you’ve been impressed by what you have seen: Mikkelson has taken live aerial coverage of sport events to, literally, new heights.
He is in his element when inside a blimp or in the back of one of Winged Vision’s three fixed-wing airplanes with an electronics rack, a 7-in. monitor, and a laptop controller for the camera and 40X lens in a gyro-stabilized housing. A live microwave signal is then sent to the ground, where another member of the Winged Vision production team ensures that it is received properly.
Mikkelson’s true artistry is his ability to shoot an aerial show that matches what the production team is doing, despite his inability to see what is going on in the truck. He, in effect, produces and directs an aerial show that syncs up with the one being produced in the truck.
“I follow everything they are doing live without a return and tally,” he explains. “It’s a great way to keep you focused.”
From Politics to Sports Coverage
Mikkelson’s journey began not in the dusty confines of a TV-truck compound but rather the world of national politics. The Minnesota native set out for Washington as an intern with Hubert Humphrey while in grad school and then signed on as an advance man for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. He subsequently served as campaign press secretary for Minnesota State Sen. Wendell Anderson and then moved to the FAA as an aide to the administrator.
But, as he puts it, he was one of those guys who became unemployed at noon on Jan. 20, 1981, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. “It was a tough time to be a young Democrat in Washington,” he says, “so I figured I’d take a break for a couple of years and do something fun.”
Out of a job, he did the best thing for someone who loves aviation: look to put his pilot’s license to use.
“It was clear I didn’t have the experience for a flying job, but someone suggested I look at aerial camera systems. I went to the library across the hall from my old FAA office and began my research,” he says. “It was all military systems, but I saw something that made sense to me. It was the stabilized platform used in the AC 130 Spectre Gunship. It carried about six sensors and looked like you could easily mount anything in it.”
With an idea and a copy of the Pentagon phone directory, Mikkelson hit the phones and wound up talking to the TV-Film Liaison for the Secretary of the Air Force and got a system to test. That Air Force system was an open frame that could easily hold almost any camera and lens. The 1984 prototype Canon 40X lens configured for ⅔-in. cameras turned out to be the perfect fit for the system, and it gave Mikkelson the ability to shoot tighter than with other aerial systems.
A Modified Military Camera System
With Canon’s support, he modified that system so that it could be used on the Goodyear blimp, and it debuted that summer at a women’s golf event for NBC and later at the Citrus Bowl. A few months later, with two systems from the manufacturer, Winged Vision was in business.
Fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Mickey Wittman was a key driver of getting things like the Goodyear blimp up in the air for event coverage, and Mikkelson took what Wittman says is a good idea and made it great.
Ken Aagaard, then at NBC Sports, hired Mikkelson’s camera system for six golf events in 1985, and, the following year, Mikkelson, with no camera experience at all, shot his first show, the Bob Hope Classic for NBC.“Televised golf can’t be fully articulated without an aerial platform 1,000 ft. above the course,” says Wittman, “and Bob has an incredible ability to follow a golf ball and anticipate the next camera cut.”
“There’s no one in this world you can truly say can do what he does in the manner that he does it up in that blimp.” – CBS Sports producer Lance Barrow
“I really didn’t realize that I had put together the most capable aerial system anywhere in the broadcast world,” Mikkelson says. “I really didn’t invent anything. I just put pieces together from the military and the commercial broadcast world, and it worked.”
Aagaard and Mikkelson set off on a 30+-year journey that continues to this day.
“Mikkelson singlehandedly changed how we watch golf. Our principal camera coverage is from the blimp,” says Aagaard, noting, “It is not easy to follow a ball while robotically controlling pan, tilt, and zoom, on a moving platform that is operating at the whim of the wind and making sure your shadow doesn’t fall in your shot or the noise from your airship isn’t disturbing the players.”
In 1987, MetLife started its blimp program, and Mikkelson and his golf coverage served as the foundation for Snoopy’s 29-year run. His work is the standard and a key component of golf coverage today.
A Changing Broadcast Industry
He attributes much of his success to some broader industry trends at that time. The networks were changing how they did business. Many of the original families and owners that had created the broadcasting industry were leaving and turning the industry over to non-broadcast corporations.
“The whole DNA of the networks changed, and that allowed outside vendors like myself, or John Porter and Peter Larsson with their in-car cameras, to step in, as the networks no longer wanted to own stuff,” Mikkelson says. “So a new generation of vendors were not only suppliers but also became the R&D shops for the networks.”
In the early 1990s, he was the first to fly the new generation of ENG telephoto lenses. The first system he built for these lenses was developed with Versatron, builder of the original cameras for the Predator drone. “The first one was the Canon J33, followed by Fujinon’s 36X and Canon’s 40X in later systems. That first 14-in. gimbal, with a split optical block, set the basic layout for all the systems that have followed,” says Mikkelson. Follow-on systems from Aerial Motive, Flir Systems, Cineflex, and now GSS also have his fingerprints all over them.
The Move to Fixed-Wing
In 1998, Mikkelson bought his first of three airplanes. “It was for ESPN’s Sunday Night Football. We could go anywhere in the country and had better endurance than a helicopter.”
Airplanes, for example, capture more-interesting shots above a stadium than a blimp, adding movement that a quick blimp shot lacks. “Another advantage with airplanes,” he adds, “is [that] the network can get anyone to sponsor the aerials.”
Since the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, Mikkelson and his Winged Vision team have provided Goodyear’s non-blimp coverage, helping expand the coverage to areas not easily covered by a blimp.
He has covered numerous memorable moments. One of the more bizarre occurred more than 20 years ago. Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield were fighting for the heavyweight championship at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas when a parachutist crashed into the side of the ring. Mikkelson was above the ring in the blimp and captured the entire event from above.
“I was just there to get beauty shots,” he recalls, “and, honest to God, Fan Man flew into the ring.”
As for his best golf shows, he cites the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2015. “We had four days of great weather; everyone on the production team and I were on the same page. And, with a thousand bunkers all over the place, the blimp shots were really useful. But year in and year out,” he adds, “it’s Pebble Beach. You can’t take a bad shot there.”
An Uncanny Ability
Aagaard, now EVP, innovation and new technology, CBS Sports, observes that Mikkelson has the uncanny ability to shoot while also making all editorial decisions of who and what holes to cover.
“Few people can think and operate in an X, Y, and Z plane,” says Aagaard. “Bob can do that while the rest of the alphabet is coming at him full force. He is unique. He has no equal. There is no one like him. He is a great talent.”
U.S. Open on Fox golf director Steve Beim concurs: “Who would think that someone 1,000 ft. in the air could make composition such an integral part of the shot? Bob always knows where the action is, where to position the aircraft, and how to compose the shot to give the viewer at home a unique and perfect perspective.”
Mikkelson’s credits over the past 30 years include just about every televised sports event: World Cup; Olympics; Monday-, Sunday-, and Thursday-night football; Triple Crown; national championships; U.S. Opens for every sport; and, of course, PGA golf. Add baseball, outdoor hockey, Indy Car, and beauty shots for everything else, and you realize that his work has set the aerial standard.
“I had a chance to work with a lot of the iconic sports directors who are in the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and, for them, it was neat to have a beauty shot that was much more stable,” he recalls. “And then the new generation accepted it as normal for play action. That may be the greatest legacy because, when it started, it was the greatest thing people had seen and now it is a bit ho-hum.”
Today, Mikkelson and his Winged Vision team work on close to 175 shows a year, including CBS Thursday Night Football, CBS’s SEC Conference coverage, Fox NASCAR, ESPN GameDay, college football, and golf tournaments of all sizes.
“I’m still out there every week and expect to be for years to come,” he says, adding, “With the great team that I work with, we’ll continue to provide the great pictures viewers enjoy.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2016. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.