Natural Selection Tour Deploys Drone, Fully Wireless AV Infrastructure
Live-stabilized racing drone shadows snowboarders sliding down insanely steep slopes
Think of it as Winter X Games 2.0-Plus, only faster. The Natural Selection Tour brings together top snowboarders from throughout the sport to compete across dynamic mountain venues as they vie for the title of world’s best all-around snowboarder. The three-day streamed event has returned with three in the series for 2022: YETI Natural Selection at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (Jan. 24-30), Natural Selection at Baldface Lodge (Feb. 21-27), and Natural Selection in the Tordrillo Mountains (March 21-27).
What distinguishes this year’s events is how wireless audio and video brought viewers right on top of athletes in venues most mountain goats would think twice about. The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort event, the first in the series, was a riot of freestyle moves, all closely caught with an intense assortment of wireless audio and video systems, including some kick-ass drone work, showing that racing drones aren’t just for racing anymore.
Basically, in Jackson Hole, we were tasked to cover an untraditional live back-country snowboarding event, and the terrain was pretty wild,” observes Chris Steblay, senior producer/creative director, Uncle Toad’s Media Group (UTMG), the event producer. It required, he adds, “a blend of broadcast know-how with a little bit of ski-junkie enthusiasm.”
UTMG’s crew created an ad hoc broadcast compound in a horse pasture, housing Dome Productions’ Journey A and B units, a remote hosts set, and an administrative structure for judges and other principals. From there, the team set out to cover an estimated 15-plus acres of steep snow-covered slopes using an entirely wireless infrastructure assembled by RF Wireless Inc.
“The only wired cameras we have would be our two host-set cameras,” he says. “Other than that, we’re all several miles away from where the field of play is.”
A Moment for Sports-Drone Technology
According to Steblay, much of the production’s vision came from UTMG’s collaboration with Travis Rice. Ranked No. 13 on Snowboarder magazine’s list of the 20 most influential snowboarders of the past 20 years and a founder of the Natural Selection tour, Rice is also widely credited as an advocate for the authentic experience of riding free on natural terrain — Natural Selection’s raison d’être — vs. the carefully groomed halfpipes and other now-conventional tropes of extreme winter sports.
“The projects he does are light years ahead of what anyone else is doing in the sport,” Steblay says. “When he’s doing a live broadcast, you have that benchmark that we’re trying to hit. We know the level of quality that Travis Rice wants.”
Achieving that meant going beyond the GoPro camera on a fish pole held by a snowboarder following an athlete downslope. It meant drones.
Liam Griffin, COO and co-founder of the Natural Selection Tour, approached Gabriel Kocher, aka Gab707, one of the world’s leading drone-racing pilots, about adapting a racing drone to serve as a close-up follow-cam for the snowboarders on their runs. An intense collaboration of UTMG, Kocher, and camera partner GoPro — involving weeks of onsite R&D and testing in Jackson Hole — produced what Steblay describes as the first-ever live-stabilized racing drone.
“This is literally the first racing drone ever built that had onboard stabilization,” he explains. “The biggest issue with being able to integrate a live drone [into sports production] is that all that footage you see on social media or used in movies [has gone] through a ton of postproduction image stabilization. They’re running tons of software with it to stabilize that footage because, otherwise, you’d get seasick watching the raw footage. What Gab helped us do is [fabricate] a lightweight gimble onto the drone for the camera. That gave us a rock-steady, easy-to-watch, 1080p primary action camera off of a small, lightweight racing drone.”
In addition, four EVS instant-replay servers — two 12-channel and two eight-channel XT3 units — were deployed, connecting wirelessly with two 3-phase Sony HDC-5500 4K cameras deployed in different positions on the mountain for replays in high-frame-rate mode for 60-fps super-slo-mo replays. Additional gear included five Sony HDC-2400 and three Panasonic PTZ cameras. GoPro Hero10 cameras were aboard the FPV drones.
Wireless wasn’t the only concern during the shoot. Steblay reports that almost 6 ft. of snow fell just before and during the event, giving boarders some nice powder but collapsing a couple of operations tents and adding to the natural challenges of shooting in the Rocky Mountains in winter. The crew had to haul and emplace nearly two dozen wireless hubs along the snowboard routes using Sno-Cat vehicles — at night.
“Our biggest challenges were how to keep our crew safe and get the job done,” Steblay says. “It’s a big-budget project for our production company. We want to execute flawlessly, but we don’t have a billion resources for redundancy. It’s all about making sure that everything works the first time.”
Ben Boriss, VP, ops and production, RF Wireless, supervised deployment of 22 2-GHz microwave links for use by the modified LIVE FPV drone cams (including one LIVE Alta X heavy-payload drone to support a MōVI Carbon camera), three handheld cams and a jib cam, the production’s Motorola wireless comms system, and the Q5X PlayerMic bodypack transmitters with Sennheiser MKE-2 capsules worn on the snowboarders’ parka collars.
“We used multiple receive sites for the RF and multiple relay locations — a total of about 30 antennas — in order to give them the coverage they need over such a large area,” says Boriss. “And then, through the relay, we developed a [diversity-type] system to switch wirelessly between the received sites with the most robust signals. The broadcast industry uses diversity on antenna systems all the time but usually connected by fiber. This one was a real shift for all of us as far as the engineering was concerned: we had to connect these diversity sites with repeating microwave links to get the RF to the Dome A unit 2 miles away, which took months of planning and testing.”
He adds that audio for this year’s event was a substantial step up from the previous production, which relied heavily on shotgun and fishpole microphones (and garnered UTMG a Bronze Clio for event production). Working closely with Brett Fifield, senior account manager, client solutions, Dome Productions, the team looked for a way to get close to the athletes and the environment without having to be tethered by cabling.
Boriss notes that RF Wireless has used that transmitter before but never across such a broad expanse: “Given that field of play, we couldn’t rehearse it; we couldn’t let somebody ride down there first because it needed to appear to be untouched. Once we did the first few runs, we were blown away by the robustness of the coverage. They had signal coverage and clean audio, wall to wall.”
The wireless microphones picked up a combination of snowboarders’ physical exertions and the ambient air around them, subtly but convincingly conveying a sense of speed to match and complement what the flying cameras caught. The enormous scale of the field of play was a challenge that was partially made up for by the fact that there were literally no competing radio frequencies in use anywhere nearby.
Steblay believes that the innovations UTPG and RF Wireless developed for Natural Selection will be widely applicable to sports broadcasts and streaming.
“Once we determined that it worked,” he contends, “it was obvious that this thing was going to change a lot of people’s perspective on how you can cover a lot of sports, not just snowboarding. I’m sure we’ll see a lot of this in the future. It adds what we call the video-game angle, the third-person point of view. I could see this used in rally-car racing, in mountain biking, and the uses can keep growing as we see drone technology always advancing. Our hope is that we can keep changing it up and adding little things to stay ahead of the curve.”