ESPN L.A. Production Center Lends Hand to X Games Coverage
By: Ken Kerschbaumer, Editorial Director | Published: July 31, 2009

ESPN’s coverage of X Games 15 are getting a technical lift this weekend, thanks to the network’s new Los Angeles Production Center. “In years past, we would route the signals through a truck at the Home Depot Center,” says ESPN Senior Operations Producer Larry Wilson. “But with the infrastructure at the LAPC, we can simplify things and go straight out to [the ESPN Digital Center in] Bristol, CT.”

The 15th-annual action-sports competition features more than 250 of the world’s best athletes, who are competing in BMX Freestyle, Moto X, skateboard, and rally-car racing at the Staples Arena in Los Angeles and Home Depot Center in Anaheim. Simplifying an event that is basically an Olympics crammed into a long weekend is a big help, considering that it involves more than 350 operations and technical professionals, 75 HD cameras (24 of which are robotic), 130 channels of EVS instant replay, and even a touch of 3D production (though not for airing) with three 3D cameras shooting during the four-day event.

“This is probably one of the most complex TV events put on year in and year out,” says Chris Calcinari, ESPN VP of event operations for both U.S. and international events. “It takes a tremendous amount of planning.”

Taking advantage of the Production Center’s transmission infrastructure also allows X Center, the X Games version of SportsCenter, to be produced out of the Digital Center via two transmit paths dedicated to EVS [IP]Director systems. Those systems enable remote control of EVS XT[2] servers. “The talent will be on-site in the Staples Center, but content will be integrated into the program in Bristol,” says Steve Raymond, ESPN coordinating technical manager. “The X Games are a very short event with ambitious goals, and it’s amazing to watch all the work bring it to another level.”

Expect a similar model to be in place next year for coverage of the World Cup.

Other enhancements this year include the use of uncompressed video circuits for transmission from the venues. “In the past, we would use MPEG-2 encoding to transfer signals, but this year, we are using new 1.5-Gbps AT&T circuits,” says Raymond. “That allows us to save money in encoding and deliver a higher-quality product.”

The biggest benefit to working in uncompressed video is that there is no latency between the sites. “It’s always a struggle to deal with that issue, and uncompressed signals will also have upsides in the final resolution of our edited pieces,” Raymond explains. “Viewers might not notice it, but our folks will appreciate it.”

One enhancement the viewers will notice is the use of an Airborn camera jib, called the JitaCam, mounted in the lighting truss at the Staples Center. “It provides 360 degrees of movement and will offer some dramatic video,” says Raymond.

The Staples Center productions are handled out of Denali Summit, NEP SS25 handles events at the Home Depot Center, and SS20 handles motocross events. All of the units feature a Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher, Calrec Alpha console with Bluefin, Sony cameras, and Canon and Fujinon lenses. The LAPC also provides some camera support for establishing shots of the Staples Center and the red-carpet program for last night’s X Games 3D movie premiere.

The instant-replay areas in the trucks makes use of EVS Multicam 10, allowing multiple users to work with multiple cameras. “It makes the workflow better and also allows for browsing over Ethernet,” adds Raymond.

Audio also features something new this year: the DTS Neural Microphone array, a ring of six microphones capturing both time and amplitude cues in a way that allows the listener’s ears and brain to make sense of the results when played back in a standard five-channel playback setup. It does this by including not only amplitude panning and delay panning but also some capture of the acoustic-velocity field as well as the pressure field in the recording venue.

According to Kevin Cleary, ESPN senior technical audio producer, the array provides a bed of surround sound on which submixers Steve Cora, Dan Bernstein, and Andre Carabjal lay down additional effects brought in via xducer and shotgun mics.

“The biggest opportunity is, we can place mics where we traditionally aren’t allowed to place them for big events,” says Cleary. “For example, the ‘Big Air’ ramp will have more than 60 xducers placed around it and under it to give a full audio experience all the way down the ramp.”

The mixing philosophy is similar to that of the X Games athletes: to push the end of the envelope as much as possible. “We give the submixers the freedom to try to put mics in every available space,” says Cleary. As a result, more than 600 microphones will be used over the long weekend.

The approach taken by the audio team extends to all production areas, as the ESPN-owned event provides a level of production control the team seldom enjoys. Says Wilson, “It’s a great experience to work with the best technical group in an environment like this.”