Creative Technology - Cold Cameras At The Winter Olympics
One of Harvard's 4 camera operators at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire in January 2020 covering Harvard Carnival's alpine ski comp.
When audiences across the world sit down to watch the Beijing Winter Olympics, they’ll do so from the warmth and comfort of the lounge. At the other end of the signal chain, as skiers carve sparkling showers of ice crystals out of mountainsides, the environment is a little less friendly, leaving broadcasters taking special measures to keep both crew and equipment comfortable.
Michael Davies is the senior vice-president of field and technical operations for Fox Sports, responsible for all of the channel's logistical and operational work on high-profile sports events including the NFL, Nascar, baseball and the World Cup. Wintry conditions, he recalls, don't necessarily have to involve winter sports. "At the end of 2008, when we covered the penultimate NFC playoff just before the Super Bowl, we were in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was the coldest show we've ever done. You could pour out a glass of water and watch it freeze."
Under those conditions, equipment concerns begin before the equipment even arrives on site. "Every now and again we get a massive snowstorm across the country, and it isolates some of the trucks," Davies continues. "Once we were sending mobile units down to a golf event in Florida and they got stuck somewhere on the east coast. The weather channel was holed up outside a hotel, and you could actually see the trucks that were supposed to be in Florida in the background of the weather channel shot."
Low temperatures can delay setup, too. "If an OB truck pulls up and it's been driving in twelve-degree [-11°C] weather, it's dangerous to just light that truck up," Davies says. "You have to warm it up first, which takes several hours. A lot of times we'll find that the expandos themselves have frozen." Even a thaw can cause problems: "at the world alpine competition maybe four years ago, they'd parked a truck when it was very cold, and then it warmed up such that the landing gear on the snow started to sink in!"
"With temperatures that cold," Davies continues, "and with equipment out there that couldn't be moved, we literally bought electric blankets... Overnight the electric blankets were huge, but we found most of them had a timer and they'd switch off." Having worked around that, though, Davies' crew were faced with a less predictable problem: "the power failed overnight. Whether it was the cold or whatever, the generator basically destroyed itself right there. Luckily we were in the presence of some good security people who picked up the phone."
The privations, though, can be worthwhile, as Davies says. "I find the pictures more crisp in the colder weather. You don't have the same heat signatures that come up on the field that blur the picture. And we literally see viewership spikes when people are flipping around and they see this game in the snow. When you see the classic NFL film football games, if it's snowing, these guys are doing their best in the weather conditions and it's the perfect football weather. From a vision engineering standpoint I believe it hits all those notes, especially in HDR. It looks amazing with the contrast."
With the bright whiteness of snow often surrounded by shadowed treelines in stark sunlight, HDR has almost never been so relevant a technology. Here we talk, coincidentally, to another Mike Davies, who we'll refer to from now on, a freelance vision engineer based in the UK with experience on both summer and winter Olympics, including the 2012 opening ceremony, and UEFA Euro football events as an HDR supervisor.
Picture content, Davies says, is key. "If you consider a downhill ski event which is happening in daylight hours on a sunny day, which are the ideal conditions for UHD HDR, then the course will have some darker areas of mountain or tree shadow compared to the sunny areas, but they won’t be an extreme change as the athletes can’t race on a course where their eyes would need significant time to adjust. The cameras will in general be quite tight on the athlete, and will be racked in the HD SDR domain for the majority of viewers by the team of Vision Supervisor and engineers."
HDR productions, Davies says, are often produced as two parallel pathways for SDR and HDR simultaneously, so "there will also be a HDR supervisor adjusting the HDR side of the camera channel. They can place the eight f-stop SDR range at the best place within the 14 f-stops possible in HDR. That allows detail in the sunlit areas of snow in the background while the athlete is racing in the shadows, or vice versa, with the darker tree areas having some detail while the athlete is in the bright sunshine. It doesn’t make racking the show any different in the most part, or easier for the vision team."
As with everyone who has been involved in cold-weather broadcasting, though, vision engineer Davies returns to practicalities. "You'll wish you'd brought the best fibre and mains cable, with the flexible outer at very low temperatures otherwise you will struggle to coil and uncoil it. Tactical Fibre is used a lot to transmit many signals up and down the mountain... but it's meant to be spliced in cleanroom conditions. Up a mountain in a snowstorm does not qualify!"
With college sports a huge draw in the USA, universities often find themselves in a similar position. Imry Halevi is the assistant director of athletics at Harvard, with responsibility for all the department's video content. "Harvard has forty-two division one teams in a variety of sports," Halevi begins, "and we broadcast more than three hundred games a year, so we have a lot of production over a variety of sports."
Operating with no mains power or truck support, Harvard's crews used LiveU bonded cellular transmission equipment and JVC cameras, all kept at operating temperature with chemical handwarmers.
With control rooms on campus in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, broadcasts are crewed, in part, Halevi says, "by college students who are interested in sports or broadcasting. We teach them to use the equipment, and with my full-time team's support we produce them to a level that allows them to be broadcast on live TV." Halevi often finds himself coordinating camera teams ranging across several neighbouring states and in all weathers.
Using mainly JVC equipment, including the full-size GY-HC900 and compact GY-HC500 cameras, Halevi particularly recalls the first ever ski event at the Harvard Carnival in 2020. Halevi chose "the GY-HC500, for ski events, just because we needed smaller equipment that was more mobile. It was a two-day event, with the alpine event was in New Hampshire, and Nordic skiing was in northern Vermont, on the Canadian border, so we needed to use smaller cameras."
Without power or internet facilities, Halevi planned to broadcast "with no support whatsoever, no facilities around us, no utilities. We got Porta-Brace Polar Covers for the cameras that entirely covered them, and have pouches that allow us to put handwarmers inside... we also used external batteries to power the cameras for an extended period, and we had our LiveU bonded cellular packs and monitors. We put them in little bags and filled the bags with handwarmers so they never went below 40-50°F [4-10°C]."
Covering Nordic cross-country skiing demanded a more mobile camera. "Just providing ground-level cameras isn't as comprehensive as we'd like to be so we used a drone," Halevi recalls. "We had to talk to the manufacturer about using the drone... we had an incredibly cold weekend, it was around 0°F [-18°C], but they said if we took off and let the drone hover at eye level for a minute it warms up the battery and allows the drone to operate in low temperatures."
Harvard's sports broadcasters are not the only people to encounter temperatures in the negative double digits, as Chris Pendlebury, deputy head of cameras at CTV, confirms. The company's experience includes The Jump, a celebrity ski-jumping programme for Channel 4, and the Winter Olympics in Korea. Pendlebury worked on what he describes as "the more extreme downhill things... and the snowboard big air competitions. When we did The Jump it was getting down to -12, -15°C [5 to 10°F] in my locations, and in the Winter Olympics as low as -20°C."
While cameras, transmitters and other specific pieces of equipment can be kept warm, long runs of cable often can't. Pendlebury states that "the one time we ever had any real trouble was on a mountainside in Austria on The Jump and we had a freezing fog roll in one night. We learned that at -10°C [14°F] or lower the alcohol spray that we use to clean our fibre optic cables doesn't evaporate. So, you think – this camera isn't working very well, I'd better clean these cables. Then it freezes on the end of the fibre optics and when you plug it back in you have absolutely nothing. That was as close to not making it on air as I've ever been."
In general, though, Pendlebury describes most broadcast equipment as "pretty robust. It's proper high-end stuff so we expect it to work in some pretty challenging conditions and it hasn't really let us down. We take steps: we can often leave things powered overnight if we know them ticking over electronically will keep them warm, or take them back in. If we've put them out on a mountain we don't leave them out there that night. I've never had a piece of kit die because of the cold."
Human beings, conversely, respond unpredictably to the elements. Pendlebury says that "we didn't feel the coldest – it was the north wind that the guys in the stadium said they were experiencing. Temperature-wise, the mercury said the same thing, but in the stadium it was a bit different." Either way, he concludes, "the cold gets in eventually. You find yourself standing next to a camera and the race is delayed because there's been a crash... you're often on a camera tower and you can only do so many star jumps and press ups."
Perhaps the most crucial piece of equipment, then, is the widely-adored chemical handwarmer, doubling as a camera-warmer and battery-warmer and mentioned by everyone consulted for this piece. Pendlebury found that "when I was operating, I found you can't be wearing big ski gloves. It was a case of whipping your hands out with your lightweight gloves on, do your shots as they came flying past you and hope you've got some handwarmers in your pockets!"
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