40 miles of cable, 25,000 fans, four days of high-flying action
They built this city on rap and snow.For the 10th consecutive year, ESPN has produced an adrenaline junkie’s winter dream: a hi-tech playground to grind, stomp and whip in front of 25,000 pumped-up fans.From Buttermilk’s Upper Tiehack lift, you’d never know the biggest ESPN-owned event, the Winter X Games, was revving up Thursday afternoon. Hip-hop, television crews and athletes hadn’t sprawled into the quiet Tiehack countryside. But underneath the Summit Express quad in the center of Buttermilk, the smell of exhaust from snowmobiles and snowcats filled the air. Sound producers, cameramen and security guards swarmed between plastic fences separating each venue as they prepared for the first day of competition today.
Winter X Games is a production more than 10 times bigger than an NFL game. It takes eight mobile broadcasting units and a crew of more than 525 television production people, as opposed to two or three mobile units and 40 people a Sunday football game requires, said Paul DiPietro, senior director of remote operations for the games.And ESPN is responsible for feeding and housing the entire crew – not to mention keeping employees warm and hydrated during their 10- to 16-hour weekend shifts. ESPN provides pots of soup, thousands of hand warmers and almost 100 pallets of bottled water in the on-mountain tents. Runners bring up food to crews when they don’t have time to descend to the mess tent. Many production people are freelancers – they sign up for the chilly challenge.”Fortunately, most of our guys are from Aspen, and they’re just unbelievable,” DiPietro said. “These guys and gals are professionals – they’re the best. They’ve been here, they’re prepared, they know the routine.”In total, about 1,200 employees and 300 volunteers work to pull off the games. Anthony Dittmann, assistant director of operations, spends five months planning the details to support the event, from coordinating course-building and television cable installation to medical assistance, which includes two ambulances and a medical staff of more than 20.
“It’s like designing a city,” Dittmann said. “From Kinder Morgan to Qwest, we’ve had every facility here. We use everything except the asphalt company, and at Summer X, we actually do use the asphalt company.”Crews run 40 miles of television cable up the hill, Dittmann said. ESPN illuminates the superpipe with 96 1,500-watt lighting fixtures. Up to 300 microphones line the mountain; each course includes 30 to 40 microphones to pick up the athletes’ scraping sounds over ice and rails. Effect mics record the sound of vibrations as competitors ride ramps. There are more than 100 fixed camera positions on the mountain. Clamp-on lights warm the cameras enough to prevent condensation on the lenses.More than 100 communication panels allow cameramen, sound engineers and other production staff to coordinate coverage of the games. It’s an endeavor made more complex by live coverage; four years ago, each of the venues acted independently, taping the events, editing them, then sending them to the broadcast center. Now, everything’s done on the fly, and the dispatch system between the programmer, in-house technicians, graphics department, directors, cameramen and audio specialists is a major undertaking, said Ron Scalise of ESPN television operations.
While some of the camerawork involves simply equipping a snowmobile with lights and driving it to an aspen grove to highlight the beauty of the mountains at night, other coverage is more complex.Cameramen map out routes to follow competitors in the slopestyle event as the athletes practice their freestyle skills. Spray paint and powdered chalk mark tight places cameramen have to go between rails, kickers and gaps so that in the heat of competition, cameramen can use their peripheral vision and race over to the best position to get footage.This year, ESPN and ABC will televise 15 hours of live coverage throughout the five-day competition. So far, it has received six Emmys for bringing the X Games to audiences. But while surround sound can make you feel close to the action, there’s nothing like watching the competition as 14 lighting towers illuminate a temporary city, built specifically for speed and sick air.Kimberly Nicoletti’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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