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Creating an opening for the Olympics

Huge entertainment productions bookend events like the Olympics, requiring creative teams that are separate from the broadcast production needed for the rest of the Games. David Fox reports.

Huge entertainment productions bookend events like the Olympics, requiring creative teams that are separate from the broadcast production needed for the rest of the Games. David Fox reports.

Covering an Olympics opening ceremony, or similar one-off event, is a “three hour block of time where nothing can go wrong,” Audio Designer Scott Willsallen, of Auditoria, told the recent Dynamic Events conference at the 2012 Integrated Systems Europe exhibition in Amsterdam.

The team responsible for the ceremonies has to deliver a memorable display that will surprise and delight the audience in the stadium, but also has to work closely with broadcasters to ensure it looks at least as good for viewers at home.

Willsallen has worked on the Olympics since the Sydney Games in 2000, as well as on Rugby World Cups and many other events, and will be involved in the opening and closing ceremonies at the London Games this summer, where redundancy will be his priority. “You cannot have a single point of failure,” he said. “The broadcast chain has to be protected.”

“I’m constantly trying to design redundancy into everything,” added Gary Hardesty, co-founder Sound Media Fusion and chief audio designer for the Beijing opening and closing ceremonies, but it’s difficult to do in budget, especially as technology gets more complicated and “there’s plenty to go wrong.”

In Beijing, Hardesty had eight hard drives running, seven of which were redundant. “You have to really make every single thing you are doing redundant, including consoles, but at some point you may run out of money.”

The only things Willsallen doesn’t make redundant are the speakers and amplifiers inside the stadium, which may occasionally mean that sections of the crowd don’t hear everything. He likes to have a primary digital system (including distribution) and a secondary analogue system.

For the London design, he plans to have 73 switching devices, all on uninterruptible power supplies monitored from a central control room. The only backup that can’t really be done are the people who do the rehearsal. “’People’ is the bit you really have to focus your energy on in terms of redundancy.” Two people do the mix, but it takes two.

Radio Frequency

RF is another problem, not just getting enough allotted bandwidth to cover the event, but also dealing with a new and growing cause of RF interference: LED displays. In Doha, for the 2011 Arab Games, there was a big issue with RF interference from all the LED displays. Although LEDs will generally be CE marked and meet all the relevant specifications, when there are more than 50,000 of them linked with 25-30km of copper cable (as there were in Doha) it creates a far bigger problem.

“The geometry [of the Doha stadium] was the same as for 2006, but the RF landscape had changed. We had to provide far more receivers, as the distance to a receiver had to be shorter so it didn’t drop into the noise floor,” explained Willsallen. At one point, every line of dialogue or song was going to a different receiver as performers moved around so much.

So long as the RF interference remains consistent it can be planned around, but “it’s really a huge problem for anything that is RF-based,” warned Hardesty. “The only way around that is to get everything going through fibre as much as you can.”

Chris Kennedy, founder, Norwest Productions, is already using increasing amounts of fibre, and his team is working on fibre links to remote antennae for London. Another answer to the problem would be to pre-record the audio to eliminate the risk instead of doing live audio, said Willsallen, “but if the LED displays are in place long enough beforehand you can work around it.”

“We need to do a lot more RF modelling to address these sorts of problems,” added Kennedy, who has worked on the Olympics since 2000, as well as many other one-off events, and will be providing audio facilities for 2012.

Adding broadcast to the mix

A problem Willsallen sees regularly is that the mix engineer for broadcast is great for athletics but only gets three hours rehearsal for the opening ceremony, a completely different type of production. For the London Games, he intends to avoid this by putting a dedicated mixer in for the opening and closing ceremonies. As far as broadcasters are concerned, he told ISE delegates: “Wherever possible I recommend you take control of it and don’t let them cause more problems.”

“Despite sending a perfect mix downstream, [broadcasters] can still mess it up,” added Kennedy, especially when dealing with a 5.1 mix. “We don’t have control over what broadcasters do with it,” agreed Hardesty, who mentioned phase problems that NBC had with one event he worked on, which is why “we need more control of the broadcast.”
“But, there is nothing we can do to control it, if presenters want to talk over the beautiful bits,” added Kennedy.

However, one-off events like the Olympics are produced under such pressure, with unbreakable deadlines, that “people with a television background are best,” said Ric Birch (pictured), founder of Spectak Productions, as they are more used to such deadlines than theatre or movie people.

“There’s a relatively small number of people in the world who do these events,” said Hardesty. But this familiarity with each other “helps to solve problems faster,” added Willsallen.

Overcoming crises

“Ceremonies begin as dreams and adapt to the reality of physics and finances,” according to Birch, who has worked on Olympic opening ceremonies since Los Angeles in 1984 and will be in charge of the Olympics and Paralympics for Rio 2016.

Coming up with something original that displays local culture and is spectacular enough to hold viewers attention is the dream of every organiser. This means that lots of ideas have to be developed for each event, many of which aren’t used or, as in the case of the Barcelona Olympics, fall apart (in that case a set of five rings, which would have held the lighting rigging above the stage, collapsed four-and-a-half weeks before the Games started, requiring a radical re-think).

Huge problems bedeviled the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, notably corruption (trials of several organisers, including a government minister, are pending), unfinished facilities, and ill health (four of Birch’s 12-strong team went down with Dengue fever, which also hit many of the cast, one of whom died). Willsallen added that a contractor also managed to destroy one third of the lighting system a month before the Delhi Games.

However, the opening ceremony was still a technical and creative success. The use of an aerostat (the world’s largest) as the centrepiece helped address one of the problems of using an open-air stadium – that of having no top frame for the presentation – and allowed the rapid deployment of various structures.

Half an hour before the closing musical performance in Delhi, there was no music. Willsallen had to find and download the music from the internet. “We went to air with a 40-minute MP3,” he said.

Projection room

Doha used 55,000 LED lights in amongst the audience to extend the projected images that were used to create backgrounds for performers and generate virtual sets. The LEDs were great for wide shots of the stadium. “It required very complicated video mapping, but the result was superb,” said Cyril Meusy, DAE Global, who was the AV Content Producer for the Opening Ceremony.

Projectors are becoming much more widely used at events, but can cause problems for broadcasters. “When using projection it’s a challenge to create a broadcast picture,” said Lighting Designer, Durham Marenghi, who designed the lighting for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

For sports coverage, broadcast cameras typically have about 2,000 Lux of light, but a projection system, such as that used for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 may only emit 125 to 150 Lux, below the level cameras need to capture images of fine detail and good depth of field. For wide shots, Marenghi will usually bring the faders on the other lighting down so the projection stands out more, but for close ups he’ll go up to 300 Lux so the cameras can see the expression on the faces.

One of the most sophisticated uses of projection yet was for the recent Arab Games in Doha, where ETC Paris used banks of projectors on either side of the stadium, to give 300 Lux in total, explained its Marketing Manager, Patrice Bouqueniaux, so that where performers cast shadows on the projected sand or other images, there was just enough detail from the other direction for the cameras to pick up, making it much more realistic than the usual black holes you’d be left with if the projection was only from one side. To cover the stadium floor completely, more than 12 projectors overlapped in the same area of the stage, so sharpness was very important.

“You always have to take into account what will be seen by the live audience and what will be seen on television,” added Bouqueniaux. “The audience will always have a much better view than anyone else, because your eyes will adapt, but the camera will need some depth of field so as not to have to continually work the focus; but TV cameras are getting more sensitive.”