Dispatches from PyeongChang: Editing the Olympics (Part 1)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Between pre-cut packages and live footage and montages put together with moments that had happened seconds ago, I couldn’t fathom what went into the teams who created this media.

Lucky for all of us, among the nerds I have been grateful to cross paths with is LA-based editor Mike Api. (That rhymes with “happy”.)

For the next few weeks, Mike is in PyeongChang, South Korea, where he’s working as a freelance editor on the Olympics for NBC. Having been through the Olympics editorial experience before — the Summer Games in Rio two years ago — he knows he has a lot of interesting stories to tell us while he’s working.

He also knows life gets crazy on location, so I’m helping him to tell his stories as best we can as they happen. I don’t know how often I’ll post a new dispatch, or how long it’ll be, or how illustrated we’ll make it. But I’m going to ask him a few questions every few days, and he’s going to tell me what he can, and we’ll all have a great time.

Ya’ll, I know the Winter Olympics has its high drama, it’s ups and downs and emotional beats on the skating rink or the ski slope. Wait ’til you hear about the twists and turns of the edit suite. (Think I’m being dramatic? Read below about playing live to the world via an Avid sequence and try not to scream.)

First day in Korea, decked out in swag.

Mike has worked in a bunch of different genres – reality, news, documentary, sports, narrative, music videos, sketch comedy, even a syndicated Good Housekeeping special (if you need advice on the best oven mitts out there, let him know). Most of his unit has been through at least five or six Olympic Games — with one friend, Paul, having been at it since Atlanta in 1996. There are lots of departments that work on all kinds of custom opens or late-breaking features. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles). (To add to the scope of the Olympics, his unit cuts a lot of features, but the large majority of them are done by another unit called Daily Stories. And the deep-dive cultural and investigative pieces are produced and edited over the course of several months, some over several years. They are constantly being rewritten and upgraded right up until the start of the Games.)

“There is a wealth of experience around me, for which I am eternally grateful. Not a day goes by where I’m not inspired by someone else’s work or approach to it. I’m a naturally curious person, so these trips are like nerd-brain overdrive for me.”

Mike set off for PyeongChang yesterday and answered my first batch of questions from his Air Korea flight.

What is the process like for arranging travel and going to work in a foreign country — logistically and emotionally?

The NBC logistics people handle all of our travel arrangements and honestly have the most insane job of all. There are thousands of NBC staff and freelance employees from all over the world on-site at each Olympics. That’s thousands of plane tickets, hotel rooms, airport transfers, and visas every two years. Not to mention all the cancellations and delays that go along with traveling around the world. It’s really impressive.

To say this job is “exciting” would be a gross understatement. The fact that I get to play with this unbelievable material and contribute to such a massive production is something I really cherish. This time I’m doubly excited because I was obsessed with the Winter Olympics as a kid!

That said, my mind is so scattered from wrapping my last job, buying stuff and packing for Korea, and prepping my next project that the reality of what I’m about to do hasn’t really sunk in yet.

(Hell, I left my passport at home this morning. HELLO? IS THIS THING ON? I LEFT MY PASSPORT AT HOME. I remembered my sack of Reese’s Pieces but forgot the only acceptable form of identification I can use to travel.)

It’ll probably hit me once I’m sitting at my Avid on day one, dipping into the footage (which, again, is the most unbelievable footage in the world. I could go on for hours about our cinematographers).

Mike’s caption for this was “dope a** inspiring signage” which I think is sufficient.

Tell me about your experience the first time around in Rio. Surely you had a cool experience or two.

Getting the chance to see Olympic events in person is a dream come true. In Rio, I got to see some cycling, swimming, indoor volleyball, fencing (which looks like Tron meets Star Wars and is so damn intense), as well as the US women’s gymnastics team gold, the US men’s basketball gold, and the single greatest sporting event I’ve ever been to: the men’s beach volleyball gold medal match between Italy and Brazil. It was at midnight on Copacabana Beach in the pouring rain, and by pure luck I snagged a seat in the first row right in front of the Brazilian team. It was insane, the stadium was literally shaking. I was about 20 feet away from the athletes (and completely surrounded by maniac Brazilian fans completely losing their sh-t.) I’m in the background of the medals ceremony awkwardly clapping and shivering.

Beyond that, it’s an indescribable rush to edit something — sometimes in only a matter of minutes — and then immediately see your work on the air as a part of the biggest broadcast event on the planet. As a video nerd who lives for behind the scenes stuff, seeing how the sausage is made is my favorite part of the experience.

What’s the craziest thing that happened in Rio?

The craziest thing that happened in Rio came on my very first shift. In fact, it happened right at the start of my first shift.

We were about to open up the first day of the broadcast with a roll-in of the most grandiose Rio scenics we had, accompanied by the classic Olympics score. It’s the FIRST thing anyone watching NBC sees of the Olympics — the biggest, swooping establishing shots that have to set the scene for the following three weeks, over which our hosts do their live introduction.  A few minutes before air (six, maybe ten minutes), the roll-in failed on the server and wouldn’t play. (There are a lot of steps we have to go through as far as naming conventions, codecs, and exports to make sure it plays out and for whatever reason, it failed.)

My supervising producer, showing incredible faith (or perhaps I was the only goon available) gave me the task of banging together a new open – which we did from a bin of scenic selects I happened to start the day before when we were setting up our machines. With no time to export a new cut, we played the open LIVE onto the air straight from my Avid. I’ve rolled out live-to-air a handful of times in my life but never anything remotely close to this type of pressure. We got the shots, got the music, timed it all out, gave it some pad, and carefully hit the spacebar. My edit bay, now filled with producers and curious PAs, went pin-drop silent and I don’t think anybody exhaled until it was finished. That was my welcome to the Olympics.

The ski resort complex where Mike is staying.

What’s next once you land?

Once we land we’ll do the accreditation of our media credentials, make the three hour bus ride to PyeongChang (this year’s Games are the most remote in history) and get some shut eye. We have a day of acclimatization and hit the ground running on Tuesday, Jan 30th. First up is workflow training with our brilliant senior post supervisor, catching us up on this year’s process and any new features we’ll be incorporating. We usually have the latest build of Media Composer as well as our own dedicated team of techs from Avid to work out any kinks.

And that, my friend, is just the tip of the iceberg for seeing how the sausage is made. The Olympics is typically when networks push the envelope developing and test-driving new technologies, and sometimes we’re the guinea pigs! Once we get a briefing on what new tech we’re playing with, then the real fun begins…

-13C in PyeongChang — off to a good start.

NEXT: Read Part Two!