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. Luckily I crossed paths with editor Mike Api who is currently in PyeongChang, South Korea, freelancing for NBC in his second Olympic Games. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and a few athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles).
Mike is sending me periodic dispatches from PyeongChang, where he’s nearly two weeks into editing the Olympics. Check out part one to get started on his journey.
What’s the workflow like for cutting the stuff you cut and then making it to air? What’s the overall technical workflow for ingesting everything else?
The primary source for every network is OBS (Olympic Broadcasting Service), the official host broadcaster for every Olympics. They are a branch of the IOC and provide every media outlet [who has purchased the rights] with what we call the World Feed – literally every second of every event. Any game you see on TV was shot and recorded by OBS. The scope of their production is really impressive. They have cameras all over every venue, plus action cameras like the ones that race along the track/pool/ski slope/whatever, plus a bunch of high tech spidercams, drones, lipstick cams planted throughout the playing fields, on and on and on. Plus god only knows how many microphones dotted all over every playing venue. We get the World Feed plus textless “melts” – reels of the best moments from several different angles, usually in super high speed.
We also have our own production people filming and recording a whole separate slew of ENG material – true speed, super high speed, helicopter aerials, all sorts of fun stuff – on top of all the athlete profiles and cultural features we produce. Our stuff looks really filmic and helps add some color and texture to the broadcast. I have to shout out our ENG shooters for the unbelievable work they do – high-level professionals like Samson Chan, Aaron Mendez, and John Biggins provide us with some really astounding moments.
In addition to cutting sponsor enhancements, promos, and features, we’re kind of the central distribution hub for all other departments as well as other broadcasters and venues. Our media managers ingest an ungodly amount of material every day, catalog it, and distribute it to my department. Loggers and PAs watch *everything* that comes in, subclip it, name it, and check it into Avid Interplay. Each editor has a producer in their edit bay, wading through the massive stockpile of material and digging out the gems depending on what our assignments are. PAs also do a lot of digging for shots and moments and even some editing. It’s not uncommon for us to be in a pinch, with everyone crashing on their own pieces, and hand a project off to a PA to be cut. After all, they are the first eyes on the material and typically know the footage better than the rest of us. It’s a great opportunity for these young bucks. Editors edit, producers edit, PAs edit, everybody’s got their hands in the footage.
Editing wise, we’re 100% Avid/PC based. Everyone’s running on MC 8.9.2 with Symphony enabled, accelerated by these gorgeous whisper-quiet Avid Artist DNxIO boxes. We have a colorist making a color pass on select material upon ingest (usually scenics and specific major features), everything else gets colored in the edit. We work entirely in full resolution since it just wouldn’t be practical (or necessary) to have proxies and then uprez later. We need to see everything in high res from the start and get it out as quickly as possible. After cutting, we’ll color correct and either mix it ourselves or send it to our Pro Tools mixers in Stamford, CT if it’s a bigger or more complex piece. Once we get the mix we export the uncompressed finished product to our EVS servers for playback. (Beyond just the regular HD broadcast, we also do a bunch of 4K HDR, VR, mobile, and even Snapchat stuff, all with their own unique delivery paths.)
Can you give us an idea of how vast the infrastructure is?
It’s mind-boggling. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the numbers because they are so comically high:
I think we have something like 2,500 crew members working here in PyeongChang, plus another 1,000 back home in Stamford, CT, some more at 30 Rock in Manhattan, some out at CNBC in New Jersey, plus more in Denver working on Olympic Channel stuff – where most of these sports than only get seen every few years have more regular coverage. This year we’re doing about 2,400 hours of coverage (120 something hours a day), around 1,800 of which is live. We deploy 150 of our own cameras and 2 helicopters to accompany OBS’s massive arsenal (they had 1,000 cameras in Rio). We have 15 or 16 edit rooms here in the IBC, plus another 15 spread out amongst the venues. I heard we take up around 72,000 sq ft of space within the IBC, which sounds about right. Everything is connected via fiber but I couldn’t begin to guess how much cable was used to build the infrastructure. All I know is the 6000mi transfers from PyeongChang to Stamford, CT are lightning fast. The engineering team behind the build are mad scientists, man.
On the media side, it’s equally as bonkers. Beyond ingesting the World Feed, our media managers also get about 3-5TB of new ENG material plus another few hundred GB of helicopter stuff every day. There’s hundreds of GB of graphics, hundreds of TB of specialty promo footage, and as of today (Day 9) our projects drive is already about 600GB full. That’s a lot of metadata! We also have a massive archive of all of our footage from past Olympic games. Storage-wise, we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.2PB (or 2,200TB). Like I said, mind-boggling.
When you are working on location, do you have much interaction with the locals? How do you try to experience life through their eyes?
Absolutely! Every Olympics has a local crew of staff and volunteers that work all the events, direct people where to go, assist with translations, man all the security stations, handle all the food, act as local concierges, everything. Getting to know the locals is one of my favorite parts of the job. I mean, why travel around the world if you’re not going to meet new people and experience different cultures? My team and I do as much traveling in the country as we can, exploring nearby towns, eating where the locals eat, visiting cultural landmarks, just trying to immerse ourselves in the local life.
Another great way to meet people is Olympic pin trading. Olympic pins date back to the very first Summer Games in 1896 and are a whole world unto themselves. Broadcasters all have their own unique sets of pins, as do equipment vendors, sponsors, specific venues, host cities, everybody. I’ve got some from NBC, BBC, Avid, Anton Bauer, CBC, and some classic ones from the 80s. All you have to do is ask for one (typically best to do in the very beginning, as supplies quickly evaporate once more broadcasters arrive at the Games). The local volunteers are here every day with us, so they’re essentially our co-workers. Trading pins with them is a really easy way to forge a bond and make someone’s day. I’ve had some really rough days turn around because a local kid was excited that I gave them a cool pin. For us, we go to Olympics every few years so we amass a pretty sweet collection of keepsakes, but for the locals working around us, this may be the only opportunity they have to get some.
[Below is an exchange from Rio that I’ll never forget. My friend Karl (on the right) and I were coming into work one day at about 2am, about halfway through the Games. We were both exhausted and really struggling to maintain our energy. On our way in that day, this stoic security guard – who hadn’t said two words to us the entire time – stopped us and gently pointed to the pins on Karl’s lanyard, asking to trade. In a matter of seconds this guy went from stone-faced serious business to ear-to-ear smiles (as did Karl). He was proud of the Olympics being in his homeland and just wanted as many pins that said Rio on them as he could get. We made his day, he made ours, and believe it or not it gave us a little boost to get through the last week of the grind. All because of a little pin.]
Which past Olympics would you have liked to work?
I really wish I could have worked the Sydney, Barcelona, Torino, London, and Vancouver Games because they’re all places I either love or have always wanted to visit. From a historical standpoint, of course I would have loved to have seen the Los Angeles ’84 Games and the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid ’80. Honestly, I’m still in disbelief that I get to work any of them.