About one third of the broadcast hours at the Vancouver Winter Olympics are dedicated to curling. The strategy-heavy sport, reminiscent of shuffleboard on ice, is the most popular game you’ve probably never heard of, and Olympic Broadcast Services (OBS) is providing plenty of reasons to watch. With 25 cameras covering four concurrent matches from the Vancouver Olympic Centre nine hours a day for eight days straight – before the medal rounds – there is plenty of curling coverage being produced in Vancouver. Here are 10 reasons to tune in:
10. Curling Comprises 33% of All Olympic Coverage
During these Olympics, it’s a safe bet that if it’s between the hours of 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., there is curling going on. The curling competition takes place in a round-robin format, with eight days of competition before the tiebreakers, semifinals, bronze, and gold medal games. During each of the three three-hour broadcast windows scheduled for the eight days of round-robin competition, four sheets (playing surfaces) are in play simultaneously, requiring four concurrent productions. That works out to nine hours of curling each day, times four simultaneous games during those nine hours, or 36 hours per day.
“We’ve got people here from 7 in the morning until 11 at night,” explains Curtis Saville, executive producer of curling for OBS. “There are a few dark draws, but it’s pretty much 12 games a day during the round robin. We’ve got a relief crew that will sub in and give people breaks because there is a lot of curling to be done down here.”
9. Four of Everything
Producing a separate feed from each of the four side-by-side icy playing surfaces requires four of everything – four production trucks, four switchers, four audio consoles, four producers, four directors, and seemingly, four heads.
“We have full-on coverage for each game, so it’s like you’ve got four different events going on in the same building,” Saville explains.
The four trucks, all provided by Dome Productions, are connected to the venue with more copper than fiber, but fiber does the heavy lifting.
“Fiber works quite well for the long distance from the trucks into the venue,” says Bruce Peart, technical manager of curling for OBS. “For some signals, you get to the point where if you don’t go with fiber, they get degraded. Fiber really helps in that regard.”
Taking into account the need to multiply every personnel position by four, the crew assigned to curling in Vancouver is upwards of 150 people.
8. Independent, but Connected
Each of the four side-by-side productions is independent, with its own dedicated transmission path, but each must be able to communicate with one another. Only two trucks contain EVS servers, for example, so the operators in the other two trucks must discuss replays with those operators. Saville’s position is located inside the arena, not the trucks, so he needs to communicate with all four mobile units.
“I have an intercom and monitors to talk to everybody,” he says. “If there’s an audio issue in any of the trucks, I’ve got my lead audio operator in one truck, so I need to be able to talk to every truck.”
The in-arena commentators need to be able to talk to the trucks, as well. But keeping feeds straight between four production trucks and dozens of announce positions is easier said than done.
“What we produce in the compound is program video and background sound,” explains Peart. “Then the commentators buy a spot in the arena, sit down, do their own commentary, and add that to our video. There are things commentators want to know, like when replays are coming, but we have commentators commenting on four different sheets and changing what sheet of ice they’re doing, so trying to get those signals straight is quite difficult.”
7. B Units Masquerading as A Units
Rather than renting out four A-Unit production trucks to support the four productions, OBS got creative. Utilizing the A units from Dome Productions’ Horizon and Majestic trucks as they are (outfitted with Grass Valley Kalypso switchers and Calrec audio consoles), the A units are also home to the EVS servers and intercoms for all four trucks. OBS then turned Horizon B and Majestic B into A units of their own, outfitting them with Lavo audio consoles and Ross switchers, consistent with the equipment in the International Broadcast Center. The result is four trucks, each capable of producing a full show, that can easily communicate with one another.
6. Every Player is Miked Up
OBS outfits each of the 32 players in the venue with wireless Audio-Technica microphone during every match.
“Mics make curling,” Saville says. “No other sport uses live microphones on every player.”
Each of the coaches is also miked, so spectators can hear the discussions amongst the players about strategy and execution during the downtime between the action, as well as during each throw.
“Throwing a rock only takes 20 seconds,” Saville explains, “but you might have five minutes of discussions between that. You have to find a non-linear way to tell the story on the ice. I think the player microphones really drive your telling of the story.”
In addition to the player microphones, effects mics are hung on overhead rigs, attached to cameras, and hidden on the side of the ice, in the carpeting.
“That gets that great low rumble sound of the rock,” Saville explains. “It’s great in 5.1 because that comes through the subwoofer with that nice low, deep bass sound.”
5. Robotics for Play-by-Play
A mix of five handheld and hard cameras is dedicated to each sheet, accounting for 20 cameras in the venue. Eight of those are robotics that are hung from the ceiling, as they provide an overview of the house, or set of colored rings, on which players try to land their rocks in order to score.
“Curling is all about rocks in relation to the ring, and you need to be right above that to see it,” Saville explains. “So right above each set of rings, you’ve got a camera overhead. They are robotics but also are our play-by-play cameras, since they track the rocks into the house.”
4. Every Specialty Camera an Executive Producer Could Want
In addition to the 20 standard cameras, Saville’s team has five specialty cameras to work with: a jib; a Polecam pole camera; a POV for high, wide shots; a Hi-Motion super slo mo; and a roving ENG camera that gives color from the stands.
The pole camera, new for this Olympics, is especially versatile. Operated from a position right on the ice, the mini jib gives the operator the opportunity to move around to new angles.
“It gives you great angles that we’ve never had before of the house [rings on the ice] from behind,” Saville says. “We’ve got the overhead, but this gives you perspective of the house and where the players are. When the rock comes in you can also see the path well in advance, which is new.”
Some might see a slow motion camera in a sport played at the speed of curling as excessive, but the Hi-Motion camera offers plenty of new insight.
“The slo mo has given some great color of the sweepers,” Saville says. “Sweeping is key in the sport and if you’ve got good sweepers who are fit and athletic, they can make a rock go an extra 10 feet, or go straight for an extra three feet. With this, you can really see that. You can almost see the sweat coming off of their faces.”
So what technical innovation is missing from this production to make it perfect? Nothing.
“Honestly there’s nothing I can think of that I want,” Saville says. “I think we’ve got it all.”
3. The Vancouver Olympic Centre is the Best Curling Venue, Ever
“This is the best venue I’ve ever been in for curling, and I’ve done a lot of world championships,” Saville says. “It’s the perfect size and it’s packed every day. The seating is elevated a little bit, so the crowd is right on top of the action and the crowd is into it. I’ve never heard it this loud before.”
The 5,600-seat arena was built especially for the Games and will be used as a community recreation center when the Olympics are finished.
2. It’s Sort of Like Golf – And a Little Bit Sexy
During a golf tournament, directors have to decide on the most compelling non-linear way to jump from hole to hole and tell the story. Curling, Saville explains, is very similar.
“You’re not following a ball left to right,” Saville says. “You have to figure out where your action is. The story is not all about throwing a rock; there’s a lot of color that you can interject with faces and the crowd, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about strategy and execution. It’s a director’s game. But we don’t show the rocks all the time and we infuse some color into it to try to make it sexy.”
1. The Best of the Best
The team assembled to produce curling for the Olympics is the world’s best, including Saville, who has plenty of national championship productions under his belt.
“Curling in Canada is huge,” Peart explains. “A lot of the production people here are on the curling circuit. We’ve also had great cooperation from the curling federation.”
Although an Olympic curling match will have everyone from die-hard fans to channel surfers among its audience, Saville does not make many changes to his coverage strategy for a national championship. Olympic curling viewers, therefore, are watching the world’s best production, not a watered down version intended for new audiences.
“We try to add ways to enhance the coverage and make it as colorful as we can, to entice viewers who might be flipping around,” Saville says. “But we don’t change our philosophy much.”