OBS chief content officer Mark Wallace discusses technology’s impact on storytelling at Beijing 2022
As the chief content officer at Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), Mark Wallace is primarily responsible for overseeing all the broadcast and digital content OBS offers to the rights-holding broadcasters (RHBs). It is a big role, especially given that he oversees ceremonies, live feeds, clip feeds as well as content for virtual reality (VR), the Olympic Video Player, the Olympic News Channel, and more.
“I have an incredibly talented team around me who project-manages all these products, so my role is to ensure that globally all this content works together both editorially and creatively,” he says.
The following is an interview with Wallace that appears in the OBS Media Guide.
What has it been like planning during the pandemic?
The Beijing 2022 Organising Committee has helped us greatly in working with the Chinese government to get our personnel on the ground. For some venue surveys, this has meant for some people flying into Beijing on a special charter flight and then staying in their bubble of airport to hotel and venue, then back again, a process which required a great amount of planning.
There have been many, many virtual meetings. We have also used an innovative system, called the Venue Simulation System (VSS), which has allowed us to look around the venues in a virtual way. This solution has been developed by the Beijing Film Academy early in the planning phase, with the support of the Organising Committee, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and OBS. It renders a 3D copy of the venue where you can add various elements from ‘Look of the Games’ to actual broadcast facilities such as camera platforms. Our producers could then determine which cameras were needed for the coverage and place them on the platforms and footprints to assess the shots from these positions and adjust their coverage plan if necessary. This 3D wireframe world gives you a good idea, and therefore was a useful planning tool. We will probably use it again as a planning tool in the future.
One of our coordinating producers, Haiwei ‘Bobby’ Wang, has been based in China for the last two years, and he has been very busy doing a lot of work for all the producers and others. He’s been going to test events, filming videos, taking photos, and working closely with the International Federations. This has been invaluable for our planning.
The planning for these Games hasn’t been an easy task, but we are used to it after Tokyo 2020 where we had our esteemed colleague Makoto Nakamura based in the host city, therefore we were able to make it work with no major problems.
How has the short turnaround since the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 affected OBS’s plans?
We started our planning for Beijing 2022 before Tokyo 2020, so we were in pretty good shape when the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ended in 2021. Most of the planning was finalised before the Tokyo Games so we only had to fine-tune our plans in the short period of time between Tokyo and Beijing.
Last winter, some of the TV directors went to survey the venues to look around and understand what could be achieved in terms of coverage. They took photos and shot videos, so we knew what we needed to do to achieve an Olympic level of coverage.
Coming off the back of Tokyo, the team had a short rest of two or three weeks, and then it was ‘foot down’ again.
How has the scale of production grown from PyeongChang 2018?
It is bigger, because every feed of every sport and every discipline of that sport will have an accompanying multi clip feed (MCF), which is a secondary feed that shows unseen shots and angles that did not make the multilateral feed. Those are from some of the high speed slow motion and specialty cameras installed at the venues together with athlete arrivals and warm up. It’s the first time in an Olympic Games that we will have an MCF for every sport and every feed.
The MCFs have been very well received by the RHBs since their introduction at Sochi 2014 in alpine skiing. Since then, it has expanded greatly. It allows us to feed far more content to the broadcasters to either use for analysis or montages, though, for Beijing 2022, some broadcasters are even planning to stream it live. The MCFs popularity means we need to consider carefully with each sport what content goes on it. As such, it means there are more feeds coming out from Beijing 2022 than from previous Winter Games. It will represent twice the amount of content compared to PyeongChang 2018.
The other area of increase are the multi-camera replay systems. This is where there are a number of SLR cameras on a rail or truss, and they are all recording the action simultaneously. When we play this back, it allows us to freeze an athlete and move around the action, moving backwards and forward which can look very dramatic and allows more analysis. We used such systems at PyeongChang 2018 at figure skating, ice hockey, short track speed skating, and halfpipe, and in Beijing we will have 10 systems, which is a huge increase from four in PyeongChang 2018.
The quality of the images is improving from Games to Games, with smoother movement and now many of the systems are on a gimbal, so one can actually change the location of where they’re recording. The ‘holy grail’ is to follow the athlete around and we’re moving in that direction.
RHBs can of course take this content onto their digital platforms so it can go on to their social media channels such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Those shots sometimes become viral, and people start to talk about it. It is on a timeline so people can move backwards and forwards on it to look at the athlete, look at the shape of the athlete’s body, look at what the athlete’s legs and arms are doing and then talk about it with each other.
How will OBS continue its work with international experts?
For Beijing 2022, OBS will rely on broadcast teams who worked with us in previous Games including a Finnish team who will look after cross country skiing again, an Austrian team for biathlon, two Canadian teams to take care of ice hockey, a South Korean crew from SBS will be at figure skating, and a Japanese team from NHK will be at speed skating. We will also have Chinese crews in charge of curling, and part of the extreme sports coverage.
As with Tokyo 2020, a lot of our production meetings have been through video calls, and it is just a matter again of making sure the TV directors have everything they need to understand our vision and philosophy, as well as operational matters such as how they get into Beijing, and the rules to follow to ensure a safe environment for everyone.
What sort of additional content does OBS provide?
As a team we try to consider what additional content would be required by the RHBs. Firstly, we provide a broadcast animation package. This includes the opening and closing title sequences, break bumpers, animated backgrounds, and various types of music, all of which can be tailored by the broadcasters for use in their coverage of the Games.
We also produce explanatory sports guides that are 60- to 90-second videos explaining each discipline. Broadcasters have been using them since November in their build-up to the Games programming. Those sports guides can be enhanced by a series of athlete profiles, which have been produced and released in advance by the OCN team.
Just before the Games we distributed footage along with the interviews, athlete profiles and cultural features that our OCN and Content+ teams produce before and throughout the Games. OCN is also responsible for ensuring all the medalists are interviewed, in English and their mother tongue.
All this material goes onto our online remote distribution platform, Content+, as well as OCN. It is all encompassing, and in total we will produce more than 6,000 hours of content for these Games.
Where does storytelling fit into your output?
Storytelling remains at the heart of what we do. If you’re not storytelling, you’re not engaging the viewers. It is that simple. If we are not engaging with people and creating those stories for commentators to tell, then we are not doing our job as host broadcaster. That is also the reason why OBS brings in experts to work as part of our venue production teams, and OBS brings the same level of expertise to the PQC with some of the best, most experienced producers in the broadcast industry. Only then, can we make sure that we are telling the story in the truest form.
When you look back at the broadcast of the Olympic Games, you are not necessarily looking at the quality of the pictures or graphics or any of that. What you remember are the stories and how they were told. If we don’t capture the story, we have failed and that’s why storytelling is and will always be at the heart of everything that we do.
How does the evolving technology support the storytelling?
Technology and data have undoubtedly had an impact on how we tell the stories of the Games. It allows the viewer to understand the excellence, expertise and skill levels of the Olympic athletes. The technology has allowed viewers to see and better understand the athletes’ movement, biometrics, what tactics a team uses etc.
For instance, most replay systems come from one camera and the audiences are looking at an event from one angle only. With the multicamera replay systems, it feels like the viewer is moving around the athlete and seeing them from different angles in a more immersive way.
How will the Digital Fan Engagement initiative work?
There are three aspects to fan engagement: the cheer map, the fan video wall and the athlete station or athlete moment, primarily it is the latter that can be used within the multilateral coverage. Introduced for the first time at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the athlete moment is a station where the athlete can talk to their family and friends through a video conference system as they walk off the field of play, with OBS camera operators capturing the emotions of those moments. Depending on the sport, we will try to incorporate the athlete moment into the multilateral feed, where editorially it makes sense, most probably at Victory Ceremonies, but not only.
In Tokyo, the digital fan engagement was well received both from the athletes and broadcasters. With the lack of international spectators, the cheer map, the fan video wall and the athlete moments helped convey support from fans around the globe to the athletes. In Tokyo, the athlete station was implemented in selected venues. For Beijing, we are bringing the athlete stations to all venues and we’re trying to engage with as many athletes as possible.
How can Virtual Reality (VR) enhance a viewer’s experience?
VR in my opinion is best viewed through a headset or HMD, though it can be viewed on a phone or tablet. The difference from broadcast coverage is of course that the user can decide where they want to look. Normally the TV director will decide the framing and cutting of shots, but with VR you can look wherever you want. It’s like being there, and you see all the things that traditionally we might keep out of the broadcast coverage. You can hear what’s going on and see what’s going on all around you.
It’s a different experience and an interesting one, but it has to be done the right way, in the highest possible quality for achieving a great user experience. We’ve been working closely with Intel, and they know this area of VR very well and have developed it from one Games to the next.
How did you go about getting beauty shots and aerials for these Games?
We have installed 12 beauty cameras dotted all over Beijing and up into the mountains, capturing iconic landmarks such as the Great Wall, Tian’anmen Square, and the Forbidden City. The Organising Committee has played a key role in helping us achieve this.
As part of these beauty cameras, we also have a cable camera which extends from the Linglong Pagoda across the Bird’s Nest which will be used in the Ceremonies and Medals Plaza coverage, as well as offering unique views of the Olympic Green. These are the shots that people remember, which live long in the memory as iconic shots from each Games.
There is understandably tight security over Beijing and other venues for filming from helicopters and drones. Therefore, we have worked closely with BOCOG and local security agencies and will utilise local police helicopters.
It complicates matters to an extent, but we’ve done it before in 2008 with no problem. We will also have helicopters in the mountains, which will shoot ‘fly-bys ‘at the start of competition. We will record these aerial pictures and then send them to the production units and onto the RHBs via the MCF.
For the coverage of some snow sports, we plan on deploying five or six drones for the live coverage, some are tethered, some not, as well as some 360-degree content for VR. For the first time in a Winter Games, OBS will debut drone coverage at alpine skiing, biathlon, big air, cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing/ snowboard cross and snowboard parallel giant slalom, providing dynamic overhead aerial action to allow viewers to understand better the relationship of athlete and field of play.
Again, our collaboration with the Organising Committee, the military, and the police has been pivotal in us being able to have such an operation and offering worldwide audiences unique aerial pictures from the Games.