Snowboarder Mark McMorris sits in a studio deep in the bowels of the China National Convention Centre, the sprawling building just next to the Olympic Park that serves as the main media hub for Beijing 2022.
For CBC viewers at home, however, McMorris will appear to be sharing a set with host Guillaume Dumas in Montreal, with the pair speaking as if they’re in the same country.
As he positions himself, a technician asks if McMorris has ever done one of these interviews. “Yeah, Zhangjiakou is pretty cool,” he replies, referring to the hill station where he won a bronze medal in slopestyle on February 7.
Following the same playbook established for the Tokyo Summer Games last year, the CBC organizes the majority of its Olympics coverage in Canada, with only a relatively small crew on the ground.
This creates certain difficulties, not the least of which is how to bring viewers interviews with athletes and coaches. The CBC spends tens of millions of dollars on these Games; the broadcaster really doesn’t want it to feel like a Zoom meeting.
The green screen setup gets around this.
“Virtual athlete interviews have been one of the unintended outcomes of sport in a pandemic. … We’re seeing more and more shows doing similar things,” said Chris Irwin, CBC’s executive producer for the Olympics. “People can’t move and be together. But their images can.
Irwin credited the achievement to Senior Managers Sherali Najak and Charles-Antoine Messier, as well as a host of engineers and technicians from both sides of the world.
He likened the system to “what all TV weather forecasters do, but on steroids and with multiple cameras”.
“The key to making it great is having the exact same spatial dimensions in Beijing (where the athletes are) and Montreal and Toronto (where the CBC/Radio-Canada hosts are),” Irwin said in an email. “If the lighting, the camera placement, the room dimensions are the same, all that’s left is the angle of people’s eye line, and it’s amazing how beautiful it can be.”
He added that “in this specific scenario, the technological advancement is not about a new toy or device. It’s about how much the lighting, camera and transmission quality has improved from the 70s and 80s when they started playing with green screens.
Live Updates: Beijing Winter Olympics
Like everyone else involved in these Olympics, the CBC had to set up its operation in Beijing in record time, due to the unique circumstances of having back-to-back Games.
Milan Maglov, executive producer of operations for CBC Sports, said that “normally we would be here a year in advance to inspect venues, pitches and our space, but obviously that was not possible this time around. “.
Much of the equipment was shipped straight from Tokyo, with the broadcaster’s team barely finishing dismantling an Olympic set before being tasked with building a new one.
Maglov and his team have been in Beijing since early January, living inside the Olympic bubble the whole time. Once the Games are over, they will spend about three days packing everything up to ship it back to Canada.
For now, the operation in Beijing is led by people, staff from the television, digital and radio branches of the broadcaster. When McMorris arrives, he is led through the maze of offices to a back room, the walls and floor of which are covered in bright green planks.
Camera operators and technicians position themselves carefully on large pieces of protective cardboard, as McMorris is asked to walk on a sticky surface on the floor designed to remove dirt from his shoes before stepping onto the green – any scratches could spoil the effect for viewers. .
He then sits down in a brown and gold stool to match those in the studios in Canada, and directs his gaze to a monitor with a large handwritten sign underneath: “Look here.”
From there, as long as the directors on each side do their job properly, the effect can be so good that it’s hard to notice that the interview participants aren’t in the same room, especially when the videos are shared on social media at lower resolutions. .
Irwin said there was no intention to mislead viewers – “These virtual interviews are deliberately presented as virtual,” he said – but by opting for that over split-screen, “it has kept the shows a bit more visually connected to the history of the Games – the athletes at the center of things.
Tweeting a photo of herself ‘alongside’ skier Mikaël Kingsbury after winning silver in men’s moguls last week, CBC host Andi Petrillo in Toronto said: ‘I will always prefer interviews in person… but wow, the technology is impressive.
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