Snowboarder Mark McMorris is sitting in a studio deep in the bowels of the China National Convention Centre, the vast building just off the Olympic Park that is serving as the main media centre for Beijing 2022.
For viewers of the CBC back home, however, McMorris will seem to be sharing a set with host Guillaume Dumas in Montreal, the pair talking as if they were in the same country.
As he positions himself, a technician asks if McMorris has done one of these interviews before. “Yeah, up at Zhangjiakou, it’s pretty cool,” he responds, referring to the mountain resort where he won a slopestyle bronze medal on Feb. 7.
Following the same playbook established for the Tokyo Summer Games last year, the CBC is hosting the majority of its Olympics coverage in Canada, with only a relatively small team on the ground.
This creates some difficulties, not 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 look like a Zoom meeting.
The green-screen setup gets around that.
“The virtual athlete interviews have been one of the unforeseen outcomes of sports in a pandemic. ... We see 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 gave credit for pulling this off to senior directors Sherali Najak and Charles-Antoine Messier, as well as a host of engineers and technical workers on both sides of the world.
He compared the system to “what every TV meteorologist does, but on steroids and with multiple cameras.”
“The key to making it great is having the exact same spatial dimensions in the Beijing (where the athletes are) and Montreal and Toronto locations (where CBC/Radio-Canada’s hosts are),” Irwin said in an e-mail. “If lighting, camera placement, room dimensions are identical, then all that is left is the angle of the people’s eye line, and it is impressive how good it can look.”
He added that “in this specific scenario, technology advancement isn’t about a new toy or device. It is about how much better lighting, camera and transmission quality is over the seventies and eighties when they started playing with green screens.”
Like everyone else involved in these Olympics, the CBC has had to put its Beijing operation together in record time because of the unique circumstances of having back-to-back Games.
Milan Maglov, executive producer of operations for CBC Sports, said that “normally we’d be here a year in advance to inspect venues, locations and our space, but obviously that wasn’t possible this time around.”
Much of the equipment was shipped directly from Tokyo, the broadcaster’s team barely having finished tearing down one Olympic set before they were tasked with building a new one.
Maglov and his team have been in Beijing since early January, living inside the Olympic bubble all that time. After the Games wrap up, they’ll spend about three days packing everything up again to ship back to Canada.
For now, the Beijing operation is bustling with people, staff from the broadcaster’s TV, digital and radio arms. When McMorris arrives, he’s led through the maze of desks to a room at the back, the walls and floor of which are covered in bright-green boarding.
Camera operators and technicians carefully position themselves on large pieces of protective cardboard as McMorris is directed to walk over a sticky surface on the floor designed to strip the dirt from his shoes before he steps onto the green – any scuffs could spoil the effect for viewers.
He then sits in a brown and gold stool matching those in the studios back in Canada, and directs his gaze at a monitor with a large handwritten sign underneath: “Look here.”
From there on, so long as the directors on either end do their jobs right, the effect can be so good that it’s hard to notice the interview participants aren’t in the same room, particularly when videos are shared on social media at lower resolutions.
Irwin said there is no intention to deceive viewers – “These virtual interviews are deliberately presented as virtual,” he said – but by opting for this rather than a split screen, “it has kept the shows a little more visually connected to the story of the Games – the athletes in focus.”
Tweeting a photo of herself “alongside” skier Mikaël Kingsbury after he won silver in the men’s moguls last week, CBC host Andi Petrillo in Toronto said that, “I will always prefer in-person interviews … but wow does technology impress.”
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