London 2012 was AV’s innovation Games
Brian Davis, September 17, 2012
Spectacular is the word we’d use for every aspect of the London 2012 Games. Worth a Gold medal for almost everyone involved, including our AV industry, says Brian Davis.
The London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics proved golden in every respect. Not only did the GB teams exceed all expectations, but the level of innovation and first class creative and production delivery at every stage – from the spectacular opening ceremony to major sporting and peripheral events round the country – received a globally-acclaimed ovation.
The AV industry outdid itself despite tight budgets and stress-inducing schedules, impossible weather for months before the events while rehearsals were underway, and demand for foolproof presentation in live broadcasts to billions of viewers. London 2012 was the ultimate test for a truly multimedia experience, where the audience could view programming streamed through mobiles, tablet computers or TVs.
The BBC reported record breaking mobile video requests during the first two weeks of the Games, with over three million watching the action on mobile phones and tablet computers. Networking provider Brocade reckons 700Gb/sec of data was sprinting across UK networks at its peak.
It was the first mobile video Olympics, heralding a new era for the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomena.
Brocade’s country manager Marcus Jewell suggests the quality of the Games experience on mobiles should spur businesses on to deploy high resolution, high performance mobile video conferencing capabilities into their own infrastructure. However, this will require investment in next generation networks to cope with the enormous traffic volume that rich media traffic entails.
An interactive experience
Clever encoder technology was also used by companies such as Haivision and iStreamPlanet to deliver streamed content from the Olympic Broadcasting Centre (OBC) to international broadcasters RTE Ireland, RAI Italy and Sports Lax in the Caribbean.
The Olympic opening ceremony transformed the stadium into a vast interactive experience using the world’s largest LED video array, mapped to the entire audience. Developed by Tait Technologies, over 70,500 pixel tablets were installed to present dramatic 2D images and CG graphics to the stadium audience members in 360 degrees and the world at large.
Content for the pixel tablets, created by Crystal CG (London 2012’s digital imaging services provider) added a new dimension to the opening ceremony. Using motion capture of a real athlete, Jesse Owens appeared to sprint around the arena before Paul McCartney came on stage.
Tait Technologies created the pixel tablets following earlier trials at the Asian Games in Dohar and a recent U2 tour. “We’d never used an assembly of LED pixels on such a large scale,” says Tait Technology’s ceo, Frederic Opsomer. Faced with potentially appalling weather conditions, the tablet system had to be robust and weatherproof, passing stringent EMC testing in Belgium. The system is based on the Barco FLX platform with Tait-developed drivers and control.
Pixel mapping of the graphic content for the 360-degree stadium presentations ran on the AI Infinity server from Avolites-Immersive. “There are unlimited opportunities for landscape video at live events, in architectural environments, ski slopes or even on a seashore,” suggests Opsomer, who hints that discussions are underway for similar presentations in the New Year in Russia and Brazil.
Chinese creative agency Crystal CG set up an office with 80 graphic designers in London to create 3D graphic content for the 36 Games venues and non-competition locations, such as the Olympic Village and International Broadcast Centre.
Work included venue-by-venue flythroughs for 12 international broadcasters including the BBC and NBC, developed using Autodesk’s 3D Max. Crystal CG also produced 2,000-plus short graphic sequences for130 screens at the Olympic venues. These included animations of Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville, public welcome displays and explanations of certain sports during player breaks, using Autodesk’s Maya animation software.
“We did a lot of prototyping with an in-house system to replicate the stadium digitally, then went into live rehearsals in the stadium. Early on we realised that motion had to be slowed down, as we were relying on an optical illusion with 70,500 tablets each with nine pixels,” says Crystal CG managing director, Gilles Albaredes. There were two types of display: Colour schemes that would match the environment, and descriptive pictures, such as iconic text flying over the stadium.
London 2012 technical director Piers Shepperd takes up the story: “Our greatest challenge was probably co-ordination of all the different departments and the technology. Then making sure that all the technology – from pixels to audio, videobus and camera output – was seamless when it played back to the world.”
So how did it all come together for the key opening ceremony? The answer was two-fold, says Shepperd: “We relied on old technology, having very robust stage management, physically calling the big cues over the intercom systems. Then layered behind that we used timecodes to accurately cue systems by department.”
Contingency planning was also important. “There was a massive planning document and loads of rehearsal for the opening ceremony. For example, if the Olympic rings had got stuck, we’d have moved on to another video sequence as a fallback,” he says.
Danny Boyle’s adventurous ideas for his £27 million gallop through British History proved challenging but doable, even with 7,000 sq m of grass and sheep. All systems were carefully tried and tested in appalling weather conditions. “For instance, the stacks during the Satanic Mills sequence of the ceremony were inflatables with a winch inside each one actually holding the inflatable down, so they always looked like solid cylinders coming out of the ground. Another winch above served as a guide for the stack, to ensure the stacks wouldn’t fall over in a high wind,” adds Shepperd.
The house during the main music sequence was also a large inflatable. Dan Sloane, video and production manager notes: “Doing projection mapping on this type of object is always a bit hit and miss, so we planned carefully which faces of the house we were going to hit from different angles. We also had manual projection spotters around the upper seating tier. The guys in the control room were actually doing final adjustments as the hatches went up.”
Panasonic projectors were wheeled on during scene changes between the NHS section and the Thanksgiving scene, then locked into position.
The lighting rig featured 3,500 lights, 36 follow spots, 24 roof lights, six control desks in combination with a million-watt sound system.
Technical manager Nick Jones was responsible for lighting, AV and power: “A rather large system was put together by Fisher Light Productions on behalf of lighting designer Patrick Woodrofe. Here again, we relied on a lot of very old fashioned methods, with hard work, meticulous planning and execution,” he says.
The express aim was to create an immersive experience using the pixel tablets, with an image map created by Tait Technologies and Crystal CG that could by taken offline WYSYWIG (what you see is what you get) style. “We used the AI system to pre-visualise with Crystal CG and Fisher Light Productions, so we weren’t going in completely blind,” says Sloane. “But nothing prepared us for the wow moment when those first images skidded around the arena.”
Danny Boyle did an astounding job of fusing the live stadium audience with a tv audience worldwide. The ceremony design baton was then handed over to artistic director Kim Gavin, production designer Es Devlin and lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe for the closing ceremony and Paralympics.
The BBC and OBS filmed in 3D for home audiences with the appropriate tv equipment. There are also plans for the theatrical release of a 3D movie of the highlights by Danny Boyle and his 59-strong production team.
There was also a high degree of AV skill and innovation on show at numerous venues around London and further afield, including the 40 National Houses which ranged from Tower Bridge walkway – hosting up to 250 people – to the raucous Netherlands House at Alexandra Palace and the Africa Village in Hyde Park. The Korean House even offered the joys of an acupressure robot for exhausted visitors.
Never has the issue of streaming broadcast content and data been so important.
The IOC’s worldwide IT integrator partner, Atos Origin brought together the Games’ technology partners (BT, Cisco, Panasonic, and Samsung) to integrate every aspect of content – from sports timing and cctv coverage to the results of drug tests.
It was not simply a matter of providing accurate, split-second results for the athletes, but also to the staff, volunteers and journalists as well as billions of spectators at the same time. Atos Origin had an extraordinarily complex task servicing 94 venues, 10,500 athletes, 21,000 journalists and broadcasters and global spectators.
Integrating content, scores and critical data to media and athletes and viewers within just a 0.3 second lead time – as well as managing services, testing and acceptance solutions – much of the software and interface systems were newly developed, and severely stress-tested with simulated scenarios in advance of the games.