The Big Picture: The Story Of MotoGP’s International TV Feed
Whilst covering the final round of the 2010 MotoGP season at Valencia in November, I was lucky enough to score an amazing interview with Sergi Sendra – he’s the Director of Dorna Sports TV Production, and I’d spent a while organising the interview so that I could publish a feature across my various MotoGP sites on the story of just what it takes to produce the international MotoGP TV feed.
He was a great guy, incredibly helpful, and it was a fascinating hour or so of learning a great deal about a subject close to my heart.
It’s a nice long read, and if you’ve any interest in MotoGP or TV production, then I hope you’ll enjoy it.
It’s not hard to imagine that producing the international TV feed for a sport such as MotoGP must be a pretty immense task. But it’s not until someone like the Director of Dorna Sports TV Production Department, Sergi Sendra, takes you through the detail of what’s involved that it really sinks in just how complex and massive an enterprise it really is.
Sergi is a hugely affable and approachable person – even in the midst of hectic preparations for the final round of the 2010 season at Valencia – which is when we get to meet him. The logistics of keeping what is essentially an enormous event-based mobile TV studio and broadcast centre going like clockwork as it follows the MotoGP circus across the entire globe are pretty mind-blowing and it’s impressive hearing the story of how it’s all done unfold in front of you.
For several years now the whole production of the MotoGP international TV feed has been a genuinely global exercise, with a permanent crew of around 120 plus all the production gear and facilities that come with them being moved around the world in order to provide the ultimate in quality and consistency in TV production for the sport.
“The amount of people we have on the TV production – on making the international TV feed – and this does not include broadcasters who personalise the product such as the BBC or Spanish TV – is about 120 people.” Says Sergi. “This includes directors, technical staff, cameramen, journalists… all kinds of people whose work goes into generating the content and producing the feed.
It’s Dorna that makes this production, and it does it all over the world. Although it started in 92, over the last 6 or 7 years we have come to produce this worldwide. It means that these 120 people will be in Malaysia, in Aragon, in Valencia and so-on. This is a very important concept, because it means we are moving the same team and that same team is working and developing and thinking and analysing problems grand prix by grand prix. This is crucial because you keep learning from your mistakes and your experiences and at each grand prix we learn from new experiences.”
During the season the set-up and dismantling of the whole production infrastructure becomes very much an ongoing task, especially when races run back to back and the whole operation runs on a cycle of 7 days… Monday heralds the arrival of all the gear, Tuesday and Wednesday are used for setting up, with Thursday being the pre-event testing day to make sure all is well. Friday, Saturday and Sunday are spent covering the event itself – plus of course making any necessary changes and adjustments throughout – and then Sunday night is used to take everything down again and move it on to the next venue.
And although each venue is of course unique, there is nonetheless a general consistency of approach and scale to all of the race set-ups and the variety and quantity of cameras and technology involved.
Sergi explains; “The way we produce is based on two OB vans (outside broadcast). One OB van called ‘Track Feed’ takes care of part of the production and then the final signal goes into the second OB van called ‘International Feed’.
We work with a varying number of cameras depending on the circuit – here at Valencia it is just over 100 as it is a small circuit, around 4 kilometres – we go from between 3 up to almost 6 – and we generally work with an average of around 20 cameras ‘on the track’. At Indianapolis or in Japan we have 22 basically because of the length of the circuit.
Another important consideration here is this… Take a football match for instance. You could use many, many cameras but really you only actually need 3 cameras to produce a football match. You could do that and the viewers would still be able to follow it and to understand what is going on – you are covering a limited area and ultimately a single subject – the ball. Here however, you could fit perhaps 50 football fields onto the area of this circuit, and of course we need to cover the whole area and many bikes and riders.
Much of this we do wirelessly. We have been working since 2002/2003 with a British company called Gigawave. We work closely together on developing wireless systems that enable us to cover all this kind of an area with cameras (including on the bikes themselves), and it is also good for them (Gigawave) as the range of circuits, environments, weather conditions and so-on that MotoGP provides through the year gives them a real live laboratory for testing and developing their products.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the wireless technology that’s being employed is that of equipping each bike with its own onboard camera system.
As Sergi points out; “It’s important to remember when considering these onboard wireless camera systems the size of the object being covered – a bike – is relatively small compared to, say, a Formula One car or a DTM car. A bike is probably only a quarter the size of an F1 car. Yet on each bike we have been able to develop a system which only weighs about 1.6 kilos and which has four cameras. So this system is a real challenge for us.
So with 17 bikes – 4 cameras each – we have 82 cameras, plus we also have 4 radio frequency cameras in the pit lane (as well as other pit lane cameras) – and we also have the helicopter. All of this comprises the wireless environment.
Plenty of people can film a track with 20 cameras – but not just anybody knows how to do this scale and complexity of work.
For this you need very specific knowledge and know-how, and great technicians and plenty of experience. And this, I think, is our great strength.”
“Well, let’s start with Valencia,” he says, “and the configuration of cameras we use here. It is now our tenth year here. I’d say it takes three years for us to really learn a circuit. You learn more each year and you get closer to ‘perfection’. Because of all we have learned about generally where you put cameras on a circuit, with our 20 years in the business, it was easier knowing all that to be able to set up for Aragon. But even then, after the race you find out what you have learned from many things… the weather, the grid, and so-on. And if next year it rains, then what you learned may not apply because the overtaking may be different… These things can all change.
With Aragon we did a visit to watch the Spanish Championship, which was a good test – and then we did the MotoGP weekend – 2 days of practice and the race – And we even moved some cameras around to a small extent during the weekend itself. And after the race there were four directors walking up and down and making so many notes. Next year we will probably change perhaps 25% of the set-up. In many ways this year we worked for next year. Maybe after three years the set-up will be very much settled.”
And whilst delivering on the excitement of a new or classic circuit is crucial, something that also gets the fans and commentators talking is the onboard camerawork – perhaps most specifically this season in the form of the revolutionary gyrocam, which more than any previous onboard delivers a giddyingly immersive experience for the TV viewer.
“The gyrocam came originally from an obsession perhaps around ten years ago with the lean angle of bikes.” Says Sergi. “This sport has that extra value in something special like this and we worked to develop a tool that would show the lean angle as an on-screen graphic. And it was from this tool that we were able to develop a system that became the gyrocam itself.
It’s certainly very exciting – but at the moment we are more excited about developing the high-definition (HD) version of the gryocam. At present the gyrocam is only a standard definition camera. And our goal for next year is the HD onboard camera. We are developing it from scratch with Gigawave as there is no such thing on the market. All year in fact we have been running two bikes with HD onboard in testing (*though this has not been broadcast) and the results are stunning. So next year we are aiming for delivering onboard HD.”
High Definition (HD) is becoming ever more popular throughout the world – and indeed, MotoGP is already broadcast in HD in a number of countries. However, covering up to six kilometres of track, seventeen race bikes, the pit garages and helicopter shots with HD cameras has required years of planning, preparation and development from series organiser Dorna Sports.
If you watch the sport in HD – and even if you live in the UK where it has not been available until the last two races of the 2010 season with special HD showings by the BBC – then you will have noticed that, as Sergi points out, the onboard cameras have so far remained in standard definition. That is not to say that the situation isn’t being addressed though. The latest and biggest challenge for Dorna Sports has been the development of onboard HD cameras, and together with Gigawave they are working on the extremely sophisticated technology necessary to build such units.
This development work between Dorna Sports and Gigawave has been going on for some time now, and Dorna are naturally reluctant to start showing the footage until they are happy that the quality and resilience of the output is sufficiently high that it is appropriate to broadcast.
Believe it or not, we were almost treated to it at Estoril, had fate not intervened. Sergi and his team had been preparing and testing units on various bikes across practice and qualifying, and eventually decided to set the HD onboard camera up on Ben Spies’ bike for the race. Sadly as you may recall, Ben crashed on the sighting lap, and so viewers never got to see what onboard HD race footage might look like.
But it’s on its way – and if the excitement of standard definition onboard is anything to go by, it’s going to look amazing.