Extreme E is an ambitious attempt to marry live sports with urgent environmental messaging with as lean a production footprint as it is possible to achieve. NAB Amplify has the full story.
Most sports would give anything to bring fans back into the arena but not Extreme E. The new all-electric rally-style racing series that launches next month was designed as a purely televised product broadcast live without spectators.That could have been the project’s Achilles Heel when it was conceived two years ago but in these strange times, it’s remarkable serendipity.
“We desire to be the biggest off-road sport on the planet and one of the world’s biggest motorsports,” says chief marketing officer Ali Russell.
Extreme E is an ambitious attempt to marry environmental education with a professional sports. Its founder, the Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag, successfully launched electric single-seater championship Formula E in 2014 with the backing of Formula One’s governing body FIA. Extreme E, which also has FIA status, takes this to another level by using electric SUVs to race in five areas of the globe most affected by climate change.
“Climate change is the biggest issue facing all of us but studies show that it is not cutting through to the mainstream outside of news,” Russell counters. “Sports is an incredibly popular passion point and people watch appointments to view events together so the opportunity to use sport to communicate vital information is too big to pass up.”
With 30 percent of the planet’s CO2 emissions coming from transportation, Extreme E exists to showcase the performance of electric vehicles and to accelerate their adoption.
“We ultimately want to make sustainability sexy and to be as an innovative platform for renewables as F1 has been for the combustion engine. It’s about making electric cars cool and aspirational by showing we can drive in a variety of epic locations already damaged by climate.”
After the Saudi Arabian desert, the five-event calendar then visits a beach location in Senegal, a glacial valley in Greenland, the Brazilian Amazon, and ends in December in Tierra del Fuego.
“We’re not on the ice cap but on the area where the ice has melted. We’re not in the middle of the Amazon but in an area that has been deforested. And when we leave, we replant a larger area with trees.”
He says, “We want to highlight e-mobility and the electric vehicle. The laziest thing would be to do an electric version of World Rally or Dakar. We needed a concept that would be easy to consume and understand, that would be high impact and high adrenalin to attract younger audiences.”
Inspiration was taken from cricket’s Twenty20, a heavily abbreviated version of the traditional five-day game.
“We need a media product which is futuristic,” says Russell. “Our use of heavy data is like the film Tron. It’s more like an eSport than a traditional motorsport.”
All of this is particularly challenging for a live broadcast given the locations are remote and infrastructure-free. The plan is to have as little footprint as possible.
“Extreme E is very progressive. It links the environment with gender equality, with green technology, and it’s also biosecure at a time when sport is going through severe challenges. I think it’s captured people’s imaginations.”
The Race and Broadcast Format
Nine teams, including one owned by seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton, compete over a 10 km course over the race weekend. In a break from tradition, each team must field a male and a female driver sharing the same car and swapping driving duties during the race.
“Every business knows you have better decision-making when you have gender equality,” says Russell. “We’ve followed mixed doubles tennis in having male and female drivers competing, winning or losing together. It’s their teamwork that is will be one of the most fascinating aspects.”
All3Media group stablemates Aurora Media Worldwide and North One will produce live coverage across the weekend (3 x 90mins blocks including qualifiers and the final 2-hour race) plus highlights shows, a 30-min race preview, 300 VOD films for digital, and a 20-part behind the scenes doc series Electric Odyssey.
In another change, the conventional paddock lane of team garages has been compressed into one area. Aurora hopes that this “Command Center” will conjure a sense of theatre as teams jockey together over monitors.
More than 70 broadcasters have bought rights. Discovery will take Extreme E to more than 50 markets on Eurosport. Sky Sports will air all five races live in the UK. Fox Sports has carriage in the US (along with Discovery’s streamer MotorTrend). Other rightsholders include the free-to-air ProSieben Maxx in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, RDS in Canada, Disney ESPN in Latin America, and TV Globo in Brazil. Chinese distribution included on Channel Zero and sports content app Douyin.
“A lot of PSBs have seized the opportunity to talk about climate change in a different way,” says Russell.
Designing Remote Production on a Global Scale
Unlike a NASCAR or F1 circuit, Extreme E race tracks cover wild terrain. Even if cabling such a massive area weren’t an issue then putting any kit or people in harm’s way was a no-go.
“Imagine a Red Bull air race on the ground,” says Donald Begg NEP’s director of technology for major events. “Racers have to go through certain gates but how you go through them is kind of up to you.”
NEP had to come up with a wireless solution. This is based on four nodes with receiving aerials (2Ghz and 7Ghz) which take in the nearest camera feeds, encapsulate them in IP and send them back to the TV compound over millimeter -wave (75Ghz frequency).
“The ideal topology would be to have two nodes on either side of the TV compound cabled to the compound – but in practice, due to the terrain, this doesn’t look possible in every case. Instead, we’ll look to have at least one node cabled with the other three connected wirelessly.”
Each node has two paths (clockwise and anticlockwise) back to the compound for redundancy. “Interference is most likely to occur due to is wind,” Begg says. “The wave links have a fairly tight beam and there’s a greater risk of movement when putting the nodes on sand than on the side of a building.”
Mobile RF System
The TV compound at each site needed to self-sufficient. Everything is being backhauled to the London production gallery, with track-side equipment at a minimum.
NEP built a flypack designed to survive extreme temperatures and conditions. Included are Marshall Electronics’ all-weather lipstick POV cameras. Four of these are mounted on each car.
Three drones, supplied by Aerios Solutions along with operators, carry Sony Alpha cameras. The drones can fly at 90km an hour and into 35 knots of wind. Two will be used to track the cars, while a third will be tethered and provide an overview of the entire track.
RF links are enabled by Mini Tx UHD, designed by NEP company BSI. This tiny encoder, which measures just 85mm x 56 mm x 28mm can transmit in two different frequency bands (2GHz and 7GHz) via its software-defined radio, offering complete on-site spectrum flexibility without the need for changeable radio modules.
These cameras are supplemented by Sony shoulder-mounted PXW-Z750 camcorders which are 4K ready should the requirement to UHD be made later. These cameras also offer the ability to record at 100p frame rates for post playback.
Similarly, a pair of Sony F55’s were selected because they can record at a higher speed in the camera whilst still allowing the production to capture a live 50p signal.
“There are four constituent elements to the production and four locations involved,” says Lawrence Duffy, managing director at Aurora Media. “All the camera sources plus original race mix are sent to London. Car telemetry is managed by Barcelona-based Al Kamel Systems in Barcelona, the AR and VR from NEP in Hilversum (in The Netherlands). This layering is why you need very experienced people on-site and in London to create the output.”
Westbury Gillett, a producer-director of Formula-E will mix the feed on-site using a Grass Valley Kula while the director and EP Mike Scott create a master show in London. Commentary is also remoted to London.
“Honestly, producing the city center racing of Formula-E is a lot more complicated than being in the middle of nowhere,” Russell says.
Backhauling to London
Two satellite uplinks at the OB provide “resilience and grunt” with up to 30 signals split between the links and sent simultaneously. The signals are downlinked in the UK (at Salford near Manchester, or at Milton Keynes closer to London) and sent over NEP’s network to its central London production hub at Grays Inn Road.
For the sporting graphics, Al Kamel sends a data stream of car telemetry over NEP links into a dedicated server at Grays Inn Road. This data is added to the raw drone feeds which are then bounced to Hilversum for the addition of augmented reality graphics, and routed back again to be mixed into production.
That trip from site to satellite to London adds half a frame delay. The round to Hilversum adds an extra 100ms.
Begg says, “Everything arrives at Grays Inn Road in sync but the additional five frames can be noticeable. We’ll add an element of delay in order to balance that out but we’re looking to technologies like Starlink to bring latency down.”
Starlink, SpaceX’s series of LEO satellites which are entering customer tests, could also provide additional capacity. Believe it or not, satellite bandwidth is one of the limiting factors of this production and a reason it is produced in HD 1080p 50.
“We had to design the system to operate anywhere in the world from Saudi Arabia to the top of a mountain in Nepal,” says Duffy. “The bottleneck is the satellite system. We trade off the best possible quality versus available bandwidth.”
Al Kamel harvest car data including position and speed, as well as data about the climate and terrain at each location. This includes latitude and longitude, the rate of glacial ice loss and rise of sea level or square meters of deforestation, and is information that will be fed into the race narrative.
Duffy calls it hybrid storytelling.
“Motorsport fans are used to commentary about how [to] track temperature, humidity or rainfall affects the race but we’re also using the planet data to fuse the story of these challenging environments with the story of the racing. They provide a wider story of these locations and damage being done to them by humans.”
Environmental initiatives, such as a sea turtle sanctuary on the Red Sea coast, will be highlighted.
“There’s been a step-change globally where the scientific community has been joined by business and media to lead on climate change. It’s a commercial reality that science can’t do it on its own. Change of this scale needs politicians, organizations, and sport to make a difference.”
Graphics, AR and Unreal Engine
The AR will be overlaid on aerials of the track so fans can see where the cars are at any one time. For the VR, Aurora and Extreme E are creating a virtual world, mapping the track for each location based on a drone survey. They are also integrating car telemetry produced by Al Kamal to create a live 3D model of each car, including elements such as how the car is moving around on its chassis.
“We want to explain these diverse and unique landscapes in terms of angles of elevation and decent and to do that I felt it was best represented in a 3D world,” Duffy says. “I also wanted to do that in a live, not in a post-produced environment.”
One animated view will be from the driver’s eye showing the gradient of the terrain and the contours of the rock, ice or sand. To create this, a detailed aerial survey of each location will produce a topographical overview accurate to 2 cm. This data is translated into a point cloud and combined with stills photographs of the terrain for texture, then rendered in Unreal Engine. During the race, GPS data from cars will feed an AI image tracking algorithm to produce the real-time 3D model.
“The algorithm knows where the track cameras are in the environment and overlays the virtual objects,” explains David O’Carroll, Auora’s operations director. “The AR and VR are sophisticated storytelling techniques to get this high impact race over to the audience in realtime.”
Aurora has not used Unreal Engine in the live sport before. “It gives us an opportunity to enhance the graphical output top of the more traditional Vizrt systems.”
The production comprises just seven permanent staff and an occasional team of 24 which is far fewer than any comparable live sports broadcast.
“Everybody was tasked with finding individuals who could double up,” Duffy says. “Race teams hired engineers who could also run data. We wanted camera operators who can rig and ENG crew who can edit (preditors).”
Once an operator has set up the broadcast graphics gear they will then operate the race replay system for official adjudication. Camera ops will help rig POV cameras as well as their own camera.
“It’s difficult to predict how this will all gel but I hope to find that someone going in as a camera guarantee will come out after a few races as an audio engineer,” says Begg. “That’s a great boost to their skills”
A reduced crew is only possible by using a more fixed-rig approach to coverage. “Motorsport can eat a lot of operators,” says Duffy. “Luckily the Extreme-E car gifts itself to onboards.”
After transmission, the live programming and all the rest of the content including VT’s, highlights and digital is uploaded to a cloud-based Digital Media Hub (DMH) for the rights holders to search, view, and use.
“The DMH provides a dual purpose: to make content easily available to rights holders; and provide a rich suite of assets that rights holders can use to enhance their own content,” explains O’Carroll.
The DMH itself comprises cloud-native storage and content distribution platform developed and managed by Base Media Cloud and Veritone.
Red Bee Media provides satellite distribution services, picking up live signals from the production gallery to broadcasters.
In addition, Red Bee is providing services to transcode and live stream race content to Extreme E’s digital platforms. The production will further utilize Red Bee’s OTT platform for global live streaming on the championship’s website and other digital assets.
So how does its own sustainability add up?
A massive 75% of carbon costs are reckoned to be cut by using a ship rather than airplanes to get from A to B. RMS St. Helena is transporting the championship’s freight and infrastructure, including vehicles, to the nearest port to each of its five-race locations. It is both a floating paddock and a base for scientific research.
The ship’s engines and generators have been converted to run on low sulfur marine diesel – known as “champagne”– rather than heavy diesel.
Extreme E is committed to having a net-zero carbon footprint by the end of its first season, however current projections for the championship estimate that its footprint will equal 20k carbon tons.
“We can’t eradicate [carbon] totally so we are climate offsetting,” Russell says. “We have a legacy scheme which more than covers our carbon footprint and we will incentive the governments we work with to invest in these projects.”
This includes planting 1 million mangroves on the coast of Africa
Carbon offsetting is being arranged through ALLCOT certificated programs. A Lifetime Cycle Assessment, which calculates the overall series impact, is being audited by EY.