VR goes for Gold with the Olympic Channel

Exclusive Q&A with Jaunt Executive Producer, Canaan Rubin and Nicolas Delloye, Commissioning Editor at Olympic Channel.

As Trending Gold arrives this week on the Olympic Channel, we’ve done a deep dive into the project with two of the individuals central to bringing the series to life. In the interview, we discussed how immersive VR and 360-degree video technologies are bringing audiences closer to the Olympic Games than ever before. We also discuss how the capture and experience of never-before-possible moments from the athlete’s own POV helps solidify VR as a new benchmark for series storytelling.

Q: So how did this project come about?

CR: Most people think of the Olympic Games as a moment in time — an epic display of elite athleticism which happens once every two years. The truth is, it’s so much more than that. A year round, constant cycle of training, travelling, preparing and competing and this effort simply isn’t celebrated enough. We wanted to be a part of keeping the magic of the Olympic spirit alive between games, and believed we could create a VR experience that had never been done before.

ND: The launch of the Olympic Channel in August 2016 was a significant milestone for the Olympic Movement and provides us with more opportunities to engage fans, especially younger generations, all year round. Immersive content was a no brainer for us. We saw it as a way for fans to experience what it’s like to be a part of such an amazing competition. We really wanted to push the boundaries from a content production perspective, to put a spotlight on the excitement, dedication, and adrenaline of Olympic athletes as they prepare to take on the world. And to do that we chose Jaunt because of their reputation as a pioneer of immersive content production and distribution.


Q: Sporting events today use a number of different video technologies to tap into the overall experience. Why pick VR as a medium for telling these stories?

CR: If you think about it, not many people will ever get to ride on a bobsleigh at nearly 100 MPH, or get to experience the rush of Big Air on half pipes or glide on ice as an Olympic speed skater. This VR experience is all about you being in these extraordinary moments that the world’s top athletes experience themselves daily. We put viewers in an environment that brings these athletes’ stories and unique physical abilities to life in first person. And VR, with its fully immersive 360-degree technology, is the only medium capable of delivering that first person experience as if you yourself, were going for gold.

ND: Since the launch of the Olympic Channel, we’ve explored a variety of different formats and storytelling techniques while working with some of the most talented producers in the industry. The huge volume of great content available in our digital space obliges us to innovate and explore new ways to capture and share those thrilling moments in sports.

With our new original series, Trending Gold, we wanted to provide viewers both the access and first-hand experience of what it means to be an Olympian. That journey brings them to four continents and seven different countries — all while experiencing four completely different sports. From markets in Nigeria to yoga in California, the transportive and introspective features of VR make this possible. That’s the reason why VR has become a new benchmark in storytelling. It’s hugely exciting. 
 Did the project evolve once the filming began?

CR: Absolutely! As Nicolas knows, when we pitched this series to the Olympic Channel, the format was designed around summer sports. We were deep into researching sport climbing athletes, best practices for filming surfing in 360, and body mounts custom designed for skateboarders. So as you can imagine, we didn’t anticipate filming in below freezing temperatures, blizzards, and employing motion stabilization specific to a speeding bobsleigh so your lunch would stay put!

ND: The reality is that we absolutely loved the concept, but decided to go with a winter-themed series with the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang as a prime opportunity.

World-class snowboarder Jamie Anderson.

Olympics athletes tend to have crazy schedules and need to be strictly focused. What was the response from the athletes?

CR: “I’m in!”. Literally. The athletes were all fantastic to work with and excited to be part of a ground-breaking series for the Olympic Channel. We did, of course, have some scheduling conflicts, but that comes with the territory. Our field producer, Colleen Kessler, and our supervising producer, Doug Allenstein, were often the first point of contact and they’d somehow find a perfect balance between the athlete’s schedules and our complex filming operations. These athletes are busy every hour of every day all year. Their season is non-stop since it’s always winter somewhere. The athletes loved and embraced our technology too. They spent extra time with our expert crews so we could capture the perfect shot. It was mutually rewarding, and was truly a team effort.

ND: Athletes really played a key role in the production process. I think the innovative factor of filming in VR really appealed to them and got them excited to participate. Obviously, they know their sports very well and more and more often are using short videos to communicate — some teams now even use VR for training purposes — so they quickly felt a part of the project which really made a huge difference both in terms of teamwork and the final outcome.

You worked across four continents, in seven different countries and on countless experiences. What was the most challenging part of the project and what was the most rewarding?

CR: Scheduling was a key challenge for us. Travelling great distances to Nigeria, South Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Canada and across America. And then, we had to keep the potential of injury in mind, too. Even if those things aligned, the weather could always have other ideas! We were snowed in more than once. When cameras rolled, series director Corey Rich caught every magic moment. The most rewarding for me, came in Switzerland when I showed Luca Aerni 360 rushes from his slalom run back at the ski lodge. He’d never seen the 360 perspective before, and said “wow, that’s incredible, I have a wake” when looking down at the back of his own skis.

The Nigerian Bobslead Team takes photos with young fans in thier hometown.

The series has a number of different scenes — meeting the women’s Bobsleigh team in Nigeria, yoga in Taos … What is your favorite shot/frame/scene?

CR: The bobsleigh run. No doubt. I love experiencing the entire run Seun (Adigun), Ngozi (Onwumere) and Akuoma (Omeoga) train for. Look, the reality is that 99.99% of bobsleigh fans will never get to ride in an Olympic bobsleigh. And you don’t have to be fan to enjoy this experience — but chances are, like me, you’ll become a fan afterwards! Lucas Wilson, who EP’d the series alongside me, did a superb job of delivering these first-person experiences across four fast as lightning winter sports — and in a way that everyone of all ages can enjoy. When you take the snowboard flips in Big Air that Max Parrot captured, we pause you mid-air, upside down, in 360. Everything goes silent and you become the athlete yourself in that moment. It’s awesome. It’s the fun and thrill that we set out to capture.

ND: I managed to join the team in Italy for filming alpine skiers Luca Aerni from Switzerland and Ilka Stuhec from Slovenia. It was a really great experience to see the full production team in action and witness how much the athletes were part of the process: making suggestions, taking an active part despite the harsh weather conditions, etc.. We almost did not make it back due to a snow storm!
 What’s next? What would be your ideal next Olympic sport(s) to film?

CR: I’d like to go back to the original concept of creating a summer series for the Olympic Channel and focus on the new sports which will debut in Tokyo 2020 such as surfing and skateboarding — both of which have global appeal. Immersive content is the perfect bridge between these new Olympic sports and athletes who are already connected to their young fan bases through social media.

ND: We are exploring summer sports obviously, which makes a lot sense in terms of programming and overall storytelling, by bridging to Tokyo 2020 for example. But we would also like to dive deeper into the development of new concepts and formats in order to explore interactivity, which I think is the next big step for VR users.

The Olympic Channel original series “Trending Gold” is available worldwide on Jaunt and via mobile apps for Android and iOS devices as well as on www.olympicchannel.com and apps for Android and iOS.