Spring 2018

UNSCRIPTED

All About Eve on Ice

The Russian showdown in Pyeongchang was a classic, directed by Pierre Moossa with the precision of a triple axel

BY STEVE CHAGOLLAN


Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova exit the rink after warmups. (Photo: NBC Olympics)

Women's figure skating—which combines elegance, grace and athleticism—is always a big draw at the Winter Olympics. And when you add in a rivalry, it ups the ante: think Harding vs. Kerrigan, or Kwan vs. Lipinski.

But with the Americans pretty much counted out of the running after the short program at the recent Games in Pyeongchang, the focus was on the so-called Russian Showdown between skaters Evgenia Medvedeva, the reigning 18-year-old world champion, and Alina Zagitova, the 15-year-old junior world champion who within five months, in announcer Tara Lipinski's words, "had disrupted the whole narrative for these games," much as a 15-year-old Lipinski did when she dethroned the 17-year-old Kwan in 1998.

As Pierre Moossa, director of the Olympics figure skating competition for NBC, points out, "This was supposed to be a coronation for Medvedeva, and all of the sudden, there's a good chance that some 15-year-old is going to come out of nowhere and steal her gold medal."

It didn't help Medvedeva that after she broke the world record two nights prior in the short program, her upstart teammate broke it again 10 minutes later by 1.31 points. Although they're friends off the ice, when it came to competing, Medvedeva said, "This is war." Or as announcer Johnny Weir succinctly described the sport, it's "brass knuckles under velvet gloves."






(Top) The tension is palpable backstage; (Middle) Medvedeva keeps loose during Zagitova's performance; (Bottom) A camera map of Medvedeva's routine. (Photos: (Top & Middle) NBC Olympics; (Bottom) Courtesy Pierre Moossa)

Moossa worked with a team of more than 100, led by producer Rob Hyland and the talent in the booth: announcers Lipinski, Weir and Terry Gannon. "It's kind of like a dance in that somebody's leading and everybody's kind of following," explains Moossa. The director, a veteran of 11 Games, had worked every Olympics since 1996 with the exception of 1998's Nagano, which was covered by CBS.

For Pyeongchang, Moossa had 16 cameras—including five handheld—at his disposal, with 12 additional cameras, called "splits," supplied by host broadcaster OBS (Olympic Broadcasting Services). Among those OBS feeds were a dedicated "kiss and cry" camera, situated where the skaters exit the rink; an overhead cable camera that Moossa used often; and several high-speed, super-slo-mo cameras that record pictures at a much higher frame rate so that when they're slowed down, the footage plays exceedingly smooth.

The precision of the skaters is mirrored by the production plan going in. "There is a researcher named Cindy Hsieh who goes to every practice," says Moossa, "and she essentially draws a map of the figure skating rink with the cameras on it, and she goes through and puts what jumps are where at what time and what direction they're going. She sends me the links to all the performances and I watch their routines and mark what cameras I'd want to be on for those jumps, because to me it's a cardinal sin being on the wrong camera for a jump."

Since much of the coverage during the free skate finale focused on the buildup, Moossa and his team made fine use of the handhelds at both the entrance and exits to the rink, as well as one at "the curtain," where the skaters linger before gliding into the arena for warm-ups on the ice, and backstage for "the relationship shots, because we were building up stories," says Moossa, who adds that "our job is to give viewers the best seat in the house."

Those storylines were already brewing prior to the Olympics, and became solidified after the short program, when possible scenarios involving each skater were exhaustively worked out and communicated to the production team. Then on the morning of the event, the camera team is briefed, with any footage captured during practices fair game, such as "Zagitova doing five triples in a row" the day before, recalls Moossa, "which was almost like a mic drop."






(Top) Announcers Terry Gannon, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, with director Pierre Moossa; (Bottom) Contrasting emotions following their performances. (Photos: (Top) Courtesy Pierre Moossa; (Middle & Bottom) NBC Olympics)

While Moossa was positioned in a mobile unit just outside the venue, viewers were treated up close to the unfolding backstage drama involving the Russian frontrunners, with the aim of capturing them in the same frame as much as possible—Zagitova exhibiting a steely resolve that belied her years, and Medvedeva seemingly in her own protective bubble.

During Zagitova's performance, Medvedeva, with headphones, paced the warm-up room like a prizefighter, dancing to the beat of her own drum.

As Weir explained toward the beginning of the evening, it could come "down to an eyelash that separates them." And Zagitova, having skated an almost flawless routine, set up a situation where Medvedeva had to skate the best program of her life, which is what she did. But ultimately it was not enough. When she came off the ice, in tears, Moossa avoided any replays "to let the moment speak for itself as they are waiting desperately for their scores."

There was so much commotion around Medvedeva, with handlers on either side, that the one camera able to capture her emotions in that tight space was on the opposite side of the ice. "Communication is so key to what's going on," says Moossa, "and what one person's doing and the other person knows to react." And it was all played out commercial-free.

When the score was revealed—matching Zagitova in the free but not enough to overcome her previous deficit—Medvedeva looked stunned. "Johnny can understand Russian," says Moossa, "so he could hear her saying, 'I did everything I could,' when she found out she didn't win."

Adds Moossa: "If you're a sports fan, there's nothing better than when people perform at the highest level. And then it becomes a shame when there's only one winner."

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