Live events have a great sense of uncertainty and thus provide a great challenge to a director.
How can a director tell a story without knowing what is going to happen? What activities can a director do to put themselves in a position to succeed? How can directors meet, assess, and work with a crew that he might never have met before today? How does everyone, from the producer to the technical crew to the on-air talent, get on the same page and cover a live event?
With the goal of telling the story or stories of the event in mind, the setting of the event becomes critically important for initial decisions a director must make for a live event. For example, if a director is preparing for a football game, decisions about camera placement will differ greatly if the game is in a professional football stadium with established camera positions versus a high school stadium that will require lifts to get the necessary cameras into position. The way a director learns about a particular venue is by conducting a site survey. A site survey is a walk-through of not only the venue where the event will take place, but might also involve available spaces for trucks, locations for crew meetings, meals, satellite trucks, or any logistical aspect of the production. If the budget allows, a director might take a trip with the producer and other members of the production crew to get the lay of the land. In other cases, a site survey might be a much less formal affair conducted the night before or the day of an event. In any case, this will allow a director to know more about a particular venue, which will inform decisions regarding setting up the show, such as where the talent might be located, camera placement, or concerns related to covering the event.
While the site survey will inform many decisions, a director will most often need to work with the plan developed by the producer to cover the event. As we discussed in Chapter 10, this plan can involve everything from the timing of how the event will begin, potential elements that can be rolled into the show, pre-production needs, or perhaps the general tone of the overall production. For example, an event might have historical significance that might overshadow the result of the game itself. Perhaps a player is wrapping up a storied career, or a stadium is hosting a final game before demolition. In these cases, the result of the game may or may not be important, but a director will make decisions based on this information and set up accordingly.
A producer's plan might offer a lot of details in terms of how a director will plan or prepare, but in some cases, a producer might not have a lot of information coming into a game. In any case, a director can prepare for the event by doing research on her own. He/she should know details that can help tell the story. For example, the players, teams, league, and other information could inform a director's decisions. As we keep saying, the goal is to effectively tell the audience what is happening and why certain elements of the game are important. If a director doesn't know the potential stories, then logically he couldn't tell them!
Armed with all this information, directors are in a bit of an odd position. They know the stories, they understand the potential and limitations of the venue and they are well versed in the producer's plans and the overall theme of the event including pertinent information about players, teams, or the town where the event is taking place. At the same time, a director works in a control room and sits in a chair, often very far from the action. So how does she take this information and tell the story? Obviously, as you have read through this book, you know that everyone from the on-air talent to the technicians and production assistants are waiting for instruction to put these ideas into motion. As you saw early in this chapter, the language of a director is very specific and meaningful to all the folks working with them. With only their voices, directors conduct a symphony of individuals to perform a well-orchestrated performance from all members of the crew.
This process begins with a meeting with various members of the crew either en masse or in small groups. The production meetings, rehearsals, and camera meetings involve going over information to lay out the production plan and prepare the crew for what is likely to happen. Again, we find a director planning for what they can and preparing for what they can't, only this time these plans and preparations take place overtly for the crew to learn about expectations and ask questions if necessary.
A production meeting often takes place with the director and producer going over the overall flow of the show including the pre-production schedule, the production plan, post-production needs, meal information, and the plan for striking or packing up the equipment after the show has wrapped. This production meeting ideally includes the entire crew and provides a chance for the various departments and crew members to ask questions and get answers face-to-face in a less stressful environment than in the heat of a production. On some shows, this might have to take place over headsets or in smaller groups with the producer and/or director. This might be due to time constraints, logistical limitations of meeting spaces, or perhaps the crew is familiar enough with the show that a short talk over headset can effectively disseminate information. Some production meetings are so specific and detailed that a producer or director will provide a production packet of printed information that tells everyone on the crew what is expected in a particular situation.
For example, on a national telecast of a football game, if 20 cameras and eight tape operators were guessing what they should be shooting and recording, how could a director accurately predict and call for a certain shot or replay? Instead, production meetings allow for a clear plan to be in place for most of the most common occurrences of an event. In some cases, a crew member might have a different idea about coverage or a way to make a process easier for everyone and this is the chance to discuss those ideas. In the middle of an event, with so many moving parts flying all around, the discussion and implementation of new ideas becomes a difficult and risky proposition. Which of course, in some cases, is exactly what happens because something out of the ordinary occurs! However, starting with an established plan is a great way to get everyone on the same page.
The Camera Meeting
A particular production meeting that often takes place is a camera meeting. A camera meeting is most likely a face-to-face meeting with the director and camera operators. Camera operators serve many important functions for the production including being the eyes of the director in the venue. Thus, good communication between the cameras and the director is critically important. This meeting allows the director to explicitly convey the flow of the show and how she would like cameras to cover certain elements of the action. Often a director will go through each camera position and explain their responsibilities for the show. One camera might need to be wide at all times to show the entire field, other cameras might need to be constantly hunting for color shots, and others might receive a list of particular players to isolate whenever they enter the field of play. Again, this is an opportunity for communication, discussion, and clarification of anything that a camera operator might not understand. Many directors will provide sheets with numbers and pictures of players, coaches, or other important figures associated with the event that a camera operator might need to identify in the viewfinder of their camera. Even on shows with camera operators that are familiar with a certain director and their show, this meeting will still take place, although the length of the meeting will likely be shorter and information shared will likely be briefer, keeping the lines of communication open serves everyone.
After a meal for the crew, everyone settles into their positions and the clock begins an unforgiving countdown to the show hitting air. Ready or not, the event will begin and the director will need everyone focused and ready for their assigned tasks. These moments leading up to the show are often when a director will rehearse several elements of the show. Rehearsals allow for everyone to get into the flow of the production, practice transitions, camera shots, play pre-recorded elements for talent, or take care of any unfinished pre-production. Most directors will rehearse some part of the show. Some directors will rehearse many times, make adjustments, and keep rehearsing until they are confident they can get it right. The moments leading up to a show allow a director to shift into yet another role they serve on the crew.
One of the best traits for a director to possess is the ability to coach and develop members of the crew who might be in the beginning stages of their career or be unfamiliar with a particular sport or piece of equipment. A good director will identify a crewmember that might need some extra attention and use rehearsals and pre-production time to work with that person. This could take the form of talking them through the framing of a camera shot, properly cueing and rolling a replay in tape, or calling up graphics. Directors who develop and work with their crew, even under the pressure of live production, will enjoy the benefits of this mentorship. Directors who belittle someone who is inexperienced will tend to make that person gun-shy and nervous. Who can operate successfully under that pressure? An even better question is who would want to work under those conditions? A quality director strives to learn the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on the crew and works with those folks to make the production as successful as possible.
In addition to communicating with the technical crew and producer, the director also needs to pay attention to the on-air talent and work with them to enhance the production. Obviously, the on-air talent are talking directly to the audience, so hopefully they can work with and not against the flow of information. In some cases the director will lead the on-air talent, and in other cases the director will need to follow what the announcers are discussing or describing and attempt to give a camera shot or replay to support what they are talking about. With the help of a producer, who will often talk to the talent via talk-back, the relationship between director and announcers can be a fruitful one.
As mentioned earlier in the article, live events will offer a director some of the most challenging decision-making circumstances. A game can change in a matter of seconds, and the director needs to be ready to assess the situation quickly, communicate quickly and effectively, and then get ready to do it all over again on the next play! This skill comes not only from experience but also from visualizing different scenarios and preparing for them. What camera sequence will tell the most effective story? Will the producer and talent be expecting a graphic? Should we see a cutaway of a dejected member of the losing team? How will the show go to and come back from commercial breaks? Preparing for what you can't exactly predict will pay huge dividends when a director faces these situations.
In a live event situation, a director has a lot of responsibility before, during, and after an event takes place. They need to be aware of the content of the show as well as the technical quality of every element of the production. These technical elements might include video levels, audio clarity, or accuracy of graphics. The director will invariably need to troubleshoot something during a show. A situation might be as simple as a lineup change that needs to be communicated to the audience right at the beginning of the show, but it might be more complicated and require quick thinking.
One example of needing to think and act quickly came during a baseball game we worked in Oakland, CA. In the middle of the third inning, the switcher dies and we are stuck on Camera 3. Instead of having seven cameras and graphics and tape and all the other sources normally available, we now only have one . . . and that camera is high up on the first base line. The director, thinking quickly, leaves his seat, runs back to the truck engineer, and begins cutting the game from a router in the back of the truck. A few minutes later, the switcher is reset, and they can operate normally. To the viewer at home, while it wasn't perfect, it wasn't a complete disruption of the game.
Directing Scripted Shows
As with live events, scripted shows require a director to communicate with a crew clearly and consistently. Unlike a live event, most scripted shows have a large portion of their content predetermined. Thus, when practicing "plan for what you can, prepare for what you can't," a scripted show should be much more predictable for a director.
With a scripted show, the director will be depending heavily on a producer to provide a format for the show and timing information for segments and packages. In addition, a producer will likely provide graphic and music cues for a director to use, although the implementation of these elements might be a collaborative process between the producer and director. For example, during a highlight package, a director might choose a cut of music to go underneath, and then decide when to add a score to the end of the highlight. A producer might provide certain information, but a director might need to improvise how to incorporate that information into the show.
A director still might need to make adjustments on the fly in a scripted show environment. If a show is heavy, in other words is running too long, a producer might need to adjust the order of show elements or remove certain elements of a show, and a director might need to make these changes on the fly or with very little notice.
In addition to straight scripted shows, a director can be asked to navigate through some form of a hybrid show that mixes elements of live events and scripted shows. For example, a sports talk show might have topics for each segment with specific roll-ins to augment the discussion. In this case, a director would know specifically a little bit about each segment, but would need to cut the show based on the discussion of the host and guests of the talk show. This would differ slightly from a live event because, in theory, a director can direct a guest as to where to sit or which camera or person to direct their answers towards. In general, a studio show provides much more control for the director than a live event where the production is at the mercy of the sport or event being played.