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The art of live event directing

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04 August 2015

There’s no second chances when live directing. Here four of the UK’s leading live event directors explain the art of their craft

Denise Large
The Grand National, The Derby, Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood

They don’t come any bigger than the Grand National from a sporting and production point of view, in terms of the vast area you have to cover.

The Grand National is in April, but planning begins around December. As well as getting the basics right, I always try to think of a new innovation that can enhance the viewer’s enjoyment of this amazing steeplechase.

In the first year of IMG’s Grand National coverage, I introduced the Scorpio Tracking Arm – a camera used in feature films. It’s a crane on top of a 4x4 which can elevate to a height of 16 ft and also extend outwards. Tracking cameras have been used in racing for many years, but seeing 40 horses from a high elevation while travelling at 35 miles an hour provides a tremendously dramatic shot. 

Having the right people on a live specialist event is crucial.  I have a fabulous team who I have worked with for many years. They are at the top of their profession and we have a good relationship. But at the end of it I have to call the shots and be a leader. There are ways of conveying those messages. I’m not one to shout and get hysterical! 

The camera operators are my eyes on the racecourse and I rely on them to offer shots – which I will call for at an instant. Sound is just as crucial to bringing the drama and atmosphere to a race as big as the Grand National with 40 horses galloping around the track. Microphones are deployed inside every fence to pick up the unique noises you get when they are jumped or hit.

Probably the biggest challenge on the day is making a five hour broadcast appear seamless. You also have to keep  your cool. You need nerves, but not to the point where they take over.

Dick Carruthers
Led Zeppelin, Beyonce, The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, The Killers, The Who, Oasis, Take That

The first thing I do is take the long view - what do we want to end up with ? Next I study the whole layout: band, the stage design, perhaps dancers, screens, venue, and start plotting camera positions and combinations like chess moves. No two gigs are exactly the same and this is absolutely key to getting the best shots to fit together.

I also do my homework; watching performances to tune into the the dynamic. I always like to see the way the instruments are played, interactions between band members or sometimes crowd reaction is key. I’ll make up a set list and listen to it over and over, to get an instinctive sense of the narrative arc, the pace and flow.

I will discuss with the artists all manner of things stylistically: how we are going to approach it, texture, effects, post production. Formats too: it could suit HD or now 4K, or in an extreme case, Super 8.  Artists have all sorts of proclivities – perhaps strong preferences about angles they are shot from. They have to trust you, knowing you are going to make them look not just good, but amazing. You precision-capture what they do and by detailing it, enhance it.

World class crew is essential. I’m lucky to work with experts in their field, and I choose them on their unique skills. I’ve built up a great team of people who I trust to do a great job.

For performances I might work off one sheet per song - with lots of notes in different coloured Sharpie pens: structure, specific positions, special moves or moments to nail.... I like to inhabit a fluid mid-point between scripted and pure spontaneity; reacting to what happens, as it happens. Typically I cut stuff myself – I can just call it quicker and you get into the zone.

During any shoot, I joke, encourage and whip up enthusiasm, paradoxically the comedian as well as the clear, authoritative voice that the whole team lock onto and follow.

There’s no place for hesitation or panic, and its not a role for people lacking in self confidence – justified or otherwise.

That said, I wouldn’t go into anything with blind hubris – there has to be some trepidation and stress. You need to be razor sharp and very quick thinking - you are watching 15 to 20 things at once and co-ordinating 40+ people. I have learned to channel the nerves and adrenalin into an intense focus. It’s the best job in the world.

Paul Mcnamara
Rugby World Cup, FA Cup Final, Champions League Final, FIFA World Cup

Covering a match will always involve a recce to the stadium beforehand.  Stadiums are always updating, and there is always a possibility of new camera positions.

Most football directors do the vision mixing themselves, which is quite different from other TV genres. It allows you to get to the best shots as quickly as possible and in sport things happen very quickly with no rehearsals.
You are always trying to tell the story. You are trying to bring the viewer to the event and to give them the best seat in the house.

You might have 20 cameras for a match and each camera will be given a specific role. The main camera 1 shot is used to cover the majority of the game but all the other angles are used to enhance the narrative and to bring all the tension, excitement and drama to the viewer.

You have to tell the story of what is happening in front of you but you are trying to add to it the whole time. In sport there are natural breaks – corners, goal kicks, line outs or injuries. You use those moments to replay incidents that have happened.

You can also use those moments to go to crowd shots or manager shots to try to build up the excitement, the anticipation the pain and the passion.

There are always many editorial stories within each game. For example, one goalkeeper might have been dropped. When the goalkeeper that has been picked makes a fantastic save, you can make a great editorial shot by going to the goalkeeper sitting on the bench – applauding like a mad Oscar loser! In sport there is always a story. It means sports directors have to know their sport inside out.

I go through a checklist before each game. If I have watched the teams and know how they play – including every player, sub and manager – and I have looked at my camera positions, then I would trust myself to bring that game through with the experience I have. I would never be blasé and think I can just tip up to this, because that would be the time that it bites you really hard.

No two sports broadcasts are ever the same. You have to be brave to make your decisions, and trust your judgement and experience. It’s a privileged position and a great honour to cover such fantastic events.

Steve Smith

The Graham Norton Show, The John Bishop Show, Paul O’Grady Show Live

To start with, I try to assemble a team that I trust. The industry is much more freelance now, so us directors get a key group of people that they work with regularly, from a lighting director, a camera supervisor to a sound supervisor. They give you the confidence you need to make the programme.

Because budgets and schedules are much tighter, there isn’t the luxury of time to be able to make mistakes. You have to be ready to hit the deck running. For The John Bishop Show we record two shows a day. We have a four-hour window with an audience to record two one-hour shows. There just isn’t the luxury to do things twice.

So knowing your team around you are all really experienced and playing at the top of their game is really important.

Being a live event director is rather like being the captain of a plane. You have a managerial role and have to be aware of budgets and scheduling and facilities. And you have to be able to inspire and motivate people, and also firm in terms of knowing what you want.

But the most important thing is your creative vision. You are responsible for how the show looks and bringing that creative eye to bear is vital.

You also have to be prepared. In a live situation you only get one stab at it. You have to think ahead to where the danger areas might be and where things might go wrong. This often comes from experience.

Another really important thing is trust. One of the tragic things about this industry is that too many people try to be bosses and to control everything. As a director I like to create an environment where I have an overall vision for something. Then I like to ensure the crew have the ability to stamp their own mark on it. When you give people the freedom to express themselves, you generally get more out of it.

You can’t get away from the impact that The X Factor has had on the way we do things. The X Factor is a brilliant show, but it does have an enormous budget with a multi-million pound set and a phenomenal lighting rig. It gives commissioning editors expectations. They want everything to have the same production values. But The X Factor is ITV’s flagship entertainment show, and most other budgets don’t come anywhere near it. You have to manage those expectations – which can be difficult.

I chair the multi-camera directors group at Directors UK. What worries me is how we train the new directors of the future. These jobs are so pressured that commissioning editors and execs are nervous about letting someone new have a go. But at some point you have to have a go, or you are never going to get the experience.

With Directors UK we are trying to find solutions to how we can train directors of the future.

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