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The silent art of broadcasts

For this first piece I’m going to focus on the silent art of Broadcasts. Putting on a broadcast is one of the most overlooked yet challenging careers in entertainment. It’s one of those professions where you never realize there is a whole army behind it until there’s a mistake.

Your local news program, Dr. Phil, The Late Show, SNL, any sports broadcasts, etc. all have live crews operating the show. Yeah, sure everyone knows that these shows aren’t running on their own, but do you ever notice the actual details of a broadcast? Do you notice the rhythm of the cuts from a single close up to a 2-person wide to another close up? Do you notice the timing of reaction shots getting cut to right after a dramatic moment?

Those kinds of things are hardly ever noticed. But, that’s the whole point. A good broadcast team should be able to do their job undetected. You should never once have to question the technical portion of a broadcast. You may question the contents of the show, but you shouldn’t question shot choice or the flow of the show. If you do, then they probably aren’t doing their job right. You can tell when the production team isn't good.

So before I get too far out in the deep end let me explain a very simplistic broadcast production team. First you have your Director. The Director directs the show, pretty straight forward. The director has final say on creative choices and is in charge of the broadcast. Whatever the director wants, the director gets.

Next to the director is the Technical Director. The Technical Director is the Director’s right hand man. The Technical Director is in charge of pressing the buttons that switches the cameras on to the live feed. He's basically the live editor.

In just a bit I will be linking to a video to show an example of what a Director does and how a broadcast is run. This is a behind the scenes video of a Jay Z live performance. The man standing is the Director and the person to the right which you can barely see is the Technical Director. When watching the video, notice how the director is very intentional with every cut he does.

In the video the Director will say, “ready number ___.” When he says that he is making sure that the cameraman who is operating that camera will know to get his/her shot ready because his/her camera is about to go live. When he says, “take __” he is telling the TD (Technical Director) to cut to that camera and also telling the camera operator that his shot is now live or “hot”.

In the video, the monitor on the right is the preview monitor. When the director says, “Ready number 3” the TD will put Camera 3 on the preview monitor to let the Director see the shot more clearly. Then when the Director is ready he will say, “take 3” or “dissolve 3” and the TD will cut to or dissolve to camera 3. The shot will then move to the left screen, which displays the live feed.

I hope that didn’t confuse you. So in this video, the left big screen is the live feed and the right big screen is the preview screen. The preview screen is there for the Director to see the shot he is choosing so he can watch the shot and cut to it once he’s ready. Oh and all of the other monitors below are live views from the cameras labeled accordingly.

That was pretty cool, right?

Who was that lady you kept hearing in the background?

I would assume that is the Assistant Director (AD). She’s keeping the Director prepared for all the moments he needs to keep track of. The whole performance would have been broken down with plans during pre-production for camera movement, different subjects to highlight, and overall different moments of the show through rehearsal. The AD is then communicating to the team those notes to make sure no moments are missed. Notice the different countdowns she gives. Also notice the different details she gives. At one point she was counting down to the moment in the song where the drums were the main focus in order for the team to have that shot prepared and ready to go to.

Talk about a lot of work for something where your presence and effort is never even considered.

So let’s break this down again. The Director chooses the shots and dictates when to cut to different cameras, basically live editing. The Technical Director is constantly listening to the Director to make sure whatever shot the Director says, gets played. The Assistant Director is preparing everyone for what’s to come to make sure they don’t miss a beat. But her main role is to just make the director’s job easier.

Now that’s a super simplified version of a broadcast team. But if there’s one thing you should really be amazed at is the teamwork that is needed to pull off a broadcast. The amount of teamwork that is done for these broadcasts is pretty incredible. Most, sometimes all, of the crew members need to be connected through a headset in order to listen to the director and communicate with each other. Everyone has to be dialed in. Especially on true live events. There’s no room for mistakes on a true live broadcast. Everyone has to understand their role and carry out their role as perfectly as they can.

Now that we know what kind of work is needed for a typical performance broadcast, let’s consider the amount of work that would go into an Awards Show like the Grammys.

It’s around a 4 hour production with what I would assume more than a 100 people in the crowd to keep track of. With multiple musical performances.

That’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of things to be prepared for. That’s a lot of cameras to keep track of. That’s a long program to stay on top of. You have the usual announcements, the acceptance speeches, the various celebrity reaction shots, the performances, and much more. There’s also a ton more crew to be in contact with.

So now after all of that explanation, I want you to watch this performance by Kendrick Lamar at the 58th Grammys. Pay attention to the cuts. Pay attention to the camera work. Pay attention to the flow of the broadcast. Pay attention to all of the detail that is showcased in this performance.

This is probably one of my top broadcast performances I’ve ever seen. I was GEEKIN watching this. When I first saw this, I was in the middle of getting my Broadcast Production degree and this performance really cemented my love for this type of production. If I could direct what you see on the screens at a music festival, I would take that job in a heartbeat. Too bad most broadcast production jobs don’t give you much creative freedom and can get pretty monotonous.

The Director is, I believe, Louis J. Horvitz. There is no clearly stated credit on the performance itself, but Horvitz gets the credit for directing the 58th Grammys. He's also directing the video linked before this one. There could have been a different director for the performance, but I’m like 80% sure it’s Horvitz. So let’s give credit to Horvitz, if it’s someone else, I’m so sorry. (Also goes to show how invisible of a job this is). Also, Horvitz is a legend in the Broadcast genre, look at his resume and you’ll see.

With just this performance, Horvitz shows a beautiful understanding of flow, rhythm, and pacing.

The beginning sequence was beautiful. Start out wide to establish the performance. Cut to a medium shot of them walking in. Cut to their feet and pedestal up to show the shackles on both the performer’s feet and hands. Cut to a wide to reestablish the environment of the performance to the audience. Then cut to a medium close to show Kendrick meticulously moving his hands and shackles around the mic in order to be able to perform.

Each and every camera angle was methodically planned and directed beautifully. He gives each shot time to breathe so we can fully understand the context and not get lost. For the beginning of the actual performance of Blacker the Berry, he keeps all of the shots simplistic. No camera movement, and maintains a medium shot on Kendrick for a majority of the intro. By maintaining that medium shot on Kendrick it allows the audience to feel more intimate with Kendrick in what he is saying and makes the kick drums and accompanying lights flashes during the song hit harder. It makes you feel like you’re with Kendrick and experiencing the personal chaos of his environment with him. Also notice how he either maintains the medium during most of the intro kicks or cuts right to it before it ends making sure you are there with him through the chaos.

Let’s skip to the ending song at 4:14.

If you were tasked with making a monologue-esque still performance entertaining how would you do it? The artist isn’t dancing. He isn’t moving across the stage. He’s just standing at the mic stand delivering a very emotional performance. Well luckily for you and me we’re not directing this performance and instead Louis J. Horvitz was.

Horvitz decides to stay up close and personal and stay there about 80% of the time. Only giving the audience maybe one wide shot every so often at the beginning of the verse. He also decides to have 3 cameras maintain the same exact shot but with a slightly different composition. This was a beautiful choice. It gives Horvitz the opportunity to make the scene chaotic with an otherwise non-chaotic background. Instead of adding background flashing lights like in the intro, he cuts between these three shots consistently to add visual chaos. It feels like Horvitz does a dance-like choreography through these camera shots to give more visual intrigue in an otherwise visually unintriguing environment. The pacing and rhythm of the shots also helps enunciate Kendrick’s flow. It’s a great balancing act, where Kendrick is complimented perfectly.

Also, keep in mind during the performance you never take your attention off Kendrick. You aren’t actively taken out of the performance by the Director. You aren’t ever taken into the “Horvitz show”. Horvitz adds so much to the performance and makes his choices to perfectly showcase Kendrick. This was a masterpiece of a job by Horvitz, but you still actively know this as a Kendrick performance. You didn’t google the director after watching this performance. You googled “Kendrick Lamar”.

This whole performance had me geekin’. There’s never a lot of love given to broadcast productions. It makes sense, the whole job of the production crew is to be as invisible as possible. But when given the creative opportunity, production crews can do some amazing invisible magic. When you watch another live production, try and pay attention to the choices the Director makes. Can you tell if he/she is there? Is he/she being creative with their choices? I’m going to be honest, most of them are boring but when you see a good one, you’ll know.

When I was in my broadcast production program, I loved directing. I loved how locked in you had to be. I loved how high stress the moment was. I loved how much on the spot thinking you had to do. It was just your team against whatever was happening. A lot of the times things don’t go as planned and you have to adjust. Did anybody notice that adjustment? How fast were you able to get back on course?

You have one shot to get everything right. You have one opportunity to get everything right.

Broadcast Production is truly simplex. Every live production aims to make the complex look simple. The broadcast itself seems simple until you take the time to truly understand the beast behind it.

Like imagine directing this

Or even being in the control room for this production. Holyyyyy

I will always have a soft spot for broadcasting and do eventually want to direct live performances. The adrenaline that comes with knowing that this is the only chance you have. The pressure to stay locked into the production. The ability to transition between different shots to build a cohesive visual story. Communicating to your crew constantly to get the shots you need. Working with a team to create the best possible production that y'all can. There's really nothing like it. If Simplex Minds ever does pop off and we get to host a music festival, you can bet that I'll be in the control room for at least one performance having the time of my life.

Okay, I’m done geekin’

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

I appreciate you :)

Here's a few more videos if you're interested:

How SNL is made:

Behind the scenes for LEC Spring 2020:


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