Directing: Beyond calling cameras

I have written posts about directing for music and directing for speaking but it has all been centered around calling cameras. However, directing is much more than calling cameras. I recently did a show where I was Technical directing (operating the switcher) while one of the Clients personnel was calling cameras.   It became clear quickly that calling cameras was all they wanted to do rather than actually direct the show. This created an interesting situation to say the least, because cameras are just one piece of the puzzle and if you are directing you need to have a good understanding of all pieces of the puzzle.

If it goes on screen, you call it!

Most production switchers don’t just have cameras going into them, they also have graphics, lyrics, video playback devices, still stores and more going in and out of them. All these pieces should be held and called by the director. The control room is a team of people and everyone should be moving to the beat of the director. Now there are times where you need to let people do their job. But as a director it is important to take control of the ship and control everything that goes on screen.

The show that I was on had a producer/ program director calling the show giving cues to sound, lights and video. But even though my producer had a multi-viewer in front of them giving them the ability to see everything, they shouldn’t be directing video too. For example, lets say a speaker has a graphic coming up, the producer may mention that a graphic will need to be sent to the screen soon, but it is the directors responsibility to make sure it is the right graphic going up at the right time. Or if a video needs to roll, the director should be the one making sure the right one is cued and rolls on the directors call.

Don’t just call, Cue

Half of directing is making sure everyone is ready for what is going to happen next. “Stand by for Graphic, video, logo, lyrics, or Person A to come up on stage”. Directors need to make sure everyone is ready well in advance for their next part in the production. Decreasing errors in a production is a direct result of proper cueing and inversely most errors are the result of improper cueing.

Now I understand that some productions have lots of people and some only have a few. You may be a TD/ Director and only have a Graphics/ lyrics/ video playback person. Or you may have someone in each and every role. Let’s say you cue a graphic, this gives the CG operator enough time to make sure the graphic is loaded and it gives the TD time to get ready to put the graphic on screen so that as soon as the director says take graphic, it happens at the right moment (not after) with the correct graphic on screen.

Transitions are key

Transitions are the hardest thing to get right because in many cases multiple parts have to move at the same time. The ability to smoothly execute difficult transitions is what separates the good directors from the bad directors. Now even the best directors are at the mercy of their operators but as I have said before in previous posts is that directors have to set expectations with all their operators and adjust based on their operators skill levels. If the person playing videos has a slow response time then you need to call “roll video” before you say “take video.” This is one example of how you should adapt in those situations.

The key to calling good transitions is knowing exactly what needs to happen at every transition. Getting the information ahead of time so you can properly cue and call the transition as needed. In some cases this could be easy, but in others it can be more difficult. The last event I did had a center LED screen that we frequently did video rolls on. Every time a speaker would come up we would roll a speaker intro video on the LED screen, take our wider transition shot, get the close up as soon as possible and then run a lower third with their name as well and then switch back to the holding graphic on the LED screen. In order for that transition to have happen smoothly the right video needed to be cued, the right lower third ready to go, cameras ready for their assignments and the TD ready to hit all the right buttons at the right time. All in all this was a pretty simple transition but if not called right could be a train wreck (which it was the first few times). Know the transitions and rehears them if you can.

You have to be one step ahead of the game

Everything mentioned really comes down to the director needing to always be one step ahead of the game at all times. While you are directing for the moment, calling camera shots and what not, you need to know your next move and make sure your crew is ready. Depending on the production, your producer might help you out on this one or if you have the ability to have an assistant director they can be a huge asset as well. But the director should always be leading, and the crew should be taking commands from the director because as a director you need to be that strong leader. If multiple people are giving cues, that is where once again mistakes can happen.

In order to truly be ahead of the game requires a detailed script that should be reviewed before going into the show. As a director I look at all the detail to know exactly how I am going to execute the transitions and make sure I have all the content before going into a show. During the show I should only have to glance at my rundown or script in order know what needs to happen next, If I have to study my script that means I didn’t do my job properly during preproduction. And beyond that I always assume as if no one on my crew has seen the script, even though most of them have.

Maybe it is because I have trust issues, but I just don’t trust that if my AD or producer calls something that my operators are truly ready for their next move unless I physically hear a confirmation on Com. A while back I was working with a company who does a lot of big corporate shows and one of their full time guys was running video playback for me. He got so mad that I was constantly checking up on him to make sure the right video was cued but I told him that he hadn’t earned my trust yet and it was my responsibility to make sure the right video went on screen. This guy’s boss heard the grumblings and verified what I had said because it is the directors responsibility. I needed to be one step ahead of the game and in order to do that I needed get on some of the operators case.

Make the calls and live with them

I have been on many different shows with many different producers and structures. I have very involved producers that want to call some of the big pieces like graphics and videos taking the responsibility from the director (as long as everyone can hear them) but I have also been in the opposite with no producer at all calling anything. Most of the time it is a combo where the producer calls the big transitions and key elements. But in any case as a director you have to make decisions to get things on air and sometimes you get it wrong, and others you get it right. When I have made the wrong call by sending up a graphic too early or even the wrong graphic all together I just have to suck it up and learn from it and do my best to get it right the next time.

The show I was just on had a director that kept asking the producer if a graphic was correct and waited for their approval before sending it and taking it down. This was not one of those scenarios when the producer wanted to be calling all the graphics. I turned to the director and told him he needed to step up and make the decisions on when to send and pull graphics, if he pulled one down too early then he would have to adjust for the next graphic because the producer had enough on their plate that he needed to own these calls. Really this just comes down to being a strong leader and properly leading your teams and being will to make both small and big calls.

This isn’t the art side of directing this is the technical side and in many ways it is the most important side of directing a clean show. Cameras are fun because you get to be creative and set yourself apart from other directors. But if you can’t get the technical side of directing then you will never have a good clean show, no matter how creative you are. Directing takes leadership and organization to lead crews through complicated transitions and key elements during a show. Think of a newscast, I have sat through many news casts and they are not artistic at all, they are all technical. These directors spend a half-hour of constantly directing all the pieces to get the right stories up at the right time and the directors that are never sure of when to take something or bring it down never make it to prime time. Because at the end of the day hitting your transitions and confidently calling a show and all the pieces is what makes a good director call a good show.

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About brhoda

I freelance doing a few different thing in the video and live production market. I worked for a church for 5 years directing services and designing control rooms.
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