Experience: Live-Directing A Concert (Part 1/4)

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It was the kind of weather no one tells you about before you move to Southern California. Girls in summer dresses, palm trees, billionaire mansions — all bursting into flames from the dry, crackling heat straight from the bowels of Hell. In other words, it was summer. As part of my internship at a production studio, I arrived at the outdoor venue ready to live-direct a day-long concert series in the San Gabriel Valley. I had experience as crew and assistant director on previous concerts but this was my first time at the helm for an entire event. Live-directing is like a high-wire balancing act in the middle of a fireworks display. Plan for the best, take it one step at a time, and then boom! Camera malfunctions! Rain! Birds! Power outages! Drunk concert people! Crew mutinies! The safety net of retreating to an editing room to quietly “fix it in post” is gone. Every brilliantly composed shot, every monstrous snafu, it all goes out live to a watching audience.

Our base camp was set up at the back of the audience pit. A reflective canopy overhead provided some shade. Equipment sweltered on table tops: monitors, mixing board, miles and miles of cables. In the audience area, we had two tripod cameras set up half way to the stage. We were missing a cameraman so one of them became a “deadman cam” (i.e., having no live operator). I sat in front of the “switching board” display showing small rectangular views of each camera’s real-time feed. In charge of both tripods was Graybeard, a seen-it-all-done-it-all veteran of concert work. I had him set up Deadcam as my wide shot (aka, the “safety shot” because you can always cut to it for safety when all else goes wrong with other cameras). The second tripod camera would be Graybeard’s, set at a closer angle for stage coverage with the option to pan the crowd for audience shots. My two other cameramen (and they were all men, which becomes relevant later) were operating handheld cameras. I stationed Rocketboy, an ambitious newcomer, on a platform adjacent the stage. From there he could get a variety of close up shots of the stage performers. My last cameraman, Newbie, was a beginner with no prior concert experience. Not having high expectations of his abilities, I made sure the other cameras gave me full coverage of the angles I wanted. I stationed Newbie in the wings, opposite the stage from Rocketboy. If anything, he might get some artsy shots to add visual flavor. I like to make it look like art whenever I can (in fact, I feel compelled). But mainly the job of a live-director is to get good, clean coverage and not mess it up for the folks watching.

Like any captain, I worried about my crew. All of them would have to contend with foot traffic, wandering musicians, stage hands, various members of the various bands’ entourages, not to mention babies and dogs (every concert in San Gabriel Valley is required to have a preset quota of babies and dogs). Even Deadcam was vulnerable without an operator to salvage any mishap. Basically, anything that can happen on an African safari is what can happen while shooting a live concert: stampedes, fire, monsoons, baboon interference (by far the worst of all).

Beside me at base camp, my assistant director Waldo sat at the mixing board, headphones clamped over his flyaway hair, jauntily testing equipment. He was also in charge of passing out chilled bottles of water, a vital task given the heat. I put on my headset and tested the microphone. We used a one-way radio. My crew could hear me but not answer back. They had to rely on the analog “thumbs up” to communicate.

“Okay, boys,” I told my crew. “Here’s how I work. I’m not going to use your names, I’m gonna say your camera number. If you hear me say your number that means you’re about to be live. I not gonna say “You’re on standby.” I move fast, so consider yourselves always on stand by. Do your camera adjustments quickly when you’ve got downtime. When I say “Now” that means you’re live. Consider yourself live until you hear me say I’m going somewhere else. I like to overlap shots, so two of you might be live at the same time. I will let you know when this happens. Also, if you’ve got technical problems, wag your camera from side to side. That way I know to skip you. Okay?”

I had learned this working method on my own, mainly to avoid the pitfalls of other directors. My favorite example of what not to do was Mr. McFlighty. He liked using crew names but forgot which camera they were on. He’d give you directions thinking you’re Camera Three, put Three’s feed on live, then shout at you when the real operator (not knowing they were live) panned away from stage. Meanwhile you were holding steady on a perfect shot, all for nothing. He also loved chattering about random things, putting you on stand-by and forgetting about it for an hour, suddenly making you live without warning, micro-managing your shot adjustments “zoom in just a hair, just a smidge — no, no! Zoom out! No, not that far out. Zoom in a hair, a smidge” — and repeat, ad nauseum, for hours amid the deafening sounds of a concert. Then there was the slang. In old school parlance, if a camera is live, it’s “hot.” So there you are, enslaved to a pair of headphones, and McFlighty sniggering with innuendo every time he says “you’re hot.” I made a lifelong choice never to use the term, but that’s just me.

At the control deck, we made final adjustments.

“Ready? Set?” Waldo asked.

I checked the switcher controls, setting Deadcam as my default feed, and nodded.

Waldo pressed another switch. “We’re live.”

Even though nothing had changed, the word “live” sent a rush of adrenaline through me.

“We’re live, gentlemen,” I spoke calmly into the microphone.

Glancing over the top of my monitor, I saw each of my crew stationed out there amid the moving, jostling sea of unpredictability. Each raised his hand in the air and gave a thumbs up.

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Hanna Nielson

About Hanna Nielson

Hanna Nielson is a professional writer-director-editor. She holds a Master's in Screenwriting from the University of Leeds, and BA in Cinema and Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa. Her talents also extend into acting, photography, art, and entrepreneurship. She has previously lived in England, Ireland, and India and now resides in Southern California. After several years at a post-production studio, she gained versatile skills in all areas of production and post-production. She has worked with clients in the music industry, entertainment industry, private and public sector, as well as non-profit organizations. She routinely acts as a "one-woman show" in writing, filming, directing, and editing projects including trailers, webisodes, music videos, short films, and feature documentaries. Currently she works freelance and maintains a network of devoted clients.