In the world of live broadcasting, the director is top dog, overseeing cameras, sound, lighting, teams of technicians and reporters to smoothly deliver programming to our screens. As events unfold it's the job of the director to instantly spot the critical moments from the action and make broadcast decisions in seconds. In our interview specialist OB director Richard Coventry tells us how those decisions are based on years of experience and detailed planning, have an insight in to his career directing events like British Superbikes and FIA Formula E racing and take a look at the director's role in the team.
How did your interest in visual media begin?
When I was around 9 years old, sometime in the mid-1980s I went on a family trip to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now the National Science and Media Museum). There were cameras and switchers, chromakey screens and talkback recordings you could play with and I was completely hooked. I wanted to go back every weekend. I might not have known there and then that this was something I wanted to do as a career, but I became a bit of a broadcast geek!
Did you have a formal education based around visual media?
I went to Sheffield Hallam University and did a (cough), Media Studies (cough) degree. It was around 30% practical and was pretty useless at that. To be honest, 99% of the skills I’ve learnt have come from on the job training, and by getting miles under the belt. The only benefit my degree did have was to teach me how to get along with a bunch of people you’ve only just met, and it put me in the right place at the right time.
How did you get your first job?
While I was at SHU, at the end of my second year in 1997 my Dad suggested that I should go out and get some proper work experience and I wrote to the BBC and ITV in Leeds. The BBC came back and said we don’t do that kind of thing, and ITV never replied! I then went to the mid-90s version of Google, the Yellow Pages, and flicked through. I saw a listing for Televideo, an OB facility and Production Company in Sheffield who’s credit I’d also noticed on Match of the Day and as it turns out tended to specialise in Sport and sent them a letter. I got a call back from the Managing Director asking whether I could type. I had no idea where he was going but I said I’d give it a go but I was no touch typist. He said “No, that’s not what I mean, do you know much about computers”? “I have an A-Level in Computing”, “That’s not what I mean either, listen come into the office tomorrow for an interview, we need someone to work in our Post Production department typing graphics for our Football Season Review videos. If you’re any good we’ve got a football tournament in the South of France in a fortnight, and I’ll take you to that.” I went into the office the next morning and started there and then.
Can you tell us about your early career?
Throughout my third year at Uni I was working weekends at Televideo going out with PSC camera operators and logging Premier League football matches (most games were single camera in 1998), then I’d deliver the rushes to the local BBC Studio. When I finished Uni Televideo took me on and I started as a Tape duplicator, logger, general dogsbody. As a small company everybody pretty much mucked in. Over the first three years I’d been a Graphics Operator, Replay/EVS op, Vision Mixer, Rigger, Linear Editor, Camera Assistant and we used to prep and unload the trucks and Tenders. It was hard work, but good fun and I made a load of great mates. I left Televideo and went Freelance in 2010 after a brief spell living and working as a Freelance Director / Vision Mixer / EVS op and AP in New Zealand.
Why did you choose to become a director?
Because I’m a massive megalomaniac! Really, I used to work in the OBs in VT or some other department and I used to watch the directors and think “I could do that”, and sometimes I used to think “I could do that better”. I wanted to be the person conducting the orchestra and making the reactive decisions. I enjoy being in control of the output and really enjoy the live environment; being able to make an instant decision and live by it.
You work on a lot of sports broadcasts, why sport?
I enjoy playing sport and I’ve always been interested in sports. Televideo’s work was 95% Sport and it sort of went from there. I think you do sometimes get pigeon-holed as only covering one type of broadcast but if you must be typecast it’s a good one for me to get. I really enjoy watching and talking about sport. It’s no coincidence that the clear majority of Outside Broadcast work is in Sport and even though there is a movement now to try and make remote broadcasts more viable, I think, hope, that there will still be enough sport OBs to get me to my retirement!
What are the challenges of live sports productions?
There are a number of challenges. Technically there will be issues that the engineers have to sort out, whether a truck hit one too many bumps on the road and a piece of equipment screwed into it has failed, or any number of other external factors beyond your control conspire to stuff up your day. The thing about covering sports is that generally you aren’t in control of the events. If a match is due to kick off at 8pm, it will kick off at 8pm whether you’re ready or not. The event won’t take a break while the lighting gets better, or you only have 3 out of 12 working cameras and the commentator is stuck on the motorway. Of course, sometimes in a live production the issue is that the match doesn’t kick off on time for one reason or another and you have to fill. I once did a Manchester United Reserves match at Sunderland around 2001 and word got around that some of the first team players were going to make an appearance. 12,000 people showed up instead of the usual 120 and Sunderland only opened one turnstile. Kick off got put back by 45 minutes but we still went on air on time and had to fill.
I’m also the Race and Presentation Director of the Bennetts British Superbike Championship and a full day of motorsport can be affected by many issues: weather, crashes and mechanical failures being the main ones. In many cases our running orders after the first half hour for that show are general guesswork and something to write on the back of when we need to adapt!
I enjoy the challenge of working through the issues. Thinking on your feet and working with a team who sometimes need to produce rabbits from hats.
Can you tell us what skills the director brings to the production?
So the Director’s job is to implement the plan laid out by the Producer. We need to allocate the resources effectively to make sure that we can hit all our points along the programme from A to B. The Director needs generally to be calm and clear headed and be able to react and adapt to situations. We need to have a good relationship with the Producer and share the same vision for what the product is to look and feel like. The Director has to be able to clearly explain the plan to the rest of the team, and deal with talent which sometimes is easier said than done. It’s understanding crew management and getting the best out of all the resources. OBs are an expensive undertaking for the production and the client wants to see that what they have paid for is worth the cash and effort.
Describe a typical broadcast day.
There’s no such thing in OBs, that’s one of the reasons I love doing them. That’s a bit of a facetious answer but its true in many ways. No two OBs are exactly the same. In general though on an outside broadcast much of the day is hurry up and wait. There’s a bulk of crew waiting to do their part but can’t get going until someone else has completed what they need to do. Patience is a virtue on some jobs. Once the cables have been laid, and the cameras and sound equipment have been rigged we will have a production meeting where the Producer will go through the events of the day and production, talent and key technical department crew will have an opportunity to chip in and suggest changes to the plan before it is finalised. After we’ll have a Facilities (Facs) Check and test every technical part of the production. We might then have a meal break and afterwards the talent will test their equipment and we’ll rehearse. We’d then take another break to fix or re-edit any pieces that didn’t work in rehearsal before going to air.
"I’ve directed sporting events that are being watched in over a hundred countries and that is a nice feeling." That’s if we’re working with a presentation team on site. If we’re a World Feed (Host Broadcast production), where we’re providing event coverage over a number of days, (I did Judo and Wrestling on the Glasgow Commonwealth Games for example), we will have a lead up to the first TX day which will involve all the testing and rehearsing. Then it’s just a matter of showing up on time in the morning and getting on with it!
What excites you about being a director?
See above. What’s going to happen today?
How do you develop a director’s vision?
Experience. There’s nothing like getting hours under your belt as eventually that scenario that you’d never encountered before and you had to think on your feet to overcome comes round again and you know how to handle it. Thousands of hours on site working in different roles, helps to create a rounded Director. As a Director you need to be able to understand how everyone’s job fits into the melting pot in order to make reasonable requests of them.
What are the highs and lows of directing?
Highs: I’m privileged in my career that I get chances to work with teams where everybody just gets it and the day is much easier. I enjoy high profile jobs. It’s nice to go into something knowing that people are watching. I’ve directed sporting events that are being watched in over a hundred countries and that is a nice feeling. Its even better when as well as doing the event, you have presentation on site too, its easy to forget people are watching unless there’s the elements of a programme: presenter, titles, features etc, rather than just coverage.
As a massive Rugby League fan, directing the vast bulk of the matches in the 2013 World Cup is a standout job for me. I got to direct the Semi-Final between Australia and Fiji at Wembley. Knowing full well that this would be watched by half the Australian population my voice was a bit shaky while the anthems were being played.
Lows: Hearing “They’ve just moved another match onto your court” at 11pm and you’ve been in the chair for 12 hours.
What was the best professional advice you were ever given?
There’s no such thing as a stupid question. Also, people would rather hire a decent person who’s easy to get on with than a brilliant arsehole.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to break in to filmmaking and directing?
Get off your backside and do it. Watch the credits, find production companies and badger them to let you have a go. Offer to work for free, once. Be organised, observe and ask questions. Above all else learn how people take their tea.
Richard on Twitter: twitter.com/richardcoventry
Richard's website: www.richardcoventry.co.uk/
All images © Richard Coventry and used with permission.
Article Date - June 2018
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