Technical Production For Live Events
A. Industry Skills
Technical production for entertainment is an industry with many fragments. Technical personnel tend to mix knowledge and skills gained from experience with creativity, wry humour, hard slog, camaraderie, and cynicism. Often, technical wizardry and the expert knowledge required to operate equipment cannot be gained from training courses, but from a personal interest in experimenting with technologies and in developing systems together from more than one area of expertise.
Invariably, starting out in live production involves heavy lifting, lugging, long hours and little sleep. There’s no other way to really learn how to unload or load a truck without breaking your back, the right sling-tie knot for bearing loads above an audience, a thousand different connection paths for audio systems or for cabling lighting looms, the means of loading a truss and balancing between chain motors, how to work with other roadies in lighting focus, audio systems checks, lifting, and working on box truss several feet up in the air, other than long hours and working with people who know what they’re doing. More and more courses are also becoming available for live show production, and are essential for safety, but you have to do the hours too.
The audio-visual industry is one fragment. At the top end of the scale is the technical producer – a technically awesome creature (a cliché) with a mobile phone and a grab-bag of three-dimensional perspectives learnt through experience in how to fit equipment, guests, staging, projection, focal lengths and excitement into the event space, client brief, and budget. The audio visual industry has long been seen as a poor cousin to advertising – visual, graphic; it always seems to apologise for itself, the technical producer second best to an advertising account director.
It is however, a uniquely friendly industry, characterised by freelance, technical people with skills and experience in one discipline – audio, lighting, slides, video projection, autocue etc., working together in various venues for different production houses and/or clients. Over the course of time, some people gain a reputation for being able to operate a wide range of equipment in different disciplines and so are able to get more work. Many of these engineers – men and women alike, are strong personalities and creative, who can regale with humorous stories of the technical feats and mishaps on previous shows, including the reactions from presenters and speakers, clients, producers, and audiences. The normal expectation is, ‘you’re only as good as your last show’.
Working with clients, speakers, and presenters
The industry is also unique in that engineers operating equipment, by and large get to work closely with the end-user – the client, the guest speakers, the Chairperson, the decision-makers, the celebs, the VIP’s. They may assist senior political figures, for example, in wiring up a neck microphone or simultaneous translation device, or be consulted by VIP’s on lighting levels, autocue positions, slide projector remote-control operation, or microphone audio levels. The A/V engineer can also become a lifeline during an event to the success or failure of a speaker’s presentation. Two seconds can be a lifetime in a live event and a speaker can ‘die on stage’ if there is an error or technical malfunction, losing their audience and the purpose of the presentation.
Several abilities distinguish an exceptional audio visual engineer from the pack. They must be able to concentrate on a script or instructions during a show – sometimes while all hell is breaking loose front or backstage, and have a good memory for the precise sequence of technical cues required by the presenter or several presenters, who can give rapid-fire instructions one after another, in a rush to get ready minutes before their presentations. Often the cues bear no relationship to the script in front of the engineer. From this, comes an understanding of how multiple cues in different disciplines – lighting, audio, video playback, etc., all must work together in short sequential order to make the show.
Inquisitive, logical, creative
Event engineers must have a particular flair for good client liaison, at the same time having a logical mind to follow a system chain or electronic layout from start to finish to locate a fault. They are usually curious about new technology or how something works, how long a piece of equipment takes to complete a cycle, or what happens when several pieces of equipment are hooked up together. Creativity is also highly developed, able to integrate the creative process of what can be achieved, within the spatial limits of the room, the equipment being used or required, and the client’s budget. Being able to handle a nervous client, stress, criticism and unfair (often public) blame without being able to explain, are distinguishing characteristics as well.
B. Industry Disciplines
Given the above, the following is a general view of various professions within the audio visual industry.
An audio engineer coming from rock’n'roll into conference audio for the first time, sometimes runs the audio mixing desk too hot because of the different production demands between the two types of audio. Conference audio requires a delicate balance for an audience between too soft (which tires the audience out straining to hear) or too loud (which also tires an audience out actively trying to impede the volume level within the eardrum).
Alternatively, a studio audio engineer coming into conference audio, may spend more time ensuring technically correct audio, whilst missing the environmental ‘sound stage’ and the quick action required in a live situation. Live theatre audio engineers make the transition to conference audio with less difficulty, having learnt the peaks and troughs of live, spoken audio.
Trained broadcast audio engineers have exceptional skills in ensuring correct signal level for recording and links (such as outside broadcast or newsgathering), but relatively less in mixing several live sources for audio quality in the room itself.
As any audio engineer knows, every room has different characteristics which can impede or enhance audio quality, including the acoustic properties of the walls, ceiling and floor, the temperature, number of people, humidity, air movement (or lack thereof), furniture and so forth. It is relatively easier and mostly the wrong approach in most cases to overcome audio problems in a small space by higher audio levels (such as the masking that can occur in rock’n'roll) than it is to mix quieter spoken audio correctly for the room and the number of people filling the space.
The above only serves to point out that a discipline such as audio encompasses many different disciplines, with skills and experience unique to different situations.
Lighting engineers, ‘larry lanterns’, ‘Lampies’, ‘Lx ops’ or the multitude of other names given to them, generally have a healthy disregard for audio engineers, the compliment of which is returned freely. The disciplines of broadcast, conference, show, and theatre lighting are quite different, and often a compromise has to be reached between the light and shade experienced by a live audience and that seen by a television audience. If a show is recorded or broadcast live, the lighting levels have to be more constant and registered at higher levels with different skin-tone gels and daylight ratings which means that the live audience does not see so much light variance as can be achieved when there are no recording or live television requirements.
Lighting engineers generally have knowledge of the various different standards for controlling lanterns, including digital wizardry which incorporates other devices with the lanterns – chain motors, fog machines and special effects. Lighting people work hard in hot and potentially hazardous conditions, rigging and focusing lights off truss high up in
the gods, and dealing with large power and cabling requirements. They must have knowledge of power – particularly single and three-phase, trussing, rigging and weight loading, as well as lighting consoles and dimmer circuitry. It is not a job for lazy people.
iii) Audio Visual
Being able to use slide projectors (normally 35mm) of various formats and power output is a world unto itself. The ‘A/V tech’ or ‘A/V engineer’ knows what it’s like to balance precariously on racking in confined spaces in the dark, and attempt to register and focus one or more slide projectors onto the same image space on a screen.
They have seen and heard a slide jam violently in a projector during a show (it can sound like a small pistol shot), and can extricate the slide, remove the carousel, lock it to zero position, replace it on the projector, and return the guest speaker to the next slide, mid carousel, in under 10 seconds. (That is, if the projector itself has not developed a fault).
Focal lengths from projector to screen for different lens, perspective correction, line-ups, front and rear projection, and bulb alignment are necessary skills. The A/V engineer can put together a multi-projector show with knowledge and experience of the different control codes and equipment used, including the ubiquitous ‘Genesis’ computer-controlled slide operating system. Slides have a gelatine-base emulsion which absorbs moisture rapidly and this has an enormous effect – according to humidity levels, on the condensation levels which can form on the slide and show annoyingly, on the screen.
A/V engineers have spent many hours muttering darkly about guest speakers who insist on paper-mount or thin-plastic mount slides (which invariably jam projectors) and the awkward process of re-mounting slides to proper mounts. They have mostly, also, had the unusual experience of having a senior medical professional hand them a flimsy, old, paper-thin 35mm or 70mm slide at the last minute before a major presentation to a packed auditorium, saying to them, ‘this is the only slide copy of a very rare medical condition, do not destroy this slide’. A fair number of engineers have also been in that situation, had the projector jam on that specific slide, and seen it melt in glorious colour bubbles on the screen in front of them.
A lessening part of audio visual competency lies in 70mm slide, and 16 and 35mm film operation. These are increasingly used less and less but in some large presentations, are preferred for the quality or particular effect the image supplies.
iv) Video Projection
Video engineers have to contend with different makes and models of video projectors, – all of which require technical alignment and focus in different modes – front projection, front projection upside-down in the ceiling, rear projection etc. These different modes require resetting of the projector and re-alignment. It is a technically demanding job, but the final alignment is often a matter of creative ability as well as skill in order that the image comes perfectly into alignment and focus. Some engineers seem to have an innate ability to gain an extra degree of performance from the projector and so, achieve a better image on screen.
Video engineers have had wide experience in connecting different computers up to video projectors – which proves invaluable when a client turns up with a computer that will not interface with the video projector (normally because the video scan rate is too high). They also have knowledge and experience in rigging and racking (similar to scaffold towers), proper weight distribution loading, power, television signal distribution, and correct lens-to-screen measurement and alignment.
Specialist video engineers have undertaken further training in long-throw video projection – such as the Eidophor, GE Talaria, Sony or Barco video projectors. These are used on large screens, travelling shows, big concert productions, and sport, although there are also videowalls (several television monitors stacked together), and maxi screens which produce their own video image from an external source (such as the cricket or football replays one sees at venues).
v) Vision Production
Vision Engineers can stare at an oscilloscope and mutter things like ‘chrominance level’ and ‘luminance’, ‘peak whites’ and ‘back porch’. These have to do with the composition of a vision signal and the various syncs, colour and level (e.g. brightness), that the signals represent. Registration of cameras and broadcast equipment to known levels is a necessity for proper vision production. The increasing use of digital systems has increased the level of training required and broadened vision production into areas such as non-linear editing (computer-based systems), and animated graphics and titling.
Vision engineers are almost certainly trained in electronics and television, the most accepted route originally being via the national broadcast organisations – e.g. BBC, ABC, NZBC, or the commercial television stations. I have met older engineers who are expert in their field but have had little formal training, or engineers who have trained themselves whilst working in another discipline and then crossed-over.
Within vision production is a world of different disciplines, including computer graphics design and animation, camera, vision mixers, editors and camera control operators. Included, are such disciplines as boom operators, gaffers and the like.
vi) Set and Staging
Creating and erecting sets call for skills in construction, – carpentry, cabinet-making, architectural and creative set design, colour matching, electrical (for including architectural lighting) and regulations in safety, temporary rigging, and halls and public arena legislation.
Rigging is again another complete discipline, and qualified riggers are mandatory on most stage sets and lifted truss events, even if it is to check the work of the crew. Nothing happens without qualified riggers and so they are sometimes referred to as ‘god’, treated with a great deal of respect, and paid accordingly.
viii) Other Skills
There are numerous other live production skills not included in one discipline above, such as Autocue operators, pyrotechnics, laser, and special effects operators. Also, producers and show directors, who need to have a wide overview of all disciplines and to have had experience of ‘calling a show’ – cueing operators for precise timings. Production assistants, scriptwriters, storyboard artists, make-up artists – all are important to the final outcome of a show.
c. Choice – One Discipline or Multi-skilled?
Inevitably, the choice comes down to whether it is best to stay in one discipline or go for experience in several. This depends on the goal of the person – whether they wish to become a recognised expert in one discipline and go for the often high-paying but smaller number of jobs available for those recognised skills. A Varilite operator, Genesis operator, or Talaria Operator, were in demand in times when there was a skills-shortage in those disciplines and could charge accordingly, but a skills-shortage may not last for long as technology can rapidly become obsolete.
Adaptability and the interest to make the depth of skills unique are the key. When an engineer has arrived at that level, there’s a good deal of respect for their professionalism. They may also be known for pursuing skills in other disciplines, extending the boundaries of their skills in one discipline and to cross-over at a higher level than another engineer who has worked their way up. For an engineer starting out, it is best to get a wide range of experience in several disciplines – all of which will be useful at some stage in the future. In a current show crisis situation, for example, it is sometimes possible to recall an incident and trace a solution back to a similar situation many years ago, but which has not recurred since. Experience of how something can go wrong is invaluable and can often ‘save the day’ in a live situation.
d. Choice – Specialisation or Production Management ?
Production Management brings a unique set of skills to the technical skills gained in multiple disciplines. The most basic is that the PM has to actually like people, have good communications ability, and be prepared to handle organisational headaches to get things moving. This can mean ‘strong-arm’ and wilful direction to cut through red-tape, or the ability to handle and guide a client subtly, but also the ability to stand up and be counted to a client, to clearly delineate where a fault may lie, if an engineer is being unjustifiably berated.
A client , presenter, agent or manager may blame a process or technician in a rage, whereas the technical explanation can be something quite different. The ability to know when to stand up, to act, to direct and lead a crew, and the right word in a rig or de-rig situation can get things moving safely, and properly. Knowing when a crew is tired and having an eye for detail during a rig (or de-rig) can save many hours putting a problem right after construction has finished. Some engineers are known for their ability and eye to pack a truck on load-out – a not inconsequential skill.
The PM must be able to demand a quality standard and know that personnel respect the knowledge and experience they have. This does not mean the PM has to have as much specialist experience or knowledge in each discipline, but they have to be technically competent and should be aware of issues developing in a rig, discuss them with the crew, listen to their suggestions and make decisions at the same level of understanding as crew members in each of the disciplines.
Some PM’s seem incapable of admitting they do not know something which means that crew members will find an informal way around the PM or lose respect in them. This can lead to unsafe situations, though mostly a specialist will get it right whether the PM helps or not. If the crew knows the PM can discuss a technical problem to a common level of understanding, then take responsibility to sort out a problem and let them get on with what they are best at, this is the basis for a happy crew who will work that extra mile to make the show better.
To like people, the PM has to understand and assist in situations which can get pretty rough. Being able to help a staff member out personally, to ensure safety, to take someone off a show for their own good, to handle anger and sniping and attempts to undermine authority, all come with experience. At the end of the day, the PM should be able to have a drink with a crew member who has been chewed out on the job, the same day.