Big Risks, Bigger Rewards: Tackling Live Outdoor Production

Published on in Miscellaneous

Image courtesy of D2 Productions.

It’s almost the Fourth of July and many of the production pros are loading up for the big outdoor production runs of the summer. But let’s face it — in reality, working outdoors can be a year-round challenge. From freezing rain and blistering heat too long days and nights, executing live multi-camera outdoor productions can be a daunting, yet exhilarating experience.

Are You Experienced?

When it comes to producing live outdoor productions many of us automatically jump to the mindset of college or professional sports. It is a very natural thing. But stop and think about it. Besides sports, there are so many other types of live multi-camera productions as well. Productions like concerts, festivals, religious gatherings and, community celebrations. But do you have the experience to pull off a major outdoor production? No? Sure you do! Everyone (including me) has been there. So what if there are literally hundreds if not thousands of details to check off in order to make your production happen. Listen to these seasoned pros as they share their experiences working in the (very) live outdoor space.


On the Front Line

We caught up with Tre James of Production Rockstars on his way to another successful production. An Atlanta-based businessman, multicam director, production executive, technical and line producer, Tre is a man who wears many hats. I asked Tre about some of his recent production challenges and what his take is on the state of the large scale production business.

ProductionHUB: What has been your most challenging live outdoor production?

Tre James: Something on this Army base but I can’t talk about it. So, the one I can talk about would be Spartan & Battlefrogs. 

PH: What was it about that particular event made it so hard? 

TJ: It was a big show. Granted, I wasn’t responsible for the overall technical plan, but I was the TD and just the overall complexity with the wireless audio, submixes, wireless cameras, logistics, location — it was quite the show. Battlefrogs was crazy because we had no tech book and we were doing a 35mm multicam workflow using a truck, multiple jibs, RF, substage, all that next to Lake Lanier with no backup resources nearby.

 

PH: Weather can play such a factor in outdoor production. How do you prepare? How do you prepare for unruly crowds? 

TJ: I would rather not go through that again. Scary things. When dealing with an outdoor event, especially when we're talking large crowds, it's imperative to have both a venue manager and a safety manager. These people need to be talking with the everyone from technical producers, riggers and staging supervisors discussing weather contingencies, egress plans, and even little details live even how torrential downpours can shift the stage on perhaps a festival show on grass. I’ve seen it happen. 

PH: Tell me about a big celebrity moment or production moment that you thought to yourself, "how cool is this?" 

TJ: I'm not really a big celebrity kind of guy. I mean of course the pictures are cool, but unless I get to work directly with Beyoncé or Jay-Z, I don’t think I’ll be floored by anyone.

But today actually, is going to be a big moment for me. Through my employment at the UFC, the opportunity to see this APEX project come together and going live on network TV tonight is going to be a bit of a tear jerker for me. It’s so cool, it looks so amazing and again I worked SO HARD bringing this to fruition, under their leadership. Totally a personal and professional career moment to be proud of.


Ok, This Is the Part Where We All Are Going to Die

If you have ever said this to yourself or someone else on a shoot, you have my utmost respect. Nothing like looking at the weather radar and praying you and the crew are not going to have a Dorothy and Toto moment. It happened to us in Mesquite, Texas. Hail, lightning and vicious straight winds were not part of the work order. I knew we were in some trouble when our scaffolding for Camera Three blew over. Weather can make or break your production. Cold and rain can bite you in the ass too. Here are some of the most seasoned pros with their own weather horror stories.

Josh Greenstein, Senior Engineer Thistle Communications, Boston

"Being a New England-based company, the winter season always presents some interesting challenges. We do First Night Boston, Boston's New Years show from Copley square. It's multiple long set/rehearsal days leading up to the show day.

2017-2018 was one of the coldest New Years Eves on record. We had multiple events in the New England region that night and had to make sure all of our crews were protecting themselves appropriately and taking breaks in our “get warm” areas. Second, to that, we had to make sure the cold was not adversely affecting our 18 Ikegami cameras, the big mobile displays and the rest of our gear so we could actually get a show on the air. The event managers altered some aspects of the show to keep spectators out of the cold as much as possible but we still made it happen without issue. That was a cold one though!"

Nick Walsh, Live X, New York City

"The most challenging outdoor production I’ve been on is definitely the live production, Times Square New Year’s Eve 2019. The torrential downpour made our production we’ve done a dozen times feel like it was brand new. It was incessant, and even cameras with heavy rain protection were getting flooded. We’ve also heard that other productions there that day were having a lot of issues with keeping electronics protected from that much rain. But we pressed on and the crew came through with flying (and soggy) colors."

 


But It’s Not Always the Weather!

It's the nature of the production beast that if something is going to go wrong on a live production, it will happen — and usually at the worst possible time. But you already knew that! We have had a whole production truck suffer total power failure. We have had camera people pass out from heat exhaustion in the middle of an air show. There was even that one time the camera crew was being served caviar and champagne at a polo match!

It was a scramble, but we made the show happen. Funny now, but not so funny then. Maybe it was a little funny then too. Scramble or not nobody knows the hustle better than Dave Walzer owner of d2 productions right outside of Boston. Here is his take on a couple of incidents that might have done in any other production company.

Dave Walzer, President D2 Productions, Boston

"We had back-to-back events at the same venue on two consecutive Saturdays. This particular venue was a thousand miles away from our offices, so we got permission to leave the truck parked there during the week in between. On Tuesday, we got a call from the venue: our truck had been broken into, and a significant amount of gear had been stolen. We flew our chief engineer down to the truck Tuesday night; on Wednesday we assessed what was missing and began ordering replacement equipment.  As the replacement gear arrived Thursday and Friday, it was integrated into the truck, and we produced a flawless show on Saturday as if nothing had ever happened. I’m very proud of our entire team who were faced with a catastrophic event but rallied to turn it into one of our most triumphant moments. 

There is something in this business known virtually everywhere as an “Oh By The Way.” This is a client request that doesn’t occur until the day of the job, as in, "Oh, by the way, I need ISO recording of all the cameras.” It is so common, the phrase has actually become a noun.  So we try to be prepared in advance for as many of those contingencies that we might encounter.

However, you can’t prepare for everything. We had one tour-based show at an outdoor venue recently, where the tour traveled its own video for the projection screens, while our truck was brought in separately to produce a webcast of the event. It was a very hot day; their backstage switcher couldn’t take the heat, and eventually failed. So in just a couple of hours, we re-wired everything, moving their entire production into our truck, and let them remotely access a part of our switcher so they could switch their projection feed, while we produced our webcast in another part of the switcher. "

 

Still Chasing the Dream

Working on outdoor productions can be a blast. Each day and each production brings unique challenges to the crew. But there is one common theme. People who work on live outdoor productions love the grind. They must or why would we do it? I think Tre James sums it up best: "If you asked the people closest to me they would tell you that I love this business and that I am extremely dedicated to my profession and being the absolute best at my craft –Projects such as the recent APEX project, took a lot of dedication and attention to detail but my passion and love for this profession makes any task (easy or hard) worth it all." There is that word again. Passion. If you bring that to any product you are working on it's bound to come out great. Have a great summer everyone. I would love to hear about the projects you have lined up. Good shooting and be safe!

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About the Author

Mark Foley
Mark Foley
Mark J. Foley, MBA BA is an award-winning producer and director and the Technology Editor for ProductionHUB.com. He is on a mission to provide the best in new equipment reviews, along with exclusive analysis and interviews with the best, the brightest and most creative minds in the entertainment and production business. Have a suggestion for a review? Email Mark at mfoley@productionhub.com.

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