The music. The beat. The crowds. I can’t tell you how loud it was. So loud you felt your blood thumping in your ears, rather than hearing it. So loud your headphones – designed to cancel out external noise – were cranked up to max and you still couldn’t hear yourself speak. So loud you couldn’t hear your own voice resonate in your head. Like you were mute and just mouthing the words.
I had to hope the words I was speaking were correct by my mouth shape.
I was working as Outside Broadcast (OB) Director and Series Editor on an international DJ competition throughout the Caribbean. And being a musician, it was a wonderful experience, to hear all that music day after day. The rhythm of the Caribbean. Dancehall. Soca. Reggae. Calypso. Zouk. Dub. And being a musician, it made things easier for me to edit, cut the music to the beat, direct the camera shots in a certain way. Super fun.
The DJs were from all over the Caribbean. They dropped some great tunes, hard tunes. The crowd went nuts. Sometimes they only had to play the intro of the song and the crowd went nuts. When they had a “clash”, which was two DJs going head to head against each other, they got judged by audience reaction. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy. And they had some interesting moves. One DJ even spun with his feet.
Being an international shoot around island nations, we had to fly our equipment and crew to all our destinations and set up shoots as we went along. Physically carrying tonnes of cables, cameras, lighting and audio equipment, screens, sometimes (when we couldn’t access a jib/crane in that country) even the heavy steel framework of the crane. We arrived at the airport each time with 20 times the amount of check-in baggage any other traveler had. And heavy. One bag weighed 100lbs. A mountain of luggage. So many bags you could not imagine there would be space in hull of the little twin turboprop plane. And every time the check-in ladies had a heart attack. But our fixer calmly negotiated with them and got out his credit card. Never knew how he did it. Getting all our equipment checked in every time. But our Excess Baggage costs could mortgage a small house.
On arrival in each island it was no less of a challenge. It was difficult getting our film equipment through customs, the paperwork was something else. In Jamaica, you had to have a bond agent to clear your equipment, or customs would impound it. Most countries you had to account for every serial number of every piece of equipment – not only to check it in to the country, but out as well.
Because customs wanted to be sure you were not bringing in goods illegally to sell.
It was an additional stressful factor in an already stressful industry. What if you arrived without one critical piece of (confiscated) equipment?
The DJ competition itself was quite an event to behold. One big celebration. We were basically shooting an enormous Caribbean music party in the sticky tropic night, under the stars, on the beach. Crowds heaving en mass, jumping en mass. Screaming. Representing their country, waving their flags. And the volume. The music. The thump of the beat. It was awesome.
So many Caribbean songs have “wave your flag, wave your rag” type lyrics, because throughout the Caribbean, in all the parties, people carry small hands towels. They can be used for wiping away the sweat on your face or drying your hands to complete some action because it was so indescribably hot all the time. Heat in the darkness. Heat on a cloudy day. Heat in the “winter”. Heat in the wind. There was no escaping the incessant heat. So people at parties carried little towels and would wave them in the air or in a circle when they liked a song. So the term “wave your rag” became a catch-cry for bands to get their fans up and moving.
But I digress. The TV Director of a live shoot sits in a control room in front of screens with all kinds of information. It’s like being a spy on a mission. You are omniscient. You can see all the camera shots and technical information and have so much control at your fingertips. The Director also talks basically non-stop throughout the shoot. Every piece of information, every direction, has a technical term and is decided and spoken by the Director. Cameramen do not speak into their headphones. It’s a one man speaking race. The Director is like an auctioneer. Or a horse racing commentator. The trick is to keep your voice calm no matter what chaos surrounds.
I had lived for a few years in Barbados before directing in other islands, so I knew a bit about the different accents in each country. Most islands sounded fairly similar to Barbados, but nothing quite prepared me for the heavy Jamaican speech patterns. “Nineteen Cemetery” for “1970” or putting an extra “ya” syllable in the middle of words like “nayation” for “nation”. Actually it was pronounced more like “NEE-ya-shin”. Of course, accent is only one part of being understood – and half the wording for the technical terms of TV production were different in Jamaica, so as a Director, even if I was using the correct words from a different island, I could still be completely misunderstood. And there is no time for misunderstanding in live television shoots, where the director is speaking constantly, each piece of information or direction (“calls”) comes every three seconds, and reaction times faster than that.
The “outside broadcast” (OB) tent was the control room for the event, so every camera’s cable feed is run into a production switcher so that the director can mix the vision (cameras). In Jamaica when I walked into the OB tent, the room was filled with 20 people and I was quaking in my boots. It was an hour before my shoot, and the thing that saved me was that there was a program being broadcast before mine, with a Jamaican director. So I asked to be “put on cans” – which meant being given some headphones and listening in to the calls. I would not have been able to hear the director otherwise, even though he sat two feet away, since anyone speaking in the OB tent was completely drowned out by the sheer volume of the event. So I listened intently to the director on cans all through his program. Listening and learning. Learning Jamaican TV terms, trying the Jamaican accent. One of the fastest lessons in my life.
Directing a show is a delicate balance between each of your cameramen knowing exactly which camera is currently being broadcast, so they are free to move their camera and set up the next shot, and the director “calling the show” by constantly speaking about what camera is being broadcast, what camera is going to be broadcast next, and additional information like whether a camera’s battery is dying or setting up a specific shot that you would like. And sometimes a Director also has to act as the “Technical Director” (TD) or “Vision Mixer” of the program. In this instance, I was directing and TDing. So organizing your thoughts and cameras and angles and following the running order of the event and directing and talking – was only half the job….. since I also needed to punch the show – coordinating your words with (actually slightly ahead) of your fingers as you select what camera (punch) is being broadcast, and which camera is in preview and will be broadcast next. It’s a delicate coordinated dance of eyes and brain and fingers. And done on the fly and super fast.
So fast you have to up your game with six cameras going in six different directions and all the noise and excitement of the event itself. So I jump in the hot seat with my hands shaking and start using my hastily learned Jamaican words in my best imitation of a Jamaican accent, and do you know what? It was cool. Because sometimes you just have to keep your voice calm, face your fear, get on with it and get the job done.
Even in a different nayation.