Dreams sometimes happen at the most unexpected moments in life. When I was twelve years old, I saw the movie Star Wars at the local drive-in and found myself fascinated not only by the story and the special effects of the film but by the fast-paced new editing style of the film’s director. From that day forward, I had a dream of being a director myself. It made me more attentive to my writing in high school, and when I went to college, I selected a university that had a reputable film school, much to my parents’ chagrin.
During my second year of film school, I was given the opportunity to intern at a local cable station that produced programming for the community. I felt excited by the opportunity and wanted to immerse myself in their program to gain the hands-on experience I needed before seeking a career in the entertainment industry. The cable station ran on intern power. We provided free labor as grips, camera operators, chryon operators, and the technical directing of the live talk shows that were the staples of the studio while the few paid staffers oversaw the operation.
There were two live talk shows produced by the studio, one shot on Monday night and the other on Wednesday night. One program was a fun entertainment show highlighted by interesting local guests and a loud boisterous director that kept everyone in stitches with his jokes. All of us interns wanted to work on this show because it was fun to be on the set, but because of this, there were limited opportunities to find a crew position and to gain the hands-on experience we were all there for. I would often be told by the director that “We just don’t have room for you this week, Wendy. Maybe next time.” I suffered disappointment when I was told that, but I was determined to continue to apply for crew. My reward was that once in a while I would find a position as a cable puller or a camera operator out on the floor. The control room seemed out of my reach Wednesday nights.
The other program was a sleepy political talk show that often had problems gaining guests; the host would sometimes give historical or political lectures to fill the allotted half hour. The director of the political program had trouble finding crew since most of us had trouble staying awake during this program. I was approached personally by the director to join his crew. He played on my sympathy by telling me how short-handed he was Monday night and asked me for my help. I agreed to become a regular crewmember on Monday night.
Six months later, I had progressed from being on the camera to working as a floor manager and finally assigned to the control room. On this particular Monday, I was seated at the switcher as the technical director, feeling like Mr. Sulu from Star Trek since the blinking lights and the whirl of sound from the equipment reminded me of the command bridge of the Enterprise. I looked into the triple monitors before me. Each monitor displayed a different camera view from the television studio just beyond the heavy insulated windows at the front of the control room. Although we were recording the talk show in color, all the seven-inch monitors were black and white. The center monitor was a wide shot of the two people, the host and his guest, seated in chairs with a low table before them. This camera was locked on the tripod, unmoving once it had been set, and left unmanned. We joking referred to the camera as Larry Lockdown. The other two monitors had closer shots, one of the host and one of the guest. Occasionally, the camera operator would be asked to switch to a tighter two shot or to shoot a graphics card that would be placed on an easel by the floor manager.
To my left in the control room was the chyron, a huge metal box of circuits and wire attached to a keyboard and television monitor. The electronic words that were superimposed on our program were created there and a crew member needed to be available to bring the graphics in on the cue of the director. When we had enough crew, the chyron operator would input the information before the show and then update the graphics on the screen so that I could superimpose the name of the host or guest during the program or any information that the host or guest wished to put on the screen. We did not have a remote control for the chyron and the machine was four feet from my station, too far for me to reach. When we did not have enough crew, as was the case that day, I would input in the information before the program went live and the director would scroll to the proper graphic himself during the show and then cue me when to bring the graphic in at the switcher.
To my right was the engineering panels where the final images got color mixed and white balanced. These were the largest machines in the studio, being three feet wide and going from floor to ceiling. I was fascinated by the science behind what they did, but the complexities of engineering took more technical knowledge than I possessed at the time. Behind these large machines was a bank of VTRs, huge cassette players that used 3/4” U-Matic tapes. U-Matic was the analog standard for broadcast quality recording back then, although tape newcomers such as High-8 or Beta SP were also becoming popular and starting to see integration into our systems. The top deck recorded the live program we were producing that night and the others were player decks that we used to insert commercials and PSAs during the segment breaks. At the proper time, a tape would be inserted and cued up to 3 seconds before the start of the commercial block and then the VTR operator would wait for the director’s cue to press the start button at the proper time. Digital technology was still a fanciful rumor on the horizon during the mid-1980s and we were all quite comfortable working in analog format on equipment that by today’s standards would seem rather antique.
The host and his guest were seated on the set and the floor manager was clipping tiny lavaliere microphones to their shirts. The final sound checks were completed. I glanced up at the clock and noted that we were five minutes until the program went live to the city. My director had entered the control room and was making the final checks on the equipment. Color and white balance — Check. Chyron loaded and correct for that day’s program — Check. Commercial reels lined up on the floor before the VTR bank — Check. U-Matic tape labeled with its red record dot in place — Check. He loaded the U-Matic tape into the upper VTR and recorded thirty seconds of color bars and five seconds of black. He paused the tape. We were the only two people in the control room since our other two crew members were on the floor as camera operator and floor manager.
The clock moved to one minute before 7pm. The director and I put our bulky earphone and mic headsets on and I heard the orders both behind me and in the earphones. “Standby to cue talent. Standby to take fade up on camera two.” Our director was not in his chair in the center of the room but stood beside the VTR rack. From there he would switch on the cablecast so that our program would go live.
“Three.” The director started the recording VTR and stepped forward in front of the button that would cablecast the program live on the cable system to thousands of potential viewers in the city.
“Two.” I heard the soft click of the button. On the machines to my right, lights came on to indicate that the program was now being cablecast. My director continued forward and stood behind me at the center of the control room. I always felt nervous at this moment in the count-down. If something went wrong, it would be seen by the entire city.
“One. Fade up to camera two.” I pressed the camera two button to let the switcher know where to go and used the bar to fade up from black into the image on my middle monitor. My movement was sure and steady, something that I had practiced so that my fades would have the proper timing. “Take graphic.” I pressed the proper button and the name of the program superimposed over the wide shot. “Lose graphic.” The graphic faded away at the press of another button. I heard the director go over to the chyron machine and he advanced to the next page. The name of our host was displayed.
“Standby to cue talent. Standby to dissolve to camera one.” I pressed the button that let the switcher know which camera to take at my command. On the other side of the window, our floor manager was giving hand cues to the host. “Cue talent and dissolve to one.” I pulled the bar down in a smooth and steady motion and the program dissolved between the two images.
In the studio, our host gave the usual scholarly greeting that he did at the start of every program. While we did have the program on in the control room, we kept the volume low so that it would not interfere with our work. I never listened to the program other to make sure that there was audio being recorded.
“Standby to show tag. Tag him.”
I pressed the button to bring in the chyron and the name of our host displayed on the lower third of the screen. “Lose tag.”
I heard the chyron advance as the director pressed a few of the keys. “Standby to take three.” I waited for the verbal-cue, this time not bothering to set up the switcher’s board since it was not necessary for a cut between two shots. “Take three.”
The guest of the program was in a medium shot. “Tag him.” I once again pressed the chyron button and the guest’s name appeared in the lower third of the screen. “Lose tag.”
My director moved back to the center of the room, but this time he took his chair a foot or two behind mine. The busywork was completed. For the next eight minutes, things would be simple. We would do cuts between the host and guest and the director would monitor the audio on the board to my right. Since there were only two people talking on the program, once we set the general levels, there was no additional work to be done. We got by without an engineer to handle the audio board on a regular basis. There would be three segments to the program, each one eight minutes long with two commercial breaks between them.
The program had progressed to its middle segment when both the director and I noticed an odor. Since the program was live, I did not look away from the monitors, but I heard the director shift in his chair.
“Is that smoke?”
I sniffed. A faint smell like burning rubber was in the air. “I smell smoke too.”
The director stood. “There is no one else in the building but us. I better check this out. Wendy, take over.” Those final three words echoed in my brain as I froze in my chair and stared at the three monitors before me in utter shock.
I was now the director of this live television program with no preparation other than the months I had spent as a technical director. I was completely alone in the control room. It was a good thing that the air conditioning was on because I’m sure that I would have broken into a sweat otherwise. Don’t panic, I told myself. You can do this. I took a deep breath and concentrated on the program. When the host asked a question of his guest, I pressed the proper buttons, moved the transition bar, and kept the proper camera on the action. I forgot the voice protocols the first few times, but I recovered my senses within the first few switches on the board and started to give my camera operator and floor manager the cues they needed to do their job on the set. Within a few minutes — that seemed like hours — I began to breathe again. I was directing! And as far as the world outside was concerned, everything looked normal on the air.
There was one problem. At the end of the program segment, I would need to fade to black and then take the commercial reel that was at the back of the control room. The VTR decks were too far away in the room for me to cue up the tapes and punch them in while still working the switcher. I started to go over scenarios as to how I was going to be able to throw to the reel, but nothing came to me. I continued to direct the television program, not knowing what I was going to do when the time came to end the segment.
One minute to the end of the segment, I gave the one minute cue to the floor manager. The host was flagged with a hand signal and a cue card on the set. I switched to the host’s camera as he began to do his segment wrap up. What was I going to do about the reel? All I did was stare at the monitors and work the switcher. My mind was a blank.
“Commercial reel is cued. On your mark.” It was the voice of the director. I was surprised that he did not take over the program. Instead, he stood by the VTR decks waiting for my command as if he were simply the VTR operator. I had no idea when he had entered the control room or how long he had been standing behind me. I issued the commands to the crew as needed to wrap up the segment, cued the proper moment for the reel to play and then faded the program to black before cutting in the reel. It was over. I had done it! I swiveled in my chair to look at the director, free for the three minutes of the reel before the next segment would begin. In television time, three minutes is close to an eternity.
The director smiled at me. “You did a good job there, Wendy. Maybe next week I’ll have you direct another segment of the show?”
“I’d like that.” My own face had an answering grin. “So what caused the smoke?”
“Oh, someone had left the coffee pot burners on and one of them had caught on fire.” My director grimaced. “We are all alone here at night. It could have burned the building down! I’ll have to talk to maintenance about it tomorrow.” The company coffee pot was just around the corner from the studio, tucked away in a passage between two empty corridors where it was easy to miss.
The commercial break was nearing its end and we needed to get back to putting our live television program on the air. The director took over the program at that point and, to my relief, I was simply the technical director once more.
True to his word, the next week I was allowed to direct a full segment of the political show, but under the director’s supervision. The week after that, the director of the fun entertainment show stopped me in the hall. “Why don’t we have you come and direct a segment on my show next week?” I was stunned. I remembered all the times when I was either turned down to crew or only offered a simple position on the set. I tried not to stammer as I accepted the opportunity, but I suppose that I must have looked rather foolish because the director just grinned at me. The following week I directed the entertainment program, again under the supervision of an experienced director. I was the envy of the rest of the interns.
I did not consider myself a director at that point. I was merely an intern gaining my degree in Radio/Television/Film and still had plenty to learn. Eventually, the cable station would hire me and this would become my first paid job in the industry. I was hired as a commercial insertion editor — not as a director, however. That title would come to me years later through much hard work and patience.
It is funny how this event has stuck in my mind the way that it has, over the hundreds of other directing gigs that I performed over the next two decades. I was the director of the talk show for around six minutes, but in my memory, it seems like hours. It must be true that you don’t forget your first time. I will never forget my baptism by fire into the career of directing live television.
“Baptism by Fire” first published in the literary magazine “Shadows Express” during the Winter of 2012. It was the first short story that I had published and is a true story.