On the Fly

In the fast-paced world of live production, things can and will go wrong. Industry veterans teach a rookie how to deal with the pressure — the show must go on.

Listen to the story:

There are 13 minutes until puck drop. Canada Life Centre is at 102 per cent capacity, and there’s a crowd of thousands standing outside the building. The Winnipeg Jets are taking on the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the 2023 NHL playoffs. 

I’m in the back corner of the facility’s production control room sitting in front of an overwhelming number of knobs, switches, and monitors. It’s only my third time in the shader seat at this point — and the pressure is on. 

As a shader, it’s my job to monitor and control the light and colour levels of the crew’s cameras, ensuring they look as similar as possible regardless of where or what they are shooting.

“Make some white noise, Winnipeg! Twelve minutes until puck drop!” Bobby, one of the in-game hosts, screams into his wireless microphone.

The cameras are whipping around the building, trying their best to show off the thousands of wild white outfits fans are wearing.

The view through the shader’s monitor as the Winnipeg Jets took the ice for game three of the NHL playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights (Liam Davies)

“Standby camera 1, take 1,” the technical director Janice calls. Camera 1 is shooting a group of fans right by ice-level, a well-lit part of the arena bowl. A few seconds pass, and Janice calls for camera 3, where two women wearing flight helmets are waving white towels in the air. I quickly turn a dial to give camera 3 some more light, and like clockwork, the switcher puts camera 3’s view up on the big screen.

It’s only been a couple of seconds before Janice calls for camera 1 again. It’s now shooting way up in the nosebleeds — a much darker part of Canada Life Centre. 

“Levels on 1! Levels on 1!” She calls to me from the front of the control room. “So sorry!” I shakily yell from the back of the room while reaching for camera 1’s controls. There are 10 minutes on the clock now, and I’m beginning to lose my composure.

I had no time to make mistakes, this was live production.

Syndi, the graphics operator, tosses the decibel meter up on the big screen to prompt cheers. 117.1 decibels, almost 10 higher than we had seen in any of the 41 regular season games in the arena that year.

The entire control room is shaking. The wheels of my chair are rattling against the floor. I can hardly hear Janice’s calls through my one-muffed headset.

The stakes were high and I was struggling to do my job.  All I wanted was a minute to gather myself, but there wasn’t anywhere for me to go to escape the noise and take a breath. What if something happens while I’m gone? What if a camera needs its levels adjusted? You don’t have a choice. The show must go on. 

Being relatively new in the industry and a rookie in that position, I had never experienced that level of pressure in a workplace before. I was still developing strategies to manage my nerves.

“You have no choice but to learn the hard way,” says Kenneth Plaetinck, who teaches broadcast media out of the Louis Riel Arts & Tech Centre, a vocational college offering various technical courses for high school students and grads.

As a graduate of the school’s broadcast media course, I am familiar with Kenneth’s curriculum and hands-on assignments, and he’s right. There’s only so much you can learn about the live production industry in a classroom. 

I recall a time during my second semester under Kenneth when a classmate accidentally stepped on a cable during provincial volleyball championships, bending a connecting pin on the camera end. This particular cable was about a hundred feet long and secured with tape in several different places. Because of this, replacing the cable wasn’t an option in the time frame.

Most of my classmates were already locked into their control room positions, but my peer Akira and I had a couple of minutes to spare before we were needed. Kenneth looked at the damaged cable, saw it was salvageable, and essentially told us to go figure it out.

We ran over to the far end of the court where the camera was mounted. Our pockets were full of tape, plyers, screwdrivers, and whatever else we could find sitting around the control room that could be of use.

In a couple of minutes, Akira and I cobbled together a very messy but workable fix using a ton of tape to stiffen the end of the cable and a screwdriver to bend the pin back into place. 

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

At first, I wasn’t too happy about being thrown at something that wasn’t my fault. Frankly, as the audio board operator, it didn’t seem like my problem, but looking back Akira and I learned some key lessons.

Everybody relies on each other in a control room. My classmates couldn’t do their jobs if we didn’t chip in, and we would need their help at some point too.

The umbrella term “live production” is not limited to sports. It covers all sorts of different live events. These events vary widely — from concerts and monster truck shows to the evening news. On the back end, they all share similarities: on-the-spot problem-solving and the art of following a sort of “unscripted” script.

Those who work in live production know that you plan for everything you can think of, but never really know what will happen, so you must remain flexible. There’s always a chance a piece of equipment might suddenly fail or a world-changing news story might break.

Motorsports like motocross, racing and monster truck driving are extremely dangerous. Some trucks weigh over 10,000 pounds, pushing horsepower levels well into the thousands.

For the most part, the stunts are remarkably well rehearsed and only performed under the supervision of safety crews. Regardless of the preparation and safety measures in place, things still happen. You can only eliminate so many points of failure.

Doug de Nance is a voiceover artist and MC out of Calgary with decades of experience in the motorsports field. For just over 40 years, Doug has been hosting a variety of motorsports events internationally. 

Doug has hosted various monster-truck-oriented tours for years. Most notably, “Monster Jam” and the “Ram Motorsports Spectacular,” which has made a stop in Winnipeg twice in the last couple of years.

Doug has had lots of experience doing on-the-fly problem-solving over the years. In particular, he remembers when a close friend was performing in a show Doug was hosting. His friend had a serious scare, but the show had to go on.

Doug de Nance in the opening ceremonies of The Ram Motorsports Spectacular in Saskatoon. (Supplied by Steve Hiscock)

When something goes wrong in motorsports, somebody’s life might be on the line. But the fundamentals are the same: quick thinking, problem-solving, and dealing with pressure. Showrunners need to have contingencies and strategies in place to work around the unexpected.

“Psycho Pat,” a monster truck driven by the Canadian Pat Paquette was a sort of “grand finale” truck — the kind of truck that leaves crowds impressed even after seeing all sorts of impressive vehicles doing impressive things. Pat is a talented driver who can perform some incredible stunts that can easily damage a truck beyond immediate repair if a slight thing does not go according to plan.

Doug remembers one show when Pat was starting to really push the limits of his truck during a long-track freestyle stint.

“The brake rotors were glowing red,” Doug explains. Brake rotors on monster trucks tend to heat up very quickly because these vehicles are extremely heavy and hard on the braking hardware. 

“He was covering that whole track, flying through the sky — he had been running for quite some time,” Doug says.

Suddenly, a fluid line in the truck bursts open, spewing flammable fluid everywhere on the truck and track. “Poof. There it went up in flames,” said Doug. Within seconds, the entire truck was enveloped in smoky flames.

Monster truck drivers wear fire suits, which offer some temporary protection. Doug says that in a gas fire, a driver might have about six seconds before they might begin to suffer serious burns. Whenever Doug sees a truck start to burn, he counts to six in his head.

Thankfully, Pat’s truck was right-side up, which drastically increased his odds of escaping the vehicle in time.

 “When something goes haywire like that, my mind goes blank… I mean that’s my friend in that situation, and I’m watching it,” he explains. “It’s human inclination to run over there, but that’s not my job. My job is to help them do their job, by taking the attention off of them.” 

Doug says when he is on air he keeps a clipboard with notes, facts, and supplemental material on standby for situations like this. Having the material in his hands allows him to keep things going in these moments of uncertainty — it’s his responsibility to face the camera and address the crowd.

Thankfully, unbeknownst to Doug and the rest of the show crew who were watching at a distance, Pat had already made his swift escape through one of the truck’s windows.

Somehow, a GoPro camera mounted on the dash survived the fire and showed Pat unbuckling his 5-point harness and diving out the window in one continuous motion, just as flames began rising around him. Doug describes the hasty exit as something a superhero would do in a movie.

In early February of 2024, Doug had to consult his contingency clipboard once again in Lethbridge, AB where Billy Kohut, a freestyle motocross rider, suffered a pretty serious crash during a show. Thankfully, Billy is in one piece, but he will be off the dirt bike for a while.

“Stuff happens. Things go wrong,” says Doug. It doesn’t matter how serious the mishap is, there’s always something he can reference on his clipboard. 

In almost every single show, one or two trucks roll over causing a delay, but that little bit of pre-emptive thought to prepare this supplemental material can fill just about any gap in the script caused by accidents on the track.

Rockstar, a finale truck, rolls into the wall at the Ram Motorsports Spectacular at Canada Life Centre. (Supplied by Rob Waloschuk)

Everything in production needs to have some level of flexibility. Things have a tendency to turn on a dime. In my three years working in live production, I’ve yet to see a perfect show.

Tessa Potter has dealt with her fair share of disasters in her decades of experience in live production — from local equipment issues at Canada Life Centre to language barriers at international events halfway across the globe, like the FIFA World Cup in Qatar or the Olympics in France and China. Often Tessa can sort issues out easily and quickly.

“The majority of it is just inputs and outputs,” said Tessa as she broke down her problem-solving process. “What isn’t happening, and what’s supposed to happen,” are questions she always asks herself when approaching an issue.

But this isn’t always the case. Tessa recounts a time early in her career when her problem-solving skills were put to the test.

On a slow Tuesday morning in September of 2001, Tessa was working out of Channel A’s (now Citytv) Winnipeg newsroom as a broadcast technician. The reporters had all received their assignments for the day and were spread around the city shooting and putting together their stories for the 6 o’clock news. 

Tessa was doing her regular job: patching through the news feeds from elsewhere in Canada and the United States for Channel A’s national segments. 

Sometimes, a big accident at Portage & Main might occur, or a murder will take hold of the show’s lead for weeks, but news studios know this. They know how to react to the occasional blockbuster story. But this Tuesday morning was different.

Suddenly, a plane collided with one of two World Trade Center buildings in New York City. 

In the early stages of these attacks, the entire world was trying to make sense of what was happening. Was this a freak accident? Something more? A news outlet’s job is to answer these questions, and since New York was well out of the grasp of Channel A’s Winnipeg studio, they had to access information through American outlets’ feeds. This was Tessa’s job.

In live production at one moment, it’s just another sleepy Tuesday morning. In the next, an entire city had their eyes on your work. 

This was especially true in 2001. Today, anybody can tune into a live newscast practically anywhere worldwide with their smartphone. But back then, newsrooms had to subscribe and contribute to a service that sort of worked as a “middleman” to other news outlets. 

Using this service, networks could relay basic information about a news event that went up to a satellite, and then back down to earth for other networks on the service to see. 

The project manager was often the first person to receive any international information through this service.

“Hey, Tess,” said Wilfred Braun, the project manager at the time. “Can you change the channel to CNN?”

Tessa flipped the channel over on the station’s television where she and Wilfred were greeted by a picture of smoke and flames billowing out of the North Tower. Nobody knew for sure yet whether this was a missile, airplane, or gas explosion.

“We knew right away that this would take hold of the show that day,” said Tessa.

The station needed as much footage and information about this as they could get. For Tessa, this meant frantic physical patching of American news feeds into Channel A’s equipment, where they could clip and replay the footage for Winnipeg viewers.

About 15 minutes of confusion and questions ensued. Networks nationwide were doing their best to answer questions without coming to any conclusions — information was still so slim.

Once the South Tower was hit, everybody at Channel A knew instantly that this was no freak accident. In a matter of seconds, this national affair evolved into an international story. Tessa’s work was cut out for her. 

The pressure was piling. Just about everybody in North America was huddled around the nearest television.

Suddenly, one of the Tessa’s key feeds went black and completely lost signal. One of the feed transmitters was on top of the North Tower, which Tessa could see collapsing live on another feed.

“As soon as one tower fell, it became evident that maybe the other tower could,” she said. “We’re all watching this go down in real-time. In the moment.”

The head of the organization sent a message telling the family of networks to patch CNN into the main feed.

“We made this decision only minutes after CBC had,” said Tessa. “This is a news story that was affecting everybody.” By this point, almost all of Canada’s networks were just showing CNN.

Tessa, who was relatively new at the job, was frantically patching different feeds in and recording clips from numerous American feeds.

You’re always out of time during a live show. You can’t pause the present to ask any questions, or rewind and make an edit…. Your problem-solving process is being shown to the world in real time.

Tessa was forced to answer her own questions.

“I was scrambling that whole time,” she said. “On top of this, you’re seeing these pictures and the gravity of what is happening…. It didn’t give you a warm and fuzzy feeling.”

The rest of that week was made up of long overtime days, recap stories, and patching more live feeds from the USA. 

“All of the community difficulties, the precautions of stopping all travel…. People were stranded.” Tessa explained. “Outside of the pandemic, this was the biggest thing. It went on for days and days, weeks and weeks.”

“Nobody has a playbook for that sort of thing,” she explained. “It’s why we build these systems flexibly.”

The way Tessa sees it, there are two types of problems: ones you can solve in time before air, and those that the crew will have to work around.

For the continuous coverage of the events of 9/11, there wasn’t any pre-show preparation. It was all real-time situation navigation for days on end.

“Sometimes the problem solving is just bubble gum and duct tape with a little bit of know-how,” Tessa explains. “But it’s the experience that helps you say, ‘I can make this happen.’” 

Tessa Potter troubleshoots an issue at a broadcast junction box in Canada Life Centre. (Supplied by True North Sports + Entertainment)

Tessa brings this mindset wherever she goes now, just like Doug would his clipboard. It’s important that every broadcaster develop an approach to whatever it is they might have to deal with. 

Nobody wants to mess up, but that’s how you learn. I felt the pain of that process when I was sitting in the Winnipeg Jets playoff control room on my third shift as shader — but because of that experience, I’ve been able to keep somewhat of a level head when things get frantic in other live-productions I’ve been a part of.

I wish I had felt this way back when I was really new to live production, though. I was 18 years old and assigned to pull cable for the first time at a Winnipeg Blue Bombers game under Dome Productions, owned by Bell Media. On TV, this was the TSN show.

Pulling cable meant I was to follow around a handheld camera operator managing the trail of cable, spooling and unspooling accordingly. My job was to make sure he had full freedom of movement.

Liam Davies pulls cable in front of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers bench. (Supplied by Glen Davies)

That day it was a sunny 26 degrees Celsius on the turf at IG Field (Now Princess Auto Stadium), and I was feeling the heat — cables are heavy. 

The powerful cables send a high-definition live feed to the control room and provide camera operators with two-way intercom, power, and video signals often dedicated to graphics, like lower thirds. These video signals are called return feeds, and they help camera operators frame their subjects. Without them, a camera operator might unknowingly cover a subject with a name bar or advertisement that shows up on the screen.

Earlier that day, I had spent two hours alone on the field running back and forth, wrapping and unwrapping my cable in preparation for the game. Come kickoff, I felt confident and excited for this new challenge. What I had failed to consider was that in reality, the cable would actually be attached to important equipment and the sidelines would be packed with medical staff, officials, photographers, and players that I would have to avoid.

Not 15 minutes into the game, my arms and legs were burning. Every time the ball advanced, we’d have to run 10 yards ahead of it and re-set for the next sequence.

I finally felt like I was getting the hang of it when the Ottawa Redblacks threw an interception which got carried sixty yards in the opposite direction. As happy as I was that the Bombers were suddenly near the end zone, this meant an 80-yard sprint with a big spool of cable — which unbeknownst to me, had been starting to twist and tangle in my arms.

About halfway down the field, part of the cable got caught on the leg of a table causing me to drop the entire mangled spool in front of the Bombers bench, just as the team was sending out their offensive line.

“Shit!” I yelled loud enough for my operator to hear. He turned around with an impatient look on his face.

I got down on all fours scrambling to untangle my cable. Players are high-fiving and jogging all around me, some tripping over both me and the rat’s nest I was responsible for.

I was getting nowhere, and time was of the essence. The Bombers were beginning to line up, and the sideline camera I was following needed to be in position before the ball was snapped.

My camera operator knew what to do. I wasn’t the first rookie he’s had to deal with.

Thankfully, this type of cable is quite durable. My operator grabbed his end of the cable and yanked as hard as he could. The entire tangle flew down the sideline toward the end zone.

I stood up and ran down the sideline toward him, drenched in sweat. Once I arrived, I was finally able to untangle the cable, just in time for the Bombers to score a touchdown.

That day, I learned how imperative quick thinking is in live production. The solution isn’t always sophisticated — I just hope that the 30,000 people at the game were engaged in the game and not watching the sidelines.

That day was a good example of what Tessa says: “It’s all learn on the fly.”

Live production — whether it’s spectacle motorsports, television news at six, or whatever else — can be wildly unpredictable. Being able to adapt to new situations and quickly problem-solve might be the most important skill for any broadcaster.

No matter how much you prepare for a live-production, you’re still following a script built around an unscripted event and that’s what makes it exciting for the audience — and the people working behind the scenes.

Liam Davies

Liam (he/him) is an avid outdoorsman whose overall demeanour is defined by the performance of the Winnipeg Jets. Post graduation, Liam hopes to one day sit in the director's seat of a control room.
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