Published on: 26 July 2023 in Longform

Directing Eurovision: A Roundtable with Nikki Parsons, Ollie Bartlett, and Richard Valentine

Reading time: 35 minutes and 46 seconds

Hosting Eurovision earlier this year was a momentous event for the U.K., but it was also a huge feat in multi-cam directing. We had the pleasure of speaking to its three directors — Nikki Parsons, Ollie Bartlett, and Richard Valentine — about how they pulled it all together.

The directing team behind Eurovision stands in front of a full crowd
The directing team behind Eurovision stands in front of a full crowd

How did you come to be involved in this project? And can you tell me a little bit about your different roles?  

Nikki: Directing Eurovision has always been on my bucket list. As soon as the news was out that the UK was hosting it, I texted Andrew Cartmell (Executive Producer) — who had worked on Eurovision for the past few years — saying I’d really love to be a part of it. I didn’t hear anything for a few months, but in September I got a phone call, and they asked me to be involved. I came on board almost straight away, and in October I started having meetings and putting forward ideas. 

Richard: I was asked to come on board in September, and of course, the answer was yes. I didn’t actually start until around March the following year, and then I went full-time in April. 

Ollie: I got a message from Andrew in late October. We talked about the roles that were available and whether I’d be up for it. Obviously, I jumped at the chance to be involved in such an incredible project. Like Richard, I didn’t have a lot of involvement before Christmas, but things started to ramp up between February and March. 

Richard: I worked on all of the interval acts and openings across the three shows, whereas Nikki and Ollie directed all of the musical acts from other countries. Nikki was the lead director and was involved in the pre-planning, including the venue, set, lights and camera positions. But she kept us updated and informed throughout the process so it would work for all three of us in our own different ways. 

Nikki Parsons behind-the-scenes of Eurovision
Nikki Parsons behind-the-scenes of Eurovision

Nikki: There are two semi-finals, and the different countries are drawn out of a hat to determine which one they’re in. I worked on the first set of performances, and Ollie did the second. It was such a fantastic experience because we never normally get to work with other directors. It can be quite a stressful experience, so I found it reassuring to know that two other directors have your back. 

Ollie: Yes, directing can be quite a lonely place at times, but we had a great support network on this project.  

Richard: I would never have thought they had three directors in Eurovision, but I can totally see why, because there’s a lot of work to do. We’re used to working with creatives, choreographers, and various people, but never to this extent.  

Nikki: No, it was a real eye-opener. We had been told it was going to be quite tough because we had to meet the demands of each country’s delegation, so we were somewhat prepared. We had a brilliant week in early March that we called speed dating. Ollie and I went up to Liverpool, and all the delegations sent a team over to brief us on what they wanted from their performances sonically and visually. It was great meeting them in person and seeing all the different personalities. 

Image credit: Corinne Cumming/EBU
Image credit: Corinne Cumming/EBU

As a director, what’s going through your head during those pitches? 

Nikki: It’s great that each country has their own team of creatives, because they all have different ideas and distinct styles, and I think that’s the beauty of Eurovision. But obviously, as a director, you have your own vision. I wanted it to feel like a live event that people watching at home wished they were at. Sometimes, the creatives went in the opposite direction and wanted their performance to be shot like a pop music video. Ultimately, each one of those countries is your client, so you have to fulfil their requests. There was a lot of back and forth between us and the delegations. 

Ollie: We had a contestant team who acted as a liaison between us, as directors, and the creative teams from all the different countries. Each country would come with their creative and some would have a full shot list, set plan, lighting ideas, and screen content. The initial questions running through my mind are: ‘Is that practical? Is it achievable? Can we do that with what we’ve got?’ We had to tell them what was possible and present alternatives to anything that wasn’t, which the contestant team helped us with. On the other hand, some of them had already shot this in their national finals and it just needed upscaling. As Nikki said, we wanted to remind people that there would be an audience of 12,000 people in that arena and capturing that atmosphere for people at home would be beneficial to their performance.   

How did that prep manifest itself once you agreed on the look and feel of their performance?

Nikki: As Ollie has mentioned, sometimes the delegates’ ideas weren’t always possible and we had to present alternatives, which meant a period of negotiation between us, each department and the delegations after the initial meetings in March. We then produced our camera scripts off the back of all the meetings and discussions we had. After that, we had two and a half days of stand-in rehearsals, which we filmed and delivered to each delegation. The stand-ins were trained students from LIPA who had learned the choreography of all 37 delegations, which enabled us to accurately rehearse.   

Ollie: Once we got to the studio, the stand-in rehearsals were phenomenally useful. I ran some of the clips back through my laptop to see the stand-in compared to the actual choreography, and it was extremely similar. Directors always want the best preparation, and that helped us get to the next stage, which is when the delegations arrive for their rehearsals, and they have direct access to start making notes and changes.  

Nikki: You have a full round of rehearsals for half an hour per delegation, then a second round of rehearsals for twenty minutes per delegation, and finally the dress rehearsals.  

Image credit: Corinne Cumming/EBU
Image credit: Corinne Cumming/EBU

Ollie: There’s a clock in the arena, looked after by the contestant team, and for each delegation, we ran the track three times in 30 minutes for the first rehearsal. After each pass, they could call through notes about shot changes, lighting, and props. Once we were finished on the arena floor, they would go to the feedback room, which is an area backstage where we have another director taking notes on behalf of us and all the other departments. Whilst that was happening, we had the next act on stage for their 30 minutes of rehearsal time, and it rolled on until the end of the day when we sat down and assessed the feedback. Then we made changes from that first round, and later on in the week, we did another rehearsal like that, but with only twenty minutes for each delegation. I don’t know what you thought, Nikki, but I found that period the hardest.  

Nikki: It was the most intense period, and the most frustrating part, because we sometimes felt that what we were trying to achieve was not quite what the delegates wanted. It was also a lot of long hours — we worked all day and then got our notes on each performance that same night. As Richard said earlier, it was necessary to have multiple directors because the workload would be impossible otherwise. I would do my day of rehearsals, and then I would have the next day to assess my notes whilst Ollie was in the truck directing his day. This meant the scheduling worked really well because we had time to act upon any notes that we had been given.  

Nikki Parsons behind-the-scenes of Eurovision
Nikki Parsons behind-the-scenes of Eurovision

Richard: From my point of view, outside of the delegations, I have four days to rehearse all the intervals once the delegations had finished rehearsing. We obviously had to work around the songs, but even that can be quite intense. The team I was working with was a lot smaller, and it was just one team, not 37, so we had a bit more time. I thoroughly enjoyed everything I worked on, and we created some great pieces across all three shows. There were two OB (Outside Broadcasting) truckers there. They always have two in case something goes wrong so that everybody from the main truck can come into the truck I primarily worked in — luckily that didn’t happen. For the rehearsals, Nikki and Ollie worked in one truck and I worked in the other, and for the main show, Ollie came into my truck. We had comments to each other from one truck to another. Of course, the first time you properly put the whole show together is on the first dress run because you never have a chance to truly block through the show. So, the first dress run, which Nikki and Ollie can explain more about, probably is without an audience, but they did three dress runs per show. The first one without an audience, that's the first time for everybody across the board to see how the show goes together, and I would like to say that I think you could have put the first shows out they were that good and amazing work by these two. To get a juggernaut like that rolling along, for everything to work the first time, it was amazing really. I was in awe of everybody, no doubt about it.    

Nikki: It was a bit of a shock, the first dress rehearsals. I think because you have spent so long rehearsing the individual performances, and then around that we had been squeezing in presentation rehearsals between the performances as well, and joining things together could be quite difficult. It’s a very long show, but it’s so fast because the VTs in between are about 50 seconds. There is a big opening, which is done by Richard and his team and then the hosts come out and then you're into VT performance, so there is no stopping then. So, it's back-to-back. I agree with you there Richard, I was really impressed with our first dress rehearsals of everything.

CuePilot in action
CuePilot in action

How are you communicating with each other during that time?  

Richard: We had a WhatsApp group, and then we had a wine group! We would meet up because although we were working individually, we were actually all working together and everything had to join up, so we had to talk about how that was going to work. We had to use this system called CuePilot, which is a system that has been a part of Eurovision for eight or nine years. We had a bit of trepidation about it because it’s a new tool, but to me it was invaluable. I don’t think we would have been able to do it without it. I don’t know if Nikki and Ollie agree, but I think we would not have been able to achieve so much. It’s an automatic camera cutting machine, so it looks like an edit, and you put all of your shots in it and quite a lot of other information and then when you get to rehearse, somebody presses ‘go’ on the audio track, which has got a timecode on it, and the CuePilot picks up on that all the shots are cut, hopefully as you want them to. I was a big fan of it — do you agree, guys?   

Nikki: Yes, totally. It was really good because there was a lot of input from each department, and you could see each other’s notes all in the same place. They were all added to the timeline, so you had time-coded notes for what needed changing. I really enjoyed using it as a prep tool as well, because you could go back into it and keep tweaking it until you were totally happy, whereas if we were just using a paper script, you hand it over and you don’t see it again until you get into the studio, and if you wanted to make edits you would have to redo the camera cards and tell the camera operators what you had done. But with this, as you updated something on the timeline it would instantly update on all the camera cue cards as well.  

CuePilot in action
CuePilot in action

Ollie: Usually when you’re scripting you have an iPad to watch a directors tape and your pen and paper to note it all down, whereas this time on your screen you have the directors tape, the pre-vis of lighting or screen content, and as you’re going along you hit buttons on a keyboard for which camera number you wanted. Usually, when you need to change a camera or the duration of a shot, you have to let the script supervisor, the vision mixer, and the camera operator know, whereas we could just edge by a few frames and it would update across all the camera operators iPads and on every screen. It also records the pass that you have just done of that track, so we can instantly review, whereas usually, you’re relying on an EVS operator to either play the track back, stop at certain points, or explain what is going on whilst they have other things to do. But this was an instant review, not only just of the line cut, but also the multi-viewer, so if you had an issue with a certain shot, you could instantly get the multi-viewer and see what the other twenty-odd cameras were offering and what you can replace that shot with.   

Richard: We probably saved a forest full of paper, because otherwise we would have to constantly reprint. There would not have been enough time in the day for the script supervisors to do all of that, so it took a lot of that away.  

Image credit: Corinne Cumming/EBU
Image credit: Corinne Cumming/EBU

So, you get to show week itself — what’s going through your mind? How did the dress rehearsals prepare you for it?

Nikki: I felt very calm and prepared by the time we got to the live show. Obviously, there are contingencies for everything because things can go wrong, but miraculously everything ran so smoothly on all three live shows. 

Ollie: On some of our shows, it’s a push to get a full dress run in sometimes, but to have three is fantastic. There is a lot of pressure on those dress runs, particularly the second one because that was the backup that would have been played worldwide if there had been a problem with the main show. 

Nikki: As soon as we got the first two dress rehearsals done, I relaxed into it more and really enjoyed that live week. I did the first semi-final, and I think everyone felt we were done, so Ollie had quite a hard afternoon managing people who had been celebrating the night before. 

Ollie: Yes, the second dress rehearsal of the second semi-final was a really tough show. We had been working towards this for months, and it was very intense for the whole crew. And then the first semi-final was absolutely perfect, not a single step out of place. So, understandably there was a huge crash of adrenaline. So, yes, it was a hard day, but we had total faith in the incredible crew. 

Nikki: And the second semi-final was faultless as well, it was amazing. 

Richard: Also, in between the first and second dress rehearsals, everybody had to stay on because we were rehearsing interval acts. So, the crew and everybody else didn’t really have any downtime. 

Are there any ways that you manage that workload so that you are looking after yourselves and your team?    

Nikki: We relied on the schedule to manage our workload. It was a tough, back-to-back schedule, but everyone on the team wanted to do their best. Everyone enjoyed each other’s company and I think that really helps. It’s hard to put anything in place for your mental health, but I took up running for the month. You just have to do what you need to do to get yourself through, but the reward is the adrenaline rush at the end when you all come together and celebrate doing a great job 

Richard: Yes, definitely. 

Ollie Bartlett (far right) and Richard Valentine (center) behind-the-scenes of Eurovision
Ollie Bartlett (far right) and Richard Valentine (center) behind-the-scenes of Eurovision

Ollie: I think you have to learn what works for you, so you’re the best you can be when you turn up for the day. For Nikki it was running; I went to a boot camp gym early in the morning. Obviously, you have to help the crew through it as well, and if you’re in a good place yourself then you can certainly help them. As Nikki said, it was a phenomenal team and that’s what I’m most proud of, seeing all those people at the top of their game. 

Nikki: All the heads of department, and the three of us, are very calm leaders, so there weren’t any egos or screaming and shouting. There’s no need for an added layer of stress on top of the long work hours. 

Richard: I think everyone entered into the spirit of it and just wanted to make it the best possible show. You couldn’t have asked for a better three weeks. 

You could tell that everybody there was having such a brilliant time, and that it was all done with love and joy and harmony, so thank you so much for your hard work.   

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