Published on: 05 March 2024 in Longform

Jan Genesis on Multi-Camera Directing: “It’s like you're the captain of the ship”.

Reading time: 17 minutes and 43 seconds

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at huge live events such as awards shows to make sure they’re polished and exciting when they hit our screens?

We spoke to multi-camera director Jan Genesis about capturing “must see” moments, bringing the live atmosphere to audiences at home and thinking on your feet when things don’t go to plan.

Let’s kick off with an insight into how you got started as a director, and how you moved into multi-camera as a format?  

As my career’s progressed, I’ve realised I first started directing a lot earlier than I thought, because at the time I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing. I would have been about 20 or 21. My younger brother used to make music and I supported him — I helped manage him, organise him and take him to his shows. I had a camcorder and I thought, “it would be good if we could capture this”. That became filming and editing content, then I started filming football matches and editing that footage to music. Looking back, that was my first step into creating and directing — thinking about what I wanted those pictures to look like and how I wanted that to work with music and editing, and graphics.  

When I was at university, I had the chance to learn more about media technology and digital broadcast. I was introduced to the world of DVD authoring and to the fundamentals of sound and vision. At the end of my course there was an internship, which I was fortunate to get, as a Broadcast Technical Operator for Bloomberg; I was involved in everything from sound to lighting, to robotic cameras, to master control. I was really thrown in at the deep end, as the person I was shadowing fell ill and I was able to cover them, which meant directing some small two-camera news shows. These were a single operator, one presenter, ten-minute to half-an-hour news bulletins. As director, you would cut your own cameras, do your own graphics, do your own comms — you and the presenter were the team. The presenters did their own autocue, but you would be cue-ing everything, you would be dialing up the guests — that was my first introduction to what was multi-cam directing, working on these small two-camera shoots.  

 From there I was offered an in-house position, so I started as a technical operator whilst also directing those small shows, and eighteen months later, I moved into an in-house director role, working in news as a broadcast director.  

Image credit: Jordan Pitt
Image credit: Jordan Pitt

What appealed to you about multi-camera as a format?  

I was fascinated by the fact there were so many different people with so many different skills working on a single production. When I walked into the building for the first time, it looked like what I imagine a space station looks like! There were screens everywhere, there were people speaking in different languages for different broadcasts, people were operating in a single operator mode, so they were cutting cameras with their right hand, fading sound with their left. I thought they were geniuses. When I saw the larger galleries, I got a feel for the team effort pulling it all together; you still had different roles, but there was someone at the centre steering the ship. 

In my mind, that person didn’t need to be a tech wizard, they could leave that to the team. What was important was that they understood what needed to happen and when, and that they communicated that to everyone else. It fitted quite naturally with my personality and my previous experience — I coached football, which felt very similar. I would recognise people’s strengths and try to maximise them, and I felt this was similar to how the director worked in the gallery. I was really interested in this role, and when I got it, I learned from everyone else on the team, as they really knew what they were doing, which in turn helped me understand how to articulate what was happening editorially and what I wanted to do creatively, and really become a central part in the team.  

Give us an insight into what you’ve been working on recently – what does the diary of a multi-cam director look like? 

The past few months have been interesting. I’ve been involved in some great projects, and I’ve had a chance to work internationally as well. I like to find projects that speak to my core strengths as a director. For instance, I’ve been directing a 10-part Netflix series called Rhythm and Flow, a competition format filmed in Atlanta about finding America’s newest rap superstar. It’s a mix of big-name judges plus hopefuls from all corners of America trying to prove they’re the next big thing. It combined storytelling with reality and live performance, it was shot in studio as well as on location, and it felt like a good fit for me. 

I’ve also been lucky enough to work on some big live events recently — in December in Kigali, Rwanda directing Global Citizen headlined by Kendrick Lamar. I have also worked on Netflix’s first live sports event, The Netflix Cup, in Las Vegas, Hip Hop’s Official 50th anniversary celebration at Yankee Stadium in New York, Global Citizen in Central Park, New York headlined by the Red Hot Chill Peppers and Stormzy’s “This is What We Mean Day” live event in Victoria Park, London.

What does a typical day look like when you’re working on these big live events?  

That’s a million-dollar question! Generally, you’re working on these projects for a few months before the event itself, so you have weekly calls during this period to prepare and discuss ideas, and then about a week before the event, everything steps up a gear as you focus on the key details. With a live event and a music show, you start thinking about the live performances, discussing creative information from the creative directors, getting the music tracks and working with your AD who will start to break down the track. You’re working out the different elements of the show and how they will fit together — for example, an event like Global Citizen might have speakers, performances and presenters, as well as engagement with the crowd. 

I like to make sure I have the cameras I need to cover everything, as well as make sure lighting and set design are aware of what I’m planning, so that the way I’m shooting is in sync with what they’re doing creatively. You need everyone to know what everyone else is doing — that is crucial. As the event date gets closer, I will start working on-site and the planning really comes together with the rest of the team. This means you can establish sight lines and you can check things like the set as it’s being built. However, the really key days are the two days before going live, as that’s when you typically have the talent on set. Then you can start blocking and checking the shots you have planned will work, the lighting and set design teams can check everything works in terms of where people will be standing or moving around on stage, the events team can ensure that all the camera platforms and camera positions you want to use are in line with where they’re expecting and that there aren’t any health and safety risks. There’s always a bit of back-and-forth about what we want to do creatively compared with what we can do from an events and budget perspective. 

With big live events, you don’t tend to have a full performance rehearsal until a couple of days beforehand. You also don’t have the full crew until this point — it’s sometimes easy to forget that even though you’ve been in this process for three months, the crew been working on different projects and are coming in fresh with just two days to go. Communication is so important; the crew need to understand what they’re doing and what the project is about so that they know what to look for during the live event. Then it’s a case of rehearsing the performances in running order to see how everything’s going to look on camera, taking on feedback and bringing these notes and ideas into the dress run or show day as needed. 

Image credit: Kirsty Malcom
Image credit: Kirsty Malcom

You’ve directed some huge live events. How do you prepare for something on this scale and how do you make sure it all goes to plan?  

Information is key! I’ve found that building a good relationship with the show’s producer helps ensure that you’re not just aware of everything that will happen, you’re also aware of everything that could happen. For example, you know there are eight performances planned — is there a chance we could actually have ten? There are only going to be four people on stage — what if they decide they need two more band members? It’s about equipping yourself with information to help you think ahead and work with different departments effectively. It’s great if, as director, I decide I want to have a presenter do a link in the middle of the crowd, but if lighting don’t know this is the plan, the presenter won’t have any lighting and the shot won’t work. I need to articulate my vision to all the relevant departments, and make sure that everybody is on the same page and know what needs to happen and when. Planning, communication and collaboration are all so important. 

There’s also an element of allowing room for things to change, because they will. An artist might decide to change their track at the last minute, or in rehearsal, they might start performing and move to the left but, on the day, they move to the right because that’s where the crowd reaction is strongest. You need to be ready to adapt, and you need to ensure that the team are prepared to react quickly if something different happens on the day. A lot of it is preparing, planning, and making sure you’re in control, but also accepting that you can’t control everything and making sure everybody is ready and comfortable with adapting in the moment.  

Finally — I try to enjoy it. The more that you can enjoy it, the more the team can enjoy it and the more you can create an environment where people love their work, the more you can get the best out of that team creatively. If everyone is enjoying it behind the scenes, hopefully everyone watching will pick up on this energy from the broadcast. 

How do you make sure the audience watching at home get a sense of the atmosphere at an event?  

The key is showing what the audience “in the room” are feeling. If you’re watching something and you see that the audience is having a great time, you subconsciously pick up on that energy. Finding a balance between capturing the performance on stage and capturing the audience reaction is essential, and I always think about how to make this part of the broadcast. It’s almost like directing two different events — one for the audiences at the event itself who can feel the live atmosphere, and another for the audience at home who need to see what’s going on from the live audience’s perspective so that they feel involved.  

It’s about finding creative ways to shoot and capture the energy of the event itself and then matching the coverage to this energy. There are lots of different ways to do this, from using dynamic cameras or filming in the crowd so that they are in the foreground; to having cameras flying above the crowd and then depressing. It’s important to be “in” the event as well as to look at it from afar, so that you’re in and amongst what’s happening and you get a real sense of the audience perspective.  

Have there been any real stand-out moments that you’ve captured when you’ve been working on a live event? 

The Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in Birmingham in 2022 immediately comes to mind. It was a huge theatrical performance with a massive audience as well as hundreds of marshals and volunteers on-site, plus performers and dancers... I think there were maybe 35,000 people in total. We were using steady cameras to get in and amongst the dancers, there were iconic bands from Birmingham and the Midlands performing at the same time — it was almost like a huge musical with something for everyone. However, what was really special was that Ozzy Osbourne was going to close the performance, and what was even more special was that this hadn’t been announced as part of the line. No one had seen him perform live for a while, and there was a strong chance that he wouldn’t be performing in Birmingham again given his age and his health, so it was amazing to hear that famous baseline drop and see him appear to perform some of his biggest hits as the crowd went wild.

Image credit: Jordan Pitt
Image credit: Jordan Pitt

How do you find the balance between capturing rehearsed performances and scripted moments that keep the show running smoothly and those moments that only happen on the night?  

There’s always a plan and structure to ensure that no one feels lost. However, within that, I allow some room to take different shots or to make a call on something as and when I see it so that we can be sure we’ve captured the essence of the event.

It’s hard to script things tightly if you also want to capture the atmosphere, so a good place to start is to work out what you can control. I find that awards ceremonies all typically tend to start in a very similar way, so this gives you an opportunity to get creative with how you set the tone and kick things off as you know what to expect and you can have fun with making a plan. Once the event has started, you can turn your attention to the crowd response and play with covering that — you can be creative here because you have a structure for covering the rehearsed elements of the show, and part of that structure is keeping an eye on the crowd and bringing in their reaction. If they love it and have loads of energy straight away, you might want to show more. If they are quite quiet at first, you might keep the focus on the performance for longer and incorporate a focus on the crowd during the second half instead.  

You can balance these moments, too. If you have live music as part of an event and an artist is performing a particular track, there will probably be an “iconic” part of the track where they always do the same thing when they perform it. In these moments, I like to do something a bit out there, but that I’ve planned with the crew in advance. If you’re planning something bold, like bringing a camera on stage, you need a clear vision of what you want to capture and you need to know when and how the artist will hit that specific moment so that you’re ready once you go live. Of course, there are some artists who don’t like to be too tightly scripted or rehearsed, so you need to think on your feet as well! 

What do you think the biggest challenges are in multi-camera directing? 

I think there are several. Although you’re the central hub for the production as the director, working with artists and contributors can be very different to working with actors on a scripted project, for example. I think artists have much more creative control over their work these days, which means they’re more aware of how their performances are presented and they often want to have a say on things like the shots you’re planning or the framing. Ultimately, they are performing on stage, so you need to take their comments on board and be prepared to go with the flow, which is partly why I avoid being too tightly scripted or tied to specific ideas. I think a lot of what multi-camera directors do is balancing the needs of other people whilst still being creative and picking the right shots to make a performance and an event come to life on screen.  

The other challenge is that often, there just isn’t enough time to plan and rehearse in the way that you would in an ideal world. For instance, you don’t always get access to the music that an artist might be using, or a chance to rehearse until two days before because they are working on another project. You need to be comfortable with using previous performances as a reference point to help you think about what might work creatively.

Image credit: Jordan Pitt
Image credit: Jordan Pitt

What do you do when something goes “wrong”? How have you learned to deal with these moments?  

In this job, things are bound to not go to plan occasionally. I always try to prepare so that I can control the things within my control. I try to go into any rehearsal, performance or show as prepared as I possibly can be and sure that my team have all the information they need — for me, the worst thing is if you are unprepared, and you run into a problem. A big part of my job is thinking, “what if?” If you’re prepared and something unexpected happens, you can react quickly to find a solution that the audience at home won’t see. I think that’s a big part of our job — making sure the audience doesn’t know that something hasn’t gone to plan.  

If something does go wrong, whether it’s just a split second or something that wasn’t meant to be there is in a frame, the most important thing is to move on quickly. If you dwell on it and allow the moment to snowball, it can have a huge knock-on effect. It’s all about minimising the impact and, if that isn’t realistic, minimising how much it affects the show and not letting it get out of control. 

Why do you think the role of the director is important in live event broadcasts?  

On these shows, you work with a huge range of talented people who are really focused on their own specific area. This means you must be the central hub aligning everyone on the brief, both editorially and creatively, and you’re also responsible for executing it on the night. There has to be someone who can communicate, who can lead and who can take control when things don’t necessarily go to plan or need to change. I always think it’s like you’re the captain of the ship; you often have to make difficult calls and ensure the different teams and experts who are working with you are all moving in the same direction. Otherwise, you have lots of experts all doing brilliantly individually but not coming together cohesively — for me, that’s where the director plays a crucial role.

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