Published on: 31 August 2017 in Longform

Live sports directing: an interview with Simon Brooke

Reading time: 9 minutes and 26 seconds

Live sports broadcasts frequently draw huge audiences, and are often at the forefront of technological advances and changes in the broadcasting industry — but despite this, they are rarely discussed or represented as a home for directors.

To redress the balance, we spoke to director Simon Brooke about the ins and outs of the genre, from the Australian Open to eSports arenas, and found out about the skills required to make a mark. 

Where did your directing career begin and how did you make the move into sports directing?

Having moved to Australia as a youngster, I started working in the industry over there back in the eighties and was senior vision mixer for one of the big networks. They gave me a couple of small directing gigs and, as I had always wanted to direct, we decided to combine our plan to move back to the UK in 1991 with an attempt to move into it full time. My first proper directing job was actually for my old employer, Nine Network, directing their Wimbledon coverage. From there it was a mixture of some sports, news, corporate and some LE (light entertainment). 

I returned to Australia for five years, directing the nation’s top rating breakfast show as well as a mix of game shows, sports and news and then moved back to the UK permanently. That’s when sports really took off for me. The market here is huge and the range of sports covered is far wider than in Australia. It seemed the natural way to go and I also enjoyed the opportunity to travel a bit and follow the work around.

Was sports always the genre you wanted to work in?

Actually, LE was where I really saw myself. I love directing music and chat but there just isn’t as much of that work, and I found it pretty well sown up by those who were already established. Having worked as a vision mixer for loads of sports in Australia alongside some of the best directors in the business, it seemed the obvious path to follow. I haven’t really looked back since.

Sports has taken me all over the world, I have friends and colleagues scattered everywhere and it’s always fun to catch up with them on a large event like the Olympics. I still direct in areas other than sport when the opportunities come up. I like it all to be honest.

You’ve also directed a number of cookery and studio programmes. What common skills do you use in both types of directing, and what unique skills are required to direct live sports?

Sports brings the element of the unknown to the coverage, more so than any other genre, so the director is always working “off script”. It’s almost always live and I love that sort of pressure. Because of this, when I am in the studio I am able to react immediately when things don’t go to plan. And that includes when a soufflé doesn’t rise or your chef cuts himself on live telly!

“Each sports event has an element of drama, it may be a known personal story or one that develops during the event and it’s part of the job to try and convey that along with the immediate action on the field.”

Later this year I am scheduled to direct a particularly unusual live, non-sports show where the setting and the element of the unknown is huge. I am really looking forward to it. In a live studio or sports coverage, you tend to have a couple of plans in the back of your mind that you can call upon should A or B happen. When C happens...you go with it and hope your skills and those of the crew can keep it clean and get things back on track.

Live sports coverage involves making choices regarding camera angles, replay angles and a certain amount of editorialising all on the fly. When is the right time to drop in a cutaway of the coach or family watching on? The oddly dressed fans with funny signs? The nail-biting spectator? Maybe that extra replay angle you still haven’t shown? Or when not to replay but to stay with the moment? You are often vision mixing yourself so there’s that element to contend with as well. But you are not just covering the action, you are telling a story. Each sports event has an element of drama, it may be a known personal story or one that develops during the event and it’s part of the job to try and convey that along with the immediate action on the field.

Control room at the US Open. <i>Photo: Simon Brooke</i>
Control room at the US Open. Photo: Simon Brooke

You mention having to think on your feet in the unexpected moments thrown up by sport — are there any other factors that can help you deal with them?

They are the best moments. Yes, you do need to think on your feet — but this is where you rely so heavily on a great crew. So many times you are lucky enough to be surrounded by talented and skilled camera, EVS (Enhanced Vision System), sound and CCU (Camera Control Unit) operators. These people will often react and offer before you have a chance to ask. You may not have the time to ask.

“A director is only as good as the crew supporting him/her and anyone who thinks they are above that is fooling themselves.”

Competitor and crowd reactions to special moments are as important as capturing the moment itself. A great crew are listening to the commentators, they are looking outside their box and taking in what the bigger picture is. A director is only as good as the crew supporting him/her and anyone who thinks they are above that is fooling themselves.

A footnote to this is that I know that certain PMs (Production Managers) like hiring sports crews for non-sports productions because of the skills they bring to the table.

Sports television is well known for leading the way when it comes to the latest technology. Is this something which is difficult to adapt to?

It’s adapt or die. The technology is moving ahead in leaps and bounds and with it the style of coverage. 3D challenged the way we shot and cut sports but it lasted only a couple of years. Now we have the advent of VR, “second screen” viewing, remote production, the opportunities opened up with streaming — and it all changes the way you need to work.

When the EVS arrived on the scene, it was first embraced by sports because of its massive flexibility. Later on it began to be used by other sectors. I think the same is true of VR, which will grow as the technology improves. Not a month goes by without another product or idea being promoted. Some are aimed at lowering crew numbers by using robotics and AI, others are new incarnations of existing tools.

Margaret Court Arena, Austalian Open 2017. <i>Photo: Destination Alan</i>
Margaret Court Arena, Austalian Open 2017. Photo: Destination Alan

Is there a memorable sporting moment you’re particularly proud of directing?

I’m going to slightly dodge this question by saying there have been many memorable moments but often for different reasons. Directing the domestic football finals in Bahrain with a mainly Arabic-speaking crew (and pulling it off) was a feat in itself, especially when I lost a few cameramen when they locked off their cameras to pray. Working with a great crew in sub-zero temps in eastern Turkey covering cross-country skiing. Having 10,000 screaming Australian Open fans watch Nick Kyrgios come back from match-point down to win in five sets was another. There are many others.

Which sport is the most challenging to direct?

They all have their own challenges. For me, at the moment I am becoming more and more involved with eSports. This is a part of the sector which is growing very fast and the challenges presented are unique, combining sports and LE like no other.

The ‘field of play’ is essentially a screen into a second world of action. Where we would have cameras surrounding a football pitch or a tennis court, here we have the coverage supplied by the virtual players themselves as we delve into their own POVs. The director’s skill is then focussed on getting the best reactions of the humans controlling those players and then marrying that with traditional analysis and the pure LE component of shiny floor, brightly lit studio entertainment. The same elements of drama are there but we have to rethink what ‘coverage’ means.

Do you have to be a fan of the sport in question to direct it well?

I don’t think so. You obviously need to understand the rules and nuances of the sport. I knew very little about Crown Green Bowls until two years ago. Now I probably know more than I thought possible! You need to have an appreciation of the sport even if you don’t follow it. 

“I knew very little about Crown Green Bowls until two years ago. Now I probably know more than I thought possible!”

I am a passionate tennis follower and player and am lucky enough to work on all four of the Slams each year. Being a player helps but I also tend to become an extension of whatever sport I am covering, no matter if I’ve played or been a fan of it before or not. It may be just 90 minutes but for that time you are, in a strange way, a part of what is happening on the field. You’re invested in the drama and even if I might never watch it in my spare time, I am immersed in that sport at that moment.

How do you see sports broadcasting changing in the future? 

It’s definitely moving more and more towards streaming online. And in doing so, we are seeing the signs that more diverse sports are going to be represented as advertisers seek out new ways of spreading their messages. The likes of Amazon and Facebook are only now beginning to make their intentions clear and live sport is certainly a part of their long-term strategies. That’s good news for those of us who produce content. 

The Gfinity eSports Arena, London <i>Photo: Simon Brooke</i>
The Gfinity eSports Arena, London Photo: Simon Brooke

And either online or over the air, the technology being talked about is going to make production cheaper and more immersive. OTT (Over The Top) and Second Screen streams will involve audiences more than ever. We’ve seen jumps in quality with 4K, surround sound, Hi-Motion Slomos, better lenses...the list goes on and will keep growing. But the one thing that will not (or should not) change is the basic ethos in how to cover a sport. We mustn’t let the ‘toys’ get in the way of telling the story, they should simply add to the story. Otherwise the viewer will miss the highs and lows, the unfolding human drama that is happening right in front of them. And that is still the best part of it.