Super Bowl Halftime Show TV Director Talks Madonna, Beyonce and Oscars (Q&A)

1:18 PM PST 04/26/2013 by Stuart Kemp
Hamish Hamilton

BAFTA honoree Hamish Hamilton has directed some of the world's highest profile broadcasting events, including the Olympics 2012 opening and closing ceremonies and the 82nd Academy Awards.

LONDON -- What do the Super Bowl halftime shows of Beyonce, Madonna and The Who, the Olympics 2012 opening and closing ceremonies, the Victoria's Secret Fashion show and the 82nd Academy Awards have in common?

A Brit named Hamish Hamilton, one of the go-to names in directing coverage of large-scale live events for TV.

The TV director -- who is set to pick up this year's Special Award at the British Academy of Film and Television Craft awards Sunday, April 28, in the British capital -- has worked on myriad events that have posted global audiences in the billions.

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Born in England, Hamilton will receive his BAFTA craft honor to recognize his ability "to showcase unique live spectacles through multi-camera based television directing, with millions watching his work" according to the British Academy.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did your involvement in the London 2012 Olympics come about?

Hamish Hamilton: I was an executive producer of the ceremonies working across all of the ceremonies. I was then asked by the organizing committee to assume directing duties for the ceremonies as well so that was an opportunity of a lifetime really.

THR: You also did the Madonna Super Bowl halftime show?

Hamilton: The Madonna show came about simply speaking because I've done the Super Bowl halftime show now for four years, starting with The Who and most recently this year with Beyonce. Creatively each of the Super Bowls has been a very different experience. Some artists are actually quite hands off, Madonna as an artist is incredibly hands on. She, her team and I worked across all aspects of the production to make sure it was a spectacular Super Bowl performance.

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THR:You worked the 82nd Academy Awards, several Super Bowl halftime shows and the Olympics to name a few. What is the most nerve-shredding assignment to date?

Hamilton: The most nerve-wracking assignment has got to be the Olympics last summer because at the end of the day it is this huge event in terms of the number of people watching; it's a mind-boggling number. Further to that it was a very, very complex show with many, many moving parts and each time the show came together it never came together in the same way so as a television director it made it very difficult to plan and to tell the story because the order the story evolved and was different every time we rehearsed the show. There were creative challenges and also logistic challenges and it was probably one of the biggest events ever held, certainly in the U.K., and it was my home town and so I felt a huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders.

THR: Does the pressure from the artist equal the pressure from the fact you are directing coverage of a live, one-off event?

Hamilton: The pressure exerted on any director of any event, small, medium or large, is pretty enormous. The potential for disaster is huge. At any second you have your life and show in your hands. I suppose in a way some people kind of really surf on that potential and it certainly can be a huge adrenaline surge.

THR: How personally responsible do you feel?

Hamilton: I do feel a great weight of responsibility because what happens is you are tasked with someone's baby. They're so precious and so wonderfully well-conceived, all these events, and quite often I am involved in the conception as well, but when I am actually there on the day directing I guess in most instances the buck stops with you. Take your eye off the ball or miss something, I feel a huge amount of guilt because you want everything to come off perfectly because someone has trusted you with this huge project. If you make a mistake everybody can see or hear that. Quite often there is very little margin for error.

THR: Does some pressure come from the technology?

Hamilton: You're sat in this giant computer which is called a television truck and everybody who has ever had any problem with any kind of word processing document knows how ridiculously fickle computers can be. And there you are in the back of this millions of dollars of computer placing your life, your reputation and someone else's project in its hands so yeah, there's pressure and stress from every angle.

THR: What's the worst thing that you've had to deal with?

Hamilton: My first ever live, outside broadcast, as a live television event director, I had to beg the network to finish the show an hour early because I felt there was likely to be a riot in the crowd if we had carried on. That was probably the most difficult thing and challenging and stressful situation I have ever been in.

THR: What was it?

Hamilton: It was a show for MTV in Germany many years ago. Through no fault of mine, basically a large crowd turned up to see a band [Die Toten Hosen] who they had been told were going to be on the show but were actually on tape. So their fans had been standing for a long time waiting for the band to arrive and when the presenter said 'ladies and gentleman, your band' and I rolled the tape the scene started to get a little ugly. It soon got a little out of hand. As a young, eager, fresh-faced director I had to make the really big call to say right we're coming off air because I honestly think if we carry on this crowd is going to turn ugly and people are going to get hurt. We came off air. I left the truck after about an hour on air and the first person to greet me was a police officer asking me to come and spend a few moments in his office. I thought, really my directing career is going to be over before it's begun. After dealing with that most things have been reasonably straightforward.

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THR: Any tricks you can disclose that helps when things go wrong?

Hamilton: On the Super Bowl with Beyonce, we had a Steadicam fail in the middle of the show. The camera literally snapped off its mounting. That was it, the Steadicam would feature no more in the show. We'd scripted that shot out really tightly so every kind of shot was carefully called in the script for the show. As soon as you take one of those bricks out everything else could start to creak. So thinking on the sly, every time I was going to cut to that camera I had to change that out for another. My get out jail card shot was just quick thinking because I knew the show so well I could call out a different shot in the moment. We were busking and scripting at exactly the same time. I'd briefed the cameramen on what to do if this or that happened so it was okay. Nobody noticed when we watched it back.

THR: Has digital technology enabled you to achieve results more easily?

Hamilton: Digital cameras are smaller, lighter and more responsive, and they are, in terms of image quality, closer to film cameras than ever before. I love using technology to tell a story in a different way and I've been really lucky in the last 10 years that camera technology -- dollies, grips, rails, cranes, flying cameras, gyro cameras -- has changed everything. All these tools you can use for a script.

THR: What's the next big thing on your work roster?

Hamilton: The next show I shoot is probably the MTV Video Music awards [in L.A.] in August then the Victoria Secret show in November, Super Bowl next year.

THR: Have you felt the squeeze on budgets and ambitions because of the hard economic environment in the media industry?

Hamilton: We definitely work in more economically challenged times but I think as technology changes, as budgets change, the whole thing is fluid. Any show I have ever done there is never enough money and never enough time and part of the director's job is to work within the resources he or she has to best tell the story or capture the moment. The job of the director is on occasion to say, you know what, I can't do this. We need a bit more money or time to do what you really want to do. Sometimes there are situations when there is no more money and sometimes the producers may have put a little extra few dollars in their back pockets as a contingency.

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