Adrenaline rush: The art of directing and standing up for yourself with Premier League Productions’ Grace Weerakoon

Weerakoon: ‘The hardest aspect of my job is getting people to trust that I know what I’m doing’

By Grace Weerakoon, director, Premier League Productions 

I love the adrenaline rush just before we go on air. I love the feeling when you come off air and you know you’ve had a great show. Dealing with pressure, working to tight turnarounds, I thrive off that feeling and I love that that’s my job every day.

I work with incredible crew who have helped me get to where I am today. We have a great team spirit, and everyone helps each other. I’m a big believer in creating a great team ethic so that everyone performs to the best of their ability and it’s something I enjoy seeing in practice. Every single day and show is different to the last and you never know quite what you’re going to face when you go on air, but that’s part of the challenge and that’s what I love!

Sport brings people together, it’s universal. I love that it’s different all the time, and you never know what you’re going to face that day. You just have to adapt to it and deal with it the best you can. The story is key and the audience should be at the centre of everything we do. It’s creative, exciting and history making.

I knew working in a live environment was what I enjoyed most out of all the roles I’d experienced within TV. It was also what I excelled at. I deal well under pressure and work well within a team. I’m confident, creative and organised and I found these skills leant themselves well to being a studio director.

Olympic beginnings

I still can’t believe that my first taste of professional TV was as a volunteer for the London Olympics. In my role as a runner, I was first put on the test event for the track cycling at the velodrome. While the team were doing the live presentation for the big screens at the event, I supported the crew, delivering the running orders, race starting line-ups and official results to the commentators. It was high-pressured, but amazing and I loved the buzz.

From there, I was re-hired to work on the athletics for the Olympics, based at the Olympic Stadium. Our office looked right out onto the 100m finish line, it was insane! Being a runner was the best job – I could go everywhere, and I could talk to everyone. I spent a lot of time finding out about different peoples’ jobs and how it contributed to the overall production. I got involved where I could and made sure I was the first one there and last one out. I would still say it was one of my best jobs, I loved every minute of it.

After the Olympics and Paralympics, I freelanced as a runner for several production companies. While it was great experience, it made me realise I didn’t want to work in a corporate or commercial aspect of TV, and that live sport was what I really loved. I applied for every TV job I could find, and eventually got the job as a production assistant at IMG working on the Football League Show for the BBC. I knew I was interested in moving into the more creative side, so I used my spare time to shadow edits and I was encouraged to write running orders and scripts by my producer. This helped me develop into the role of an assistant producer where I was able to go out on shoots, sit in on edits and participate in the gallery during the live show.

I was eventually promoted and moved across to Premier League Productions, which is the production partnership between IMG and Premier League to produce and distribute the Premier League’s international programming. As an AP on a much bigger production, I was able to gain a lot more live experience, working on outside broadcasts, in edits, on shoots, on magazine shows, and mostly in the live gallery.

I was on a fixed-term contract at the time, so I had to find work during the summer months. Through the contacts I’d made, I got the opportunity to work on World Cups, Euros, Wimbledon and the Tour de France. I’ve travelled all over the world, from Hong Kong, to Brazil and France.

Doing this, I was able to develop a range of skills, from scripting, to shooting to VT co-ording. It was here I realised that the live gallery was where I felt really at home. I thrived off the pressure of live TV, and I loved the adrenaline rush of a fast-paced, high-pressured live show.

After about four years of working as an AP, I took part in a training course for live studio directing. I was really lucky that Premier League Productions had such a wide range of programming as it gave me the chance to gain lots of experience in a really short time. Since then, I’ve been studio directing for the last four years, from news shows, to fan shows and live matches.

However, I have learnt that you can’t learn the skills you need overnight. You can only get better by doing it, over and over again. And you might smash the first shift, but it’s not until the tenth or twentieth shift that something goes wrong and you’re really tested. And there’s no way to ease into the chair; you just have to jump into the deep end and do a show and then learn from it.

The more different situations you’re in and problems you’re faced with and overcome, the better director you will be. As a director you’re the person everyone comes to with their questions and for advice. So you need to know what the plan is and be confident. At the beginning especially that can be really difficult when you’re just trying to build your experience and confidence in the role. Everyone can hear you on talkback and yet you need to sound authoritative and calm. It can be long hours with little breaks and yet you have to stay focused as everyone follows your lead, so even if you’re stressed or tired or unsure about what you’re going to next, you need to remain calm, clear and communicate in order to maintain the high standards.

Position of authority

Yet the hardest aspect of my job is getting people to trust that I know what I’m doing. Being a female in a position of authority within a male-dominated environment is challenging. Despite having worked in football for nearly 10 years now, and having proven my skills and knowledge repeatedly, I still find myself having to prove my ability and challenge pre-existing stereotypes that some people assume of me. I still find myself overlooked for opportunities, my mistakes are judged harsher, and if people disagree with me, it’s attributed to my lack of knowledge rather than just a disagreeing of ideas.

Progression in my career hasn’t been without its challenges, predominantly due to the fact that I’m a woman in a very male-dominated industry. Not only that but I am from Asian descent, working in a very white-dominated industry. I have been repeatedly overlooked for opportunities, I’ve had to fight for equal pay with my male colleagues, stand up to inappropriate language and be my own cheerleader.

I have learnt to overcome this by backing myself, working as hard as I can to be the best that I can be to prove the critics and stereotypes wrong. But being in the minority has also had its advantages. The industry is now making a concerted effort to make the workplace more inclusive and diverse, and that has meant I’ve gained opportunities because I’m from a minority.

“I’ve had to fight for equal pay with my male colleagues, stand up to inappropriate language and be my own cheerleader”

So, while some of my past experiences haven’t been pleasant, it is an environment that’s now changing, and I am heavily invested in making it a better place for everyone to progress. I’ve had a lot of people who have helped and supported me throughout my career, without whom, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

To other women, I’d say if it’s what you enjoy, don’t let anything stop you. While it’s not perfect, the industry is changing and improving for the better. Back yourself, your talent and your knowledge. Tactfully challenge stereotypes by being the best in your role that you can be. Talk to as many people as possible, work hard and use your contacts. Never burn a bridge and be nice to runners! They might be the one hiring you one day!

Embracing change

I think the way sport is consumed is changing and it’s important we become part of that change, or risk being left behind. In a world that is increasingly digital and people are consuming sport and TV in a more on-demand way, we need to adapt to stay relevant. Will people bother to watch whole matches in future? Will they just want short highlights on-demand on social media? Do we need studios or presentation? What new technologies will advance the consumption of sport? What role does the metaverse have in sport? All of these are things that will need to be considered and adapted to as we look ahead to the future.

In 2022, Premier League Productions designed and implanted a fully virtual studio. This was a really exciting time as I was able to get involved with parts of the process and make contributions towards the design and implementation. It was something I didn’t have any experience of beforehand so was a great experience to be part of. Being part of the design process also then made it easier to adapt to when we came to directing in the studio, as we were aware of the possibilities and limitations. It’s definitely been challenging to learn to work in a new way, but it’s also an ever-evolving process and something we’re constantly looking to push and develop.

I really believe that new challenges and working on different projects make me a better director, so it’s been great to have these experiences in order to push myself and learn new skills.

I’m currently pregnant with my first child, so 2023 will be an exciting and different time for my career. I’m very keen to have the best of both worlds and learn to adapt to being a parent while still pushing my directing career. There’s many events and sports that I still have ambitions to work on, and while there are many women elsewhere in the industry who successfully balance this juggling act, I have few people at Premier League Productions that I can look to for inspiration or advice in this area. So it’s something I’m having to figure out for myself and create a path that works for me, my family and my team.

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