Just do it: NEP Ireland replay operator Melissa McCormack talks getting stuck into the fast life of live sports broadcasting

McCormack: ‘The buzz of being live is addictive’

By Melissa McCormack, replay operator, NEP Ireland

Working in sport, you are in constant demand. As the years go by, we as a country are producing an increased level of sport, and there is such a huge push on women’s sports now too in the industry. It is a great section of the industry to be involved in, it’s busy!

The buzz of being live is addictive. For those few hours you are operating on high intensity and the adrenaline drives you. It’s very difficult to explain the feeling you get working in sport or TV. It is very much a way of life, and you will quickly know if you have it or not. Most importantly, all the crew is similar minded to you; it’s the people that make a good job great and we are blessed to have many talented people in our midst.

The hardest aspect of my job is wearing the many hats required on the day with the client or team and trying to work to a time-specific deadline for getting the trucks in order, then getting ready to output the content of a high standard and bring the crew with you. If you encounter an issue or technical difficulty, then stress levels can rise very quickly. Sport is fast paced and demanding but it is important to maintain a level head, be patient and try not to overthink the task at hand.

Everything moves so fast and every move is highly scrutinised, so making sure that we in VT get the content needed out without holding up the flow of the game is essential. The quality of a live show has increased and changed as technology advances so quickly and it’s important to keep on top of all the advancements while also not over-cooking something because you have all these ‘toys’ at hand.

“Sport is fast paced and demanding but it is important to maintain a level head, be patient and try not to overthink the task at hand”

However, it’s an addiction to work in a live TV environment. The hits of adrenaline when Ireland scores a try to win the Six Nations, or Shane Long scores a goal to beat Germany in the soccer, these are pieces of history and you are there, a huge part of making it happen. It is also very cool to realise that you are bringing sports and entertainment to homes and bars all over the country and providing this outlet to so many people.

On what draws me to my career in live sport, it is consistent work. It is exciting, you are part of a team and providing live sport to the country so they can get behind their team or country, is a huge privilege.

Popping on the cans

I initially started out in theatre and part of my training involved communications. We were introduced to a television studio environment, and I at once gravitated towards the camera, popped on the cans and fell in love with the process.

A couple of years out of theatre school, I decided to follow the spark I got in the studio that day and went looking for somewhere to train as a camera operator. The college I chose was a very hands-on technical college at the time and really allowed the students to use the kit there to make all sorts of projects. We were encouraged to think outside of the box and really get to grips with all the aspects involved in the media industry – production, writing, radio, researching and development and, of course, the technical elements: sound, lighting, cameras and editing. At the time I was still very much interested in a career in cameras, whether it be TV or film.

Part of the course allowed us to get work experience, and I got to go out and work on some films and with an outdoor broadcast company. It was with the outdoor broadcast company, Observe, that I realised how much more there actually is to making TV and all the other, unseen departments there are. I was hooked!

I trained in TV & Radio Production and Development, specialising in cameras and editing. While starting out, I worked as a camera assistant; it was while on a job that I approached a senior operator over from the UK. He advised me that if I was interested in becoming a camera operator myself to look at VT. This was because I could look at all the incoming feeds and see exactly what each camera does and what is expected from each of the separate roles within the broadcast.

Looking back on it, I am not sure if it was his subtle way to shift my perspective away from cameras or indeed if there was a method to his madness, but once I stepped foot into VT, I didn’t want to leave.

My first job was work-experience, cable bashing at The Cheerio’s Childline Concert. I was assistant camera to the ped op, camera right of the stage. It took me an age to get to grips with the talkback, I wasn’t sure what they were all talking about but just concentrated on making sure my camera op was happy.

I will never forget the fear when we went live! Then one of the acts that was performing, the lead singer, unexpectedly jumped off the stage and into the crowd. The camera operator spun around, and my cable was wrapped around both him and the ped. It was a scramble, and I could see my dreams fade away before my eyes; the camera would crash to the ground, and I would never work again! Thankfully, it didn’t, we were sorted, and the show went on.

The adrenaline that rushed through me after that job… I knew I had found something that I could do, and it didn’t feel like work; it gave me huge satisfaction. That was circa 2005 and, thankfully, I still feel the same way.

Continuity to cameras

Went I left college, I had started to work in continuity in the film industry. It was a tough gig, very long hours, and with continuity, you are always on call and then once the day ends, you need to write up your reports for production and prep for the next day. When you were on a job, you have little room for a life outside with 12 hour days, six days a week!

In between productions, I was still doing the odd day, camera assisting work with Observe. It was after a long stint working on a TV show called Trouble in Paradise that I decided continuity wasn’t giving me the same job satisfaction that working sports and other light entertainment could.

The process of film is much slower, and I craved the excitement of a match. I put my focus into the live broadcast and made my decision that this was where I was going. I got more work as an assistant camera operator and learned about rigging cameras and venues, but there wasn’t enough work for me to sustain a living full-time in the industry. I approached a colleague and finally made the decision to check out VT.

Very little is known about VT outside of the OB world, so once I got to grips with the speed of it all, I was happy that I had veered away from cameras, plus, I was out of the elements, inside the truck!

I worked for a facilities company in Ireland before taking my skills on the road, I lived and worked in the UK, Australia and Canada before coming back to Ireland and taking up a freelance role.

Once in sports, it’s always been sports. It’s great to come in a day before, set up, rig and come back the following day for the live game and then leave. Every game feels like a huge accomplishment, because it is! Working with NEP Ireland is predominately sports peppered with some light entertainment; it’s a nice balance and keeps you interested.

Freelance to stability

It was a no-brainer for me to go for and take this position as EVS operator with NEP Ireland. I had been learning about the trucks to get more work as a freelancer and to help NEP Ireland out, and I wanted to be more hands on and challenge myself mentally.

I also have a young family and have just bought a house so to have stability in the industry is always something that you are looking for.

After the pandemic, having the security of a job is also important. Being a member of staff also means I get paid holidays and other benefits. Having an ability to train up further and keep on top of all the advances of the industry is also important to me and there is amazing training and support available with the company.

But being full-time with the company after being freelance for 10 years does require a shift in mindset. You are no longer your own boss, and there isn’t the same level of flexibility. You now have the added responsibilities of taking the crew through the day, dealing with the clients on-site and getting the trucks and kit ready for the task at hand.

People management on the job is a huge skill in itself. We have many people coming through the truck, each with their own unique personalities and abilities. I feel it’s a huge part of the job to manage the skill sets that these people turn up with correctly, keeping focus and getting a high professional standard out while having fun.

Dealing with the client is a new one for me. We have many clients on board and in sports especially, I have close dealings with the producers on the day-to-day of a job. It’s important to set out their vision throughout the broadcast. But behind the scenes in VT, we are also responsible for the file and data management that they take away with them, so we are constantly communicating pre- and post-match to ensure that we deliver everything that is expected and then a little more!

As an operator, I had little experience of setting up the trucks from scratch. This has been my biggest learning curve since starting with NEP Ireland. Every job has a different ask and every truck has its own local knowledge, so getting to a place where I can achieve the asks of the job on each truck within a certain timeframe is personally my biggest ask. I am still learning and always will be as the technology advances, but it is good to have that mental challenge and to keep driving yourself forward.

Changing perceptions

Being a woman was never a challenging part in this role in Ireland. We have an exceptionally good playing field of both sexes in the industry. Yes, there are more men in these roles, but there is also a team mentality, and your gender never comes into it. I have, however, felt sometimes in other countries that being female may have hindered people’s initial expectation of me, but that feeling has most definitely changed in recent years.

My biggest challenge was also trying to achieve a work-life balance. When sport is on, people gather with friends and family to watch the game, either on the venue, in a bar or at home. Either that, or your friends are socialising, but you are at work.

I gave up a lot to work my way up in terms of missing weddings, birthdays, christenings, etc. It’s very difficult now when my kids are in plays or have their own matches and I can’t always be there. Unfortunately, this will always be a challenge, but I tell myself that a lot of other jobs – supermarkets, bars and restaurants, nurses and police – all require you to work irregular and unsociable hours.

I am in a very gracious position that the work I do allows me to have downtime in other ways with my family and I can bring and collect them from school most days and be there when many other parents can’t be due to their rigid work schedules. NEP Ireland is also very conscious that people have their families outside of work and there is that extra level of support that other jobs may not have.

Taking care of yourself – head and body – while on the road can be overlooked. There is a lot of travelling and late nights involved in working in live sport. I think about it more as I get older, eating late at night, driving a huge number of miles before and after a day’s work. It is something the industry is more conscious of, but for me it is a challenge. Thankfully, we have hotels!

Today I am being challenged a lot more, guaranteeing and coordinating jobs, managing the crew, and liaising with the client. 2023 is a busy year for NEP Ireland with a wide variety of work to keep us all busy. I plan to continue my training and potentially look at a few more paths within the VT team to keep me challenged.

The European Professional Club Rugby finals are being held in Dublin this year. This is a huge event that NEP Ireland covers, but having the finals in Dublin will make it extra special this year. It’s a huge platform and exciting to work with EVS Zeebra along with EVS replay system.

NEP Ireland is also heavily involved this year with the Rugby World Cup, again these are platforms where we will find our work played out in homes across the world and it is a huge privilege to be involved.

I have been incredibly lucky to use my trade to work all over the world and get to see some amazing countries and cities and be part of some major historical events, sporting and otherwise.

Working on the World Cup Final in Brazil was a particular high point for me. The team I was with were brilliant and we certainly made light work of all the travelling and hours of soccer that we covered up to that point. It was the biggest night in the sporting world, and I was there with my colleagues. We were able to pop out of the media village and onto the pitch area after for some photos. They are memories I will always treasure.

There is always a huge buzz working on the GAA Championship Finals in Ireland, although my county never made any!

Finally, to other women I say do it. Don’t be precious; get stuck in. Working in an industry that is not rigid is great to have a family, and you can make a great living doing this job part-time. You are on the forefront of the industry’s’ technology and supplying a huge service to the sporting community.

But remember to do your homework; it’s weekends, it’s all kinds of weather, it’s a lot of driving… but it sure beats working for a living!

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