BY DAVID KRONKE
ALL SET: (bottom) Director Alan Carter says associate director Laura Lyons runs the truck and makes sure everything is ready to go; (top) When the show reaches live performances, Carter turns the camera on the contestants.
When the singing competition series The Voice premiered in April 2011, American Idol was still a ratings juggernaut. So the directing team hired for the new show wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about their chances for success. “Our first reaction was, ‘Another reality singing show, oh boy,’” recalls director Alan Carter, “‘but at least we’ll be getting six weeks of work.’”
But as Carter watched an episode from the original Dutch series The Voice was based on, he was taken by the show’s premise: the judges are seated in bright red chairs, their backs to the contestants during the auditions. If the judge approves of a performance, he or she hits a button and the chair spins around and only then do they see the performer. That judge then becomes a mentor and coach to the aspiring singer they’ve chosen throughout their journey.
Carter says, “I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s different. That might be worth investigating.’ And once I got here and realized the spin on this show was a positive vibe of finding talented people, not breaking them down and not making fun of them, it was another major plus. I felt the show had some legs.”
Indeed, the expected six weeks of work have now stretched into six seasons (the show began running two cycles a year with the 2012- 13 season) and The Voice won an Emmy last year for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.
The directorial team includes associate director Laura Lyons, head stage manager Gary Natoli, and floor stage managers Valdez Flagg and Alissa Levisohn Hoyo. More associate directors are added for the live episodes as the season progresses. In addition, Alex Van Wagner directs segments which include the contestants’ backstories assisted by associate director Jay Ostrowski.
Carter directs The Voice from a truck just outside Universal Studios’ stage 12, where the series is shot. He sits in front of a wall housing a dozen large video screens, some of which are further divided up into more screens showing different camera shots and graphics.
“There are three phases to the show,” Carter explains. “There’s the audition process, which is not really a musical show. It’s not really about singing; it’s about the interaction between the four coaches. The challenge for me is that the [coaches] are facing away from the contestants, so I have to cover them on that side, and suddenly their chairs turn around. So in the auditions, it’s more about coverage of the coaches, not the music.
The second phase are the “battles” in which two contestants perform a duet and one is subsequently eliminated from the competition. “The numbers are very musical,” adds Carter, “but it’s still a conversation piece. It’s about the drama of the coaches picking and choosing and changing somebody’s life, which is more important than the music at this point. But the music is introduced, so the cameras I choose are more music-oriented.
“When this phase is over, we go to live,” continues Carter, “which is completely musical, because it’s all about the performances while America is voting. The coaches are making minimal comments, so I turn the cameras away from the coaches and focus more on the performers. It’s a three-phased thing, how I handle directing.”
Early in his career, Carter won an Emmy for editing, which he says has served him well in directing live and variety productions. “Being an editor made my career. I was a natural at it, and that formed the groundwork for my directing career. In the actual act of multi-camera directing, you are editing on the fly.”
But people skills are equally important, he stresses. “I strive to be completely in charge, and to have no one question that, but you must be relational,” he observes. “I first struggled in my directing career because I didn’t understand the importance of relationships and how to conduct myself in a team sport. A ‘Caesar’ mentality doesn’t cut it in directing live TV and that was the thing I had to learn the hard way. But now that I’ve earned the respect, I’m back to controlling the temperature in the truck.”
Lyons sits next to Carter in the truck. “Laura and I work well together because we’re both very cynical,” says the avuncular Carter with a laugh. “Our personalities mesh well, which is very important because we spend so much time sitting next to one another. We have a shorthand between us because we’ve worked together so long.”
Their cynicism and familiarity serve them well when, after a heartfelt ballad, one of the coaches gets an unexpected and inopportune case of the giggles.
GAME TIME: (top) Floor stage manager Valdez Flagg says the most important part of his job is soothing anxious contestants; (bottom) Alex Van Wagner (left), with judge Adam Levine, directs behind-the-scenes segments with associate director Jay Ostrowski.
“What is his problem?” asks Lyons.
“He’s 10 years old,” Carter replies, then calls the name of a camera operator, who without further prompting, crops the judge out of the shot.
“Laura makes the truck happen,” Carter says. “She has all these notes in her book, and as we’re shooting she’s preparing us, reminding us of all the stuff we did in the rehearsal. Not only is she doing that, she’s also making sure audio knows what microphones are being used, and makes sure graphics understands what’s needed. She’s in charge of making sure everybody is ready.”
“You have everything prepared,” Lyons says of her job. “You know the music, you’ve been to the rehearsal and talked to the lighting and audio guys. I know when there’s a camera [Alan] definitely wants to cut to and I’ll make sure he sees it. As the director, his focus is in the present, and I’m seeing what’s coming up next. I’m making sure that whatever is coming up—the next performance or the next commercial—is ready to go.”
Since he’s not onstage, Carter doesn’t initially have a lot of interaction with the celebrity coaches (this season, it’s Voice veterans Blake Shelton and Ada m Levine and relative newcomers Shakira and Usher) or the contestants until the live shows. “Right now, there are 48 contestants—I don’t even get involved with them until there’s about 12 left and we go live.”
Van Wagner, however, has been involved with the contestants from the beginning. “I do a lot of off-site shooting,” he explains. “I’m telling the kids’ stories before they enter the show, meeting their friends and family, following their journey, getting to know them. You try to make everyone as comfortable as possible. A lot of people have never been on camera before, so you want to make sure they’re not nervous.”
Natoli, Flagg and Levisohn Hoyo are the team members who deal the most with the contestants. Natoli also serves as something of a field general, figuring out the logistics of the live shows. He has plenty of experience working on awards shows and likens the team’s job on The Voice to trying to create an awards show twice a week, every week. “Gary is the lead stage manager on the Academy Awards, the Emmy Awards and other awards shows, and his team is basically doing the same thing here on a weekly basis,” says Carter.
“For the live [segments], it’s like doing an awards show,” agrees Natoli. “It’s fast and furious, big sets and fast turnaround times. It’s all about timing; how much time we have to set something up. The network sometimes wants to change the order [of the performances] on us, and sometimes it’s just impossible because of physics. We can’t do a turnaround fast enough, so we have to change the rundown.”
Natoli also manages the mini-disasters that inevitably occur during the flurry of a live show—sets and props constructed until the last minute, contestants getting sick or losing their voice (occasionally, they won’t even be able to sing until they’re live). “It’s a big cluster at the very end to get it all together,” he says.
Levisohn Hoyo mans the post where the contestants enter the stage to perform. “Everything behind the door is reality, then on the other side of the door is the variety, so I’m juggling to make sure both sides get what they want,” she says. She’s also in charge of calming the nerves of contestants who have never been on TV before. “I’ll say, ‘Are you OK? Do you want to take a breath? Do you want a sip of water? I’ll walk you out, you won’t be out there alone.’ Some people are good to go, but you can tell others are about to throw up.”
The Voice has an almost unprecedented number of moving parts for a TV show, which can be evidenced by the number of meals prepared by the production caterers—often up to 850 a day for cast, crew, contestants, contestants’ family members and the staff necessary to wrangle all these people. “It’s the biggest [TV] show in Los Angeles in terms of footprint size,” notes Van Wagner. “So it took a little while for the live and reality directors to learn how to work together.”
“In the first season, variety and reality were kind of stepping over one another,” recalls Natoli. “We were getting in each other’s way. You’re taking two different genres and wedding them together and everyone’s saying, ‘This is the way I’m going to work.’ You’d be onstage doing something and they’d come barreling onstage next to you. We’d say, ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing?’ Or we would walk through their shots and they’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ A few times we were screaming at each other. That’s how we all were, I’m going to be honest.”
FIELD GENERAL: Head stage manager Gary Natoli, who figures out the logistics for The Voice, says the team’s job is like putting on a live awards show twice a week. “It’s fast and furious.”
The disparate teams began finding their rhythm when they learned to embrace the chaos. “How we fixed it was by noticing that the coaches would start talking to one another about what just happened,” Carter says. “The producers saw that and told them to start talking more. So reality was off interviewing [backstage] while the coaches were talking amongst themselves— and a lot of that now makes it into the show. That’s how we figured out how to make the show succeed with all of us working together.”
Carter and the producers also realized it would be OK, and in fact add to the ambiance of the show, if team members appeared in the background of shots. As Natoli says, “We not only do our jobs, we are also part of the content.”
Flagg notes that Levisohn Hoyo was most affected by the decision to not avoid filming crew members. “Alissa became known as the ‘good-luck girl,’” he says. “That’s the last thing they’d hear from her, so after the first couple of seasons, contestants would see her and say,
‘Oh! You’re the good-luck girl!’ And they’re happy to see her.”
Flagg and Levisohn Hoyo’s job of soothing anxious contestants is a key factor of The Voice’s success. “The most important part of my job is to make sure the talent is relaxed enough to give their best performance that they can, because their best performance makes for the best show,” says Flagg.
During the live shows, Lyons makes sure episodes don’t run long— and none have. “I’m more into making the show look fantastic,” she explains. “I wouldn’t mind if we went long, but if NBC is going to cut us off when it re-airs [on the West Coast], then the show doesn’t look good.”
Back in the truck, after another performance, Carter scans audience reaction shots and finds gold out of the corner of his eye—the toddler daughter of the contestant cheering—and quickly calls the camera number.
“My job is to feel the emotion of the show,” he says. “Is that kid the most important story right now, or is it more important to stay on the face of the dad who’s onstage? Those are the quick decisions I have to make. I put the cameras in certain places on my wall so I know if I’m looking for something it’s going to be over here, or if I’m looking for something else it’s going to be over there.” Finding that magic shot, he says, self-deprecatingly, is “easy, I guess, because I do it.”
“He says it’s easy, but I disagree,” Flagg interjects. “It’s only easy if you have the talent.”
Initially, the back story content shot by Van Wagner accounts for about 40 percent of the early episodes, gradually decreasing until the last shows are 90 percent live. “I want to capture the relationships between the performers and coaches as organically as possible, so I block the cameras further away,” he says. “The coaches get emotionally involved with their artists and I don’t want to impede that process. So I use a longer lens which doesn’t impinge on the storytelling too much.”
The Voice became a more harmonious set once everyone saw the final product. “The bottom line is respect,” says Carter. “We fought through the first [season], but then we all saw the show, and the respect was very high because the quality of what we were doing was so high. When you have that respect, it’s OK if you walk through a shot every now and then.”