How I Got to Graduate Twice
In early 2020, when the world was still going at the “good old pace, as we knew it”, I was invited to take part in an high-level event as part of an important project in our learning program. Some colleagues had already started gathering thoughts and drafting the agenda, and I was asked to step in as the moderator of the event. Live event, of course – at the time, no one even suspected that the world would flip and contain us all in our homes in the coming months. The event was co-designed with external partners under the umbrella of a big international series of events, at the end of August 2020. It envisaged high-level guests, a masterclass, round tables, group discussions, and a splashy ending with an evening reception – something we at the CEF are also well known and praised for.
And then March 2020 happened.
First, we did not know what to think or plan. Nobody really did. The CEF closed the offices and went working fully online, transferring all the program activities to the online environment in our online campus. Not knowing what all this meant and how long it would last, we knew that our big event was somewhere in the air. We considered leaning on the decision of the partner organizers to have some clarity of either going forward live or thinking of an alternative. While we were already playing with the idea of doing something interesting online, we were lingering, awaiting the decision of the partner. And time went by. In May, we made the most important decision: to go and do it ourselves, regardless of what the other partner’s events will look like. So putting our heads together, we drafted our very first agenda of a virtual event, for which we knew exactly what we DIDN’T WANT TO DO – JUST ANOTHER WEBINAR.
NO. It had to be interesting, engaging, enticing, and different.
It had to have meaning and power. It had to involve high-level experts that we had already secured to be part of the event. To make it more complex, these experts were each in their own home, scattered across Europe.
It had to allow the audience to interact and take active part.
And since the original event was supposed to be held in Bled, we kept the Bled venue idea.
We realized quite early in the process that this was a challenge we wouldn’t be able to conquer solely with internal resources and technical equipment, so we started searching for production companies who could join forces with us. And being from a different profession than the artistic teams on the other side, it was a challenging job for us to define the technical and creative needs. We felt kind of relieved when we managed to submit the procurement package, eagerly awaiting responses and offers. When the deadline for submission went by, we dug ourselves into the offers and went through the evaluation procedure to select the winner, and then of course – go and do it.
I can tell that you sense a but coming. Yes, it didn’t go all that smoothly.
Despite our enthusiasm, the evaluation procedure did not result in identifying our counterpart production company. Why not? We received so diverse offers in terms of technical solutions and descriptions, artistic approach and finances, that it was literally impossible to compare them or choose THE ONE. It was clear that the procurement needed to be repeated. And before that, in the phase of procurement documentation development, we understood that we needed an expert who’d speak “the production language”, so that we could define the needs and expectations with utmost precision, not allowing much room for interpretation. With this in mind, and with two months left till the event (in the summer holiday season), we realized that keeping the original date – end of August – was not a realistic option. At least not for something so big; that would have been a harakiri for the team :-) Looking at the availability of the team members and other commitments, we settled that the end of the year, just before the new year holidays, would be a perfect time to end the year with a big, splashy, virtual broadcasting event.
So we spent the summer months contemplating the idea, consulting with a production expert, and compiling state-of-the-art procurement documentation for the second round. Another lesson from the first round was to add a consultation slot for production companies, making sure that they understood our ideas and asked for clarifications before submitting their proposals. In the course of these consultations, we also responded to several financial limitation questions, which made our life a little easier during evaluation.
Eventually we selected the production company, signed the contract, and were ready to go. First came a long introductory alignment meeting with the producer. We knew at once that they were coming from a different background and that both sides had to adjust a lot and learn about each other’s expectations and how things would work. The scenario we worked on included video teasers for the announcement of the event, pre-recorded addresses of our partners, and some live interventions of high-level guests. We rolled up our sleeves.
With the application announcement around the corner, the video teasers needed to be recorded at once. As soon as we had agreed on the setup and scenario, it was time for recording. Trying to catch the autumn fog, the production team started at the crack of dawn. And imagine, on that day there was NO FOG, so they had to make it. :-) In Bled, along the lake. Then we moved to the Bled Castle. It was right on the first day of the second lockdown, so the funicular was not working. The team had to carry 500 kg of equipment on their shoulders to the set.
Then we started rehearsing the teaser text, waiting for the sun, adjusting the equipment, and getting to know the drill. When we started recording, the camera slide got stuck. You looked away too quickly. Repeat. Maybe we will get some sun? Repeat. Just one more try and we are done. Look, the sun is coming out! Let’s make two more clips. Do we have everything now? No. The voice-over is missing. Where is the tone master? Record a few versions. Longer and shorter. We will play with it then and edit. Ok, that’s a wrap!
After pulling together the detailed scenario and talking points for the guests of the show who would never really see each other, we decided to organize one production day in the field – in Bled in early November. Sounds simple, right? Well, just sounds. Coordinating the presence of high-level representatives of four institutions on the same day, in a sequence that would preferably fit all their schedules, for the recording slots set up in three hours (production company’s requirement, calculating in all the Murphy’s and back-up plan time), plus counting in the availability of the quite numerous production crew and supervising it all on-site. To spice it up, let’s throw in the requirement that the weather should not be particularly catastrophic that day, since recording was to take place in the open air. Then the plans of one speaker changed and we had to swap the order of speakers, again and again, whereas the production company only had this one day available. No chance of changes really. So after five weeks of alignments, here we were again, at Lake Bled and the castle. This time with less equipment, luckily. At the end of the day relieved that 4/5 of the pre-recordings were done.
The pending 5/5 was to be done remotely. With a high-resolution digital camera that was sent up front to the speaker. That should have been easy. We were supposed to log in and record the video and the good sound that the camera provides. Well, the speaker couldn’t connect. The network was bouncing high and low. Eventually we managed to connect and make the first attempt of recording. The first half went remarkably well and then we lost connection again, with people being in home offices along with kids and other family members who also had to use the internet for homeschooling and working. We could have tried the phone hotspot connection. Except that we couldn’t because the computer administrator didn’t allow it. Security sometimes makes life more difficult... We tried over and over again, with no luck. What about phone recording? Some phones have really good cameras, it might work. We tried that and it did work! So we got the recording across in the best possible quality. What a relief.
Due to the lockdown, the studio location in Bled was unobtainable, but the producers had a plan B. And C. Not sure whether we ended up on location C or D, but on one freezing Tuesday in December, four of us headed up to the faraway Grosuplje, a small town about 22 km from Ljubljana. It was one of the very few business trips that year, for some even the one and only. For the CEF staff that used to fly around on business trips like birds several times a month, this was quite a change.
Arriving at the location, we first got a stick up the nose to get Covid tested, and then we were let inside the studio. Testing the equipment, troubleshooting, rehearsing all morning… The left camera, the right camera, teleprompter, microphone, earpiece. Let’s try again, I can’t hear you. Should I hear you in my earpiece or from the distance? This is your spot. Stand here. Look at the camera. You may smile. We won’t bite. Ok, a short break and snack. Then the last testing. Dress and make-up. Final photos of the BEFORE behind the stage. The final photo for our internal paparazzi, and a scream of anticipation. Guests started to log in half an hour earlier to make sure that their equipment is OK, the connection works, and the setup is fine. Ten minutes before the start one guest’s connection froze. We started calling him, mailing and refreshing the connection. No luck. Four minutes to air. Another guest dropped out. And the first one wasn’t reconnected either. Our backstage team’s blood pressures hit the ceiling while making phone calls with the missing guests and the IT support people. Has streaming started yet? Press that button! NOW! We got one guest back! Hold it. We are ok.
Meanwhile in the other part of the studio, on the stage, we were checking and greeting the guests on the screen. One was still missing two minutes before air. The commotion continued with phone calls and slight panic, whereas there was funny silence in the back room. Something was going on.
And then the moment of truth. Final countdown, 60 seconds to air. The camera guy’s assistant came to me and said, “Just to let you know, the teleprompter broke down. We go without it.” – “Are you crazy? We rehearsed with this all morning. You must be joking!” – “No, it’s not a joke.” I was so shocked that I didn’t even feel it. 22 seconds to air. It’s good that I always keep my notes with me. And we were on air.
“Welcome to our broadcasting event.” Remarkably, all guests had managed to reconnect and appeared on the screen. The backstage team was sweaty and hectic, but the show was running. There were some hiccups with the bandwidth. And one of the videos got stuck. But all this I learned only later. On the stage, there was serene calmness. Cameras were on, and my notes were a secret weapon of the show. Counting down my interventions till the fall of the curtains. 4, 3, 2, 1. “Thank you for joining us.”
And then – it’s a wrap. The best feeling of that day! The notes went flying in the air like at a graduation. Which it was for me in a way – conquering the first live broadcasting event. It was an amazing learning experience. And much more.