Are technical directors born or made? None of the four men profiled below set out early in their careers with the precise goal of becoming a technical director for special events. One started off on the audio side, two came up through theatrical lighting (and film), and one tried television before realizing it wasn't the best fit. While each has a unique background, they all bring broad technical skills, impressive networking abilities and a grace-under-pressure work ethic to their projects, which reward them with the immense satisfaction of having brought many a successful project together.
SRO Magazine's Technical Director of the Year, Jim McClellan, is the director of production at AEG Live Events. McClellan took a circuitous route to finding his calling by leaving college and his home near Chicago to explore the Northwest. First, he joined up with a band called Big Horn in Oregon, driving the truck and throwing gear before eventually handling sound. That led to running a recording studio for a Portland music store. “I just learned by doing — and blew up various pieces of equipment in the process,” he admits. “But I also learned that you should never be afraid to ask a question if you don't understand, and even ask twice if you have to.”
After touring with a band called Applejack for two and a half years, he settled down in Oklahoma, working with a recording studio there. “I also ran a pro sound place and a rental PA and installed sound systems in churches and schools and everything else,” McClellan says. “That's where I started doing concert production. I was a runner and I ran tickets, but as soon as they found out I knew about sound and lighting systems, I started helping them with production.”
By 1991, McClellan had moved to St. Louis to work for Contemporary Productions. “They were among the first to get into marketing and special events,” he says. “I worked on everything from tours and stadium shows to private parties to conventions. So I've had a very diversified upbringing, which has given me a good, well-rounded point of view. I know enough about the technical aspects of gear but I also recognize the practical aspects and the selling of it. I've had a chance to work in pretty much every facet of the music and entertainment business, so I can usually sympathize with everyone's point of view.”
In 1998, SFX bought Contemporary Productions, which in turn was bought by Clear Channel in 2000. “I changed companies three times and never moved,” McClellan says. “Then I came to AEG Live. Even though I'm available to do things for our concert people, my primary focus is special events.”
Recent projects include handling the AFC and NFC Kickoff concerts before the Super Bowl. “We were one of five companies this year that were invited to bid on halftime for the 2005 Super Bowl,” he says. “That's the result of developing relationships, taking good care of clients, and staying up to date on the technical end, so you can offer the latest and greatest and compete with your competitors.”
Craig Leitner, director of events at AEG Live Events has worked alongside McClellan for years. “He works at a consistently high level, managing flawless events and bringing smiles to even the most difficult corporate clients,” Leitner says. “Jim has paid his dues in a tough business and it's uncanny how many times he's been right-on with so many decisions. For the Pope's visit to St. Louis in 1999, Jim managed the technical productions of a Youth Rally for 20,000 kids at the Savvis Center, the logistically challenging arrival and departure ceremonies of President Clinton and a Who's Who of political figures, as well as the largest indoor Mass ever held for 112,000 attendees at the Edward Jones Dome and America's Center,” he recounts. “In 2002, he was the co-executive producer and driving force behind the Super Bowl Halftime show with U2 in New Orleans.”
Of his storied career, McClellan does count those two events as his highlights. “They were just amazing events, for different reasons, but I'd almost call them both religious events,” he says. “I always tell people that if that can't get you going, you're in the wrong business!” Clearly, McClellan is in the right one.
Given his company's title, it is not surprising that Greg Christy, president and CEO of Orange County, California-based Brite Ideas, started off his career as a lighting designer. Having earned his college degree in theatrical lighting design, he focused on that for several years, but realized how difficult it would be to make a living doing only theatre. “So I ended up falling into special/corporate events,” he says. “Literally, I got a call one day and somebody asked me if I could light a tent for a party. I'd never lit a tent before in my life, but I did it and it turned out to be a high-profile event and it led to another high-profile event.”
That first call was a private event for the Irvine Company — a society gala event with a lot of local dignitaries. The second was the opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 1987. “Back in those days, there weren't a lot of people applying theatrical lighting techniques to special events,” Christy explains. “So that really launched us.”
Brite Ideas currently employs 16 full-time staff members and works out of 10,000 sq. ft. building. “We started out 16 years ago as a lighting design-only firm with just a couple of people working out of a small office,” Christy says. “After about five years, some of our key clients asked if we could bring in the audio and whoever we like for video for some events. That's where the technical direction aspect of our business was born: from clients who believed in us, wanting us to handle everything on their events.”
Andrea Michaels of Extraordinary Events is one of those repeat clients. “Not only is Greg up to date on all of the latest technologies, his background in theatre allows him to visualize a project from the producer's perspective. He looks at how an effect can be made to happen — and often economically as well — since corporations are at the moment very budget driven,” she says. “He considers it his job to make every last detail of a program perfect; he works tirelessly to make his clients happy and respects their needs and goals and embraces them as his own.”
One memorable show Christy and Michaels did was for Siebel Systems at the Coors Amphitheatre in San Diego. Extraordinary Events' client was the George P. Johnson Company. “It had a World Beat theme,” Christy explains. “So we conceptualized and engineered a giant, 20-foot diameter globe on which we projected video of different musical performances from around the world. It became a kinetic centerpiece for the entire event.”
Interestingly, two of Brite Idea's highest budget projects were 40th birthday parties, one in 2003 and one last year. “One had Elton John performing. The other one was in the Santa Monica Air Center — they spent $3.2 million and we literally created three separate rooms within the hangar. One room showed a retrospective of this guy's life in a complete tiered movie theatre, with real seats and a real screen.”
Brite Ideas handles about 16 shows a year that generally range in scope from $20,000 to $500,000 events. “We have done shows that we've technical directed for and not designed, and some we design but don't TD,” he says. “But we often do both. We believe it's to our clients' advantage to package our services together and it certainly makes it a lot easier.”
Anthony Valcic started on the path toward technical direction from his high school audio/visual and theatre departments. After a false start in the world of television, he worked for AVHQ as a project manager. Then, he went on to work for Richanbach & Associates where he was a project manager and technical director on a variety of projects ranging from the Sony PlayStation booth at E3 to Sunrise for Sun Microsystems. After Richanbach he went on to work for Addwater, Inc. in San Francisco and now he is a freelancer under the moniker Unlimited Events.
“I went into technical direction because it felt natural for me as far as being able to fill in the role of foreseeing what the clients' needs are or executing their visions,” he says. “I've been doing this for over 20 years now and I also handle other roles like stage and production management.”
Valcic considers working as the assistant technical director on the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City as a career highlight. He worked on the medal ceremonies, where he supervised the transition of a parking lot into the presentation/performing stage for headline entertainment every night. “I oversaw the audio, video, video screens, communications, and pyro as well as the equipment trucks and sea containers. If you get the chance to work on an Olympic event it's the best experience you could ever have,” he says.
One of last year's highlights included a one-off concert called, Dear Friends — Music from Final Fantasy, staged at the new Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles [“A Game Orchestra,” SRO, July 2004]. “Anthony was instrumental in helping create the first-ever video-game music concert,” says producer Jason Michael Paul. “I cannot say enough about what he brings as a technical director and as a person.
“On the Final Fantasy event, literally everything was a challenge,” Paul continues. “Anthony served as the point person between producer and everyone else on the technical end of the production. He worked with multiple vendors, technical personnel, venue personnel and union labor. He worked with audio support/video facilities/video projection/scenic/lighting departments, coordinated with designers, and created drawings and production scheduling, and did everything within budget. He organized with the venue, ordered power, created a catering schedule, made sure the venue knew what we were doing and what we were rigging.”
Valcic enjoyed the challenge. “The time frame was also a challenge — we had a 27 and a half hour window from the time we moved in to the press conference, to the performance, and then tearing it down. But one of the things from it was seeing the president of Square Eenix smiling and thanking me for a great job and knowing that he's probably getting a lot of accolades from his peers and his bosses from Japan. That goes for all of the shows that I do. Having a happy client and getting called back to do more shows. I always love to work with different people because the companies that hire me have their own vendors and people they use and that allows me to learn from others.”
Paul Begovich of ShowLink, Inc. got his start in theatre with an undergraduate degree in theatrical design from San Diego State University and an early career as a lighting designer, which (shockingly!) didn't pay off too well, in terms of money. So when he got an offer to go Hollywood and work for Staging Techniques, Begovich took the job and began doing lighting, video, scenic, rigging, and stage management. “I worked under a guy named John Bromberg. He was a great mentor,” Begovich says. “He was the guy who always looked under the rock to find the snake that could bite the production. It was good training.”
After that, Begovich worked on the road with bands including English Beat and Oingo Boingo. He then fulfilled a lifelong plan of attending graduate school at the American Film Institute for cinematography. But by the time he got a call for a movie, he was out on Madonna's 1987 Who's That Girl tour as a PANI projector/35mm technician. “I didn't take it because I don't jump jobs,” he says. “So I sort of kissed my movie career goodbye.”
While movies didn't figure into his future, his Pani skills led to more work on industrials and a Siegfried and Roy tour in Japan. Upon returning, he settled in the San Francisco Bay area and started project managing for different production houses. “Then I got a call to TD as a substitute,” he says. “And I've just met more and more producers, which is how you get more work.”
Sometimes a project has many producers, like the Insiders Series at the 2005 Consumer Electronic Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which was shared equally by Intel, Dell, Verizon Wireless & Real Networks. “There was no time, no rigging; everything had to be ground supported,” Begovich says. “We'd also have these hilarious conference calls with the different representatives and they'd say they weren't going to do anything because they were all keeping their cards close the vest. So they all pretty much lied to us for most of the pre-production time up until the last couple of days, when they admitted they were actually going to do five demos. So that was fun.”
Begovich most enjoys taking shows into different venues. “I've done shows in all parts of the world — in Russia, Istanbul, and all kinds of wacky places. I had to move a Sun MicroSystems show (called Sunrise, which is a reward program for the sales and engineering folks who go over quota) from Istanbul to Vienna, right after 9/11. I had to camp out in Vienna and work with the ground operators to make sure everything would fit in every venue. It all came flawlessly; everybody worked hard and pulled together. A lot of these shows are all about the latest gag — the executive wants to fly in on a flying saucer or whatever it is. So you're usually doing something that's hopefully a little different, keeping it fresh.
“If I can make that producer look good and make his or her job a little bit easier, then the next time they will think of me and I'll get another job out of it,” he concludes. “That's how I want to work. I want to put together a great team and have fun. I'm always looking for new things to do. Book early and often, folks!”