Air traffic video directors

Approximate 4 minute read

Cross an air traffic controller, someone who is responsible for the efficient implementation of schedules in an altogether unforgiving and dynamic environment; with a story-teller / visual artist, and you’ve just described a live multi-camera video director.

No, I am not suggesting video directors are responsible for the safety of thousands of people and millions of dollars in property if they screw up while doing their job. Such a statement would be hyperbole. I am suggesting that the skillset and the stress level in the two jobs have many similarities. Even if live video directors don’t spill coffee on themselves as Maverick and Goose – or a wirecam – buzzes the control room.

Aside from watching screens and talking on headsets, let’s look at some of the other similarities between these two professions. Maybe video directors, even volunteer video directors can learn a few things from our ATC brethren.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 there were 24,900 air traffic controllers in the United States versus 23,800 video directors. So, the quantity of people who earned their living in these two jobs is quite similar.

Like video directors, air traffic controllers have specialties and varied roles. An airport’s tower controllers are responsible for getting aircraft to and from the gate as well as in the air within five miles (or so) of an airport. At larger airports ground traffic and arrival/departure permission to use a runway is managed by separate tower controllers on different radio frequencies. TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) air traffic controllers handle approaches outside an approximate 5 mile tower controller limit extending out 30-50 miles from an airport. TRACON controllers are in charge of ascents and descents into or out of an airport as well as the airspace above airports. Above 18,000 feet an ARTCC (Air Route Traffic Control Center) air traffic controller takes over directing a flight across a region of airspace. Although each are air traffic controllers their functions are different; in the same way someone who directs music videos will have a different techniques, procedures and function compared to someone who directs live-live concerts for broadcast or Imag. They both direct the capture of bands performing music which may indeed be the same exact musical content, but in a totally different context.

Air traffic controllers, no matter where they are located on each continent must speak English, the common language for air traffic control per the International Civil Aviation Organization. However in addition to speaking English, air traffic controllers also have their own aviation-language. Letters A to Z and some numbers are replaced with code words minimizing potential misunderstandings between air traffic control and pilots. FAA Order 7110.65 codifies the phraseology and procedures used. Controllers refer to this manual their “Bible,” studying it during training and reviewing it regularly. Similarly video directors have a common terminology which is ubiquitous regardless of genre or deliverable. Using the correct terminology not only minimizes confusion but insures any given team of operators can work with any group of directors.

Although air traffic controllers are required to speak English fluently, not all pilots are equally proficient regarding language or piloting skill. An air traffic controllers’ primary responsibility is not just moving planes around the skies or tarmac.  An air traffic controllers’ primary responsibility is effective efficient communication.  Solving a new pilot’s inability to hold altitude or heading; or managing pilots who are not well versed in English is part of an air traffic controllers’ training.  When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak less rapidly, enunciate more distinctly and will try to avoid route changes for that aircraft, as much as is possible.  A video director will do the same with any crew member who is less experienced.  A video director’s job is to insure the success of the project, each department and each operator on his/her production.  Sometimes re-assigning team members to positions or workloads better suited for them is necessary.

Due to scheduling, air traffic controllers often miss family birthdays and have to work on weekends and holidays. Studies show that a considerable number of air traffic controllers only last five years or less on the job, yet other air traffic controllers can last three or more decades! The ability to not take stress home or into other areas of one’s life is key. NASA conducted studies in 2011 which concluded air traffic controllers were making unacceptable mistakes due to fatigue. In response the FAA issued a series of new rules which increased mandatory time off between shifts.  Does your video team have mandatory times off?

It is also important to not view one’s responsibilities or job function singularly. In addition to sequencing commercial passenger jets, air traffic controllers have to deal with private aircraft, unexpected police or paramedic emergencies, as well as expediting and prioritizing military or Air Force One flights, often all simultaneously. A video director who cannot or will not think on their feet and adjust to a dynamic live environment may need to work on being more flexible. Someone who directs pre-taped edited content may be more rigid. However someone who directs live broadcasts and Imag needs to predict problems before they occur and then roll with the punches until a production problem is sorted out.

Where an air traffic controller skillfully moves aircraft around insuring safety distances and timings are adhered to, live video directors arrange shots so that the point of interest in future shots dovetail nicely with the point of interest in preceding shots.  Similarly, live video directors are conscious of not moving a cameraman into the field of view of another camera-operator’s shot.  Composition, framing and headroom are corrected as needed and when required.

One glaring difference between air traffic controllers and video directors is (at least in a House of Worship context) video directors are often volunteers.  Whether a video director is paid or a volunteer, church-tech video directors should be highly skilled.  Not just in the mechanics and efficiency of video directing, but in the esthetics.  When hiring an air traffic controller the Federal government does not say, “let Bob have a crack at it, he faithfully shows up at the airport each week.”  How much more should we in church-tech make service in this position require appropriate training and demonstrated skill.

One of the aviation phrases air traffic controllers use is, “say souls on board and fuel remaining.” A pilot will respond with the number of lives the pilot and air traffic controller are both responsible for as well as the available (fuel) resources that are available to keep the aircraft aloft.   Maybe as church video directors we too should ask the same.

Tom D’Angelo & his instructor pilot “Baron,” mid 1990s, right before a mock dogfight in the Marchetti SF260 NATO trainer.

Title photo attribution – Antonio Zugaldia

Tom D’Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for nearly four decades. He has been nominated for a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award (Best Director) and has been part of various teams that have been nominated and won national Emmy Awards. As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.