“5… 4… 3… 2… 1… and we’re live.” Hayley Collett and team get the most-watched sport show on earth on the road. Billions of people watching, humungous celebrities to appease, and it’s all live – welcome to the Super Bowl half time show.
“Joyous.” That’s how Hayley Collett describes the atmosphere during the build-up to the Super Bowl halftime show on which she’s worked as associate director for the past four years.
Not ‘bricking it’, not ‘for-crying-out-loud-there’s-118-million-people-watching-our–live–footage–of–a–concert-in-a-field-with-some-of-the-biggest-music-stars-in-the-world-in-a-12-minute-gap-during-half-time-in-the-middle-of-the-biggest-sporting-occasion-in-America’ but ‘joyous’.
“You know what? It’s the best show I ever do,” says the Brit. “I love it because everyone is in such a good mood, the team is fantastic, the crew is fantastic and it’s a really, really happy day. It’s a joyous day.”
Team work makes the dream work
Okey doke, so let’s back up a little here, what do you actually do?
“I’m an associate director in a live TV environment, which means I’m the person who sits next to the director and calls all the camera shots,” Hayley explains.
The director in this case being another Brit, Hamish Hamilton, who received a British Academy of Film and Television Arts ‘Special Award’ in 2013 to recognise his “ability to showcase unique live spectacles through multi-camera based television directing”.
So you do the ‘camera 1, camera 2, camera 4, camera 1’ stuff (as seen in this YouTube trailer for ‘Katy Perry: Making of the Super Bowl Halftime Show’)? Okay, what else?
“What happens is the whistle goes at half time and they go to the commercial break. I give the cue from the field and they tell me that they are clear and we have about seven or eight minutes to get the set on. The show itself is about 12.5 to 13 minutes long.
The count I do is based on what time we are due on air. This is heard by everyone who is involved in the production and back at the TV network. The stage manager will physically cue the band on my count.
“The count is also to the start of a time-code track that pyrotechnics, lighting and screens follow so the effects are triggered at exactly the correct moment.
World’s biggest jigsaw puzzle
“The set is constructed in pieces and everyone that runs the carts onto the field are all volunteers, some of whom have done it before. It’s run by a guy called Cap Spence.”
I think the Orlando Sentinel sums up Spence’s job quite well: “His job is to get the stage for the halftime show onto the field, assembled and ready for the performers in five minutes or less.
“And after the show, to tear it apart and whisk it away before the players roar back into battle.”
“It’s all volunteers, which a lot of people don’t realise. They have to be available for rehearsals for a couple of weeks and they lay out what they’re going to do for the staging in a rehearsal space, they tape it out, they put the set into different pieces and they practise and they practise and they practise running the carts backwards and forwards and how everything gets plugged in together.
All angles covered
“So we have about six of our own cameras and then we use some of the game’s cameras that get interfaced into our truck but we don’t know until everything is plugged in if our cameras are going to work or not.
“We’ve had times where you plug in a camera and it’s not come up and they’ve had to re-set it and it’s come up and they’ve only got thirty seconds to go.
“When halftime is over, the crew have seven minutes to get the stage off the field and we just have to wait until it’s clear and then tell the people on the field of play when it’s clear so the game can start again. It can only take that specific amount of time because of the athletes and their warm-up – it’s imperative that it’s done in that amount of time.”
And we’re live…
On the Katy Perry trailer someone says, “whoever said the phrase, ‘don’t sweat the things you can’t control’ never did a Super Bowl halftime show”. What sorts of things have gone wrong?
“In 2013, with Beyonce, we had a steady cam, which is a camera mounted to the person, and it completely sheared off its plate, so we had to think ahead for the script because every single shot is pre-determined.
“So when camera seven was needed – I can’t believe I remember the camera number – we had to replace it with another shot. So I’m calling the script and I would be saying, ‘shot 175, seven next’, but Hamish was looking to see what other shot could be used to make sure it would work.
Super Bowl goes dark
“There was also the famous year the Super Bowl went dark! Headlines were like, ‘Beyonce sends the Super Bowl dark’!
“It was absolutely nothing to do with us, as in the half-time show; we were on a completely separate generator system from the main arena.
“So for anyone afterwards who was like, ‘it was your fault because you had too many lights on’ or ‘Beyonce had too many lights’ our production executive was able to go, ‘actually, we had a completely separate genny supply’.”
It all sounds utter madness – what sort of preparation goes into putting on a show that lasts 12-and-a-half minutes?
“The company that produces the halftime show, Touchdown Entertainment, probably start working on it as soon as the next Super Bowl is announced – pitching for artists, and artists pitch to them…
Weather with you
But for the live show team, we start by looking at the parameters of the stadium. So we’ve had shows such as in New Jersey with Bruno Mars a couple of years ago where it’s been -20, and Miami where it was absolutely baking, so first you have to look at the stadium because some of them have a roof and some don’t.
This year the big issue is, because it’s on the west coast in the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, it’s a lot earlier in the day and the stadium has no roof, so it’s going to be in daylight so you can’t put on the full lighting extravaganza that you would normally do if it was dark.
So the creative people have to approach the show from a completely different perspective of what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it and we have to look at how to showcase the event.Working life
You’ve worked on numerous other productions – the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, the Oscars, U2 concerts, Madonna webcasts, so what makes the Super Bowl stand out?
“It’s really odd compared to other shows in that you normally do a dress rehearsal and then you do the show, or the dress rehearsal is the night before, but at the Super Bowl we do our dress rehearsal on the Friday and we don’t do it again until we plug in and do the show live on the Sunday.”
Last time I saw you was thirty years ago when we both were little gymnasts – what sort of career trajectory takes you to working on the Super Bowl halftime show?
“I always knew I wanted to work in telly, always, from about 12 or 13 so I did gear my studies towards that.
“I did Media Studies after school and I did a degree in media studies and the history of art and then I wrote letters to hundreds of companies trying to get work experience and the break for me was I managed to get work experience at MTV in Camden in 1993-94 and I was like, ‘I’m not leaving, this is the best job ever’.
“So I did anything and everything like made tea, ran cables… it was a time when MTV was still only one channel in Europe and you were allowed to try loads of different things – they don’t let work experience people do any of that now.
“Hamish, who is the director I work with most of all, came from the BBC as a breath of fresh air in 1997-98 and a job came up because someone was on maternity leave and they needed someone in the gallery to do all the timing and the counting and I was like, ‘yep, I’ll do that’.
So I went from £100 a week to £400 a week and I sort of learned on the job really. Hamish had been directing things like Def ll and Reportage on BBC Two with Normski, which was like youth programming, and he got brought to MTV and I met him and his team there.
Then MTV started doing concerts and big live events and started filming concerts and the live outside broadcast started getting bigger so Hamish was doing those and I was working with him and then started to get asked to do bits and pieces outside so I went freelance in about 1998.
We did this really big Prodigy gig in Red Square in Moscow and some people saw it and then you get like a buzz with artists and we did the Brits in 2001 when U2 were the recipients of the lifetime achievement award and Bono loved it.
So then Bono phoned Hamish and said I want you to do our concerts and then Madonna saw something and we then did the first webcast of Madonna from Brixton and she really loved that and wanted us to do a big special in America in 2001.
Biggest live gig in sport
So those three years were quite quick and we’ve been doing the Super Bowl halftime show since 2010.
How we got in with that was at the re-opening of the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, U2 were asked to play and they said we want Hamish to direct it and so we did that as a charity thing, we didn’t get paid, the bands and everyone did it for nothing.
“So then we met people from the NFL and they were like well we want you to do the half-time show. When I say ‘we’, I tag along, I just do my job.
In the creative process I’m always involved in the meetings but with deciding who gets the jobs and that sort of thing, that’s all Hamish.”
So back to the actual day. This thing is live, it’s the biggest ever TV audience for anything, ever, more people watched the halftime show last year than the actual game, and you’re in the team in charge of showing it to the world. How does your day pan out?
“So you wake up in the morning excited. You have to get to site very early because of security and the amount of people around – so it’s like eight o’clock in the morning and considering we’re not on until seven o’clock at night and we can’t do anything until then…
What we’ll normally do is have something to eat, watch our rehearsal footage back and just practice it and make notes.
Then the game starts and we don’t go in the operations truck yet because the quarters are often quite long and you’d just be sitting there twiddling your thumbs and getting all nervous.
We normally go into the truck in the middle of the second quarter, check communications, I check communications with the network and then we just have to wait – it’s horrible – it’s just proper, waiting to see what actually happens with the game.
Everyone wants the game to be quite even and a bit of a cliff hanger at half time so it’ll keep people on for the half time show and then you do it, and it’s over in a flash!
“There’s a really, really high level of concentration during the show itself but it’s really exhilarating once you’ve finished.
So Super Bowl day for me it’s incredible. I’m allowed to go on to the field beforehand and I’m just soaking up the atmosphere.
“I mean you’re anxious but we feel it’s the one show that I feel really confident in everyone that’s working on it because everyone’s rehearsed it and everyone knows what they’ve got to do and we’ve practised it.
“There’s always something that could go wrong but I love live telly, it’s the best thing.
Once the moment’s gone the moment’s gone, it’s done, you can’t change it, you can’t do anything, and you just have to deal with what’s in front of you.
That’s some adrenaline rush. Do you feel a bit of a comedown afterwards?
“Yes! We call it Big Gig Come Down. You’re like, ‘oh, okay’ but the good thing about the Super Bowl is you’ve still got the other half of the game to watch and if it’s a good game and you’re into it it’s great.
“When it all goes really well it’s very satisfying but quite often on the big shows you do get Big Gig Come Down and you sort of go, ‘so we’re done now’.
“It makes you realise sometimes what it must be like for – a little bit, not really but a little bit – of when people come off stage, when you’ve had that adrenaline and you’ve enjoyed it and then you’re like, ‘oh’.”
And then back home for the humdrum of everyday life? How do you work your work-life balance work for you?
“I live near Hampton Court and some of the shows I do are in London but rarely now. My commute now is mainly on planes, mostly to LA and New York.
“My husband is an art director and sometimes works in town but he does most of his stuff from home.
“We’ve got a little girl called Mabel so what we do is, when I work he doesn’t and when he works I don’t and there’s quite a lot of time when we’re both at home.
“When we had Mabel we took a big cut in the family income but it was for our quality of life and work balance and what we wanted out of it.
Planes, planes, planes
So for the Super Bowl, I fly to LA and we do rehearsals for five days and then we’ll go up to Santa Clara the following week.
“So I’m away for two weeks but I haven’t worked since the beginning of December.
“For the past few years we’ve done the Oscars straight after the Super Bowl – we’re not doing the Oscars this year – but when I’m away that amount of time, which is nearly two months, Chris and Mabel come out for a few weeks.
“It’s just a different balance, rather than do three days a week I’ll do a few weeks on and a few weeks off. It works for us.
“It means I’m lucky enough to be able to do all the jobs that I want to do and still have enough time at home as well.
So which Super Bowl have you enjoyed the most?
“Me personally? Beyonce. I love choreography and for me, the way that we captured the choreography she was so happy, we were really happy – I really loved it.
“It’s just different for different reasons – I really loved Katy Perry last year I thought she was really clever and she worked really hard.
Bruno Mars was really good but the challenge with Bruno was that it was so cold and we couldn’t run the risk of having the stage in the middle of the field with such inclement weather, so he’s actually on the side a bit.
“He was in the middle of the stage with a drum kit but it was all designed that if the weather was bad he would still have been able to do something if he couldn’t have got to the middle.”
How did you enjoy the out-of-time dancing ‘shark’ during Katy Perry’s set last year?
“Brilliant. That was so funny because who knew that was going to be like the biggest thing on the internet – the way one of the sharks danced!”