Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 20, 2010


Imagine for a moment that you’re the CEO of a company. You’re stepping onto the stage for the company’s big annual meeting. Out in the audience are your people. You’re in command. The voice-over (known among show people as the “Voice of God”) announces you. Your theme music swells, the big lights wash the stage and you step out to the applause of your audience.

If you’re familiar with this world (as some of you are), or if you read my “Behind the Scenes” series of posts a few weeks ago (CLICK HERE for the first and continue to “Next”), you know that there is an impressive amount of preparation that has built the framework for this moment. And even at this moment, as your voice rings through the hall and your PowerPoint slides dazzle the throng, there’s a small army of people making everything happen on-cue. And, although your audience is attentive, all those behind-the-scenes people are talking.

The crew has to be able to communicate in order to run a well-coordinated show. They’re wearing headsets, and a communications system is designed to meet the requirements of every event they produce — there are multiple channels, because not everyone needs to talk to everyone else. At the top of the comms food chain is the Technical Director or TD, who’s “calling” the show. That means he or she is directing everyone else. The TD is the field general, and unless there’s a darned good reason to do otherwise, what they say goes. Listening to the TD’s directions are all the departments: Audio, Video, Lighting, Graphics, Camera, Communications and Engineering. There are sub-channels as needed. On big entertainment shows, there’s a big channel for the lighting director to direct spotlight operators. The camera director has a channel to direct the camera operators, who hear only the camera director — these are small sub-worlds, all subject to the overall script for the show, called the “show flow.”

There can be hundreds of cues in a program, and everyone has to work together seamlessly. The audio chief has to know when a video is starting or stopping, in order to send the audio signal to the speakers or take it out. The lighting director has to coordinate the various lighting presets and levels in sync with changing graphics, videos and presentations or speeches. And the graphics team (and there can be many graphics operators) may have very complex sets of signals coming from several computers that have to be triggered in exact sequences. At transitions from one portion of the program to another, as when a speaker is leaving the stage to segue to a video, which is then to be followed by another speaker, the TD says something like, “Video roll 6 and graphics preset 4, lighting cross from speaker to video preset GO! Coming out of this, stand by to restore stage lights, audio CEO walk-up and graphics preset 2.”

Everyone has to pay attention! When the TD said, “Go,” everything he or she said prior to it HAPPENS. It’s a specialized form of syntax that has very specific rules.

Not every moment is that action-packed. It’s a lot like piloting an airplane. There are moments of high intensity, like takeoffs and landings, but there also are those long, cruising periods while an hour-long speech is in progress. There’s work to be done, and everyone’s attentive, but it’s routine. Some shows can be so pat, and, frankly, so tedious, that there DOES arise a little bit of chatter over the headsets. The crew running these shows mostly know each other; many have worked and traveled together for years, spending long, long days and weeks together. They have long histories together, and have their own inside jokes, their war stories, and make the inevitable comparisons between THIS boring speaker and, say, remember that guy that time in Hawaii …?

There comes that moment, though, when all chit-chat must cease: the CLIENT has decided to get on the headset, for whatever unknown reason. Granted, it’s fascinating to listen to the show being called, but it puts a different tenor on the remarks of the crew, and restricts them to strictly business. Now, the TD can’t say over the comm system, “Hey, everybody, the client just got on the headset, so stop saying jokey things about their VP of HR and don’t tell any more jokes and just shut up.” The client has to remain convinced that it’s all-business, all the time. So there’s a secret code that indicates that the client is listening. The code words change over time, and various crews have their own, but everyone knows the code and understands what it means. My favorite: “Wormsign.” If you know Frank Herbert’s series of novels starting with “Dune,” about an alien, desert planet inhabited by giant sandworms, you recognize that term immediately. “Wormsign” was an indicator that a giant worm, hunted by the natives of the planet for a precious spice it could produce, was nearby. When the crew hears that single word, “Wormsign,” they know the client is listening. There are other, more subtle but less positive connotations for applying that word to a client, but I’ll let that go.

Such code words are familiar in lots of settings. According to what I heard the great Zydeco musician, Bois Sec Ardoin, say, the word “Zydeco” was one of a number of code words that rural people used in Cajun country when they wanted to advertise a big dance, without attracting the attention of any authorities. Itself a creole form of the French for “green beans,” it would go on a sign posted somewhere, indicating the time and place of the dance. There were a number of local words associated with the practice, but “Zydeco” caught on as the signifier of the style of music itself. You will hear other explanations for the use of  that word for the music, but M. Ardoin’s opinion is good enough for me.

© 2012 Brad Nixon


  1. I loved this piece, Brad, straight from the Voice of God.


    • It’s acceptable to refer to me by my initials, VOG.


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