Operating a Prompter

Operate a prompter

Prompt Operating

There is no point in discussing equipment at an operational level because each type of prompting software or on-camera prompt monitor is different in design and operation. But an operator should make sure they understand the workings of both, and, of course, know where cables plug in, and particularly the routine of fault finding if the prompt output, or power, is lost. There is sometimes no time to wait for an engineer to finish his tea and come and sort you out! We’ve all been there, no video to the prompt camera, live show, presenter complaining, gallery shouting, “Three minutes to transmission………..”, deep breath, fight the adrenalin, all cables seem fine, nothing for it must re-boot the computer, picture comes up with ten seconds to go……..the strange thing is that because it worked everybody is so pleased they overlook the fact that it shouldn’t have gone down in the first place! Perhaps the prompt operator needs the odd hiccup to be noticed at all!

The following are some hints and tips for those who are new to operating. Those who are experienced please do not hesitate to e-mail any further points or, indeed, if you feel any of the hints are wrong!

While many prompting systems are permanently rigged there are still times when kit is brought in just for a particular show and by covering the procedures for this the general principles should be covered for both situations.

Many studios have permanently rigged prompting base stations which tend to take some of the pressure off the operator. They are not responsible for the performance of the equipment which they are if they bring the equipment in. But the operator should still make themselves aware of the cable runs and how the system is rigged. Even though it may not be their responsibility if there is a problem everybody will be looking at the prompt operator!

When rigging in studio always check with the floor manager where you should set up, (a.) out of courtesy and (b.) because he may have earmarked a place for set storage or similar and no sooner than you have rigged he’ll ask you to move!

Before assembling the rig check that all the items are labelled as having been PAT tested for electrical safety and are in date. It could be very embarrassing if the site electrical or Health and Safety representative closed you down!

Set up if possible with line of sight to the presenter position.

Set up near a wall box. They are standard in most modern studios. It looks after the distribution of power, audio, video and IT Network.

On the wall box you will find a mains electrical supply, you must use Technical Mains which ensures that there is a common earth, in other words the prompting base station has the same earth as the camera which the prompter is mounted on. The socket may take a conventional domestic plug or it may require a special connector. If you do not have the correct plug you can usually get an adaptor from the site electrician – if you ask nicely!

Next note the number of the wall box ask the Engineering Manager to allocate you two BNC video outputs on the wall box. One will be for a video feed which will be patched through the gallery to the prompter on the camera using a tie line in the camera cable. The second is for a genlock feed, genlock synchronises all the video in the studio to prevent any interference. Use a BNC cable to take a feed from the prompter to the appropriate input on the box, and take an output from the box, again use a BNC cable, and plug it into the genlock input of the prompting base station. Ask the Engineering Manager to supply a genlock feed of Black and Burst.

Next find the person looking after sound and ask for headphones. At worst you want a feed of the Gallery in one ear and a clean feed of the presenter, studio sound out, in the other, but preferably a talk back system which enables the operator to control the balance between the two feeds and also speak to the gallery if required, finding out where to go from, text alterations etc. absolutely essential for big productions.

On-camera units

Since all monitors by different manufacturers are unique in design make sure you know how to control brightness and contrast and how to switch to/out of mirror image. These functions are not always obvious and rather than simply flicking a switch are often controlled by menu options. It is not a good feeling to be standing by the camera ringing the office on a mobile to find out how to make it brighter – the attendant camera operator would not be impressed…..and it gets the day off to a bad start!

It is very important to make sure the glass of the on-camera prompters is spotlessly clean. Most prompter hoods are relatively open faced which allows a presenter to read it off centre if required, sides to the hood mask the text. Because of the open face the glass is prone to flares which are caused by light hitting smudges on the glass. The prompter glass is literally a two way mirror with, usually, though there are different combinations, 70% transmission and 30% reflection. This combination should not affect the colourimetry of the camera and would lose about half a stop of exposure, well within limits of modern cameras. Generally the surface of the glass that faces the presenter is vacuum coated with a titanium compound. This is a very hard coating and while no abrasives or solvents should ever be used to clean it lens cloths and cleaning fluid are acceptable. However to cut down the risk of light reflecting from the back of the glass back into the camera lens, and reduce the inevitable secondary reflection, the reverse of the mirror is sprayed with a special air drying coating. This is very vulnerable and should be cleaned very carefully with nothing more than a soft cloth and huff and puff. A solvent on this and you end up with a coating of toffee and the glass is ruined. A good way to clean the glass in a maintenance schedule is to use hot water and washing up liquid. This cleans the glass without risk and also as a by product acts as an anti-static agent and reduces static caused when cleaning the glass which attracts dust.

Make sure you know how to change a monitor in case ones goes faulty. One thing all monitors have in common is weight. Some of the larger LCD monitors dressed up with preview monitors, clocks and all sorts of presenter aids are really heavy. Remember that the camera/prompter assembly has been carefully balanced otherwise the fluid pan and tilt head elements won’t work and the cameraman, or robotic head drives, cannot control the camera. If you take a monitor off the front of the camera it will immediately go out of balance and tilt backwards. So before you remove a monitor make sure you lock the tilt. Similarly if the monitor is mounted on a gassed studio ped, this will have been balanced, but vertically this time. If you take off the monitor and you haven’t locked the column, the camera will shoot up to its maximum height! A recipe for disaster.

Most studio cameras nowadays supply power and video to the prompter via the camera cable. Short low voltage and video cables run from the sockets on the camera to the prompter. If the camera is providing a mains supply a transformer will be used to supply 12v dc to the prompter. This can be mounted on the panning handle of the pedestal head to aid balance. Always make sure that the cables are neatly taped down and that there are no loops to get caught.

Sometimes power and/or video are not available from the camera and you will have to run power and video cables from the base station, or directly from a convenient wall box, to the prompter. The same applies whether you are just installing a mains cable or a video cable or both. The quickest way to do this is to uncoil the cables and lay them beside the camera cable, follow it faithfully, under or over any other cables it might cross, then before taping test them! Once you are happy they are working go to the camera end to start taping. Leave enough at the camera to reach the prompt input and the transformer and securely tape the cable at the point where the camera cable enters the camera, just make sure you are not interfering with the release ring. Then put the ped at it’s highest and tape down to the cable clamp, this is to make sure you don’t cable too short and limit the vertical travel of the ped. To tape the cable just start twisting it round the camera cable, just keep wrapping it round until it gets tight and tape here. You will find that if you started wrapping clockwise you will have several anti clockwise turns after the taping point. After taping tighten and proceed wrapping anti-clockwise turns until it gets tight, tape, and tighten and proceed with the next clockwise turns…..and so on until the cable is taped well into the loops of spare cable, just in case the camera suddenly flies off somewhere. You will find the advantage of wrapping the cables like this make for a very easy de-rig – just break the tape points and the cables fall off the camera cable. Once or twice through the day check that the taping is secure.

Script Preparation

Load your script from whichever medium you are presented with and if possible go through it. If it hasn’t been already broken into sections break it up into sequences or even pages or use shot numbers to define particular sequences. You can certainly put these in during the stagger through, but usually you’d be too busy doing corrections. If you can do this it can save you a lot of time later. Don’t forget that you can use the “Find” option in most prompter software packages to jump to places in the script quickly.

If you get the chance read through the script on the preview monitor and check the formatting. Tidy it up as much as possible, the amount of work depends on the format of the imported text, it can be clean or it can be a nightmare. Things to watch out for are merged paragraphs which belong to different presenters, spelling, passages that don’t make sense, and the tricky catch lines. A catch line is where the short prompter line makes sense to the end of the line but in fact runs on into the next, as follows:

Rest assured we are
doing all we can to
change those multi
agency instructions – catch word move “to” back to same line as instructions
to sole agency – and
improve fee levels.
I know it’s frustrating
but I’d like to share
with you the example
of the Birmingham area – catch word – move area to line below….
that has sold 100% of
the multiagency
instructions given to
them by HouseHunt.

A simple thing like moving a word can make the world of difference to the presenter. Underlines and other punctuation are best done with the presenter as you go through the script.

Always back up as you go along and its a good idea to back up on a USB storage device as well as the hard drive so you can transfer the prepared script to another computer if needs be.

Prompting the text

A lot of this will be old hat for those of you who are experienced but some of it may be of interest to new comers or occasional operators.

First agree a comfortable font size and style for the presenter. Don’t make the font too big – the presenter may like it but above a certain size there aren’t enough characters per line. The operator has to scroll the text very quickly to keep up with the presenter. This isn’t in itself a problem but it does make it very difficult for the presenter to make sense of each sentence with minimal “read ahead”. Rather than make the font too big it would be better to change the shot so that the camera is closer and use a normal size or, as a last resort, call for larger monitors. By normal size that would be 4 or 5 lines of text 25 characters wide, which would give you 3 to 5 words per line – similar to the example above.

When you start scrolling the text for the presenter use the cue marker on the left of the prompt track screen as your reference point. Try and keep the words that are being spoken hovering around this marker. It doesn’t have to be a rigid, jerky, scroll. Keep it at smooth as you can, and sometimes you won’t even have to make any speed change for complete sentences. However there are many ways of subtly helping the presenter, if there are gaps in the script you can gently accelerate the scroll to the next text. A slight pause at the beginning of a new sentence can help the presenter hold the sense of the sentences. Give a slight hesitation if there is a tricky word, or a place where the presenter had a problem in rehearsal. Watch out that you don’t start reading the text at your speed instead of following the presenter’s pace. You should be just a beat behind so that the presenter never feels that you are pushing up the speed. That is why it is up to the presenter to dictate the pace. The operator cannot force a pace without breaking the bond of trust, and that goes both ways! But if that trust is lost there is no hierarchy which makes it difficult to know who is following whom – and that’s when it becomes dangerous! That dreadful “I’m following them following me” loop – a scroll to disaster!

The prompt operator is there for the presenter and can help in several ways. In rehearsals the script can be personalised, typically I am into I’m or it is into it’s, turning the written word into the spoken word which is far less formal. Underline or embolden for emphasis. Put in studio instructions in the appropriate places – SHOW BOOK – or – PUT DOWN BOOK – these instructions may come from the gallery or the floor manager but they all help, even camera changes – TURN CAM 2 -.

Never fail to point out text that doesn’t make sense or seems to put off the presenter so they keep fluffing. It’s far better to sort all these things out once and for all in rehearsal rather than have the recording grind to a halt for re-takes, or worse, an embarrassing moment on a live transmission. Remember that if a fluff is made on air ninety percent of the time you and/or the prompting equipment will get the blame!

In rehearsals, if you are in studio, even if you are not involved that particular bit of the show that is being rehearsed do not turn off and start reading a book or similar. It will be noticed and brought up later if there is a problem or if they suddenly want to rehearse with you and you are not ready! Besides you never know whether there will be something in the rehearsal sequence that might catch you out later. Take an interest rather than turning off, it makes the day go a lot more quickly!

Before recording or transmission check that all the monitors are fired up and producing well adjusted displays and a quick check of all the cables to make sure nobody’s going to trip over one and rip it out of the wall! If all the work has been done in rehearsal the recording or live transmission should proceed as planned, the operator concentrates on the text scrolling and presenting the correct bit of script at the right time. Otherwise the only disturbance would be a technical problem, computer glitch or on-camera prompter going down. These can only be dealt with on the hoof, hopefully the operator can get the computer up and running again or change a monitor in a bit of VT. Most importantly if a problem is noticed or anticipated the sooner the floor manager/gallery know about it the better. Shots or sequences might be changed to allow the problem to be resolved before it goes critical.

After it’s all over the de-rig is straight forward, remove the cables first because often the first thing the cameramen will do is to disconnect the camera cables and put them into the technical store. Then take all the on-camera stuff off and put safely away and lastly de-rig the base station. And then go to the Green room for hospitality and have a well deserved drink!

For Producers, Directors, Floor Managers, Production Managers, Pa’s etc…– please note!

This paragraph is for any production staff who may be reading this, you never know! Please remember that while many departments and areas of production have several staff on site there is only one prompt operator. In a busy show the best time for the operator to catch up with changes, knock the script into shape etc… is during tea breaks and meal breaks. That’s about the only time they get a bit of peace and quiet. Because there’s nobody to take over they could be sitting at the base station from start to finish, so, please, a little patience when they ask for a comfort break or to get a sandwich – you might even get a cup of coffee for them occasionally – they’ll pay you back!