There are absolutely no guarantees. Everything can change from one minute to the next. Are you interested?
This, more or less, was how Solar Impulse Live TV was explained to me back in 2011 by the producer of the company responsible for making SITV happen. And the description turned out to be pretty accurate. We were meeting to discuss the possibility of me working for them as presenter, and what started as a short-term contract has led to the longest professional relationship I’ve had with any organisation.
If you’ve ever looked through the Solar Impulse Website, you’ll know that the team has produced some incredible videos over the years. You might not know that they do so with a very small, talented group of people. The same is true for the live programming. The gallery team consists of a director/vision mixer, a PA/vision engineer/VT operator/graphics coordinator and a sound operator. That’s 3 people doing 7 jobs. And there are 2 studio cameramen for 3 cameras (not including robots, go pros and other fixed views). A team of 3 cameramen and an editor follow the plane.
The SITV live programs are in English, but the gallery communicates to me in French. That took a bit of getting used to although on previous missions, when I was on the road, this communication wasn’t a given. Countdown to Live has, on occasion, consisted of a cameraman shouting “speak now!” ( in French, obviously). And when shooting conditions prevented even him from contacting the gallery, I would just start talking when something interested happened, trusting the director to switch to me (this generally worked out fine).
Before each show I put together a rough running order in the knowledge that it can change a few seconds before going on air. For the same reason I work without a script, using a few notes at most: there’s nothing worse than preparing to read a finely-wrought piece of prose, only to have your guest pull out, new pictures come in or an unexpected situation to comment on. There may be pictures from the camera team with the airplane or there may not, depending on the local conditions (bandwidth availability, for example). During one landing, for example, the only picture from the airport was a soft-focus view from a mobile phone. And many’s the time I’ve had to spin out 30 minutes of content for an hour and a half, or more, depending on the delay.
To work at Solar Impulse you have to embrace constant change and treat the programs as exercises in improvisation. When I joined I decided to act as a privileged member of the audience, asking the questions I imagined they would want answered. Initially, I made of point of not trying to learn too much detail, worried that rote-learning facts in a short space of time would make it harder to step back, focus on the big picture and retain an “outsiders” view. Working as a radio host turned out to be an essential background skill, as it gives you the ability to fill time, change pace and tone when necessary and get the best out of interviewees whatever their position or status. Solid general knowledge is also very important (particularly international affairs, politics and business), especially when you’ve had 20 seconds to prepare for an interview (this has happened on several occasions).
I’ve more or less continued in this vein, albeit with a growing technical knowledge. The more time I’ve spent on the “Round-The-World” mission, the more useful information I’ve picked up. It’s been fascinating to find out more about what each member of the team does and be able to understand the extent to which they really are working at the technical limits. When we say that we have achieved the impossible, it isn’t just PR. At every stage, going back to the beginning of the project, there were many nay-sayers and it needed bloody-mindedness at every step, from getting Solar Impulse built right through to the record-breaking 118 hour non-stop flight.
As for me, this project has been proof that you can never stop learning, never stop improving and that the journey is as important as the goal. People in the team don’t really speak about success or failure any more. First of all because failure just means giving up before you succeed and maybe because they know that, once we get to the end, the team will no longer be together. So for now I’m making the most of each day with these special people, and hoping that my next project measures up, in some way, to this one.
If you have any comments or questions about Solar Impulse TV (or anything else) please get in touch.