It's hard work to appear effortless. High production values can often be measured by what you don't see in a show, whether its a live performance or on television, and one diligent, necessary worker behind the scenes is the teleprompter operator.
You're probably familiar with the idea of a teleprompter from local news broadcasts and speeches given by politicians: their prepared words scroll on a screen in their line of sight, usually reflected on glass so that it doesn't obstruct the view or the camera. But what you may not know is that it's not automated at all -- teleprompter operators control the text, how it's formatted, and the speed with which it scrolls. Matching the speed of the text to the individual speaker (who may deviate at any time) requires constant attention, which is why you can't just set it and forget it.
To learn more about this rarely seen work, we spoke with teleprompter operator Mike Brown who has met presidents and rock stars while working to help bolster their performances and speeches.
First of all, tell us a bit about your current work and how long you've been at it.
I've been running a prompter for about seven years now. I set up and operate prompting systems for video shoots, public speaking, commercials, TV shows, political events, concerts, etc. Basically anywhere someone might need notes or a cue card, I've been there with my prompters. There are several different systems that I use, from "presidential" style glass paddles (like Obama uses) to the more traditional through-the-lens or on-camera style prompter. I've also done interview-style prompters which are just monitors on sticks basically.
Rarely, I'll get a call to do an Interrotron, which is where there are two prompters on two cameras, one aimed at the interviewer and the other at the interviewee. The cameras each feed a signal to the opposite prompter screen, so the people can see and react to each other, but they look into the lens of the camera instead of off to the side.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I sort of fell into the gig. A friend needed help in his prompting business, and I had just been laid off. I don't know if I would personally consider this the final trajectory of my career path, time will tell on that one, but it's been very interesting and rewarding so far.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
The company I work for is very small, only about 10 people. I interviewed with the owner and we talked about the needs and expectations of the business and how my experience overlapped with them. Large portions of the job involve moving a lot of gear around, and I had been in several bands before, was comfortable around stages and equipment, and can work quickly and accurately under pressure.
The other main part of the job is working with the software, preparing the script and scrolling it. I (like most people my age and younger) was raised with a computer in my lap, so that's pretty easy. There's not really any special education necessary, and most of the skills are all on-the-job trainable. The trick though is that you have to be able to work different hours all the time, with different people almost every day, and you have to have a personality that is compatible with almost everyone else out there so you don't cause friction or conflict. Not everyone has that type of personality.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
Depending on what type of gig I'm doing, the workload can be massively different. In any environment it's crucial to work together with the different departments or members of the crew to makes sure everyone has what they need and is ready to go when they need to be.
If I'm doing a concert, there will be sound checks, and then lots of downtime before the show. But, I have to have all my gear set up and the script or lyrics ready to go right away even though the artists might change the song order or add or remove songs at the last second. So there's a lot of stress there.
For public speaking, depending on the gear I'm using it can take a while to get it set up just right. The "presidential" style prompters can be tricky to set up. If more than one person will be using them, I have to set the height and angle of the glass paddles so that they're readable from a wide variety of heights. I also have to work with the camera crew who is doing IMAG (the live shot) so that they can get a closeup without the prompters in it if possible. Lots of times the clients will want to rehearse, so that can take anywhere from an hour to all afternoon. I've been on jobs where the clients wanted to rehearse after they'd been to a dinner party and were all tipsy and couldn't keep it together, wasting everyone's time. I've also been assigned to jobs that cancel on the morning of the event, so I don't have to go and I get paid.
As an aside, President Obama is famous for his addiction to prompters, but every single politician who chastises him for it also uses them. I know because I've prompted for all of them.
For video shoots or commercials I use a through-the-lens prompter which generally attaches to the camera tripod. Building that rig can be very tricky because there are lots of different types of cameras out there, and it seems like they're all getting smaller and lighter. I have to be good at finding where the mounting points are on the camera, what add-ons I have to work around and roughly where everything will be attached. Some cameras have external zoom, focus, and iris controls which mount to the lens in different ways for each camera. I have to balance the whole rig out by using different mounting plates, sliding rods, and sometimes adding weight to the back. It all has to be done accurately and securely, and usually very quickly. I'm also working around the Director of Photography (or DP), the sound guy, sometimes a few others as well, all trying to get their respective things plugged into the camera at the same time as I am.
Then there's formatting the script. I get everything from Powerpoint presentations to Word files to PDFs to sheet music. I've had to hand-type stuff at the last second, and I've been handed thumb drives as the speaker is taking the stage. Usually this happens with politicians, because they're paranoid that the prompter guy will change the script, and they're also making changes up until the last possible second themselves.
Ideally I like to have at least 30 minutes to work with the script because there's lots for me to do. First I have to get the script into a single-column, text-only state. I like to make stage directions and speakers' names a different colour, so that the speaker will know not to say, "You can believe in me smile and look convincing." I also like to add spacing where there are natural opportunities to pause and take a breath. I also like to preview the script with the prompter software, to make sure there are no glitches or anomalies. Things like hyperlinks, tracked changes, markup, all that meta stuff that modern word processors can do really plays havoc with my prompting software. Depending on who I'm working with, there can be font requirements, size and line spacing requirements as well. Sometimes I don't get to do things exactly as I like them, and sometimes the client or the talent has their own ideas on how things should look, so unless there's a really compelling reason, I just go with whatever they want.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job? I think a lot of people assume teleprompters are entirely automated somehow!
Most people have no idea how prompters physically work. The principle is the same for the presidential style or the through the lens style. The monitor is horizontal, and its image reflects off the glass which is at an angle. The camera (or audience) can't see the words but the speaker can.
An absurd amount of people think that the prompter paddles are bulletproof shields for some reason.
Many speakers who have never worked with a prompter need a bit of coaching to understand that I am scrolling at the pace they speak, not vice versa. Some speakers will speed up, then I speed up to match them, then they speed up more, then I speed up to match them, and they think I'm racing them and pretty soon we're out of control. Stage managers come to me and say "He's rushing can't you slow it down?" and I have to respond "If I slow down he'll just run out of words to say and look like a fool." Some prompting systems can be controlled via a foot pedal by the speakers themselves, but that seems to have been a newsroom fad that died down. Most anchors already have a producer in their earpiece, a script to follow, makeup and lights and all that... they don't also want the pressure of having to run the prompter too. But by and large, prompting a speech or script is very similar to playing music with someone. Learning the rhythm of their speech pattern and working along with it, knowing what to do if they improvise something, it's a skill that goes unnoticed most of the time even by the speakers themselves. Yet another case of "if you're doing it right nobody notices but if you're doing it wrong it stands out."
What are your average work hours? Is it a typical 9-5 job or not?
I work when there's work. Sometimes a job will have a 5am call time, sometimes 7pm. Some jobs last 2 hours, some are multiple 16-hour days. The variety of types of gigs there are leads to the crazy hours. Some video shoots require a certain look that you can only get at dawn or dusk. Often it's difficult to shoot in busy areas during peak times of the day, so getting it done early is better.
Many of the theatres and concert venues around here are unionized, so everyone that works there has to follow the union rules whether you belong or not. This means that you get a break every few hours, that you can't work before a certain time or after a certain time, stuff like that. They will actually come kick you off the stage if you try to ignore them. That's a great luxury because on many other jobs breaks come few and far between. There are also the quickies -- the jobs that take longer to set up and tear down than they do to shoot. On one hand I like them because I get my half-day rate no matter how short the job is, but on the other hand I live 25 miles away from the city so the commute sucks, especially for a 2 hour job.
What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?
Efficiency and good habits are critical.
Packing my gear up the exact same way every time means that I don't forget things, means I have the peace of mind that everything got packed securely and will be ready for the next job.
I also make it a point to arrive at least 15 minutes early, usually a bit more if I'm unfamiliar with the venue, just so I can get in, get parked, not feel rushed, and be present and focused for that client.
I keep a bag of nuts and bolts that are common sizes for tripod heads and cameras, as well as cable adapters so that if I need to connect something to something else I can make it work. I also keep the tools required to do that with me. I use the over-under method for coiling cables, and I have Velcro cable ties. I rarely ever have a tangled cable to deal with because of this, and it makes setup and tear down go SO much faster.
I know my gear. I know how it goes together, how it comes apart, how it can break, how to fix it if it does break. I know what every button, switch, dial, knob, menu setting, input, output, screw thread, hole, and slot does and how to re-arrange it to make it work for today's unique situation. I also have confidence that even if something DOES break in a way I'm not prepared for, I have the skills and tools to fix whatever comes my way. Also gaff tape.
Most of the shortcuts are in the software though. Just knowing all the key commands has saved my butt when the USB controller crapped out in the middle of a speech. Being able to navigate around inside a script quickly and easily is also incredibly useful. Almost all prompting software allows you to set bookmarks throughout the document, which I use all the time and it comes in handy especially during rehearsals. Say, for instance, I'm prompting an awards ceremony. There's an MC who introduces several speakers, who in turn introduce awardees who then give acceptance remarks. If I have bookmarks for each speaker, I can quickly do a rehearsal for just that one person by jumping between their sections with a button-press. I also have it set to automatically use a certain font and size that's a good baseline for 85% of the time, so that if I need to throw a script in and go I know there's some consistency there.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
Everyone at my company has a different skill set, and we each play to our own strengths. I'm quite adept with the technology and mechanical side of things. I can build a prompter onto any camera system, on any stage, etc. I know the software like the back of my hand and am lightning quick with it. Other operators are better at working with clients and talent, developing their skills as presenters, schmoozing and networking. We also each have our own style of prompting too, just like all musicians play differently. Some operators keep the speaker's read line at the very top. Some keep it somewhere in the middle. Others are closer to the bottom. Some people set the prompter to one speed and make incremental adjustments as a speaker's pace changes. I ride the pace and stay as fluid as I can with the speaker. We all have different colour preferences for stage directions versus speaker names and VOG announcements ["voice of god announcements," an industry term], etc. and some don't do different colours at all. There are also several different types of hand controllers and software out there, and that just comes down to preference.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
The worst part of my job is the lack of information. Often events or video shoots happen in a very last-minute, seat-of-the-pants fashion. Things like locations, call times, exact gear preferences, are all fluid until the last second. When I get to a secure government building and all I can say to the guard is "I'm here for the video shoot" without a contact name or number, or even knowing what the shoot is about, it's not a good look. Many times I don't get runs of the show or daily schedules, so I don't know when or where things like crew lunch are, or what time they want to rehearse. The best way I've found to deal with it is to find a person who can answer my questions and don't let them out of my sight for the duration of the gig. If I annoy them to death, they will invariably kick me up the chain to someone more important which is better anyway.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
I've gotten to meet the President, the First Lady, almost every politician of note, many of my musical idols like Robert Plant, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello, Bobby McFerrin, the list goes on. I get the entire speech, not just the part that gets cut out of context for a sound bite. I get to be back stage or side stage next to some of the most important people on the planet while they quite literally make history. I'm not famous like they are, but I get to feel a little bit of their flame from a perspective that few other people can.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
The money can vary wildly. I work for a company, and I know how much they charge, which isn't nearly what I make, but I also get health insurance and I don't have to do the "other half" of the freelance job, working the phones, following up on messages, etc. so the tradeoff can be worth it. As I mentioned above I don't get any paid vacation or sick leave, but I can also just be "unavailable" pretty much whenever I want. If you work for yourself the money can be much better than what I make, but the stress takes a toll.
How do you "move up" in your field?
Most people move up by moving out. Some find a job at a TV station and go from prompter to camera assistant to producer and on up the ladder. Some move laterally and start doing graphics (Powerpoint) or sound, studying under someone and learning and moving up from there. I've learned so much by helping set up lights and sound gear and asking questions that I've been able and confident enough to take a couple of freelance photo shoots and video projects of my own. Just being knowledgable about how a set works can be enough to get you in the door.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
I think the most underrated thing is the connection between me and the speaker. I've made the musician metaphor and it's true. It takes skill to instantly understand a person's speech cadence, how they use phrasing pausing and breathing, how they emphasise certain words over others, and most importantly when and where they're likely to deviate from the script and what to do when that happens. Some people will digress and come right back to the next line in the script. Other people will actually say the meaning of the next line, but use different words, so I have to know to scroll past that. Some people jump around and they're probably the most difficult because there's nothing I can do to predict or mitigate their improvisations.
Also, many clients openly balk at the price of my services. But they don't always understand that I'm saving them money in the long run. A video shoot with a prompter that takes 2 hours would take 6 or 7 hours without one.
I've dealt with clients who, the first time I worked with them, complained about the price and asked how much a prompter system would cost to buy outright. The second time I worked with them they proudly showed me their new prompter system and asked for training how to use it. And the third time I worked with them their prompter system was collecting dust in the corner because nobody could work it properly.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Apply for an internship at a TV studio or production company. There aren't that many prompter companies out there, but they are pretty much always looking for new people. Be reliable, courteous, professional, respectful. The rest is easy.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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