Halftime at the Super Bowl is a strange place. It’s where entertainment and sport collide, where network TV strives to combine audiences to once again break ratings records. Over the last 25 years it’s gone from marching bands and Elvis Presto, to hosting the biggest and most popular music acts on the planet.
Director Hamish Hamilton has directed every Super Bowl halftime show since 2010–The Who, Madonna (with Nicki Minaj and MIA’s middle finger), Beyonce, Bruno Mars and now, Katy Perry for Super Bowl XLIX. After Super Bowl Sunday, Hamilton will once again direct the Oscars, the VMAs and, through his production company Done+Dusted, the iHeart Radio Music Awards.
So what goes into directing a massive live event–stage shot, crowd shot, reaction shot, repeat, right? Yeah, right. That casual, fun-loving vibe is the culmination of intense planning and expert execution, and even among the highest profile televised events, the big game stands apart. “It’s the most unique of any unique show or experience,” says Hamilton. “It’s easily the most intense and by far the most adrenaline-charged because you have a very real set of factors that can only come together at halftime at the Super Bowl.”
Perhaps the only one that comes close is the Academy Awards, which does share a few core qualities with the Super Bowl. “The commonality is that to the person on stage, it’s a life-changing event and, in some cases, a very intense and emotional experience,” says Hamilton. These are big moments in entertainment that fans want to get together to watch live on TV, sharing with others in the room or over Twitter. But really, they’re incredibly different–one’s 12 minutes, the other is three hours. One is musical, one is about movies. Very different, but they should create very similar emotional experiences that people enjoy watching.”
The most unique thing about the Super Bowl is, go figure, that it happens during a football game. “You only have so much time,” says Hamilton. You’re not staging this show in a concert hall, it’s in the middle of a stadium, in the middle of a game. You’ve got about eight minutes to set up this giant stage, a global superstar or more that need to get out and do a 12-minute show, which is crazy in itself. Then you have to get this show off and all the stuff back down the tunnel so the game can start again. Afterwards, you’re asking yourself, ‘Did that just happen?’ An hour of my life goes by and I can’t recall a moment of it.”
Here, Hamilton outline his five lessons for successfully directing a Super Bowl halftime show.
You’ve got potentially one of the biggest TV audiences ever watching, plus a stadium full of people, a global superstar and perhaps the most important part of planning it all is the tunnel. Yep, the tunnel. “It’s ridiculous but one of the things that governs what kind of show you can do is actually the size and positioning of the tunnels onto the field,” says Hamilton. “That determines the amount and size of stuff you can fit in it, what direction it needs to go and how quickly. If you’ve got five big, fat juicy tunnels in the right place you’re golden. But if you’ve got one narrow tunnel that comes out with the goal posts right in front of it, you have to create a set up that can fit in there and around those posts. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s a major consideration, among many unusual parameters you have to account for in planning a show like this.”
Never mind the more than 70,000 people watching it in person; the real focus should be that dude eating stuffed-crust pizza on his couch. “As the director I’m a small creative part of a large team and there are so many things to figure out, things the show needs to be, and different performers bring different measures of those ingredients,” says Hamilton. “Bruno Mars is very different from Beyonce, which will be different from Katy Perry. Ultimately there always has to be an emotional connection to the artist and the music. You’re staging this spectacular production but my job is to make sure everyone is as focused as they can be as early as possible on the TV aspect, like what the shots will be, what it will look like at home. This sounds painfully obvious, but when you’re creating a show in a giant stadium it can be easy to forget about the TV when you’re talking about lasers, animals and whatever else.”
Always remember the star of the show is the star of the show. “At the end of the day, people will tune in to see Katy Perry so my main job is to make sure there’s a lot of Katy Perry in it,” says Hamilton. “That also sounds fairly obvious, but it’s more difficult than it you might think. “Everyone has competing thoughts over where we should be in the show at any given minute of the broadcast.”
Despite being some of the biggest music artists on the planet, Hamilton says that all the Super Bowl performers he’s worked with have been focused and put in a lot of hard work. “We’ve all worked with many artists on significantly smaller shows where I’ve seen artist tantrums and all sorts of bad behavior but never for the Super Bowl, never,” he says. “Everyone is, to a fault, super focused and determined to make it work. For many artists, who have so much demand for their time and creativity, the Super Bowl becomes this oasis of calm, creative brilliance and a desire to make it the best they can. Because they know in the decades to come, their kids and grandkids will be watching it.”
The halftime show has had its fair share of unscripted moments, but the best way to plan for the unexpected is to over-plan the expected. “I go in with a very tight plan, literally to the frame,” says Hamilton. “I use a very different process than how I approach other shows. It’s very tightly scripted and I know, because we’ve rehearsed so many times, what’s going to happen. Each moment’s been talked about and designed, so I know the performer isn’t going to jump off the stage or go dramatically off script. We go in with a very well-drilled plan, especially given the eight minutes in, eight minutes out, it’s like a military operation.
“But stuff happens. The stories of people holding electric connections together, or holding up parts of the stage for 12 minutes are true. I’ve had key cameras break down during a halftime show and no one’s really noticed so because it’s so well-planned. The show is so ingrained in my head that I instinctively know where to get another shot. It’s like muscle memory.”
The very idea of staging a spectacle this big during a football game is pretty insane. Hamilton says your only option is to embrace it. He also credits the cool and calm of producer Ricky Kirshner for setting the tone. “There’s just no other show like it,” says Hamilton. “I can’t think of another set of circumstances where anyone would be ridiculous enough to try and do this kind of show that can be set up in nine minutes. Most touring shows take a day to set up. It’s a real triumph of what people can do when they work together in a harmonious but very stressful situation.”
And even though it’s so short, Hamilton says it’s still difficult to process what the hell just happened. “It’s strange because it’s such an enormous adrenaline rush, you don’t really realize what you’re doing as it’s happening,” he says. “There is no shouting or anything, just methodical execution of the plan. The producers and I are like mission control in a space launch. You’re counting down to the start and then it’s like being on the fastest roller coaster, on which you’re intently concentrating on things as they speed by, and all of a sudden it’s over. Then you want to collapse and asking, “Was it good?” Unless you’ve been through it, you can’t explain it properly. Most of the time I try to operate in the moment of the shows I’m working, but for Super Bowl, you’re so far down a rabbit hole of focus and divorced from the real world, it’s impossible. It’s really weird.”