As if the ‘En direct de l’univers’ Mother Day Special wasn’t enough of a titanic challenge in the midst of a pandemic, Montreal-based Pamplemousse Média has also been going all out for the past few weeks on its ‘Bal Mammouth.’ The production company, headed by France Beaudoin, is sparing no effort in getting the televised graduation ball on air in time to celebrate this year’s high-school graduates on June 19.
Both ‘En direct de l’univers’ and ‘Bal Mammouth’ are major productions, and both were developed to give hope in what sometimes seems like a hopeless situation. “I’ve always been drawn to the idea of getting back on your bike no matter what,” says TV host and producer France Beaudoin. “We know it’s not going to be the same as before, so we have to figure out different ways of getting things done. Getting yourself going is part of the solution. ‘En direct de l’univers’ isn’t just a TV show, it’s what the world needs now.”
At the end of the popular Saturday night show’s regular season, Beaudoin told Radio-Canada that her team was available for special projects. “If I had to put a team together from scratch to produce a 90-minute live broadcast in just 10 days, I wouldn’t have looked at the project in the same way,” she claims. “But our team’s dynamics are so fine-tuned that it’s like a conveyor belt of ideas continually feeding everyone from the director and musical director to the technical team.”
Pulling off a TV miracle
Although Pamplemousse Média has promoted working from home for close to eight years now, the company underestimated the impact of distance on collaboration in the current context. “While we’re all used to working from home, we still made room for two face-to-face meetings a week. In this case, there were no sit-down group sessions where you might overhear what someone said on the phone or pick up on information another might say in passing,” Beaudoin explains. “We had to develop a creative unit with a rock-solid chain of command to keep everything under control. Our success is based on the trust we have in each other and in how we play to each other’s strengths.
“Despite concerns about the virus, we had no problem in getting performers to sign on. No one said, ‘I’m scared and I’m not going.’ We’ve been working with these people for 11 years now so they know they can trust us. They’ve seen us go live on air under every imaginable circumstance. They have no doubts whatsoever about how much our team cares for them.”
Robust safety protocol
The team put plenty of extra measures in place to ensure safety at every step. Performers all had their own separate dressing rooms, and all had to put on their own make-up and do their own hair. The audience was replaced by a second stage. Plexiglas walls were installed between the chorus singers and control staff. All participants had to follow directional arrows on the floor to get from one area to another. Masks and visors were available to everyone. Studios were thoroughly disinfected between rehearsal days by sanitization experts. And the lighting apparatus was kept a bit below the standard level so the technicians wouldn’t have to work so close together.
While solutions came in fast and from all sides, the fear of failure was too much for some to bear. “Just four days before airtime, I started getting calls from people telling me that maybe we bit off more than we could chew. Some colleagues asked me if I was sure it would work, I simply couldn’t answer them all.”
Emotions running high
The fear factor started to dissipate when the magic kicked in. “Some of the performers and musicians were overcome with emotion when they finally set foot on stage. And once they started singing together, the tears began to flow,” Beaudoin remembers. “That’s when we knew that the show would go on. The sense of relief was palpable in spite of the social distancing.”
The experience itself has given France Beaudoin good reason to feel confident about the future. “Thank goodness we were able to prove that it could be done in a safe and healthy way. Yes, it does cost more. But the additional expenses for the special will be amortized over one year. It’s a profitable investment,” she deems. “We’re already booking talent for ‘Bal Mammouth’ in the fall without any problems.
Pamplemousse Média had also informed Télé-Québec that it was poised to create a show for students if the rest of the school year was cancelled. Initially designed to be watched online, ‘Bal Mammouth’ will now air on television. “We used social media to question kids so we could better understand what they’re going through, what their perception of the high school prom is, and what they see coming up for them,” Beaudoin recounts. Throughout the program, they’re invited to connect to social media in groups or in cohorts. Before and after the ball, hosts Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse and Pierre-Luc Funk will join them live.”
Unlike ‘En direct de l’univers,’ ‘Bal Mammouth’ is not shot live in a huge studio. “We go from online to the small screen in a pre-recorded format using a skeleton technical crew. We have to be very careful when shooting to make sure that participants not only maintain the two-metre rule but always appear to be doing so. Depending on the camera angle, it can sometimes be misleading.”
Don’t expect technical prowess
Shoots do take more time than before. No two people can travel in the same vehicle. It takes longer to explain things to participants. Three-camera shoots are rare, which means some sequences need to be shot multiple times to get different angles. You need more time for editing. “You have to continually focus on getting back to basics. Our goal is meeting the requests of our young audience, not on proving our technical virtuosity. We’re providing them with their own rite of passage, and an opportunity to experience it together. It’s not about how it was done before but about what we can do now and have a good time in the process,” Beaudoin says.
What Pamplemousse has learned in the past few weeks will also benefit the Quebec television industry as a whole. France Beaudoin’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since she left the ‘En direct de l’univers’ set. “I received thousands of messages from people wanting to know what worked or what didn’t, or how they could duplicate this or that. I answered them all without holding anything back. It’s really important that we pool our ideas,” France Beaudoin concludes. “This isn’t the time for competition. We get more than enough of that from outside forces. We can’t afford to lash out at each other anymore.”