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Hand signals,Cue Cards, Prompters, and IFB

One of the first things to be learned in the television studio is that microphones are very sensitive devices that sometimes seem better at picking up things you don't want to be heard than things you do. This means that talking in the studio with a mic open can be dangerous, as previously noted. As a result, other means of communicating have been developed. While the studio crew will be using an intercom headphone system, the talent usually gets operating information in three ways: hand signals, cue cards, and the IFB system. Hand signals were developed in the early days of television and are still commonly used today. However, the signals and their meanings can vary from studio to studio, so it's wise to find out in advance all the hand signs a talent may receive during the course of a production.

Your contact person in the studio is the floor manager. This person is likely to be relaying instructions from the director and will be giving you the various cues or signs at the start of and during your studio presentation. Good floor managers position themselves so that the talent can see the cues without turning their heads. The talent should focus on the lens or other designated point and view the hand signal with peripheral vision. If the cue giver is positioned too far to the side to see easily, during rehearsal, it is not inappropriate to ask him or her to stand closer to the camera. During a production, the floor manager is responsible for getting the cue to the talent and so may be seen crawling behind sets or across the floor to get into the talent's line of vision. However, having received the cue, the talent should never acknowledge it. Nods and similar motions will be very evident to the audience and will be a distraction. Even when you are certain you are off camera, acknowledgments are risky, as it is equally certain that sometime you will be wrong. It is the floor manager's responsibility to watch the talent's eyes to establish that the cue has been seen. Remember, there are no standard cues, but there are some that are used in many television facilities. 

Hand Signals
The standby signal, given with the hand overhead with the palm forward, is similar to the starter's words at a track meet—"On your marks, get set .....—just before the gun goes off to start the race. This is usually given about 15 seconds before the show begins and should bring the talent to a full alert position, both mentally and physically. Since the camera will see you at least a moment before you start talking, consider yourself "on" from the moment the standby signal is given. The next cue is you're on or cue talent and is the true start of the segment. The floor manager's hand, held overhead for "standby," suddenly swings down and stops with a finger pointing directly at the person speaking first or at the lens of the camera he or she should be playing to. The "cue talent" signal is almost always given immediately after the "standby" cue, and rarely is either of these cues given alone.

The "look here" cue directs the talent to a particular camera. As noted, studio cameras usually have a tally light to tell you which one is on, but some field cameras do not. In the field, except in major productions, you probably won't have a floor manager. Instead, the camera operator or a producer will give you the cue. In a multiple-camera production, the floor manager will remind you where to look by pointing his or her finger at the camera lens of the camera that is on at the moment. To direct a performer from one camera to another, "a change camera" hand signal is employed. The floor manager will start by pointing at the camera that currently is on, and then sweep that hand downward and bring it up to point at the new camera. The talent can turn smoothly to make a transition or can glance down, as if at notes or a script, and then look up at the new camera. The performer may have to slightly shift his or her body to achieve the best position for the new camera. Avoid looking upward as you go from camera to camera because that is an unmotivated action and may cause the audience to wonder what is going on up in the light grid. 

If you need to change position, the floor manager will seem to be pushing you to the left, right, or back, or pulling you forward with two hands. These signals are very easy to understand. Think of the "stretch-it-out" hand signal as pulling taffy. The fingers are brought together and then pulled apart as if stretching something, like taffy or a big rubber band. It can mean that you are talking too fast or that there appears to be insufficient material for the time remaining, so please stretch it out, perhaps by talking a bit more slowly or by adding ad-libs or planned extra topics or questions. The reverse of the stretch-it-out signal is the "speed-up" cue. It usually consists of the index finger pointed at you and then rotated rapidly at the wrist. It means that you're not getting through the material fast enough, that time is running out, or that what you are saying is boring and you should move on to something else.

Television segments and programs are usually tightly timed, so it is essential to be alert for time cues and to follow them closely. It is useful to develop a time sense by practicing time estimation with a second-hand until you have some sense of how long 15 and 30 seconds are, in particular. They can be longer than you suspect. It is very disconcerting to your production crew to give you a cue indicating that thirty seconds remain and have you run through your concluding remarks in the next five seconds, most likely leaving them unprepared to close the show and, perhaps, with no way to fill the twenty-five seconds you have left them.

Television timing always deals with the time remaining, so a cue indicates how much time you have left to go. Again, the floor manager should give these cues where you can see them easily and 15sec15 Secondthey should not be acknowledged, as it will be very evident. Here, too, there will be variations from studio to studio, but the majority of floor managers will simply hold up two hands with fingers spread for "ten minutes," one hand for "five minutes," and then the appropriate number of fingers for the remaining minutes. At "thirty seconds," a particularly important cue, many studios use crossed, extended arms or index fingers as the cue, while others will form a C with the thumb and index finger as the indication. The "fifteen seconds' mark is another important point, and its signal is often a clenched fist. When the end of a production is reached, a "wrap it up" cue will be given. While this signal may vary, many studios commonly use one hand about six inches above the other and then both rotated in a Ferris-wheel motion. This cue means that you should conclude the segment or the show. Some studios may assist you further by having the floor manager count down the last ten seconds using fingers so that you have a clear picture of the time remaining.

This should enable you to end professionally, exactly on time. A "cut" signal—slitting the throat with the index finger-is given to show the production is finished. But again, signals vary from location to location. It's up to you to be sure you know the ones being used where you are. 

Cue CardsCueCards
Another way to get information to a television performer is to use cue cards. Cue cards come in three "flavors." In two of them, they are simply substitutes for hand signals, whereas the third group carries script segments. The basic cue card is a heavy poster paper card, perhaps 16" X 18" with significant numbers or words printed on it. Note Figure 3.7. Most studios have a full set of time cards, perhaps starting as high as "30 minutes" and progressing down to "30 seconds" or lower. The word cues on cards could include "wind it up," "slow down," or "speed up," plus any other instruction the studio has found to be helpful. All these are held under the lens of the camera you are addressing or otherwise in your field of view. 

Devices used to provide the script to you during segments or entire shows include cue cards and teleprompters. For example, except for some side chatter, all of a television newscast will be scripted and on the prompter. Script cues are usually hand written on cards that are 20" X 24" or even larger. These are often used when only a short written segment is to be presented. Cards have been used in longer scenes, but this involves skill in changing the cards without dropping them or getting them out of order. For the talent, moving from the bottom of one card to the top of the next can be a distraction. A well-planned card will finish with an entire sentence or paragraph, so there is a natural pause as you move to the next card.

PrompterPrompter as seen from anchor's perspectiveTeleprompter
Teleprompters have been around virtually since the beginning of television. Originally they consisted of long rolls of paper that were printed on with oversize type. A roll was placed in a box mounted about the lens and the paper was drawn on to a take-up reel by a variable speed electric motor. An operator stood beside the camera and controlled the speed of the paper rolling as the talent read the script. These were useful, but presented problems when script changes occurred. Today, teleprompters are a combination of a small flat-panel computer monitor mounted horizontally below the lens, a special mirror system that is mounted in front of the lens, and a computer that generates the words that will appear. The mirror is a unique variety that enables you to see the words reflected off the screen while allowing the lens to see through the mirror as if nothing was there. The words on the screen are reversed so that they will appear normal when viewed in the mirror. The speed at which the new words appear is adjustable. Usually they flow up from the bottom of the screen. Figure (left) shows you the talent's perspective.

Whether reading prompters or cue cards, professionals make it look easy; in reality, they are often reading copy they have never seen before. There is a story of old-time performer Arthur Godfrey breaking up at his own jokes on his television show. The reason was he was so good at reading the prompter that he never rehearsed and often had not heard the jokes before. The goal, of course, is to read the copy and make it sound conversational, delivering it as you would in an unrehearsed statement you are creating as you speak. This takes concentration and practice. Video Clip 3.16 shows a performer utilizing a teleprompter. We will devote more attention to working with teleprompters in the section on Production.

In recent years, the IFB, or interruptible foldback, has become a common means of communicating with the talent. This is an earpiece, usually made out of transparent plastic, which is worn by the talent during the production. A wire or tube extends behind your head and often to a small intercom pack you'll he asked to wear. A little observation should enable you to spot them on most news and talk program performers. See Figure 3.9. These provide a means for someone in the control room to speak directly to the talent who is on the air. In some cases, interview guests wear them as well. The first experience using one will be distracting, since it means that while you may be trying to speak intelligently or read a teleprompter, someone is giving you instructions in your ear. A good communicator will try to keep these directions very short and sandwich them in between your statements. Hundreds of people do it successfully every day, and you can, too. Several practice sessions should prepare you. Try to keep what you are saying in the foreground of your mind and hear the instructions in the background. The IFB systems have become so common that you are almost certain to be expected to use them, so getting experience whenever possible is essential.