In light of the Winter Games, we touched base with our friend Harris Mendheim, Emmy Award-Winning Technical Director for Post-Production house PRG, to get a view from the ground in Sochi. The nature of Harris’ position keeps him on the road, in the air, and on the ground for some of the largest international sporting events. In the midst of Harris’ packed schedule, he took a few minutes to report back from Sochi to give us a bit of insight on his work over the years and his pace of life throughout the past few months.
Give us a little bit of background on PRG. What type of work does the company mainly do? What is your roll there?
The company I work for is the Production Resource Group. We are the largest single supplier of lighting, audio, video, scenic, and automation in the world. We handle a number of markets, including Broadway, Concert Touring, Film and Television. We have more than 40 offices in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. To give you an idea of the scope of work the company handles, in consecutive weeks last month, we did the lighting for the Super Bowl halftime show in the U.S. The following week, we handled the lighting for the Opening Ceremonies for the 2014 Sochi Olympics on the other side of the world.
The division that I work for is PRG Post, and I am a Technical Director. PRG Post focuses on production and post-production with a concentration on sports and reality TV. We have a facility at 32nd and Park in Manhattan with 12 edit bays, a couple of color suites, and a 5.1 mix room. We also do post on sports and entertainment remotely which involves putting gear on the road to handle edit needs on location.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
I’d have to say the diversity of the work. One week I’m dialing in workflows for an Olympic broadcast, the next I’m on location shooting a music video. The following week I’m editing a triathlon for Fox Asia. The job requirements are always evolving and that keeps it interesting.
What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve worked on?
I was really proud of the work we did handling the non linear edits at the gymnastics venue for NBC at the Beijing Olympics. I was part of the team that won the Sports Emmy for Team Technical Remote for the work we did there. Over the years the job has allowed me to witness some pretty cool things: Michael Phelps winning his eighth gold medal at the Beijing Olympics; Tiger Woods teeing off on 18 at the US Open in 2008 as he fought through a hurt knee to win his third US Open title. I’ve been in the infield for an Indy 500 finish, and crouched on the track shooting turn one at a few Kentucky Derbys. I witnessed Barbaro fall at the Preakness in 2006, and that same year saw Travis Pastrana pull off the first double back flip at X Games in LA. I’ve been around for a couple of Super Bowls, road shows for the Daily Show and Colbert Report during US Presidential elections , and even a World Cup.
You’re also an experienced Director of Photography and recently shot a music video for J Roddy Walston and the Business. Do you shoot a lot of music videos?
Over the years, I’ve done a number of live music shoots. Before signing on fulltime with PRG Post, I was shooting 3 or 4 videos a week of acoustic and venue performances from around New York City. This past year I’ve started collaborating with another filmmaker friend, Chris Nizza on some concept music video work. We did a video for a great band, the Defibulator’s, back in the fall and have a new project in the hopper for the spring. The J. Roddy shoot was a lot of fun, not to mention coming down to Richmond and checking out the scene down there. It’s really a special place. I’m planning to come back to the city with one of my projects later this year.
This isn’t your first rodeo. As you mentioned earlier, you covered London and won an emmy for your work in Beijing. How do these Games compare?
You know, so far they’ve been really on par with every other Olympic experience I’ve had. My first experience was the Winter Games in Turin, Italy. With the exception of London, they’ve all been really similar. It’s such a huge event, and so taxing on the host country in terms of logistics and security. You have to come into these environments and understand that everything moves a bit slower and take longer than it normally would, particularly moving in and out of the event sites. When there is a language barrier, as there is here in Russia, negotiating small things can be a headache. You’ve just got to be prepared to roll with it.
The most unique aspect of this event is the proximity of everything. With the exception of the mountain sports, all of the events are right on top of each other, which is unusual. At these games, I’ll probably only see the figure skating or gymnastic venues, since those are the events that our team shoots.
We’re getting a lot media reports back here in the US that are focusing on the less than ideal conditions in Sochi. How are you finding the conditions over there?
Seeing the reporting going on back in the States has been really surprising. Some of it, in fact, just seems silly. My experience here hasn’t been any different than my time in Italy or China, really. NBC has dialed things in for everyone they’ve brought over to work the games. The crazy thing about Sochi, is that every place that we’ve been, all the venues and hotels where we’re working and staying, trains that we’re riding, and highways we drive on, were all constructed for this event. The newness and scale is pretty shocking actually. Every single person that I’ve spoken to on the broadcast side of things is literally the first guest to stay in whatever hotel they are in. So in that way, it’s not all that surprising that there have been some problems. I just haven’t experienced any of it.
What is the most significant thing about the Olympics that you get to experience by being there that viewers don’t necessarily get to experience while at home?
That would have to be the combination of sleep deprivation and jet lag. A close second would be the 24-hour crew bars.
What’s the best meal you’ve had since you’ve been in Sochi? Do you have enough downtime to get out and check out the city?
Unfortunately, I probably won’t have an opportunity to do anything but work here. This isn’t true for everyone, but dealing with the figure skating venue, I only have a handful of dark days, and we do short track on those. It’s looking like I’ll end up working straight through. Because of the time delay, we’re editing live to tape as the events happen, taking the best content and re-packaging it for the NBC primetime show. A typical day during competition is an edit call around noon, fax and set up until lunch at 4pm, start recording around 6 or 7 until 10 or 11pm. Finally we turn segments around for the prime time show and wrap the day somewhere between 2 and 4am.
Filming / Personal
You’ve directed your own feature length film. How does this experience inform your approach to filmmaking?
Other than pulling crew from my television gigs to use on films, the two experiences really are night and day. Events like the games are so massive and as a consequence are much more tightly planned and organized than anything I will ever put together on my own. However, they are a great resource for talent. The teams that are involved in these kinds of productions are some of the the hardest working that I’ve ever worked with. They are not intimidated by long hours and tight deadlines. When I’m putting a feature together, I usually always start with my TV contacts to build a crew.
When you’re not spending weeks in Russia covering the Games, what do you get into back home?
I have another feature film project that I’m working on getting off the ground in 2015. Between writing and starting to think about financing for that I try to get home to spend as much time with my wife and boys as I can.
Between New York, Alabama, and going abroad, you travel a lot. What are some things that you never leave home without?
I always travel with my laptop and a camera. I’m a Canon guy. And I always stock the bar at the house from the Duty Free Stores coming and going on these international gigs.