When it comes to life on the front bench of a sports production, it is often the technical director who is in the hot seat. The role demands a tremendous amount of focus and clearheadedness, for it is the technical director (TD) who turns the mental vision of the director and producer into a comprehensive story that smoothly takes the viewer from one camera shot and replay to the next.
At first glance, the position can appear to be nothing more than pushing buttons on a production switcher. But the late Steve Laxton, who served as technical director for NBC Olympics beginning in 1988 and also freelanced for ABC, CBS, ESPN, and HBO, transformed the role for future generations.
“He was not just a button pusher,” says Dave Mazza, NBC Olympics, SVP of engineering and Laxton’s predecessor as NBC Olympics TD. “He would design and develop graphic looks and transition elements, and he would build disks of effects for other TDs.”
Laxton’s creative juices surfaced in his personal life through a love of music, playing guitar, and gourmet cooking. “He was very thoughtful and caring,” says Nancy Laxton, his widow. “He loved the beach and was always on the edge with things like cave diving and ice climbing.”
His desire to push the limits surfaced professionally in a love for the creative process. “He would get involved in the creative process earlier than most,” says Mazza, “and he had a knowledge of what was possible with the tools.”
More important, Laxton had strong relationships with his directors, particularly with Bucky Gunts. The two began working together in 1988 on NBC’s late-night show from the Seoul Olympics. Gunts and Laxton would work together on five Olympics, the last four as director and technical director, respectively, of the primetime Olympics broadcast.
“He was very creative as well as a tremendous engineer,” says Gunts. “He also wouldn’t allow anything to go on the air that wasn’t perfect.”
Going for Gold
That perfectionism resulted in long hours of building effects and other elements. Often, he would use subtleties, such as shadows, that would be appreciated only by him and Gunts, but they were part of his quest for perfection.
Solid, intuitive communication between the director and TD is the key to on-air success. For Gunts and Laxton, that communication often didn’t need words because they both knew what to do in certain situations.
Opening Ceremonies like those at the Athens Olympics were a favorite, and Gunts recalls Laxton’s simply giving him a quick look when he thought Gunts was staying with a shot too long: “He was always making sure the right thing was on the monitor.”
Laxton was born on Oct. 18, 1955, and, the son of Navy officer Roy Laxton, lived in numerous places, including Morocco, Taiwan, Japan, and the U.S. He graduated from high school in Japan in 1973 and attended Florida State University. He began his career at WTSP Tampa Bay, FL, in 1982 and joined F&F Productions, located in Clearwater, FL, as editor in 1987. While there, he began to build a reputation as a top-level talent.
“He was extremely talented in all facets of the job, whether the creative side or the editing side. He was a great guy to work with.”
In 1988, Laxton made the jump from F&F Productions to NBC Olympics, working on the Seoul Summer Games. That move began a period of his career in which his work influenced a generation of technical directors.
“He was always very generous with his time and more than happy to teach and spend time with other TDs,” says Gunts.
While Laxton spent most of his professional time driving production switchers for major sporting events, he also drove innovation and product development for such manufacturers as Sony, Abekas, and Philips. Helping Sony build a production switcher capable of competing with the Grass Valley production-switcher line was a key contribution.
Charlie Steinberg, then president of Sony Broadcast, brought Laxton in as a consultant based on input from those who worked in the sports-production field. Laxton relished the opportunity.
“He came to us and used the production switcher extensively,” says Steinberg, “helping us know what features were needed and what features could be cut because they were of little value and, by cutting them out, we could cut costs.”
The real benefit was making the switcher easy for technical directors to use. “You can do almost anything technically, but the question is, what is required by the technical director and what is the man-machine interface?” says Steinberg. “For a technical director, you need an absolute perfect interface that is readily operable by the user. And Steve gave us the input to make that happen.”
Laxton died of a heart attack on Dec. 2, 2005, but his legacy lives on and, next February, will once again be front and center during NBC Olympics coverage of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
“He was the best,” says Gunts. “We always prided ourselves on being a step above, and he helped us have a very classy and clean look on air. He is sorely missed.”