The larger than life Ola Melzig is renowned as one of the funniest and most 'human' production managers in the industry. Louise Stickland caught up with him to discuss his rise to the top.
A great communicator, organiser and multi-tasker with positive lateral thinking abilities and a grounded overall technical knowledge, the zany and outlandish Ola Melzig is not someone you forget in a hurry.
Looks can be deceptive. At first sight, as an imposing six foot five frame with black spikey hair, a penchant for elegant punky clothing and a strong metaphorical “No Messing” written loudly across the face, they could fuel a specific myth! However, Melzig is a polite, peace-loving egalitarian who does assertion not aggression... and has it down to a fine art.
His well-documented extravagant and infectious sense of humour is always a great ice-breaker, although Melzig takes the ethics of ‘work hard/play hard’ very seriously to their logical conclusions. Green Hippo’s James Heron describes the gentle giant as “a big smiling face with the cogs of a very clever man constantly spinning behind it”.
Melzig shot to prominence after 2000 as technical production manager for the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), which was staged that year at Stockholm’s Globe Arena. Although he has production managed several other high profile events including a number of Nobel Prize Awards banquets and several big corporate events and TV shows, it’s ESC that’s put him on the international production community radar. This has been for many reasons; the main one — aside from his flamboyant personality — being the upping of the technical ante for the show.
Eurovision is the second largest worldwide televised event, topped only by the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. Since 2000, Melzig has handled technical production for six finals — the most recent being this year’s contest in Helsinki.
Each year, the production grows in ambition and innovation, and Melzig has built up a strong international team of technical and creative partners to ensure this trend continues, with ESC and all the other events in which he is involved. Along with the ability to think ‘bigger picture’, he’s the first to admit that surrounding oneself with the right individuals and companies to “make it happen” is a vital element to his success.
His production philosophy and sense of fun has also played an important role in the technical side of the ESC becoming a phenomenon in its own right. UK-based rigger Oz Marsh first worked with Melzig on the 2002 ESC in Tallin, Estonia. He says: “Ola’s unique talent is to assemble a great team and hold it together under intense pressure.”
The publication of the hilarious, inspired, and buttock-clenchingly candid Eurovision Diary blog (www.eurovisiondiary.com) and discussion forum in the run up to the 2007 event generated massive interest, attracting over 120,000 hits from its launch at the beginning of March to the event on May 12, sparking many technical and political debates.
In fact, it generated so much interest that the European Broadcasting Union itself eventually flagged it up, forcing Melzig to remove the expletives... lest ‘road filth’ tarnish the squeaky clean image of its show. Fortunately, through smart editing, the fun and ironic campness remained!
Melzig was born and brought up in Malmo, southern Sweden. He has always loved music, although there were no inklings of the future in his early career. At high school he studied ‘Office & Distribution’ among other subjects and learned to touch type — this turned out to be one of his top 10 most useful career skills. He left at 18 and went to work in a fishing store in Malmo for a year, before getting bored and moving on to the massive Saab car factory.
At Saab he initially worked on the production line and “learned a lot of pranks” as well as other more practical skills like forklift and tele-handling equipment driving.
Management soon spotted his personality traits and potential, selecting him for a ‘team leader’ education which included public speaking, interviewing and on-camera techniques plus other organisational skills. When he left four years later to relocate to Stockholm in the early 1990s, he was running a department of 50 people.
Stockholm proved a more socially and culturally cosmopolitan experience in which Melzig immediately felt at home. He was drawn to its naturally beautiful location, steeped in historically significant buildings, bold new modernist architecture and surrounded by water.
He supplemented his first job there in a window factory with additional work as a stage hand for EMA Tellstar — Sweden’s largest concert promoter at the time — following an introduction by his then girlfriend’s brother.
This was a revelation. Melzig instantly realised that pushing flight cases and setting up band, sound and lighting equipment was infinitely more fun than working in a window factory, which conveniently went bankrupt around the same time, entitling him to a year’s unemployment benefit.
He threw his energies into the stage hand work, taking to it like a duck to water. He ran follow spots, drove forklifts, did production running and assisting, and also started working for various local lighting companies including Spectra AB, which was then a small company with 10 employees and a 400m2 warehouse. One day he let it slip that he could play guitar, and so a raft of backline tech opportunities opened up!
In 1994, Melzig started Sweden’s first crewing company, MA Crew, to fill the gap for good stage crew support in the production industry. This was very successful until his business partner left and dumped a large debt on him. His next business venture was the M Concert Crew, which kept running until he grew “sick of the bureaucracy and bullshit that interfered with the fun”.
Running a production department at Saab and managing local crews gave him a very good grounding in motivational skills and organising efficient working practices.
During the early 1990s, Melzig also toured extensively around Europe, the US and the rest of the world as a backline tech and a lampie, which allowed him a great insight into production organisation and the application of technology.
Around 1997, Spectra asked him onboard as a project and production manager. Tired of touring, he seized the opportunity with characteristic energy, and he stayed with the company until 2006 when he went freelance. His first gig as PM with Spectra was a VIP party for fashion house Diesel with a budget of €10,000 — a fortune at the time.
This nine-year period encompassed an endless slew of parties, corporate events, exhibition stands and live shows of all shapes, sizes and styles.
The big break came early in 2000 when Spectra received a call from Martin Professional‘s Swedish dealer, Oscar Lighting AB, suggesting they make a joint offer to Swedish Television to handle the lighting production for the upcoming Eurovision Final event — the first time it would be staged in an full-size arena.
They won that bid in March 2000. Melzig, as Spectra’s most experienced large show and arena production manager, was allocated the task of making it happen with less than two months to go before the final. “I like a challenge,” says Melzig. “But when I realised the extent of the brief and the timescale in which we had to achieve it, the task was just f**king crazy — we really did have virtually no sleep for that period!”
He pays tribute to the professionalism of his crew and those of Swedish TV including lighting designer Kristoffer Röhr for helping to make it happen against difficult odds.
Delivery of this landmark Eurovision event put Spectra in a position to bid for handling the visual production on subsequent events, and Melzig went on to produce all the ESC finals this century apart from 2001 and 2006. At time of writing, he is heading one of the bids for the 2008 show in Belgrade.
Winning a Eurovision bid and working on a show consumes most of his energies for eight months of the year. The 2002 final in Tallin, Estonia has a special place in his heart as it was the first one he worked on outside Sweden and being abroad made it one of the toughest.
The results also made it one of the most rewarding, and Melzig is the first to applaud his Estonian colleagues and partners on that project during which he also fell in love with their country.
Working with local technicians, designers, crews and staff at each ESC is another element that he really enjoys, “It’s a great way to become familiar very quickly with a completely different culture and set of work methods,” he confirms.
Each year Melzig is involved with the event, the technical and creative envelope is pushed further and further, and he’s spent considerable time building a ‘dream team’ of technical partners and individuals. In Helsinki, 11 countries were represented amongst Melzig’s regular event crew.
Robe Show Lighting was one of Melzig’s ESC technical partners on both the 2005 and 2007 events. Its international sales manager, Harry von den Stemmen says: “Ola looks like a real rock’n’roller and has a great personality. He is extremely reliable, keeps his promises and is a really fair partner who doesn’t only think about maximising his own or his company’s profits. His communication skills are excellent, he responds very quickly to everything... and, of course, there’s that famous Melzig sense of humour!
“His ethics are also exemplary. Ola includes and thinks about everyone involved in a show, and aims to ensure that all the locals and hard workers lower down the food chain are just as happy as the big business partners. He has an open ear for everybody, is very accessible and above all, real fun to work with.”
Melzig says: “Social skills are the key to building the right team for something as intense and energy consuming as the ESC. Yes, technical aptitude is important as well, of course, but I wouldn’t necessarily choose someone on that basis alone. They have to fit in and they have to be a team player. There’s no room for egos, superstars or the wrong attitude.”
With six weeks of intense on-site work, very long days and between 1,600 and 2,000 people involved in making the show happen in a new location each time, it needs a specific mentality. “Crazy-minded idiots prepared to work very hard for stupid amounts of money because they love the job!” are an asset he reaffirms with a wide grin adding, “they are also some of my best friends.
“I never ask anyone to do anything without good reason,” says Melzig. “But if it comes to something major, like moving over 100 rigging points with full load, then you need someone with a really positive mental attitude who’ll take it in their stride and realise that I am asking this because it’s genuinely necessary... not because I am being an asshole!”
Oz Marsh adds: “Ola makes everyone involved feel valuable to the show and we thrive on it. He buoys crew morale with a variety of extra-curricular activities and his attention to the small details that really matter to a happy, hard-working crew is fantastic.”
The future is looking extremely busy and Melzig is looking forward to it with characteristic zeal and enthusiasm. Going freelance and forming a new company M&M Production Management with his partner Joan Lyman is a major exciting step.
Obviously there are some big dreams — the chance to production manage an Olympics opening/closing ceremony is right up there — and he currently shuttles between Stockholm and Austin, Texas with offices in both cities. Seventy per cent of his work is based in Europe at the moment, which ideal as it allows time to be spent with his young family in Stockholm.
He has great hopes for expanding his portfolio in the US, which he sees as a potential growth area for his specific production management style and skills. He would like to work with some of Sweden’s premier brands there, such as Saab, Ericsson, Ikea and Absolut.
Working in the US is completely different to Europe, and he likes the ambition levels of those producing shows and events there. “They either go the full nine yards or not at all — Vegas is a perfect example.”
In Europe, he thinks the event safety standards are good and well thought-out and he enjoys working here for all sorts of reasons. He thinks long and hard when asked to choose a favourite city in Europe before coming up with Istanbul, closely followed by Barcelona, Bilbao, Tallin, Riga, Kiev, Vienna... and many more.
Melzig is currently working on several projects in Turkey. “The Turks are great — they have imagination, resources and money and it’s an interesting place in which to produce events and specify installations.”
He adds that it’s also a very spontaneous environment, complete with some “fun culture clashes” that have to be learned and appreciated — a classic Ola Melzig outlook!