From discreetly stepping into female majlises at Arab weddings and fixing malfunctioning camera systems to managing a crew of eight to 50 people, from directors and cameramen to technicians at conferences, live events or even reality TV, Christina Varghese has come a long way in her career in broadcast engineering.
Christina Varghese, Senior Technical Operations Manager at BBH, discovered her true calling after a couple of brief stints at Dubai-based media houses Khaleej Times and the ARN Network. “I loved the energy in a fast-paced media environment and the fact that it wasn’t a regular nine-to-five job. As a 21-year-old, these things entice you,” she says animatedly.
Unconventionality has been Varghese’s guiding principle. Upon graduating from Dubai’s BITS Pilani with a degree in electrical engineering a few years ago, she promptly printed several copies of her CV and went door-to-door to media companies to apply for a position. Her expedition brought her to the doors of Best Broadcast Hire (BBH) in Dubai Production City, where she was hired.
“My boss forewarned me that the job would be very different from what I expected, not because I am a woman, but because it is truly demanding. When I accepted the challenge, he made sure he put me through all the aspects of the job.”
Apart from her ingenuity, the Arab weddings BBH covered at the time were also partly responsible for granting Varghese a foot in the door. BBH needed female technicians who could enter female majlises, and with her technical background, she was the perfect fit.
Thanks to BBH’s diverse portfolio, every workday is different for Varghese. She actively covers important events such as the World Government Summit, the Asian Le Mans Series and the Dubai Marathon, as well as smaller events, conferences and concerts. A typical day sees her collating the list of needed equipment, testing and packing it for transfer to the venue, and coordinating with other departments such as sound and screen.
Once everything is set up, she is responsible for explaining the client brief to the director and cameramen and organising rehearsals. When the show goes live, she is active on the cameras, colour correcting – an essential step towards ensuring a cohesive shot, no matter where it’s taken from.
“One of my responsibilities is to fix a problem even before it occurs, and this involves anticipating and logically troubleshooting faults”
Sporting events, especially car races, are her favourite. “There are so many challenges, right from safety to cabling and getting the perfect shot. There are a lot of variable elements too. I enjoy the thrill of that.”
Among all her duties, listening in on the comms is the task she enjoys the most. “One of my responsibilities is to fix a problem even before it occurs, and this involves anticipating and logically troubleshooting faults. This can’t happen unless I am actively listening. For instance, when the director cuts to a certain camera and the shot looks terrible repeatedly, there’s something wrong with either the cameraman or the camera. If the cameraman has been giving us good shots the whole show, then the camera is the culprit. I immediately go to the camera and check if everything is OK and fix what isn’t. It’s exhausting but exhilarating.”
While equipment failure is always a threat for a broadcast engineer, for Varghese the people pose a greater challenge. “If equipment fails, it’s a very logical step to figure out what is happening. But with people, it’s a different sort of challenge. For instance, calming down a show caller who’s panicking about a breakdown and saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got this; we’ve done this a million times before.’” Another challenge is to get all the crew on board to be on the same page – not just within my team, but with all the departments that have to come together for the success of an event. Given the cultural melting pot Dubai is, it’s interesting to see people’s cultures seeping into their responses. At the end of the day, working together harmoniously is a great goal to achieve. And it is, in a lot of cases, challenging.”
With offices worldwide, BBH’s employees benefit from each other’s experiences. “We regularly get together for chats on Zoom. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we would discuss our findings, ranging from new intercom technology to wireless systems. We would do our research, test products, and then discuss our findings. Access to this knowledge base gives me a very secure feeling, and it really is a unique feature of the company that has allowed me to grow my expertise exponentially.”
Over the past decade, Varghese has seen BBH grow from having two breakout rooms at an event to occupying over a dozen. She’s also witnessed broadcast technology evolve from SD to HD and 4K. Given the fast-paced evolution, she knows she must stay on top of emerging trends. “We have to constantly research for new avenues and new technology that can help with our pursuit of 4K and beyond. If we remain stagnant, we’ll be completely rolled over.”
She recalls a particularly challenging event during the pandemic. “We had to cover a certain charity event which was a 24-hour-long broadcast. It included live and pre-recorded performances from many famous artists, as well as live in-studio hosts. Of course, the equipment would do the job, but the crew and operators? It was both physically and mentally challenging to be on for more than 24 hours, but the reward was more than worth it to pull off a successful show that also raised funds for Covid relief.”
“There are so many challenges, right from safety to cabling and getting the perfect shot. There are a lot of variable elements too. I enjoy the thrill of that” – Christina Varghese, Senior Technical Operations Manager, BBH
This team, along with family and friends who understand her job’s demands and pressures, helps Varghese maintain a work-life balance and build an active social life. “If I’m on an assignment, it’s common to work long hours, including weekends. Planning is key to having time for everything. Managing things becomes easier as long as they are planned and slotted in.” And if something comes up, her team is always willing to pitch in.
When the season is slow in the UAE (typically May to September), Varghese simply takes on additional assignments in Europe and America. Although BBH encourages its staff to take time off, she prefers to continue working.
“We can take downtime, but I’m offered jobs in Europe, Africa, the USA and Mexico, since the company is working on reality TV in those parts of the world at that time. Those jobs are completely different to the way we do production here in Dubai. So they are a great learning curve and offer a different way of working, in essence. Why not travel the world when you can, and get to call it work?” she says candidly.
Varghese believes the broadcast industry has been very kind to her, keeping her commitment unwavering, though people initially did have reservations. They would ask for a male engineer – but this hiccup didn’t last long. “Eventually they started asking for me; can we get Christina on the job, she’s already worked with us and knows everything.”
Regardless of where she is working, now she only receives respect and professionalism. “I’ve only been welcomed with open arms wherever I have gone. I’m quite surprised that there aren’t as many women in the industry.”
Although it’s more common to see women in broadcast tech in Europe and America, the Middle East is catching up, with visa processes becoming simpler for female crew members, especially in Saudi Arabia and Oman. “People first assume I am on the organising team, but when they see me plugging in cables, they’re surprised I understand tech – and then there’s huge respect.”
As we go to press, Varghese has just hopped onto a plane for another big shoot in Mexico.