The End of Innocence

Martti Sivonen, Solar Films / Solar Television 1997–2009. These days, he is the creative director of Banijay Finland.


My career in Solar – and in television in general – started on a summer Sunday in 1997. Although Mika Karttunen later taught me; never let the truth to spoil a good story, I have to mention that my job application was not a music video. That was Olli Korpiala; I just happened to perform on that video.

Martti Sivonen

My childhood friend Olli called me and asked if I could help him out. “You have a band, you know the difference between a mike and a mixing table. Can you record sound?” I knew he had started as a cameraman in two programs of the newborn Channel Four. I had no idea how to record sound for TV, but asked Olli to show me the equipment – and all of a sudden the years of studies at The Otaniemi University of Technology started to feel like someone else’s dream.

Next morning at the Kaivohuone restaurant I was rigging the weatherman Juha Föhr with wireless mikes and making a television show. I suppose I managed to grab something to the tape, because next Monday I was at the Solar offices with Olli, Rampe and Mattiesko to get ready for the day’s shoot, to be aired later that same day.

The Headline Poster of the Day was a phenomenal production. In the morning we were reading the newspapers to figure out the topic; then drove a real old bomb of a Volvo station wagon (monikered “Hytönen”) to shoot somewhere in southern Finland. The editing was done in the afternoons. Kim (Sainio) was always eager to get our tapes into his hands. This was Modus Operandi Mark II, where all the extras had been cut off (like the parts of Wilma and Komulainen). At some stage, after the summer, Olli had enough and Kim took over the camera duties. All the celebrities of the time (Linda Lampenius-Brava, Tony Halme etc.) were getting more than familiar to us.

Mattiesko had to perform arm-wrestling, measure his own bicep, report to the Civilian Service with the president’s draft-dodging son, shoot a “Night on the Elm Street” dummy with a shotgun, whip himself with an electronic flyswat (on the courtesy of Jari Komulainen, who else) and interview Matti Nykänen at the Järvenpää Casino on a night, when the national hero debuted as a strip tease artist. This memorabe occasion was sound-recorded by me, as a regular employee of Solar Films; I started in that capacity 1.1.1998.

In the middle of all this hullabaloo, the celebration of the 100 000th bottle of Linda cider took place at Tampere. I had to listen Kim’s moaning during the whole drive up; how he’s had enough and wants to pursuit a more steady career, as a cameraman at MTV3. So, Ditte Uljas took over and the “Headline Poster of the Day” turned to “Hytönen of the Day”. Altogether, we made over 180 episodes of the two shows combined.

With Antti, we made a LOT OF music videos. One of the first ones was made at a soap opera studio for the band Aikakone, apparently the last one was the opening number of Lordi, for the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007. During that decade between the two; a lot of travelling, cans and cans of exposed film, packs and packs of smoked cigarettes, many nights without any sleep and a lot of awful music.

With Antti, we also shot a documentary called “Bioterror”, in which I was acting in one of the main roles – only God knows why. In the real leading role was the adorable Irina Björklund and the locations were Helsinki and Budapest. No words describe that trip. Besides acting, I also fulfilled the duties of the script supervisor. Well, I never was much of a spokesperson for the union… but rather, always tried to do what I was asked to do. That attitude must’ve taught me a thing or two along the years.

From Antti, I’ve learned great many things; most likely the most important being that you have to maintain a positive feeling on the set. And how to do your job without too much tension. And admit when you’re wrong and thank for the work well done.

With all due respect to Antti, but after Jukka Helle took over the duties of the CEO, all the activities in Solar took a giant leap towards professionalism. During the summer 1999 my wife was expecting our first child and I was not too excited to go to Hirvensalmi, to work in a comedy show. Jukka asked me a direct question: “If I order you to go, will you resign?”.

I didn’t answer, took the gig and had a blast. A big blast. During the shoot we stayed in a motel we called “Hotel Contempt” (the joke is impossible to translate) – and the vegetarian / bio menu of the place inspired the director Aleksi Mäkelä and the production manager Hanna Apajalahti to very contradicting opinions.

I don’t know if Samuli remembered last summer when he stayed at “Satulinna” to shoot “Vain elämää”, that he has stayed there before. Satulinna is the very same venue we nicknamed “Hotel Contempt” and the legendary caravaner episode of the comedy show was shot there. My birthday happened to be on the day we had the wrap party, part two. The whole day at Hissu’s summerplace, then the gala premiere of “Deep Blue Sea” at the Olavinlinna castle. An unforgettable day.

The years in Solar have given me lifelong friends. One of them is Nicke Lignell. First, one season of “Just Married” and then 500 episodes of “Family Feud”. They were also my first gigs as the floor manager. The Klondyke house in Kerava was like our second home; shooting during the weekends, editing during the weeks. The original editor of the game show Mikko Pesonen started to work on the “Black Cat Alley” and taught me how to use Avid. Or, actually, how to use Avid in a Family Feud way.

The production was a factory. As an example, one Sunday in the fall of ’99 we wanted to be home for the evening, to watch the F1 race. We moved the call time to 8 AM, shot seven episodes and were home before 3 PM. The editing was not slow, either. The fact that I served as a floor manager, made my editing easier – cause I knew what we had captured and didn’t have to log the tapes. I ran the material into the Avid, timed the music and the graphics and double-checked everything as I was making the master tapes. At the best the digitizing, editing and onlining of five episodes took 5 hours and 45 minutes. And there were plenty of spectators. At the highest point, the joint audiences of the access prime and the replay of the following morning were over 300 000. The big spectator numbers made the licence fees skyrocket and the show became too expensive to make. I am convinced that the world was a better place, when we saw Delverde pasta, lottery tickets and heard “Keijo’s” voice over – all standard features of the show.

Solarism is a term used by many. Doing before thinking is a big part of that. A good example is the game show “The Weakest Link”, which was sold and bought without a clue how difficult the format was. Our field trip to the BBC studios in Pinewood was a real eye-opener. “Now we’re really f***ed”, was the mutual feeling when we realized our crew was only about half of the personnel required.

The shoot of the first show at the MTV3 studio took us 15 hours. After the wrap (in the middle of the night) we still had to edit the show, together with a panicking flying producer from BBC and her exhaustedly giggling boyfriend. Talk about taking one for the team.

But we also had some great fun on the set of the “Weakest Link”. If my memory serves me right, it was Petteri Ahomaa’s first production for Solar. The first of many, definitely the first game show. Petteri became my closest workmate, the trusted companion of our many mutual adventures and escapades – and later, a partner. Everyone who knows Petteri, is aware of the fact that sometimes nothing is more important than having fun.

We were all collectively cracking up when we were manipulating the questions of the Weakest Link, in order to get the answers we wanted to hear. In one episode, all the answers were the phrases the beloved director Matti Palvalehto always loved to use (What is the name of the first album of Ronnie James Dio that tells about a sacred water sportsman? What is the name of the troll Allu Tuppurainen made famous? What is the trade name for low lactose level dairy products?). Some of the answers were the names of the production crew (What’s the name of the red-nosed reindeer? Who is the architect of the Eira hospital? What was the name of the goose in the Tom Thumb?). We didn’t manage to get through the questions – everyone was lying on the floor, holding their stomachs and weeping from hilarity.

Joe Millionaire - Jussi Ville Loponen in Suomen Kuvalehti

The year 2002 saw two legendary shows: “Do You Want to be a Moviestar?” and “Joe Millionaire”. Although the Movie Star was shot in good time before the air date, we had to reshoot the studio parts of the first episode – needless to say, at the very last minute. We finished the episode with Dan Peled on the day of the broadcast, and still had the grading to do with the DoP Rike Jokela.

Because we had critically little time, we decided to do it one block at the time. I remember the comment of the gentleman in charge of the Broadcasting Unit like yesterday, when I handed over the master tape of the last block: “Shit, the commercials are already in the air…!”. It was very close that the old saying “They always come from TV” was going to be challenged.

We made altogether 14 episodes of the Movie Star. Those were very heavy 14 weeks. Besides the fact that Dan and I edited the show, we also served as screenwriters, reality directors and floor managers. And as if this wasn’t enough, Markus waltzed into the editing suite and told us to credit ourselves also as the producers, because “After all, it’s you who make this show possible”.

At some stage, in the middle of that hazy three-month period, I happened to say yes to Markus’ remark: “I suggested at the MTV3 that you’ll host the “Maiden of Finland Beauty Contest”, OK?”.

And although I shouldn’t let the truth spoil the good story, I have to list three facts:

1. I didn’t declare the wrong winner – but the wrong favorite of the audience poll.
2. It wasn’t (completely) my fault.
3. I was on a sick leave.

The fact that I didn’t bring my own swimming trunks, is 100 % my own fault.

Joe Millionaire was Ville Loponen. The butler was Pekkis Allinen. The hostess Erja Häkkinen, the director Matti Palvalehto and the producer Petteri Ahomaa. The first proper reality show in Finnish TV history, a historically large budget and the locations in southern France, around the Nice area. What could possibly go wrong? Well, over 40 headline posters and over one million spectators to every episode. Well, the world has changed, you say. Indeed, so it has.

I can’t imagine anymore a production assistant smoking cigarettes with a holder, while driving a bomb of a van, a free beer and long drink dispenser in the office, the time-and-time-again pile of humans on top of our publicist Rampe, the continuous drinking during the shoots, a stack of new clothes with every production – or the debauchery of the corner table of the Colorado Bar.

The Finnish Fear Factory in Buenos Aires in spring 2008: Martti Sivonen, Karina De Paolis, Carolina Antonucci, Markus Selin, Sarri Schonert and Mika Karttunen

A very big thank you for the trust goes to Antti and Markus. And all my close working mates Rampe, Mika, Jukka, Petteri, Pinka, Marjukka and all.

I managed to spend almost exactly 10 years in Solar Films; then Solar Television was founded. After that, a lot of things have happened and a lot of things have changed. Both in good and bad. Oh, my very first own production? In the fall of 2001 Markus told Channel Four, that Martti will produce the Finnish Film Awards Gala. I said OK – and the production is still an annual thing.

I’ve done it 15 times now. So much for that change.