The 2020 Los Angeles Zoo Beastly Ball was a live event that we produced as a live stream event due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine. The event raised over a million dollars for the Los Angeles Zoo.
What Kind Of Production Is Happening During Quarantine?
Here we are a few months into quarantine in Southern California. Work has been basically non-existent for quite a few months, but I wanted to reflect back on an interesting shoot that happened a little while ago. The assignment was to live stream an auction fundraiser for an organization called GLAZA. What is GLAZA? The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) is a nonprofit corporation created in 1963 to support the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. The zoo must retain a staff of animal keepers and trainers to care for the animals in the zoo, and the zoo itself has all kinds of conservation and endangered animal rescue programs. All of this takes funds that would normally be recouped from the normal day to day operations of the zoo in normal times.
Raising Funds For The Los Angeles Zoo
My production partner Gregg Hall, through our company www.webcastanbeyond.com, was contacted by GLAZA to help them successfully transition what was once a live annual fundraiser to a fully online live stream fundraiser and auction called the 2020 Beastly Ball. The project presented us with several technological challenges as far as live streaming. The client had partnered with actor and comedian Joel McHale (“Community,” “The Great Indoors,” “The X-Files,” “Santa Clarita Diet,” “Stargirl”) to host the event. The client decided that we would shoot McHale’s host segments live from the Zoo. The show also included appearances from Zoo Ambassadors Lisa Ling, Carolyn Hennesy, Julie Chang, Jackie Chan, Slash, and Lance Bass as well as musical appearances from Dave Matthews and Brian Wilson, each streaming from their homes.
Divide and Conquer
I was charged with setting up and shooting the Joel McHale live host segments from an outdoor location at the zoo. My partner Hall met me at the zoo with the laptop computer and live stream gear that he was bringing for the shoot while I piled our camera, grip, lighting and sound gear into my car. It was a surreal experience to actually drive my car into the zoo’s back service entrance and over the now empty walkways through the zoo. The animals were all home, but no people were there, save for a few staff that take care of and oversee the animals. These were the same walkways where, in pre-quarantine times, I had walked around the zoo with my kids when they were young. It was a strange, unique experience that could only happen in 2020 Los Angeles.
The Perils of Shooting Outdoors
One of the tricky things about shooting outdoors, especially in a location you’ve never scouted, is planning on where the sun would be at our appointed shoot time. I took my best guess at where the sun would be by 6 p.m. when we were scheduled to go live with McHale. Luckily, using a sun tracking app on my phone, I divined the sun’s trajectory correctly, and it went down behind some trees at the time we shot, so I had a nice golden hour ambient glow that I used and filled in with a pair of LED panels. We had arrived at the location at the zoo at 2 p.m., giving us four hours to unload and build the gear and set up our shot.
Luckily, this shoot was just a single camera shot of McHale, so I was able to determine the position of my key light source, how to mic him and what the ambient sound situation was. We ended up shooting near a zoo administration building. This was mainly because we needed access to an Ethernet hookup to the zoo’s internet infrastructure. This brings up a good point of discussion that I’m often asked about by those who are brand new to live streaming, “Can we live stream just using 4G or 5G wireless?” There are products that purport to offer perfectly functioning live streaming with 1080 60p video, up to10 different sources. All just using a small battery-powered wireless hub.
I will say that in our live streaming experience, wireless live streaming isn’t yet ready for prime time in my opinion. To be completely accurate, live streaming is an inexact science, especially when you’re at an unfamiliar location, even with a hard-wired Ethernet connection. There are many things that can go wrong that can cause your stream to slow down, stop working or malfunction, randomly, all of the time. This is my way of explaining that live streaming is still somewhat of a tight wire walk where you could take one small step and have complete mission failure. We are often hired by company and organization IT departments, and even when we interface directly with IT, things can and do go wrong with the live stream. Adding the traffic, polling, bandwidth and interference issues with wireless connections and you have a recipe for likely failure.
We brought our own Peplink Wireless Router system as a backup in case the client’s Ethernet connection had a hiccup during the live stream. This is a $4,000 wireless router that we have hooked up with four different wireless providers. The key to a successful live stream is gear redundancy and having a Plan B and a Plan C in case you’re Plan A fails. For us, this means going to every job with a full set of redundant cameras, audio, a teleprompter if it’s a prompter project and, most importantly, having at least two or three options for the stream itself. Hall handles the live stream and webcast engineering while I handle camera, grip, lighting and sometimes audio if we only have a single talent for the live stream.
Remote Live Streaming
While Hall worked with the zoo IT staff and our client with the live stream hookup and setting up our virtual green room so our client could talk to McHale’s team offline while McHale did his live hosting segments. This brings up another good point. Our live streaming system doesn’t have a true green room function, so Hall had to invent one. Our green room can accommodate multiple guests at once and everyone in the green room can speak with and hear each other offline while our program output is live streaming. This is more difficult than you might imagine, but it’s totally necessary. In the case of this job, since it was a live fundraiser auction, our client would go into the green room to speak with and get information about how the auction was going from the staff taking the bids and tracking overall funds raised so she could notify Joel of what was happening during his live hosting segments.
One other interesting point about live streaming in 2020 during the time of the pandemic and social distancing is that most of the projects we have been producing have been remote live streams. What exactly is a remote live stream? For us, remote means that our live streaming hardware is located in Hall’s studio. The camera feeds can come from anywhere in the world. In our case, McHale’s feed was coming from the LA Zoo, about 30 miles from Hall’s studio. The system we use, VMix Call, utilizes the Google Chrome Browser running on a laptop to take the HDMI feed from the camera.
The camera’s HDMI output is fed into an AJA U-Tap to turn the HDMI input into a USB 3.0 signal that the laptop can accept. The laptop then outputs the video and audio signal via Ethernet to the client’s Ethernet input/router. On the other end at our studio, our VMix Call system, which is some very capable software running on a high-end spec PC system. On Hall’s end, the signal coming into VMix Call is then combined with graphics, other video sources, pre-recorded interstitial segments and then live stream output to the viewing destination. In this case, we were live streaming the shot to the GLAZA website, the LA Zoo website, Facebook Live and YouTube Live. We always stream to at least three to five different platforms and destinations whenever possible because things like websites crashing or freezing can often happen.
Diversity In Destinations
If you’re only streaming to a single destination and that web host crashes or has issues, your audience is lost with nowhere to go. If you publicize that your live stream will be available on multiple platforms and services, there’s a much better chance of your audience being able to view the live stream if problems occur. Things happen. In the case of this project, the client’s main website was quickly overwhelmed with over 100,000 users trying to get onto their website at the same time and the site went down. Luckily, because we were live streaming to other services, we think that very few actual viewers who were bidders were lost as most joined us on one of the alternative services and continued to bid in the auction
What About the Gear?
It wouldn’t be an HDVideoPro blog if we didn’t at least obsess about the production gear used at least a little, so here you go:
- Camera: Canon EOS C200.
- Lens: Canon EF S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS.
- Lighting package: Two Aputure LS-1S Lightstorm LED panels used with a Medium Chimera Quartz Pro softbox.
- Audio: Sanken COS11D BP ran directly into camera, no boom as McHale likes to move around and we had no boom op. For distancing, McHale miked himself with my supervision.
From our viewpoint, the event went very well. McHale was a total rock star pro, fun and easy to work with, truly hilarious and a wonderful host for the event. All of the switching, graphics, sound mix and roll-in segments went very smoothly. From the president of GLAZA, Tom Jacobsen, “The first-ever Virtual Beastly Ball hosted by actor and comedian Joel McHale took place on May 15 and succeeded beyond our wildest dreams! Attendance was fantastic, with more than 12,000 people participating over the course of the evening, 12 times our record attendance for a ‘real’ Beastly Ball. Since then, an additional 3,000 people have viewed the show, which included a special musical performance by none other than Dave Matthews. In the end, the Beastly Ball raised $1 million, far exceeding our goal. We’re so grateful for the extraordinary support from so many people.”
This was the second live stream fundraiser auction we have produced since the pandemic began, and we’ve seen a growing demand for higher-end, more sophisticated live stream services, so we’re pursuing numerous opportunities.