Planning Versus Reacting—A Video Producer Primer

A view of the main interface of one of our VMix Live systems switching a graduation ceremony.

While I’ve been in the production game for a long time, most of my experience is in documentary filmmaking, broadcast and corporate production. These different styles represent an interesting dichotomy and study in contrasts. Documentary production, by definition, is simply documenting what’s happening—usually, but not always. Of course, in documentary filmmaking, we schedule shoots around events that may be happening organically or may be staged specifically for the purposes of the documentary. Contrast this with “normal” video production where creators and producers like to plan everything that will happen and the resources needed for a successful shoot. One style is reactive, the other is carefully planned. Not to say you can’t carefully plan a documentary or live event shoot—of course you can. But often, it seems that especially with clients, they don’t execute careful planning for live streams and live events as much as they would for a traditional video production shoot.

Then There’s That Live Streaming Beast

Live streaming, just like regular production, can veer toward pointing cameras at a live event that’s happening in real-time. Typically, but not always, these sorts of events are happening on their own, most often for a live, in-person audience. The talent in these events usually only acknowledges the presence of the live audience, perhaps with an occasional shout-out that “this event is being live streamed as well.” The event is catered more toward the live audience. We also produce live streams that aren’t made for an in-person audience—they’re created specifically for the at-home audience watching on their TVs, computers, tablets and phones.

I started thinking about the differences in production, and the main differentiator I was able to find was that live event streaming mostly occurs without any sort of rehearsal. We, as the live stream production company, are often left to our own devices to react to what’s happening in front of our cameras.  

Live Streaming a live event that’s occurring for an in-person audience like a graduation is quite different than live streaming a well-planned, rehearsed live stream created for only the at home audience.

Reaction Time?

Because live streaming is essentially live television, it’s important that cameras are aimed at, focused on and exposed for the subject in front of the lens. When reacting to a live series of events, it can be challenging to know exactly where to aim cameras and how to frame the shots, as well as how to expose for each shot and subject and where to focus the shot. In a lot of live event work, the production team is only given the broadest strokes of what will actually happen in front of them, rough schedule and timing, and often, these are subject to change since it’s live production. Talent, acts, speakers and events are often changed at the last minute. Sometimes, we’re notified, while other times, we’re forgotten about and not notified. Yet, we’re still expected to capture at least usable and more often good shots of whatever is about to unfold. 

A view of our cameras and teleprompters for a talk-show-formatted live stream fundraiser. Unlike the graduation pictured above, the client for this project was happy to schedule a full tech and talent rehearsal the day before the production.

Planned Production

In contrast, when we’re hired to produce a live stream for an in-home, live streamed audience, we’re usually in a position to strongly recommend a technical rehearsal as well as one or more talent rehearsals. These scenarios are much more like a traditional live television program, typically with a host or host team and different events that are introduced and cut to. These might be pre-recorded content or live shots from anywhere outside of where the host(s) are located (a “live shot”). In this type of production, there’s a script and a very important document referred to as a “ROS” (Run of Show) that lists and documents each word spoken by the host(s), each show segment, taped or pre-recorded roll in, etc. This is the opposite of reacting to live events; this type of production anticipates the events that are about to occur rather than reacting to the events that just occurred. While in words that sounds like a minor difference, in the actual production, this difference is significant. In a planned production, we’ll often drive the client to allow us to perform three to five rehearsals in a row with the talent and crew. In this way, during the broadcast, the crew, the director calling the show, the technical director switching it, the camera ops and, most significantly, the talent know and understand where the show is going and which key moments are about to occur.

The end result is usually more satisfying to me than reacting to events that are occurring before me. In a planned production, the show is “live” and occurring in real time, but the primary difference is that the show is geared toward the at home audience and the crew as far as timing and sequencing.

Often reactive event coverage can be more efficient with multiple PTZ cameras like our PTZ Optics remote cameras. A single camera op can successfully program and control five to six cameras alone.

Separating the Experienced From The Inexperienced

This isn’t to say that a live event with live streaming can only be a reactive mess, often with camera marks missed; talent marks not hit; poor exposure, focus and composition; delayed or late titles or lower thirds, etc. We find that the more experienced client/producers know to front-load us as much as possible. A clear, tight, locked ROS delivered to us days before the actual live event is incredibly important. Coordination with talent on what will happen and the order it will happen in and the length of their speeches or host segments is also important to the success of the program. Unfortunately, in live streaming we often work with clients who are overwhelmed and overloaded, have never participated in producing a live event and know absolutely nothing about live television. Even though live streaming is typically smaller scale than TV production, the principles and basics are identical. Without an intelligent and logical approach, the end result is often less than polished and professional.

With the set built and pre-lit, we were prepared for a full dress rehearsal with the talent. This was a talk show format live stream for a private school.

Traditional Production Or Live Streaming, The Basics Are The Same

No matter which type of production you create, produce or generate for clients, there are some constants throughout the process that are necessary for a successful and smooth professional production.

Methods for Failure

  1. Procrastination is the single biggest failure variable. Remind clients to not procrastinate in writing, locking and distributing their Run of Show. Remind them that we need finalized media assets, all of them, at least a week before their show. We’re constantly barraged by clients who seem incapable of locking their ROS, tweaking and adjusting all of the way up until showtime, and at times, they’re even tweaking the ROS during the production, which when you think about it, makes zero sense and nobody in the production, crew or talent, has any time to read, process and react to last-minute changes. It seems to be standard operating procedure that clients will often procrastinate on delivering their assets, whether those are title cards, video clips, lower thirds, pre-recorded video and music clips, etc., until the absolute LAST minute, right before their show goes live. Once again, this is self-sabotaging behavior and I’m not always sure of how to convince clients that they’re derailing the success of their show by doing this.
  2. Simple is always BEST! Too often, clients attempt to add complex or logistically challenging elements to their live projects when the majority of talent and client support team have their hands full just trying to competently execute the most basic and simple show concept.
  3. Take mitigating factors into consideration. Often, clients and show creators have tunnel vision and fail to take into account the ramifications of the entire production process and what ill effects a seemingly small or simple item can have on the entire production. A talented producer uses deductive reasoning to factor in a large number of cause-and-effect variables in their planning of the event. “If I want the production/script/talent to do this, HOW will doing this affect the rest of the productions timing, logistics, other talent, crew, venue, lighting, sound, camera positions, etc.?” Production tends to be susceptible to the domino effect where one small action can easily affect the entire production, so working through these decisions with the show creators, writers and clients can be the key to a successful show.
  4. Assuming things will just work out. I’m constantly amazed at how many clients make assumptions about what talent, the crew and the audience may or may not do during the event. The best method to mitigate actions and reactions is to verbally talk through the entire run of show with the talent, production team and client team. Often, clients just assume things that aren’t spelled out for everyone involved and are then surprised when their assumptions are proven to be incorrect—at times with disastrous results.
A BTS still from an ’80s-themed live stream we produced. This was a complex live stream with three different sets, two of them green screen and one live with two hosts (pictured). Six cameras, 30 lights, a three-ton grip package and multiple channels of wireless mics. The client for this live stream fully understood the power of the medium and planned for success.

Methods for Success

  1. Front-load! The easiest way any client or show creator can ensure a successful project is to front-load everything. The talent must be booked early, the Run of Show should be locked at a minimum of a week from the event, a tech rehearsal should be scheduled and, ideally, a talent rehearsal should be held as well. If there are two podiums on the stage, which talent will go to which podium? If there are various performers or talent mentioned in the script/ROS, when do they come onto the stage? When do they exit? Where do they enter and leave the stage? I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Walking through every detail of the show is essential.
  2. As stated in number two above, what can you do as a producer/production company to help the client simplify their concept/cues/show? In production, simpler is easier to execute smoothly. Shorter is always better. There’s nothing worse in a live stream than speeches that go on too long, too many boring or gratuitous sections and too much filler.
  3. Ask questions. Then ask more. As a producer, you should be well versed in standard journalism questions, as in “Who, How, What, When, Where and Why?” The only way to mitigate assumptions that could be disastrous to the live stream or production is to let the client tell you their vision for the event and how the coverage will unfold. Take notes and ask questions. “When do you want this to happen?” “When will this talent enter onto the stage?” Where will that off-stage person or group enter and exit frame?” “When?”
  4. It’s your job as a producer to NOT make assumptions. You must be detail-oriented and care about all of the little stuff. There’s an old saying, “Success is in the details.” Nowhere is this truer than in production. If it’s an outdoor event, “What will happen if it rains?” “If it’s windy?” If it’s an indoor event, “What’s plan B if there’s too much external noise?” “Are those dozens of cables going to be secured so crew and talent won’t trip over them in the dark?”
A shot of a borrowed old-school applause sign from a recent live stream. Making sure the audience is engaged and enjoys watching the production should be the goal of the entire production team, talent and client.

The Takeaway

No matter what kind of production you’re producing—a live or a pre-recorded event—there are hundreds and often thousands of details that it’s your job to consider, delegate and ensure successful execution of. The success or failure of the production starts with how you address these points and how well you follow up with the client or client team to ensure that the pieces are all in place for a successful production.