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How often do you try something new in your work? I mean really new, like something you’ve never done before? Or what about something you haven’t done for a long time? Recently, a friend who I’ve known for quite a few years approached me about helping him with a project he had going on. He’s in the live streaming business. I’m not in the live streaming business. At all. As in, I’ve never participated in a live stream, except as a camera operator. Last year, I was the lead camera operator for the Facebook Live Stream for the NAACP Image Awards Red Carpet.
Hooray For Hollywood!
When I say, “in Hollywood,” this ceremony was to take place at the Dolby Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, at the Hollywood and Highland complex, directly across the street from the Jimmy Kimmel Live Theater. It’s nice that the Hollywood city government frequently allows Hollywood Boulevard to be shut down for various live events, red carpets, concerts, etc., including this event.
From a camera operator’s perspective, the shoot was fairly straightforward live television except that instead of being uplinked to a broadcast antenna, our Facebook Live Stream was routed via a hard-wired Gigabyte Ethernet connection at the Hollywood and Highland Center. My job was to be the lead camera operator, shooting our talent as they interviewed all of the celebrities and actors coming down the red carpet as they arrived at the ceremony. We had five switched cameras set up. One notable factor was that if you’re used to shooting live television, it’s most often shot with 2/3” three CCD broadcast cameras, similar to the same ones used for live broadcast for most entertainment and sporting event coverage.
Streaming is a whole other ball game so to speak. Keep in mind that streaming, while growing monthly in viewership, is still playing little brother to the big network live broadcasts. BET was airing their coverage of the ceremony and awards live while our little “broadcast” was mainly all about the red carpet arrivals, wardrobe, guests and interviews before the ceremony—a “pre-game” show if you will. I try to keep an open mind with production, which is how I’ve come to have a lot of different skill sets in my toolkit. I have shot live broadcast television before, although I must confess, it’s been quite a while since I worked in live television. When my friend offered to hire me to be a camera operator for this live stream, he knew that I don’t shoot a lot of ongoing live television events, but he did know that I had live TV experience.
Being The Camera Operator
In case you don’t have live television experience, it’s very different than shooting events, documentary, narrative, music videos or commercials. You only get one shot to get things right, and if you make mistakes, they go out live to your audience, which never looks professional and doesn’t motivate your client to call you when the next live gig needs crew. I have found the main thing when operating for live television is that a good director, technical director and stage manager, if the event has one, are key to your performance as a camera operator.
You receive your camera direction from the director in your headset. A calm, cool and collected director is always a good fit for live television. Things can get stressful and heated, and a good live director can keep everyone on the team motivated, creative and on top of their game. Fortunately, we had a good director for the Facebook Live event, and the shoot came off pretty well. We had some stressful moments, but fortunately for us, they mostly happened in the build-up to going live, not during the live stream. Our entire sidewalk studio lost power for about an hour. This was during the setup and lighting. The entire red carpet walkway had been lined with 2,500 watt HMI lights. The electrical load apparently hadn’t been coordinated with the rest of the power needs on the circuits everyone was using. It took a while to figure out how to solve the power distribution problem.
Working With The Team
Besides a director, a technical director, five camera ops and a sound mixer, we had a few miscellaneous crew, including someone whose job it was to mainly monitor the Ethernet hookup and how the stream was playing out to the end users. In live streaming, there are a lot of things on the computer, Ethernet and service provider for the streaming end of things. Our shoot, for the most part, went well, with both the technology and our on-camera hosts. Keep in mind that for this type of shoot, there was a tech rehearsal to make sure that the gear was functional, but there was no way to rehearse what our hosts would be covering because that all depended on who was coming down the red carpet next.
The Next Streaming Gig
The NAACP Awards live stream was about a year ago. Overall, the event and our live stream went well and the clients were happy with the end result. I didn’t hear back from my friend who has the live streaming company for a few months until he recently called and asked if I could once again help him out with some live streaming work. This situation was very different. Instead of covering a red carpet for Facebook Live, we’d be covering a building dedication ceremony for a university. The client was expecting an audience of about 1,000 attendees, students, professors and politicians. Because the new facility could only seat about 700 people, the client wanted to use our stream for IMAG in an adjacent overflow building for those who couldn’t be seated in the main building. The client was also expecting possibly a few hundred other viewers from the East Coast who couldn’t be in California for the building dedication and would want to watch the live stream of the speeches and ceremony.
Put On A Different Hat
My friend and the rest of his company were booked to cover a boxing match in Las Vegas the same day as he was booked to cover this building dedication. I was asked if, instead of camera operating, I’d feel comfortable directing the live stream. In this case, because the crew was small, not only would I direct the coverage, I’d also serve as technical director.
Usually in live television, the director and the technical director sit side by side in the control room. The director directs the cameras to get the shots they want and, at the same time, directs the technical director sitting next to them to choose the shots, transitions, video roll-ins, graphics and lower thirds that are sent out to air live. Both positions take a keen ability to multitask. I was going to be doing both positions, but our coverage would only have three sources. We’d cover the ceremony with two cameras and I’d be rolling in title cards from the client. In return, while all three sources would be going out to the live stream, only camera one would be going out to the venue’s AV people to be displayed on eight 70-inch OLED screens that flanked the auditorium and projected on two large 16-by-9-foot projected images on screens.
How You Cover Camera Moves
Since we only had two camera feeds and one graphics source, the key to coverage would be to make sure that while one camera or graphic source was live to both the stream and the venues IMAG (Image Magnification) screens, it would be my job as director to direct the camera operator as to which shot I wanted next, how to frame it and be ready for the next shot. Fortunately, at my time in a television program at college, we had an opportunity to produce a live television show each week, aired on local cable, and each of us in the class was rotated in different crew positions each week. I had a chance to direct, technical direct, stage manage, camera operate and also worked with the sound mix and with motion graphics packages that went to air. I felt confident going in that I’d recall exactly how to direct, call shots and live switch smoothly.
The Nervous Parts
Fortunately, we had a load in and build day built into our schedule. I was able to drive to the location with my friend, load in all of the gear and set it up for a tech rehearsal and run-through. Setting up all of the gear was pretty straightforward—running power, audio from the house mixing board to our streaming setup, hook up and test out the cameras—you know, the usual. Where the whole project became possibly more challenging was when my friend began walking me through setting up the streaming. He uses a service called Dacast for custom setup live streaming.
What’s custom setup? Anytime you aren’t going to use one of the standard streaming providers like YouTube, Facebook or Vimeo, you’re going to need your own streaming provider. As he walked me through Dacast and its setup, he also showed me how it was a good idea to not only stream a 1080 30p 5 Mbps stream but also a smaller, lower-resolution stream for mobile viewers. That stream we targeted for a nominal data rate of 750 Kbps, which I was told is acceptable for mobile users. Very cleverly, the streaming server can poll each device to decide which stream to supply. Very handy.
The other factor that you don’t think about much if you’ve never done this is bit budgeting. You have to figure out how much bandwidth you need to serve out to how many viewers and then pay for it. I won’t bore you with the mathematics of the equation, but let’s just say I can see why a lot of hardware providers dumped hardware in favor of selling bandwidth for streaming video.
As the clock kept moving toward 5:20 p.m., when I’d hit the streaming button on our Live Stream Studio hardware, I had been trying to figure out how I could successfully wear the Sony MDRV-7506 headphones to monitor the audio for our live stream and wear the Eartec single-sided headphones so that I could communicate with our camera operator and the AV person who was supplying our motion graphics and sending in house audio. I was having an awkward time trying to wear both sets of headphones when our client came up with a brilliant idea.
The function began with a live choir and orchestra that was reaching typical live music performance sound levels with a lot of dynamic range. Contrast that with the first speaker, the university president, who happened to have an average to even lower volume voice. The sound mixer had to pad and reduce the sound levels being sent to us for the musical performance but raise the audio levels significantly for the speakers. Rather than me trying to ride audio levels for the live stream while also directing and TDing, the AV person suggested that with an iPad, we could locate the sound mixer at our streaming table of gear next to me. That way, they could monitor our streaming audio levels and adjust their new Allen & Heath mixing board levels via the iPad.
The IPad app had very nice VUs and interface for their sound mixer. This freed me up to concentrate on directing, having our camera operator line up the next shot as I switched between camera two and our title cards, then cutting to camera one, the close-up shot of the speaker at the podium.
It had been quite a few years since I had directed and switched live television, but once the show began, I’m glad to say that it all came flooding back to me. I stayed calm, even had fun with the crew as I lined up shots, switched to them, rolled in video clips and title cards and kept things moving. I had a feed from the video stream displaying on an iPad in front of me, but it was disorienting as the actual “live” stream ended up having about a :45 delay over the live events happening in front of me. Streaming, other than the actual encoding, hookup and streaming configuration, is very similar to live TV.
If you get the chance to step outside your normal comfort zone, I recommend you do it when you can. I’m definitely not a highly experienced live TV director, but the client and my friend were both happy with how the live stream worked. The key, I found, the same as it is with all live television coverage, is to stay calm and focused. Anticipate what’s going to happen next and be ready to direct your team to react to what’s happening as quickly and smoothly as possible. We had a show schedule, and like in many live situations, things changed on the fly, resulting in us being “lost” as far as what was next a couple of times. Things will rarely be perfect, but that’s just how things happen in live coverage, whether it’s news, the Oscars or just a little live stream for a local client.