Here's my favorite video for the show: https://vimeo.com/462396471
The opening number for the live stream program is at the bottom of this post!
You have to go to Vimeo to see them. I don't trust you guys to watch it in some tiny, embedded format here and the bust my chops because it's too small...
Vacation from the VSL blog.
I really needed that break. I was trying to concentrate on this enormous volunteer project for Zach Theatre back in late August and I kept running out of mental bandwidth. And time. I was feeling stale on the blog since we hadn't worked much and even I'll admit that swimming isn't really a spectator sport. I'm glad some of you waited around to see if the blog would revive. I did write in my Sept. 2nd post that "this is not goodbye.."
How did I recharge the "creative batteries"? Mostly by working a lot on new stuff instead of writing about working. That, and copious amounts of swimming and walking. Between sessions of filming out in the heat and humidity I took times for naps, ate well and read more books. The end result is that I wanted to come back and write. Seems like I missed writing at least as much as you missed reading new stuff.
So, let's catch up.
I'm not sure I've been very clear about the project I've been working on so I think we should start there with some background and description.
Zach Theatre's Annual Fundraising Gala: AKA: Red, Hot and Soul.
Zachary Scott Theatre has been actively making live theater (plays, musicals, dramas, lectures) for the last 99 years. For the last ten years we've been lucky to have a brand new, state of the art theater space to work in as well as three other stages on the campus in which to produce kids programs, smaller productions, and intimate, limited time engagements.
The Theatre, while regional, is a standout in the country for the quality of its work and is often used as a resource by famous playwrights to develop new productions. Anna Devere Smith has done two of her debuts in our theaters. Holland Taylor debuted "Ann" in our theater before taking it to Broadway. Tony Kushner was in our audiences for the first regional run of "Angels in America." And the list goes on. Steven Dietz often debuts his work here; most recently his take on "Dracula."
Our theater is big on education and community outreach. Each year 50,000 school age children are treated to live performances here. There is also an accredited academy for kids who want an alternative learning experience with emphasis on theater as well as a regular school curriculum. Many of the children who see plays at Zach are able to do so because their attendance is subsidized. Scholarships are available for those who want to go to the academy but lack financial resources.
So, every year Zach Theatre's budget is split between creating great, community-based theater and providing a wide array of learning opportunities. Add in a very a professional staff and you can imagine that expenses are high. But in normal years the theater is able to make ends meet by combining ticket sales for their MainStage shows, private donations, grants and support from the city of Austin. They've always been able to come up with needed $$$ and the event that tips the budget out of the red each year is a fabulous fundraising gala they call: Red, Hot and Soul.
The theater erects a giant, air conditioned tent in the central plaza, the furnishings are top shelf, as is the alcohol. The catering (lovely dinners) is by the Four Season Hotel and is flawless/delicious. Singers and actors serenade and entertain the guests and, of course, there are the pitches for the guests to get generous, open their wallets and support Zach. Every year they raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from this one night event. It covers a lot of the expenses of providing a first class live theater venue for our community.
But this year is different. The Theatre went dark at the end of February because of the pandemic. Audiences have been unable to attend any indoor productions. Staff has been laid off. There has been a real existential fear that after 99 years of creativity, inspiration, and the delivery of happiness and joy, our theater would run out of money and close its doors.
The senior staff decided to throw a Red, Hot and Soul gala this year, but virtually. They needed to capture the excitement of the event but without the catering, the cramped banquet table camaraderie and the open bars. But what we still had was a bunch of very creative and popular actors, a committed choreographer, a bright, young in-house video producer and a masochistic volunteer with a history of shooting video. That last one would be me.
It was decided that we'd create a bunch of creative content, intermix that creative content with a live show featuring two emcees, and we'd stream the whole thing up live on YouTube and Facebook. The show would eventually come together (last night) and run almost two hours. The first half hour consisted of photos of past productions intermixed with music, auction items people could bid on, and snippets of interviews with actors and directors.
After that virtual happy hour we'd launch the main show. It would have a creative opening video which we shot back in August mixed with the two live presenters. Then a video of the the kids performing a musical dance number mixed again with the two wise guys in the house. We would cut away to (pre-recorded) quick "check-ins" of people celebrating the event with "watch" parties in their homes. I filmed one such party and my brief was to cut back on the production quality and try to make video that looked like the party attendees were shooting it with their phones. I tried but sadly, it's still in focus and well exposed. I did shake the camera a lot... But the audio is just too damn good.
The one hour (plus some O.T.) ends with Los Angeles based singer/actor: Chanel singing two hits from Tina Turner. That's no coincidence as she was recently cast by a theater in London's famous West End to take on the role of Tina Turner for the season. Of course, that was just before the pandemic shut down the whole London theater scene.
After Chanel's video there's a video of tap dancing to a Stevie Wonder hit and then we sign off and cut to a pre-recorded video of a D.J. to finish up with a bit more house party.
So, what was my role?
It started out with me volunteering to help make video, along with a couple other professionals who initially volunteered. But before we even started shooting they realized that this was an enormous project and they (gracelessly?) backed out. That left me and the in-house producer as the sole crew for a couple parts of the project. Namely, the first half and the second half.
Using a creative narrative conceived by the theater's artistic director, Dave Steakley, we would need to create original video for six different modules for which Joshua and I would do the pre-production, story-boarding, camera work, direction and post production. One critical duty I had for each program was to bring the bling. I was the donor of any and all camera and lighting equipment that was required. I operated the camera for every second of every video. I also went from being a gimbal virgin to a gimbal pro over the space of six weeks (easy enough to do if you have a gimbal in your hands for at least a couple hours a day, every day).
When we ran out of light I pulled lighting stuff out of the studio inventory and had it ready to go. If we needed to record an interview I brought along the bag full of microphones. We'd let the space dictate the microphone we ended up using.
Joshua worked with the development team to schedule our talents. On several shoots we had several dozen talents on exterior locations to work with. We'd do a quick rehearsal and try to get our footage in a couple of takes. At the end of every day I'd put all the raw footage on a hard drive and Joshua would have to take it home and scrub through it, looking for whatever visual gems we happened to get. Then he had the unenviable task of doing all of the editing. We worked hand-in-hand to find codecs and color profiles that would work under wildly different conditions but still keep shadows and highlights under control.
Just last Sunday we were shooting the last of our video properties. We'd shot nearly every weekend and lots of weekdays between August 16th and September 20th. Mix in regular clients and a consistent schedule of swims and you start to get an idea why I felt that also keeping the blog well stocked might be a step too far...
So, at some point in the mix, we had to decide how to handle the live show. We would have our creative performances pre-recorded and in the can but how would we handle the live streaming? In a moment of heedless delirium I suggested that we do a three camera production but I was pretty adamant that since I'd never streamed live before (and didn't want to learn how or buy that kind of gear) we should get a professional crew to do the live show audio and technical work of making a show seem bulletproof and seamless. We bit the bullet and hired a company called, "Werd." And they turned out to be great. They brought along a show director, a video/switching professional and an audio engineer. They did their jobs perfectly. And they were fun to work with.
We lacked a teleprompter and teleprompter operator and the three cameras that would present the live feed on the big day. I guess I was still dazed from a month of volunteering but as my consciousness floated above my body I heard myself suggest that "since I was no longer busy shooting video every day I guessed I could handle the three cameras on the big day." As I floated back down into my body I screamed at my inner self -- "What the hell were you thinking?" It was a rhetorical question. I was already committed.
One of the emcees provided the teleprompter pro. An old family friend. He was great.
The three camera "TV" show.
So, here's what I learned about live streaming a multi-camera show to Facebook and Youtube:
No one streams 4K video. No one streams 10 bit video. No one streams 4:2:2 video. No one streams .Mov video. Your goal is to provide a 1080p video feed that is as skinny (anemic?) as your camera can possibly provide and to make all the color and contrast tweaks humanly possible in camera, in advance, since there is NO opportunity to fix anything in post. Good files = small files.
I found out that all three of my Lumix S1x series cameras can (under humiliating distress) shoot M4P files at the blistering data rate of.... 28 mbs. Not 280. Just 28.
To make things easy for the continuous uploading while switching seamlessly between three cameras you want to make sure that all the settings match up. If you are shooting the show at 30 fps then all three cameras need to be set to 30 fps. If you chose to make a custom look with a tweaked "natural" profile then all three cameras need to have the same color profile.
To make it visually transparent to the audience you also need to make sure you color balance all three cameras with the same target in the actual lighting the presenter will live in. And it's a big help to keep both of your presenters in focus.
We filmed our live presenters in front of a wall of donor plaques in the main lobby of the big theater building. I had the Lumix S1H set up, with the teleprompter, right down the middle. It was a medium to medium wide shot that took in both presenters and bookended them with a flower arrangement on each side. My instructions to them: Stay inside the flowers and you'll be visible. Venture beyond the flowers and you'll quickly fall into obscurity.
The S1H was equipped with the battery grip which (tested in advance) would give me a minimum of 2.5 hours of run time. Without high data rate files, AF and image stabilization it would be closer to 3 hours. I used the 24-70mm f2.8 at f5.6 and tweaked exposure with the ISO setting. At the shooting distance, f-stop and shutter speed I had a zone of sharp focus that was about three feet deep. If needed, I could tweak on the fly. I knew the presenters weren't used to using teleprompters and I figured they'd be scared to go too far off script and get lost so I knew our center camera would get the most play time.
I used a second camera, a Lumix S1, over to the left (as I faced the presenters) by about 35 degrees in order to get a different look. That camera was used with the 24-105mm zoom set to about 50mm and also tuned in at f5.6. Since I only had the one battery grip I set up each of the two side camera with Anker Power Banks plugged into the camera's USB-C input. This charged the battery while the camera worked.
The third camera was an S1 on the other side, but a bit further back than the left camera and set up to use a longer lens so I could get tighter shots that showed bigger heads and less background. This camera also had an external battery running into the USB-C and sported a 70-200mm f4.0 Lumix S-Pro lens. Since this and the 24-70mm both have manual focusing capability via a clutch I took advantage of it. I decided on a focal length that worked well and then focused on the closest presenter. I marked that focus point on the lens with a piece of white tape. I then focused on the second presenter and marked that focus point with a white piece of tape. By using those reference marks I could fine tune focus for each person, when they led the script, without having to punch in to check focus. Two reasons for this: First, the Lumix cameras won't punch in while you are currently running video recording! and secondly, if you could punch in you'd see the magnified image in the mix at the video mixer. The old, tape-on-the-lens method works without a lot of fuss and obviates the need for eye-strain.
I did cheat on the center camera by using a Ninja V monitor (not recording video, just monitoring). With the Ninja you can take the HDMI signal out of camera and into the monitor so you can punch in there to confirm or tweak focus. The magnification doesn't affect the image output. It also gives you a bigger, brighter screen that's easier to visually assess accurate focus on. In the "monitor but not record" mode the Atomos Ninja V lasted all evening with one Sony NP-900 series battery. In fact, it was so parsimonious with power that the battery indicator never showed less than 100%.
When the live show started I stayed close to the "tight" image camera on the right side as long as we were live. If we switched and played a canned video I made the rounds to the other two cameras to make sure everything was going according to plan. I knew the run of show from memorizing the schedule earlier so I knew the points at which we'd be off and the pre-recorded stuff would be on. I'd get back to the tight camera with 30 or 40 seconds to spare, check focus and then pay attention to the presenters' movements.
The streaming production team was thrilled to get feed from three tightly matched cameras but I have to say that seeing the final product highly compressed on YouTube or (even worse) on Facebook is a bit depressing. At least I have the three isolated channels saved from the three cameras. Just in case I want to make some alternate edits in the future.
So, how did the show work?
We didn't miss a beat. No one on the crew messed up. The teleprompter guy was a consummate pro who never got ahead or behind his speakers. My cameras were rock solid every step of the way. The two back ups weren't needed. The presenters sold the program well. We did this whole thing on a shoe string but at last count we raised, over the course of two hours, well over $200,000(+) for the theatre. We beat our initial goal comfortably. Success.
Funny to observe that during the technical rehearsal the day before, and prior to the start of the show, nerves are frayed, anxiety runs high, actors pace the room like trapped animals and engineers triple check their tools.
Once the show starts people get pulled away from thinking about "what could go wrong" and just get into the flow of doing their jobs.
When the show is over there's a delay of any show of emotion until the donation tally is announced. If we did a good job everyone becomes euphoric. Happy. Optimistic.
Someone actually said, "I can hardly wait to do this again next year.....!" I slunk closer to the wall and quickly got my gear out the front door. I didn't want to take the risk that I might inadvertently volunteer again. For once the logical side of my brain had a firm grip on the car keys.
And here's the video we opened the show with: https://vimeo.com/462399373
This week I'll break it down into smaller chunks and talk about how I learned to gimbal, etc. Stay tuned.