Live production with a remote audience in the time of COVID-19
For the previous three years, Digistor has hosted, technically produced and streamed a live event for Australian Screen Editors called "Edit Royale". As the date for Edit Royale 2020 approached, we needed to decide what sort of live competition event we and the ASE could produce while managing the restrictions imposed by COVID-19.
Edit Royale is an event where five emerging editors compete to show off their editing artistry and speed by editing a complete music video from unseen media in only two hours. It's a fun, live and interactive event where an audience can witness programmes emerging from the raw media while enjoying live commentary.
For 2020, we were faced with producing a live event which has in previous years included a large, dynamic local audience, enjoying beer and pizza and each other's company and a small number of remote viewers. This year we were going to have to invert the concept so that we had no local audience and a large number of dynamic remote attendees in their own homes that we had to keep engaged. Essentially, the live programme would be produced within Digistor, with multiple programme participants, and the viewing audience would be entirely remote as would some additional programme participants we needed to bring in to the programme as required.
Clearly, this was going to take some head-scratching, experimentation and technical nouse.
When we mapped out the requirements to operate the live event within the confines of COVID-19 restrictions, this is what we came up with.
Personnel required at Digistor
- 5 X competing editors
- 2 X roving MCs
- 1 X producer
- 1 X live switcher operator
- 1 X roving cameraperson
- 1 X Digistor technical staff
- 1 X Digistor presenter
This brought us to 12 people in the space which was within the effective social distancing requirements.
Just for added complexity, we were required to have remote talent to participate in the programme and be seen and heard by the remote audience and to communicate with the MCs in the room and with each other – effectively a multi-location live cross. These remote participants included
- The ASE President, Fiona Strain
- Sponsor representatives from Avid, Adobe, Wacom and Blackmagic Design
- "Lucky Door Prize" winners (randomly selected from remote attendees)
We also had pre-recorded video content that needed to be played at high quality along with graphics overlays and titles, plus we needed to mix all the audio sources.
So, in summary, we needed to produce a programme with live switching between multiple sources at Digistor and external sources while delivering a live mixed programme to an external audience via the internet. We wanted to stream live via Facebook Live for "passive" viewers and record the whole thing to post on-demand after the event.
We had conducted Zoom webinars previously, so we explored using this platform as an option for delivery of ASE Edit Royale to the remote audience. After much experimentation, we were able to get good results from Zoom when used as follows
- The mix from the live event in the room (programme out of an ATEM switcher) was fed into Zoom via an NDI signal over an ethernet connection to a Mac Book. Newtek's NDI Tools software on the MacBook Pro enabled us to define the NDI ethernet feed as a camera input selectable in Zoom. We used a Kiloview E1 NDI SDI to NDI encoder to encode from SDI audio and video to NDI. The Kiloview E1 also gave us the ability to insert a graphic bug over the programme output from the room. This device could also have recorded the show and streamed it live, but we wanted to include the remote elements in the stream and recording, not just what was happening in the room.
- Pre-recoded video cannot be effectively played in Zoom via screen share because the fame rate and audio sync experienced by the audience is poor. Screen Share is OK for computer screens but unusable for full-screen video playback. To get around this, we used an external computer to playback the pre-recorded video as an additional source into our ATEM switcher. In this way, we were able to play these full-screen into the Zoom camera input achieving full frame rate and good audio for the remote audience.
Once we settled on using Zoom Webinar, there were a few other elements we could introduce to keep the programme exciting and audience member "attendees" involved. These included
- Polls. We introduced polls throughout the show where the remote audience could respond to pre-determined questions and then we were able to show the results. This enabled us to conduct a live vote for our winner of the competition too.
- Q&A. The remote audience was able to send questions to the Producer, who could then answer privately or publicly by text or could put the question to people in the room for it to be answered live.
- Interactive Chat. We chose to limit this so that audience members could only chat with our Producer. It gave the audience a way to provide direct feedback on the show, technical difficulties, etc. There is a setting for Chat in Zoom that either allows audience members to Chat to Panellists or everyone. If you want a chance to moderate Chat, make sure you set this to Panellists only.
In addition, Zoom gave us a cool way to resolve the "live cross" problem where we wanted to bring external participants into the programme. Zoom Webinar has a concept of Panellists and Attendees. Attendees are passive watchers and do not share their camera or mic. Panellists share their camera and mic and can be seen and heard by all attendees. When the time came to introduce an external sponsor, for example, our Producer could "promote" them from Attendee to Panellist, and they would turn on their Zoom camera and mic. The attendees would then see a split screen between the room mix and the sponsor.
Each time we needed to introduce another external participant, we could promote them, and Zoom would split the screen again. It was then possible to have a multi-way conversation between the talent in the room and multiple remote "panellists". When it came time to remove them from the programme, we simply "demoted" them back to Attendees and they would be removed and re-join the programme as attendees watching only.
There was one problem with the Zoom "live cross". Those in the room needed a way to see what the audience was seeing and to be able to speak to people remotely. The solution we came up with for this was to use another laptop permanently connected as an "attendee" that we projected onto a wall in the room and played through house monitoring speakers. This gave the MCs the ability to "talk to" the projected images of the remote talent. It had a side benefit of allowing us to monitor at all times what the external attendees were seeing and hearing as a form of "confidence monitor".
Zoom gave us a way to present a "virtual barrel roll" to select the "Lucky Door Prize" winners (Are there "door prizes" when an audience is remote? Anyway, I digress). We wrote a FileMaker app to import all the registrations for the webinar and, at the press of a button, randomly select the winner with an animated "spin" through the names. The operation of the app could be shared with the audience by using Zoom's Share Screen function. While not suitable for sharing video, this worked great to let the audience see the winner selection. If the winner was present on the webinar, they "raised their hand" in Zoom so the Producer could promote them to a "Panellist" and turn on their video and audio to accept their prize from the sponsor. At this point the room action, remote sponsor and prize winner were "live", allowing a three-way interaction.
Interestingly, it appears that Zoom sets up a "virtual attendee" in the cloud at 1280x720 at 25fps and uses this attendee's view to
- make the recording of the webinar
- stream to Facebook Live
The only "gotcha" here is that Zoom does not record the Polls and their results. I assume this is also true for Surveys, although we did not test this. So, if you want to include the Polls in the recording, you'll need to do a screen grab or similar and then edit them into the recording after the event (fix it in post).
It's also worth noting that Facebook Live viewers won't see the Polls either and can't vote. We should have warned audience members of this so they either joined the Zoom webinar or we should have worked out a way to conduct Facebook polls at the same time (complicated!).
Zoom also recorded separate text files as a record of the Q&A, Chat and Polls for download and review.
So, let's look at the room setup…
A picture paints a thousand words, and the diagram below outlines the full configuration and connections. I'll point out a few items of interest.
We added a remotely controlled OTTICA PTZ NDI camera into the mix to give us additional POV camera shots without adding additional personnel to manage a camera. This camera had pre-set pan, tilt and zoom (PTZ) settings with auto-focus to give us different pre-defined views within the room. Camera control was managed over ethernet.
The real "hero" of the mix was the Blackmagic ATEM Television Studio Pro HD. Using the ATEM, we were able to take in 8 video/audio sources and mix these live with graphics and overlays. Fades and transitions added interest, and our technician was able to remotely assist using the ATEM interface on his laptop via the ethernet connection.
Points of failure
As our local politicians are want to say, there were several "learnings" from this experience that we should share.
- Learning: Lock down and secure cables
Our complete mix was being encoded into NDI and sent down a single ethernet cable into a laptop with a USB-C to ethernet adaptor. Of course, this is the only cable that was "kicked out" on the night, prompting a frantic scrabble to plug it back in! Zoom recovered quickly from having the NDI camera feed removed, but it was a heart-stopping moment. USB-C connectors do not lock and are easily knocked out. After we plugged it back in, we gaffer-taped it to the computer.
- Learning: Allow plenty of time for setup
Two of the competitor's edit suite licenses failed on start-up 10 minutes before going live while the roving mics in the room were still not working, and the Producer could not hear any audio. Needless to say, it was all fine in rehearsal, but we really needed an extra 30 mins before the start to smooth any wrinkles. Better to have nothing to do while the last seconds tick down than to be resorting to last-minute workarounds!
- Learning: Have a back-up internet connection
Digistor has a 400Mbs up/down internet connection in the office with guaranteed up-time, which is just amazing, but most offices are not that lucky. Have a 4G modem (dongle) ready and live that you can swap to if the main internet connection to your streaming machine goes down. These generally have a wifi service built-in, so other systems can join the network too if needed. If your primary internet connection is sometimes a bit slow, you may wish to use both this and 4G – one for the main stream and the other for machines viewing, etc.
- Learning: Don't use wifi for anything critical
Wifi connections add an extra level of uncertainty and potential failure. Use wired ethernet where you can.
A final word
This blog has considered the production from a technical configuration and functionality point of view. Of course, that is just the beginning of the story. The show could never have happened without the tireless work and flawless coordination of ASE member and editor extraordinaire, Danielle Boesenberg. We also need to recognise the fabulous performances of MCs Scott Walmsley and Sally Fryer. Scott also produced the fantastic artwork. Cameraperson Adrian Barac once again managed to film the entire 3-hour event with flair and without flagging. Editor Emily Clulow (a previous Edit Royale winner) was on the live switching for the night and never left her station! And of course, the talented editor competitors Carly Anne Kenneally (the winner!), Angus Roche, Keaton Stewart, Matt Hodges and Bettina Otterbeck. Many others helped make this event a success – you know who you are. Thank you.