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Wow.

I’m absolutely still decompressing from this weekend, not to mention setup last week, all going towards putting on a live streamed broadcast for Dancember, an annual charity event by Benji and Judy of BenjiManTV and ItsJudyTime, respectively. There were a number of goals, including:

– Have the stream going for a full 24 hours via YouTube live

– Raise $100,000 for the charity, Rescue Freedom

– Have everything be high quality and professional

These goals themselves sound fairly straight-forward to the common reader, but I can tell you as a video professional that the first and last statement there were exceptionally intimidating to me at first. I’ve had plenty of experience streaming video, and I’ve been on production crews at the Gorge, but neither of those two types of events typically cross too often, and don’t kid yourself: 24 hours of live, high quality streaming video with multiple cameras and an amateur (relatively) team isn’t an easy task. I chalk up our success to one main thing: belief in the cause. Aside from that, there was lots of hours of preparation spent on this, from Benji, Judy and their team, to Guy and myself at DVE figuring out how to do all this, and finally to executing it.

Interested in how? Well here you go:

I was first made aware of all of this about a week before the event. Guy and I met with Benji and Austin (a very promising young videographer), and discussed the plan. Over the next few days Guy and I worked on a system for them, tested some streams from our office with YouTube live, and had a picture of how this would kinda work.

Starting Tuesday, it was time to get going. We had to make sure that Benji’s internet connection could support a 24 hour HD stream. We had to make sure our system, a NextComputing system especially designed for use with Wirecast for streams, could handle the load. We had to make sure the cables for cameras reached the right area, wireless camera worked, audio was solid, Google Hangouts could be brought in, music could play, and that we could handle all this tech by ourselves.

BenjiSetup2

I brought the streaming computer, a Blackmagic Design Studio Camera, some cabling and more over to Benji’s on Tuesday, set it all up, and started a stream…. only to realize Tuesday night it hadn’t worked. So after some research and text messaging Tuesday night, I returned Wednesday morning with some more various gear we’d need, and tried the stream again, this time on Benji’s account… and it worked for a solid 23 1/2 hours (I stopped it Thursday morning on purpose), which gave us great hope we were heading the right direction. To achieve the stream, we were using Wirecast 5, and linked it directly to Benji’s YouTube account, which Wirecast makes exceptionally simple. All we had to do was name the stream, make sure the settings were all there (video quality, allow chat, etc), and hit go live. We considered upgrading to Wirecast 6, which I made a few tweets about last week during their webinar, but since I hadn’t actually used it, we stuck with our guns, for which I’m glad. The computer has a Blackmagic Quad card in it, so it was a simple SDI run from the camera to the card, which went right out for the test stream and eventually the actual event.

Now, this is where things get a bit complicated. I can’t say there’s a “secret sauce” to doing all this, but it helps to have time to try a few things out. Basically, the Studio Camera with a mounted Rode Stereo Videomic X was in the living room as Camera 1, running SDI to a Smartview HD monitor, and then back to the streaming computer. We used this mic to try to keep the audio sounding natural while being better than an on-camera mic. If I did this shoot again, I’d ideally want to lav some people up, or maybe place a few more room mics I could control independently, but this was a great solution.

Second, we had a Sony a7 attached to a V-mount battery via a nifty SWIT connector that gave us power to the camera, as well as to the Teradek Bolt, used for latency-free wireless video. This ran into the Quad Card by converting the Bolt’s HDMI out to SDI with an Atomos Connect. (Any HDMI -> SDI converter would do it) Since the rig was heavy enough as-is, I didn’t want to add a mic to it, so it was used mostly as a no-audio B cam during dance segments, and when there were kitchen pieces (Benji’s cooking segment, etc) we used a Sennheiser G3 to mic him up.

The only other video source we used was for Google Hangouts when they’d interview other YouTubers, which ended up being the real challenge. Basically, the idea is that Benji / Judy use Hangouts to speak with Saccone Jolys, Knive Nulls, whomever else they wanted, and I needed direct audio/video from the hangout even though they wanted to be in the living room or upstairs. Now, if you don’t know, HDMI doesn’t run well past 15′, and not usually at all past 25′ without a DA, so the video run would be tricky, and that doesn’t talk about how to pass audio too. My solution was to have another computer next to my station that was also signed into Hangouts, listening to the full conversation and seeing all the video. I simply passed the video over via AJA ROI to my streaming machine, so the video was done. Next, I had an Edirol digital USB mixer for audio, and simply ran the headphone out to RCA into the board, giving me independent control from the rest of the stream. This would’ve been absolutely perfect, with one exception….

In the living room, they wanted music to play so they could dance, and they needed guests to hear it as well. The problem with this is that when in a Google hangout, this much sound out loud on both sides creates feedback, something I didn’t foresee in my testing. Our solution for this was to pipe the headphone out of their living room iMac (their Hangout computer) into a splitter, with one end going to a small stereo system, and the other going into a Sennheiser G3 transmitter, giving me wireless control of the audio from that computer as well. In the end, the audio going into the stereo needed to be rerouted to actual headphones to avoid any feedback, something I’ll avoid in the future by having a dedicated audio board for the Hangout machine in the garage and audio running to that from the living room, cutting off any potential for feedback, as they won’t actually be using the living room computer as anything but a monitor, essentially.

Another interesting challenge we had was communication. We brought a Lectro in ear monitor system, but for someone inexperienced in broadcast, the last thing you want is to constantly distract them. What then? Well, we used Chromecast on Benji’s living room TV and connected up a shared Google Doc with a laptop in the garage / production area, and basically used it as a teleprompter, showing them the active segment, video clips in cue, and any other info or notes they should have out there. Quite effective.

All in all, it was quite successful. However, being the guy I am, I’ve already worked out ways to improve for next year if I’m invited back, or if I ever need to do something similar again. I mentioned the way I’d improve audio for the Hangout system, but there’s more:

BenjiSetup1

1. Use Skype instead of Hangouts. Google Hangouts, while great, is very difficult to have any control over. You can’t go to split screen, audio dictates who is on the video, and things can get hectic. Skype has more control over a few of these things that will make it better-suited for this type of thing.

2. The NextComputing system did admirably, but we still lost the stream twice when the whole computer froze. I had it back up in about 3 minutes each time, but even that is unacceptable for mission-critical broadcast. Wirecast does let you save all the settings you create for a specific broadcast, so once it was back up I could just open that and begin streaming again. I never had the CPU usage over 80%, but even that is remarkably high to run a computer at for 24 straight hours. In the future, I’d use a different board, such as the Roland VR-50HD, and send a single signal into Wirecast on the computer, which would be doing nothing other than sending that signal to YouTube. Additionally, I’d consider sending a second signal through a Teradek Cube via ethernet for redundancy, something I could’ve done this time, but testing the stream successfully for 24 hours prior had me thinking I was fine. Live and learn.

3. As good as most of it looked, I didn’t have graphics / titles for interviews or info, which is a must next time. They weren’t asked for, but would’ve been nice. Creating them in Wirecast during the stream wasn’t really an option with the CPU constantly over 70%, but it’s something to prepare well in advance next time, as it could’ve added a lot of polish to the stream.

4. Better chair. Seriously. There are some things you just don’t think about when setting up for such a long broadcast, and seating was the last thing on my mind. after 8 hours you feel like your legs want to fall off. After 16 you feel like you’re being tortured. After 23, you are sore in any position you try to stand / sit in. Next year, instead of one of those cheap cafeteria style chairs, it’ll be a solid desk / computer chair, and yes, it’s actually this important.

So that’s really about it. Every piece of what I discuss here is pretty intuitive, easy to figure out and seems almost obvious, except when you put it all together for the first time and do it for as long as this.

There’s always, on every broadcast and every person, going to be things you’ll wish you could’ve done better, been better prepared for, or simply wish could’ve gone easier. Seriously, watch an NFL game on TV, you’ll see mistakes even there. It just happens. The trick is to be prepared for whatever could plausibly go wrong, and then prepare a bit more. If you haven’t hit any bugs during set-up, you probably haven’t tested thoroughly enough. Anyone I know in production, including myself, gets very uneasy if no problems arise during setup and testing, and I’d much rather come across them there than during a broadcast.

Finally, remember that unless you do work for the NFL, you probably don’t have access to the absolute top-of-the-line everything, and that’s ok. It’s not about how slick your setup looks, it’s how slick the results of it are. If you can make something amazing happen by solving problems with a little creativity, you’ve already succeeded. We work in a field that doesn’t really let you simply fail. You try, find a problem, get around it somehow, and remember that next time. And always, ALWAYS remember you’re in a team. Despite being the lead technical guy at this event, I definitely utilized the help and suggestions of those around me, especially Austin, to solve problems (such as the Chromecast prompter, his idea).

Now we ask, how much better can we make it next year?

Click here for my gear checklist for Dancember (prior to revision)

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