Engineering the live stream of the Seattle City Council Debates for District 3 and District 7 - 9.26.19
Over the years, DVEStore has afforded me more unique opportunities in production than I could think to name here. I’ve been recruited for the mainstage video crew for Sasquatch 2014 (which resulted in me being on stage with a camera during Outkast to close out the first night), and there have been many others. Last week was another, albeit with slightly less Rockstar appeal, and I wanted to share what I used, what the challenges were, the solutions we found, and how it went.
First, the background: this was a pro-bono gig set up through DVE, on location at Town Hall Seattle. The room was gorgeous and quite large, which is usually a challenge in and of itself. It has recently gone through a $35M renovation, which the photos I took do almost zero justice. We also weren’t intended to provide cameras, operators, sound equipment nor sound person. Basically, they gave me their SDI cables and some XLR taps from the audio board, and I did the rest.
Second, my gear: Knowing they wanted this streamed in good quality to multiple locations (Facebook, YouTube), I opted to encode the stream with the Wowza Clearcaster Pro. The Clearcaster is (as of this writing) the only piece of hardware than can stream live to Facebook in full 1080p, and also can work as a universal encoder to other services, or just provide an RTMP stream code to push out many other ways. Feeding into the Clearcaster was the Blackmagic Design ATEM TVS 4K switcher, which I controlled via hardware for live switching and software for media. There were three cameras with operators feeding me SDI signals, no com systems or anything. I brought backup cables, a LiveU Solo encoder with some USB cellular modems and various converters, but for the first time in many shoots, really didn’t end up having to dig into any backup plans on that level.
Third, the challenges: This entire gig was one of the most stressful to plan for and execute, (especially due to the late arrival of vital things like graphics, run of show and script) but during the event itself everything more or less went very smooth. Once I did get the media from the show coordinator, I ran into the first major issue – apparently the ATEM could not load the supplied .tga files with Alpha Channel in the media pool. It specifies that it does, but it really doesn’t (unless someone would like to enlighten me on this?). Thankfully someone in my office, Vera Rostonics, had time to convert the graphics to .jpg files which worked perfectly, but I’d spent much of the previous night trying to get it to work as it should to no avail.
Once at the venue, the challenges began to dwindle. XLR jumps from the sound board in house worked perfectly in the ATEM, as did any cameras or computer sources connected… until right before showtime, when suddenly the XLR channels (both) on the ATEM had enough static / white noise to register in the yellow on the VU’s with no discernable audio coming in at all. Thankfully their sound person was feeding audio back to all three cameras, so I ended up switching from XLR to Cam 3 audio over SDI, which worked perfectly. I cannot recommend this redundancy highly enough, and will be doing this whenever possible in the future. It saved the whole show at the last second (which seemed to be a theme for a few aspects of this particular one) I haven’t been able to diagnose that issue yet, but I do know the XLRs worked during pre-show tests, and then suddenly had noise.
For the streaming aspect, my original plan was to use the Clearcaster to push a full 1080p video to Facebook (again, the only piece of hardware that can do this as of this writing) and use the LiveU for an additional RTMP or YouTube stream. However, we wound up needing to be able to push three streams if possible, so we ended up switching the Clearcaster to Universal mode (which sacrifices the 1080p stream to FB) in order to simultaneously push to FB, YouTube, etc. The missing piece of this whole puzzle ended up being restream.io – and if you’re encoding to multiple sites, I can’t recommend their service enough. Easy and intuitive use, and some great post-action reports so you can see your bandwidth, quality and viewer stats all in one backend.
The two debates themselves couldn’t have been more different – the first (Seattle District 3) was a highly contested race, and a feisty crowd to match, causing cheers, gasps, applause and boos at times. This also prevented the debate from ever truly finding a rhythm, and as my first time working with these cameramen coupled with the absence of a comm system, there were a couple bad cuts. Overall it went very well, however. The second debate (district 7) featured two affable and agreeable candidates who also projected those qualities into the audience, helping us find our rhythm almost instantly and yielded one of my best efforts mixing a live show ever.
So, what would I do differently next time? I intend to be more assertive with the other people involved in the planning stage and insist I receive media well before the event, as that caused the most headache by far. Depending on the specifics I might use a different switcher, but despite its media limitations, the ATEM functioned very well as a switcher during the event, so if we can diagnose and fix the audio issues, I’ll feel better about it moving forward. The Clearcaster could not have won me over more than it did during this experience – it was rock solid, did whatever we needed it to, never once dropped a stream, and I see these becoming insanely popular as more people move to doing live video on Facebook. I’m also now a fan of Restream.io and intend to put that service through some more testing with this event behind me now. If you’re not familiar, restream.io is a backend streaming service that allowed me to easily input stream key / URL information to push the stream out to multiple sites.
The absolute best thing to do, in my opinion, is to just keep working. Each live gig I’ve done has pit me against its own unique challenges, and informed choices I’ve made following it. For example; I brought far more cables, converters and backup / redundancy gear than I’d ever have thought in the past, simply because I’ve experienced the pain of not doing that and needing to call someone to help bail me out. Still happened with the graphics, but if I’d also forgotten a key piece of kit, this may have been twice as stressful or half as successful. You go out, you shoot, you learn.
Now get out there!
Note - If you would like to see the fruits of this labor, you can still view the video streams at the Seattle Times’ site