Live Production: Getting Down and Dirty

Live Production: Getting Down and Dirty

from: David Hurd,

After working in the business for 35 years, with 15 of those years on TV truck crews, I’ve learned a few things about production. With enough time and crewmembers, almost anyone can make a normal video production if they’ll keep shooting till they get it right. But the same can’t be said for live production, which usually calls for you to get it right in one take. For live production, your crew must be up to the task and ready to work as a team. Video, audio and the means for broadcasting your show have to be solid and workable from beginning to end or you will have no show. You’ll need to get it right, or go home.

For small live productions, one or two cameras can work well. I’ve made over 40 shows with two cameras, and the shows were profitable and fairly easy to make. Larger shoots involve left, right and center cameras, and sometimes a handheld camera or two. I’ve made a bunch of these too. The trick is to have alert and talented cameramen. I’ve also worked on really large Super Bowl shoots that used over 25 cameras, but three or four cameras are the norm for your average shoot. The cameras should all be the same model and set up in the same way so the shots will match. Depending on the content of your program, tripods are necessary to keep the shots steady. The exception would be for the handheld cameras that roam around getting crowd shots and the shots that the front three cameras can’t get. Just remember, the more zoom you use, the more you’ll need a tripod. Generally, if you want to do a four-camera shoot, hire a TV truck that will have all of the gear — and an engineer to keep everything working.

Now that you have some matching cameras, you’ll need to be able to switch between them. A single-camera shoot can get by without a switcher, but as you add cameras in a live broadcast situation, a switcher becomes very important. The switcher will be used to switch between the cameras, graphics and the commercials that you’ll add to your broadcast. The guy operating the switcher is the technical director (TD), and the TD along with the whole crew must work well under pressure. Just like casting determines the quality of your actors, choosing a great crew will determine the quality of your live show. You’re only as good as your weakest link, so a bad TD, cameraman or audio guy can really mess up your show. In fact, any incompetent crewmember can hurt both your reputation and your wallet. Before you hire anyone, ask about their work experience and see if they feel comfortable with the job you need them to do.

There are crewing companies that can provide experienced crewmen for your shoot. A live broadcast of an NFL football game will utilize a crew of over 40 professionals who will make upwards of $40 per hour, so don’t expect to make a great live production using average people off the street. Even experienced professionals can make mistakes, but they also know how to fix errors and not repeat them so your show won’t crash and burn. Over the years, I’ve come across a few people who had lied about their qualifications. To save the show, they had to be bailed out by more experienced crewmembers, and most of the liars never worked again in broadcast. I’ve also learned that education isn’t the same thing as experience. I once shot a concert video with several top bands, with all the cameras recording to tape. The problem was that, due to budget restraints, I was forced to hire film school grads that were educated but had little real live experience. When the headlining act came on stage about nine hours into the shoot, all of the newbie crewmembers were already tired. The audio guy failed to record the audio mix, and the five cameramen had turned their cameras on and off during the day, destroying any kind of sync. I then spent two weeks trying to edit something together, but a concert video really doesn’t work too well without clean audio. I ended up trashing the whole project, but I learned a valuable lesson: Hire an experienced crew, no matter what it costs.

Intercom systems are God’s gift to the live production world. If you’re simply making a live single-camera webcast, you can probably do so without an intercom system. Any TV truck will have an intercom system built in because it’s necessary for everyone to have communication on the shoot: The director needs to instruct the cameramen, TD, and audio and video guys, as well as assistants and the video colorist who’s matching all of the shots as the lighting changes. To talk to the talent, you’ll need an IFB system, which will allow them to hear the program interrupted by the director, just like on the evening news. For small shoots there are portable RF systems that work great. Just make sure that your talent is used to having someone talking in their ear while they’re talking on camera so their brains and tongues won’t lock up (which isn’t pretty, but actually kind of fun to watch).

When it comes to audio, you’ll need lavalier mics, stick mics or shotgun mics, depending on what you’re shooting. Wired lavs are for interviews; RF lavs for roving talent; RF stick mics for loud areas; and shotgun mics for pulling in audio from a few feet away. If it’s windy, you’ll also need a Zeppelin with a fur cover for your shotgun mics, little fur covers for your lavs, and foam pop filters for your stick mics. If it rains, just bag the transmitters in plastic and hope for the best. I use a Sennheiser Zeppelin system that costs about $1,300. This initially seemed kind of pricy, but one day I was shooting a show on a beach in a 25 mph winds, and the audio was still perfect, proving that great gear can save your show. A good audio mixer can help too, as your mics will usually pass through an audio mixer for the recording. TV trucks have a nice, big audio board built in, but if you’re doing a small shoot, a four-channel AC/DC mixer is a handy thing to have. Why? The mixer’s low-cut filters can really help to get rid of wind noise, which is pure evil.

Audio for a small shoot requires split audio feeds. If you’re mixing for air and for the house PA system (like you would for a concert), you’ll want to split your audio three ways, and the mics will all go into a splitter box. The first feed will go to the PA system so that the audience can hear; the second feed will go to the stage monitor system so that the band can hear themselves; and the third feed will go into a separate room where an audio mixer can mix the band for broadcast. For recording live to tape, the audio mixer can do a single mix, record each mic on a separate track, or both. The more flexibility that you have in posting your audio, the happier you’ll be later. For large shows, the audio mixer in the truck is called the “A1,” while assistants who are operating RF and shotgun mics, and dealing with talent and IFB systems are called “A2s.” Together, they’ll keep the audio happening. Some A2s become A1s over time, but the first time they try to make the switch isn’t a good time to have them on your show. Some new A1s can make it work, but others will experience a meltdown, especially if they haven’t previously worked on a particular truck. (I’ll just say that I’ve witnessed some very ugly things.)

At some point you’ll need to broadcast your show. If you’re recording live to tape rather than broadcasting at the same time, life is much easier. You can record a switched feed as well as each camera, so you can fix any bad transitions later in post. A traditional broadcast will use a satellite truck or fiber cable to distribute your show live. For this, you’ll need to purchase the satellite time in advance and arrange all of the details before the show. Also, make sure the people that you hire to do this know what they’re doing — or no one will see your broadcast.

As the production paradigm shifts toward web-based broadcast, more producers are using web streaming to broadcast their live shows. The advantages are reduced costs and the fact that younger audiences prefer to watch events on their iPhones, iPads and computers. Using a TriCaster system with three remote-controlled cameras, you can do a live streaming show in HD with a two- or three-person crew, and the new technology is amazing. All in all, live production can be challenging yet rewarding. After a show there’s always a feeling of accomplishment — and usually a big paycheck. Another good thing is that, as you gain more experience, you’ll get comfortable with the pressure so the craziness of live production can actually become fun.

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