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Elevating Remote Production in the Cloud

What’s the best way to handle a multiday conference with one remote panel event after another, with about 5 minutes between them, maybe less? What if you add video playback, remote slide presentations, and the inevitable last-minute changes? I’m sure if you ask a dozen different producers, you’ll get a dozen different answers and probably a lot more questions. On a recent project involving the challenges described above, my team and I chose a cloud-based workflow. In this article, I’ll discuss what we used, what the cloud offers, and why we went this way.

The Project

A few months back, I was brought in to produce the Habitat for Humanity International 2020 Muster, a virtual event celebrating and discussing the work of military veterans participating in Habitat for Humanity. Original­ly, we planned to produce it using the in-house solution we’ve developed for remote live events, but it quickly outgrew our setup’s existing capacity when the live connection count exceeded eight. Moreover, just days before the event, the fluidity of the schedule prompted me to change gears and move everything to a cloud-based solution.

To begin, let me lay some groundwork about the workflows we considered for this project and how they differ. In-house, we have hardware-based video mixers, which struggle to handle a large number of remote guests. It’s doable, but it requires extensive additional hardware that we don’t have established. There are also software-based video mixers, such as Livestream Studio, mimoLive, OBS, vMix, and Wirecast. Each of these has some ability to bring remote guests right into the application itself. The depth of that integration and the nuanced capabilities a producer has with that connection are different for each application.

In a previous article (go2sm.com/remote), I wrote about our use of vMix. We were looking to add a second seat to enable larger panel events and second-screen onboarding. vMix was the initial tool of choice for this Habitat for Humanity show and, with the proper deployment of multiple producers on multiple instances, vMix would have been the right solution. But the budget didn’t allow for a last-minute additional producer and an additional complete vMix suite for multiple days. So I made the decision to go cloud.

Benefits of Cloud-Based Production

It’s important to point out several key features of fully cloud-based production:

  • Bandwidth is not an issue. My connection does not require big bandwidth, because I am not taking all of the guests into my location—they are all going to the cloud app. Moreover, streaming out to multiple destinations also happens in the cloud, so my local upload speed is not an impediment to streaming content out.
  • Processing requirements drop. When I have my computer do all of the video mixing, I need a very beefy computer to handle all of the processing and video decompression and recompression for streaming. In the cloud, my computer is not doing any of this. I can now use a much less powerful computer—in this case, an i5 Mac Mini with no dedicated GPU at all.
  • You can have redundant producers. This feature doesn’t get leveraged that much, but in a mission-critical-type production, being in the cloud means you can actually have two producers on a show. If one producer’s connection dies, the other person can grab the controls.

Cloud Options for Remote Production

When we look at in-cloud solutions, we are not, at this point, considering vMix in the cloud or Vizrt Viz Virtual Studio, which is essentially a NewTek TriCaster in the cloud. (Vizrt purchased NewTek in 2019.) Those setups rely on taking a desktop app and creating a cloud instance on a remote server, installing it, making sure all of the drivers for various bits are in place, and then establishing that the proper control surfaces are in place locally and connected through the internet to the cloud. The benefit is that there are almost no processing hardware limits and certainly no internet connectivity limits—which is important for a lot of remote contributors.

But they’re still restricted by the app’s inherent internal limits. vMix would need two instances, a second operator, and some good cloud networking know-how to make sure the multiple instances in the cloud could connect correctly to be able to get more than eight remote vMix connections. So, cloud or ground, we were facing the same limit. Moreover, building and properly outfitting a virtual computer in the cloud (and which cloud? Amazon? Paperspace?) is a new issue and takes additional resources—time, cash, and expertise­—we simply didn’t have.

At this point, “subbing it out” to a producer who has such instances already built out becomes an option. But our time and budget constraints forced us to find a way to do it with existing resources.

Next, we looked to true cloud-based multi-camera solutions. I’m not referring to business meeting apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Hangouts. We wanted a clean, polished look that elevates a live production above what people are used to seeing with business meeting apps. The Habitat for Humanity event was more of a “show,” with certain people on stage and a much larger audience viewing it on a separate platform.

We looked at Restream Studio, StreamYard, and Melon. Melon is limited to six guests, so that limitation ruled it out for this project. I am already a Restream customer, so Restream Studio (Figure 1, below) looked appealing. Restream Studio allows up to 10 guests, but the customization features we were interested in were still being rolled out. For instance, there’s not a way yet to create multiple different “sessions” and send out links in advance. I also wanted a way to load it up with specific media, backgrounds, etc., and separate them by shows/clients, but this was not possible either.

Figure 1. Restream Live Studio Pro. Click on the image to see it at full size.

The video capabilities in Re­stream Studio are nice, though. There’s no time limit on clips, but a file-size limit instead. With good compression, I can easily load a 15-minute (or longer) clip into it. Moreover, Restream Studio actually includes the ability to grab any compatible video clip on your computer and play it as part of the show, but it does this like adding a person. This means you have to manually turn each person’s camera off, one at a time, and manually make the video clip full-size. Also, neither Restream Studio nor StreamYard has any provision for controlling the audio levels of any prerecorded video clip played through the application. With StreamYard, we found a workaround for that problem, as I’ll describe later.

In Restream Studio, titles can be applied only with a solid-color background. In StreamYard, you can choose between solid color or translucent gray. I like that Restream Studio’s titles animate on the screen, but they are all only one style, so it can get a bit monotonous, and they cover the people talking. StreamYard has this cool feature in which it dynamically moves the on-screen speakers out of the way when you add an on-screen title, like a URL. StreamYard also allows 10 guests, has a way to divide media sets for different shows/clients, makes it easy to pre-build individual session links for guests, offers nicer text overlays, and gives you more variety in terms of what the screen layouts can look like. For me, as a producer, the StreamYard layout felt like it provided a more intuitive way to work. So that’s the tool I picked.

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