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No Second Chances: Get Live Events Right the First Time

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The intercom is your Achilles’ heel, because you need clear communication to be able to direct your crew and, as a crew member, to follow directions. In most cases, the audio department will set up your comms, typically belt packs and headsets fit with microphones and headphones. The best practice for comms is to use A/B channels to separate video from production and to give key crew members an A/B belt pack to be able to talk to both channels. That way the video director can talk to camera operators and video department separately from lighting, audio, graphics, stage manager, and other crew members on the production channel. It helps keep the crosstalk and headset chatter down to a minimum.
Audio is, by far, the most crucial element of a live event, and it is more important than video in a live show. Viewers might forgive video issues, but they typically have zero tolerance for poor audio or no sound. Audio can also become more challenging when combining wireless microphones, telephone call-ins, multipoint videoconferencing rooms, webcasts, and a live PA (public address) system.
That’s why you have an audio engineer who uses a variety of audio processors, compressors, auto-mixers, and delays to keep the audio levels consistent throughout the space—and to your recording and webcast.
A1 and A2 are the two key positions of your audio department. A1 runs the board, and A2 manages the microphone assignments, checks wireless frequencies, and does the actual clipping of the mics to the talent. The most common microphones used are Shure UHF-R wireless lavaliers (UR1) and wireless handhelds (Beta 87C). Some presenters prefer a countryman headset, which hooks around the ear and moves with your head turns. These mics provide a more consistent audio level than a lav mic, which is either clipped to a man’s tie (just under the knot) or on the lapel of either gender. The inherent problem with clipping to the lapel is when the speaker turns his or her head from side to side, the audio level varies.

A well-thought-out lighting plan can enhance the impact of your event. Lighting and staging are by Professional Sound Productions. (Photo: Bill Horton)

Most audio engineers will use compression and auto-mixers to manage the audio signals and feedback when a presenter walks in front of the speakers or underneath a ceiling speaker. So, make sure that your audio team has enough time to ring out the room by setting the correct EQ levels to adjust to the acoustics of the space.
Having a well-lit show is an absolute must, for both the in-room and video experiences. The eye can see things that the cameras don’t, so having dramatic lighting will not only add that wow factor for your live audience, but it will help keep your virtual attendees and video on demand (VOD) viewers more engaged.
The most important factor of lighting is to create separation between your subjects and background. While you don’t have the same flexibility to light someone on stage with three-point lighting as you do for an interview, you should try to have an even stage wash and backlight, if possible. That’s where your lighting director comes in to offer solutions based on the venue. Large convention centers with very high ceilings are different from hotel ballrooms. In hotels, you can generally get away with flying a few Leko Source Fours (fixed degree ellipsoidal stage lights) on the air walls, or hang them from lighting trees. At convention centers, you’ll most likely need to have to fly lighting trusses for your front and backlights, and that’s where your riggers come into the picture. The riggers will drive the lifts and work with your lighting department to build the trusses, hang the lights, and lift the truss into place. The lighting director will focus the lights for your stage wash, backlighting, and any decorative lighting for effects.
Make sure you hire a lighting director and use a lighting board and instruments that can be programmed to give you an even stage wash (so presenters who move around the stage, or a panel discussion, are evenly lit across the stage) and LED uplights or curtain warmers so you can do color changes between presenters and segments based on color schemes and complexions. Dramatic lighting will keep your audience engaged and awake, so they don’t have to stare at plain dark curtains for hours on end.
If you’re working with performers within a large space, be prepared for them ask for a follow spot. They may choose to move onstage and offstage, so you’ll have to be able to follow them with a focused beam of light to keep them illuminated for the audience and the cameras.
The graphics team, with the projection, monitors, and cabling, will help keep your presenters on time. They can tell how things will look on screen as well as juggle all your digital media files and slides. For more complex shows, this department can have up to four people; for less complex ones, it can have as few as one. The best practice for Graphics is to have all your graphic sources on separate laptops and use a seamless switcher, such as an HD ScreenPro, to switch and translate the various signals of all your sources (HD-SDI, HDMI, VGA, NTSC composite SD) to the house projectors and screens. Your projectionist will scale and optimize the projection for viewing in your live event space, as well as for your recording and webcast. Graphic inputs include main slides (G1), backup slides (G2), presenter notes or Prezi presentations (G3), videos on a Mac laptop using Playback Pro (G4), main camera for iMag (G5), program feed from video switcher, and a still of the program title known as your show slide.
Since the graphics department usually resides in video village either backstage or in an adjacent space, it’s important to have enough monitors for viewing both preview and program. Give your video director and webcast producer a program slide feed so they know what slide is on and what the audience is seeing, whether slides, video, or iMag.
Webcast Producer
Given the right space and internet connection, your webcast producer(s) can make every room a broadcast studio. It’s important to complete all prewebcast equipment and connectivity testing well in advance and conduct it onsite for higher reliability. Have backups to your backups and your internet service provider on speed dial if connection issues arise. The best practice for webcast producers is to have a redundant encoding station running in the background and a telephone backup in case you need to switch to an audio and slideshow webcast. We’ll talk more about webcast production in Part 2 of this article, which will appear in the August/September issue.
Stage Manager
The stage manager directs the traffic of all the action that takes place onstage. Stage managers run the rehearsal with the director to record camera blocking and provide visual and verbal cues to the talent, while being the eyes and ears of the show director. This job can be understated for corporate events, but it’s an essential position. A good stage manager is level-headed and organized, thinks fast on his feet, and has the right mix of politeness and assertiveness. In most cases, the stage manager has the most direct contact with the talent and does a lot to keep them at ease, on task, and energized. Think confidant, cheerleader, and drill sergeant all rolled into one.
Stagehands work under the direction of the stage manager, assisting with set changes and moving props, along with other backstage activities (such as dimming house lights, and opening and closing stage curtains).
While some live events may not have the budget for stage or set design, pipe and drapes, scenery, decor, furniture, and plants all help create your space and can convey an intimate or formal look. At the very least, black velour or gray drapery, with the combination of decorative stage lighting, can create a more polished look and give your event that wow factor.
Don’t forget to do an energy audit so you can order the correct amount of electric power drops for your event. The best practice with power is to order enough individual power drops to keep your departments separate so that you don’t blow a circuit and lose power during a show. The main requirement that you don’t ever want to settle for is wall power, which is primarily used by banquets to heat the food and coffee. One faulty toaster on the other side of the wall could trip your main speakers or lighting if you plug into wall power. So, be sure to ask for Spider boxes rated for 20 amps each with twist lock. For smaller shows, I’ve ordered four Spider boxes so that video, audio, projection, and lighting each get their own 20-amp circuit. For larger shows, I’ve ordered as many as 12. Your lighting director and video engineer can act as your electrician to help divvy up the power between departments, but for large shows with lots of lighting, be sure to bring in an electrician to help you work with the house engineers to deploy the power drops to all your departments. 

The Production

Avoid Last-Minute Changes
In general, last-minute changes should be avoided. Fixing a typo on a slide or making a slight change to an element on stage usually won’t upset the apple cart, but adding new content at the last minute—such as a brand new slide deck, file, or video—or connecting a laptop at the last minute can lead to problems. While it may not seem like a big deal to your clients, last-minute changes do have an effect on the production—lighting and camera positions may need to be adjusted, stage elements may or may not be accessible, etc. If you don’t get time to test or practice, a last-minute change could blow up in your face, making your presenters and clients look foolish. But always be prepared for last-minute changes; if there’s time, update your script and rehearse. But know when to say, “No, we’re out of time,” because there’s really nothing worse than a major on-air blunder.
Be Prepared, and Always Have Backups
As the Boy Scouts’ motto says, “Be prepared.” Not only for emergencies, but for any old thing. Anything can happen. The presenter’s wireless microphone could go out. You could lose power. Make sure you have backup microphones and a reliable power source. If you have a lot of lighting, make sure you have a head electrician who can manage the power needs for all the lights so you don’t trip a breaker or blow a circuit. For graphics, it’s common to have a primary and backup computer to run your slides, and always wire the stage. You never know when presenters will come with their own laptops and have videos they want to run, so having the cabling already set will save the day.
Be sure to record your program on a high-quality format. Never rely on an online version as the master file. Webcasts are great for live, but for on-demand viewing, it’s best to produce a high-quality edited version directly from your HD master.
My best practice for live event recording is to record a full-screen line cut of the show that is called by your director and includes all the cameras, graphics, lower thirds, and video roll-ins. For the webcast, you send camera ISOs to your video window (and occasionally the program feed when you have no graphics) because for most webcasts, you send the slides, documents, and videos in a separate window.
Capture your video and audio signals at the highest quality you can for your desired output. While HD is great, it’s not practical for most corporate environments when low bandwidth streams of less than 300Kbps can scale better and can still provide a quality viewing experience. Your video department will be in charge of all your video capture, up and down conversion, and recording.
Just as lighting adds dramatic effect to your event, so does the music. People always respond favorably to good music, because it adds rhythm, melody, and emotion. Having the right “walk on” music to go with the “walk on” look of your set and lighting can set the mood you’re trying to achieve. Having upbeat “walk on” music for presenters helps energize them as they take the stage and makes it fun for the audience too.
Always take pictures of your setup and of the live event. Whether you use your mobile device or hire a professional photographer, documenting your event with high-quality stills can help your clients with marketing. It provides documentation that you can refer to for future events. Go crazy; take pictures of everything you can, because it all ends up being intelligence that you can use later. Panorama shots are great to have too so that you can see the whole ballroom in a 360 degree photo.
Roll With It
The old show business adage that “the show must go on” applies here. Regardless of what happens, there is an audience out there waiting to be educated, informed, and entertained, so you have to deliver. The fact that an event is live makes it easier and more difficult. There are no second takes. When something goes out live that shouldn’t have, there are no take backs. When you’re live, you have to roll with it when presenters are late or go off script, or there’s equipment failure, a crew member calls in sick, or any unplanned situation arises. The key is to keep a cool head, be a leader, and don’t let them see you sweat.
Keep a ‘Next Time’ List
No matter how hard you try to not make mistakes (with all your planning and A-Team around you), what can go wrong usually does at some point. It’s been said time and again that those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. That’s why you should always keep a list going of what you’ll do next time for your event. It may not even be a list of blunders; it may be tweaks in the production to make it better next time. For producers, your lists will become your best tools for producing your future events. From technical details to production design, you can use your lists as the starting point for future planning and evaluation. You may even be able to use what you learned from all of your next time lists to write an article.

Production Toolkit essentials

Don’t leave home without the following items:
  • Leatherman
  • Roll of gaffers tape
  • LED flashlight
  • Black Sharpie marker
  • Ibuprofen
  • Breath mints
  • Water 
A great resource for stage managers is this article by Lois Dawson. She reviews the items she keeps in her stage manager toolkit.
In Part 2, we’ll look specifically at how to deliver an effective webcast, including interactive and social media elements, to the audience offsite.
This article appears in the June/July 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as " No Second Chances: Best Practices for Live Events in the Enterprise, Part 1."

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