Going Pro with Remote Production
You’re here. The guests are there. The audience is everywhere else. Here is an article that’s chock-full of tips, tricks, and links for making it all come together in your latest remote production.
First, a few disclosures: I’m going to mention lots of manufacturers and products because I want to be as specific and detailed as possible. No manufacturer has any connection with this article. I have not been paid or otherwise compensated to mention any company or product. Anything I mention is of my own finding, based on my own use or research. If I have it, I paid for it with my own money. I will try to be clear and distinguish between solutions that I have direct experience with and solutions that I know about but haven’t yet used. As with any tools you read about—no matter how authoritative the source—be sure to test, test, test before using them in a real show.
After more than 25 years running IEBA Communications and several years operating Texas-based Frisco Studios, in 2019, I founded Stream4.us (stream4.us), which is solely dedicated to providing streaming services and production. I started the company a full year before COVID-19 hit, not realizing how big the demand for streaming services would suddenly become. Everyone who was able to work remotely began to do so. Every meeting was remote. Occasional encounters with Zoom, Skype, or Webex became a day full of remote meetings for the vast majority of companies around the world.
As companies acclimated themselves to videoconferencing as an essential, everyday part of business communication and presentations, many also recognized that there was still a need to elevate some events beyond the typical Webex or Zoom look in order to give the audience a more interesting viewing experience. A desire to differentiate higher-profile events, like yearly leadership meetings or summits, from everyday meetings created a need for professional-quality remote production, which drives the work Stream4.us is doing today.
A key part of elevating virtual events is raising the acceptable standard of how remote presenters appear in their makeshift home offices or wherever they happen to plunk down their laptop and webcam on a given day. To give my clients some basic guidelines for upgrading their online appearance and looking their best, I’ve posted How to Look Awesome, a page on my Stream4.us site (stream4.us/how-to-look-awesome).
The first thing to consider when you’re trying to improve your guests’ look is remote cameras, because when your guest is remote, the camera is too. Most people’s default remote camera option is the built-in webcam in their laptop. Generally, these aren’t very good. The resolution is typically 720p, the camera itself is not great at all, and the image that’s produced is easily washed out if the lighting has any challenges, such as a window to the side of or behind your guest.
The camera in a cellphone or tablet is a distinct step up. Almost all cameras included in recent smartphone and tablet models capture 1080p video, and they’re just better cameras all around because people like taking selfies, and manufacturers want their customers’ selfies to look good. Plus, the microphone/earbuds that come with phones provide a quick and clean way to get your remote guest to wear earbuds for better audio, and the microphone picks up less room noise.
External USB webcams are a distinct improvement on almost every computer’s internal webcam—provided that you actually get a decent webcam. I have several of the Logitech C920s, and I find them reliable and capable of capturing good-looking video. There are other reputable webcam manufacturers out there, but many are also producing cheap, low-grade knockoffs. If you’re spending $15 on an off-brand 4K webcam and expecting the same results as with a $200 Logitech Brio (Figure 1, below), you will be sadly disappointed. In general, if you spend $50–$100 on a USB webcam, you’ll get a decent camera that will give you a noticeable improvement over your laptop’s built-in webcam.
Figure 1. Logitech’s top-of-the-line UltraHD, High Dynamic Range-capable Brio webcam
One nice feature of the Logitech cameras is the ability to use them with the Logitech Capture app. The app provides a free and simple way to not only adjust and lock down your camera settings (such as manual white balance and manual brightness), but also to bring in and mix with a second input (like a PowerPoint) and add effects as well. Then, Logitech Capture can share this already-mixed feed as a “virtual camera” with whatever videoconferencing or streaming tool you’d like. For example, if you wanted to deliver a multi-source picture-in-picture stream to Facebook, this is an easy way to do it. Logitech Capture can also record internally, which allows you to create a clean recording that’s free from any internet dropouts and to upload the finished product later.
How do you make sure your remote client has a good external webcam before your virtual event? If you can find a decent webcam for sale online, get a few, and keep them handy so you can use them for multiple clients. You can nest them in a couple of bubble mailers and send them to your clients. Be sure to include a prepaid return shipping label in the bag so they can send them right back to you after the event. You could even purchase one online with free shipping and drop-ship it directly to the client. If it’s someone you want to leave a really nice impression with, tell them it’s a gift, and hope they remember you—and the camera—the next time they need help with a remote production.
Stepping up from external webcams, there are a lot of DSLRs out there. If you’re a professional producer who’s not doing much in-the-field work these days, you might even have some lying around that aren’t in regular use. Recognizing the need for high-quality cameras for videoconferencing, Canon, Fuji, Panasonic, and Sony have all released webcam software to connect to their DSLRs via USB and appear to the computer as a webcam, so you can get all of the benefits of a large-sensor camera with a great lens and manual control (Figure 2, below).
Figure 2. Canon’s webcam software for EOS DSLRs
I’ve heard that not all USB-connect software delivers a full HD image to the computer, but even at a lower resolution, the better camera makes up for it. When I did my remote production presentation at Streaming Media Connect in February, my webcam of choice was a DSLR.
To help you get started with adapting your DSLRs as webcam upgrades, here are a few handy links to the webcam software offered by popular DSLR manufacturers:
Regardless of what camera your remote guests use, making sure they look good online is all about location. The best DSLR is no match for a window streaming in light from behind your subjects (Figure 3, below). Also, make sure they have the camera positioned at eye level. Pay attention to what’s behind them too, ensuring that the background is uncluttered and relevant and that it won’t distract viewers from your subjects.
Figure 3. Backlighting and bad camera positioning will ruin your best-laid plans, no matter how good a camera you’re using.
Try to be as thorough and diligent with preproduction as you would with that of an on-site event, while adapting your approach to what’s possible, given that you won’t be physically visiting the location. Take time to do a thorough tech check several days ahead of the actual live event to have the clients walk around their house or office and pick the best-looking spot. You might need to have them adjust blinds or drapes, rotate a table, or declutter some shelves behind them. Help them understand that however informal the atmosphere, you’re essentially producing a TV show, and it needs to look good. That’s what they’re paying you for. Almost all of the time, my clients understand this and are thankful for the help.
When you do the tech check, pay particular attention to the lighting, especially if the sun comes into the room. Try to do the tech check at the same time as the guest will be live in your show, so you can see what the room really looks like and be aware of cloudy days versus sunny days. Many times, the sun can come right in and hit the guest from the side, and, unless you know it ahead of time, you’ll have a real problem trying to deal with it on show day. We’ve had two guests with this problem, despite our best efforts to anticipate these sorts of issues. One put up a sheet on a pole over the part of the window that didn’t have any blinds. The other moved around in the room so the sun did not hit him.
Once you’ve taken care of the background, make sure there’s light in front of the guest, just as you would when lighting the talent on an on-location or studio shoot. You may need to improvise a little more. The light might come from a desk lamp reflected off the wall in front of them or a table lamp with a big lampshade. You may even have to turn off other lights in the room, especially if you’re seeing a mixture of colors (blue LED, warm incandescent). Conflicting color temperatures confuse webcams’ automatic white balance, and sometimes they’ll swing back and forth in color temperature trying to compensate as your remote guest moves around. Making the color temperature as uniform as possible in front of the camera is important to getting a good-looking shot.
The pendulum has swung back away from streaming for a brief period, but COVID opened millions of eyes to the power, capability, and convenience of streaming—for the providers and the attendees. It also helped a lot of people realize that it's not as easy as it looks. I see the end result moving that pendulum toward more streaming—and more kinds of streaming—in the near future
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