8 Lessons Surfing Can Teach Live Streaming Producers
I had the opportunity to try and learn to surf earlier this year. It looks super easy, right? Stand on the board, and the water pushes you forward. It’s kind of like producing a live stream: People appear, you point your cameras at them, tap buttons to switch between them, go live, and you have a perfect live streamed event, right?
Having never surfed before, I opted to take lessons, just in case it wasn’t as easy as it looked. When I was on the water, I saw people walking around on their boards, standing backwards, surfing with their dogs, doing headstands—for real. I figured I could be doing that in no time.
But I’m very glad that I took the lessons because I soon found out how hard surfing really is. While trying, failing, getting hurt, watching, and learning, I saw some parallels between my lessons on the water and the streaming business—which isn’t quite as easy as it looks either.
1. Condition by doing: You need to be ready when the time comes for you to perform. I watched these guys paddle out to the waves as if they had a motor under their surfboard. I’d paddle, and it was like I was standing still. I got off and walked the board back out to the waves a few times. The conditioning surfers require to do what they do, and making it look so effortless, comes from doing it every day.
The same goes with live production. You get better and things become more natural when you do it more often. You know what to expect. You know where to be. You’re prepared for that next thing without having to really think about it. This “conditioning” comes from doing it—even if “it” is just rehearsals and tests.
2. Focus: Physical, mental, situational—every aspect of surfing comes together in one moment. In between lessons I’d been watching a surf competition on TV in the hotel. These pros were surfing 10'–12' waves, which are small by their standards. I watched how the surfers would focus on a wave, position themselves, and then work hard to make the best run possible, or bail out if they needed to.
It takes complete situational awareness, mental focus, and the physical ability to make it happen. We tend to consume a lot of coffee and energy drinks on a production, because the need to focus is equally important. You’re paying attention not only to what you’re doing, but what others are doing. You’re following the run of show, and you’re always mindful of what might go wrong.
3. Be in the right place at the right time: Surfer or streamer, you could be the most skilled person at what you’re doing, but your skills won’t save you if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. In surfing, the waves follow worldwide weather conditions that you can’t see when you’re in the water. Whether flying around the world to different surf locations, or positioning yourself in the right place in the water wherever you paddle in your board, you need to be ready.
Likewise, when we set up an event, we need to know the scale, who and what we’re covering, where they’ll go and when, and what’s going to happen there, in order to make sure we have gear in the right places to cover it all. Then that gear needs to be operated by people who have the situational awareness to get the right shots. Rehearsals help, but setting up the gear in the right place from the outset is important too.
4. Look beyond the horizon: There were times, as I was learning to read the water, that I’d be ready to go for a wave I thought I saw coming, but the instructor told me to wait, because he saw something else further behind. Tiny little wavelets indicating a bigger movement of water that could carry me further. He knew to look beyond the one right in front of me.
In live production, what’s happening right in front of us is important, but a good producer/director is also looking towards the next thing—the “bigger picture,” so to speak. This way, they can be ready for what might catch others by surprise. If you ever listen to the call of a major league sporting event, the director is calling things to be ready well in advance of when they might be needed. Will that rookie player be called on the field? Get his package ready. Are they going to call a timeout? Get the commercial break cued. Are they going to kick or run? As a good director you should be thinking 30 seconds or more beyond what you see in front of you.
5. Always be courteous: When I was learning to surf, I was always surrounded by other people on surfboards. In order for me (or anyone else) to be able to make the most of an opportunity I needed those around me to be courteous enough not to steal that opportunity from me, or run me over. And I needed to do the same for them. Multiple surfers may jockey for position on a wave, and who actually gets to ride nearly always follows a negotiation.
In production, there are a lot of people who do the same thing as we do—other producers, other camera operators, etc. We may compete for one gig, we might refer each other for gigs, we might even work together on a gig. Even with competition, we’re all riding the same surf together, so it’s good business to always be courteous.
6. Don’t fake it till you make it: In surfing, you can get hurt really easily in many ways. I hopped off my board and tried to run through the water to get back out to the waves faster, and got tagged by a sea urchin. Little pokey spines in my toes. I didn’t listen to the instructor who said to stay on the board. I thought I knew better. I learned humility.
When you’re starting out in live video, or shifting into a new area, a good mentor can help you learn a lot very quickly. You’ll also learn a lot better by letting mentors and teachers help you avoid the mistakes that you can’t even see. You need to eat the humble pie. There is always someone that knows more about something than you do. Start with that mindset and things go a lot better.
7. Stay focused until the end: When I was doing better, got a few waves, and surfed them nearly all the way to shore, it’s easy to get cocky and lose focus. That will knock you in the water as fast as you can slip. And water on top of a smooth, wobbly surfboard, I can tell you, can be slippery.
It’s easy to be distracted by everything going on all around you, but you need to stay focused on what you are doing, in order to make sure everything goes smoothly all the way through. How many times do we see a game decided in the final seconds? The show’s not over until it’s really over. Stay focused to the end.
8. Learn from your mistakes: I fell down in the surf many times. By failing I learned a little bit on how to not repeat my mistakes, and why. By learning from mistakes, and what I did wrong, I got better at doing the right thing and making it all the way to shore.
We incorporate redundancies into live production because we know, from experience, things will fail. Still, mistakes will be made. So, we change how we do something to avoid making the same mistakes next time. Learning from failures informs what we do today. It also makes us mentally resilient enough to handle problems, and keep going, to be more successful at what we do.
The customer wanting to watch your stream on Insta does not want a horizontal video shoehorned into a vertical frame. The customer watching the horizontal version doesn't want the vertical slice with the same thing blurred out behind it to fill the frame. Each of those customers is hungry for that particular experience. It's your job to give your customers what they are hungry for.
There's a lot more imperfect gear on the market than ever before—gear we can't count on from gig to gig. Gear that can't deliver reliable video. Features that work and then don't. Devices that connect and then don't. We've lost core reliability. Bulletproof needs to be a feature.
FAST programming needs space for the commercials. Unless you intentionally craft that space into your show, it just slices into your content randomly, ruining the mood of narrative content and frustrating viewers just as the show was getting to the "good part." Watching YouTube content on a Roku device is like this now. The random "pop" to commercials in the middle of a scene is very annoying.
The production and communication tools we use are ever-more tied to the cloud, and to take advantage of it is to open a door of possibility and additional capability. Where do you want to go today?
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
Companies and Suppliers Mentioned