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How Legacy Church Launched Streaming Services in the COVID-19 Crisis

How does a church with no in-house streaming gear or on-staff expertise deliver live-switched, streamed services to hundreds of socially distanced parishioners on four days' notice? Legacy Church's Jeff Leach and Apache Rental Group's Zak Holley explain how they did it in this interview with Streaming Media's Steve Nathans-Kelly.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: I'm Steve Nathans-Kelly, editor of Streaming Media Producer, and I'm here today with Jeff Leach from Legacy Church and Zak Holley from Apache Rental Group. Legacy Church is based in Downey, California and like like a lot of us, they've been moving things online: streaming their services, and getting the message out that way and trying to communicate and keep the community together in the crisis that we're going through now. Maybe Jeff, if you could just start off just talking a little bit about Legacy Church and how you've gotten involved.

Jeff Leach: Okay. Legacy Church is in Downey. On Sundays, we have a regular attendance anywhere from 200 to 250 people in-service. With the social distancing, quarantine, we decided to move our services online. We haven't historically published live streamed video of our services, and so this was a new challenge. It came up out of nowhere. It was a Wednesday night. I was asked what we would need to do to be able to do that for the next Sunday. That evening, I reached out to Zak, knowing that he had been working with a kit to live stream, and asked about its availability for that Sunday service. He had it ready for me to pick up on Friday, and we started installing the gear and we had a successful Sunday livestream.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: And so Zak, you run an A/V rental service, is that right?

Zak Holley: Yes, I work for an A/V rental service. I do live broadcast shows. I've not only worked for the service; I actually install the gear on the shows. And that's how I know Jeff. So I had been working on this streaming kit. I started putting it on paper in December, gathering the pieces together in January. By the time I had all the parts and pieces up and running, it was early February. It looked nice from the inside and outside. I could get it to work in my shop, but we were still working out the kinks and figuring out what worked for it and where it would fit and what the demand was for this. Crazy as it was, just as it started to be dialed in and working, this COVID thing started happening and I started losing all my work, and I've slowly watched everything turned to a streaming-based service.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Makes sense. Even as we’ve seen more and more demand for streaming, obviously we're not having in-person events. We're not doing a lot of the stuff that’s traditionally been the lifeblood of their livestreaming industry. So tell me a little bit about what's in the kit. And did you customize it for Legacy Church? What are they working with?

Zak Holley: I based the kit around the ATEM Mini, a new product from Blackmagic. It's a four-source switcher with HDMI inputs. So, my first thing coming around was, not all the sources we're going to use in the field are going to be HDMI. One of the first things I did in the chain outside of the switcher was I threw in the bi-directional converters by Blackmagic. I think they're great because they auto-select your source if you're feeding it SDI or HDMI in, it knows what it's taking and it'll auto-spit it out on the output side and an output it either/or. So I basically made harnesses from the switcher to four individual bi-directional converters. And then from the bi-directional converters, I ran an HDMI to a patch panel for each one and an SDI for each one. That gave me the ability to run four HDMIs or four SDIs or two and two--whatever made sense at the time. And then I kind of just went along with taking everything off the ATEM Mini and putting it on the back of the patch panel, getting it away from the router and keeping it all nice and clean in the back. I threw on a Blackmagic SmartView Duo, a dual-screen monitor on the front of the panel so we can physically see what we're doing in real time to see if things are working and talking. And then a couple little audio things we had to do to get the audio to be perfect where we wanted it to be. The network with it works great. The USB-C out to a computer works great and always sees it as a webcam. I've never had an issue with any computer not seeing it as a webcam. And really it's, it's given me the ability to offer a simple solution throw-down kit. Whether we're talking GoPros or Sony FS7 cameras--anything with an HD-SDI signal or an HDMI out--we can do a little live show.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: And then at Legacy Church, what are you shooting with?

Jeff Leach: So we started with some cameras that Zak provided to us—Marshall CV-502s. And they were great for getting it out there and starting with just what we needed. It is a wide-angle lens and so up close, it would slightly distort and fisheye. It gave great full-sanctuary views of the church, but people didn't like to see an empty sanctuary with pews that were empty. And so that shot was cut out pretty quickly. We've now gone to a Canon DSLRs: a 5D Mark IV as our primary camera, and another EOS camera as a secondary if we're using a second source. At the beginning we were using three cameras and a computer input. But it was requiring us to run a heavy production staff. We had four or five people to operate between the switcher, the lights, and the slides. And so we've cut that down and gone to mostly single-camera shooting. The Canon DSLRs do better in the low light in our dark sanctuary, and they also allow for facial auto-focus. So it will track whoever's speaking if they're moving in and out and adjust for depth of field.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: I watched some of the Easter service that you put together. It seems like you're kind of going back and forth between the pastor and the worship band. Was all of that shot and streamed live or were there some prerecorded components? How are you doing that?

Jeff Leach: Everything now is prerecorded. When we were shooting live for the first two weeks, it took 4-7 people onsite, working in close proximity, to make it happen. And with where we are now there's a desire to not have that many people in a confined space. So we're it doing prerecorded. It's whoever's on stage and then a technician running the splitter and the cameras. And so we'll prerecord and then that is sent off to be cut up and put together for the service. And then we upload it as a live feed off of that recording. Where I work, my role is assisting in providing network infrastructure. It's not in the actual camera operation, switching, or editing. This has been all new to me since mid-March.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Zak, in terms of your role, were you involved at the outset in installing, hands on with getting the kit running?

Zak Holley: I was actually walking off on another project up in Cupertino for Apple. So I had built the whole kit and I had it at my shop and Jeff had called me saying he needed it, and I had some people in my shop get him what he needed. I basically made them a full little flypack with everything I thought he could use. And like he said, for the first two weeks, they had the basic Marshall cameras. Their HD-SDI out is a simple way to see a feed. But they upgraded to nicer cameras, and the quality on the Easter service look great.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: With the ATEM Mini, one of the things that strikes me about it--besides being only $299, you've got the Software Control Panel, which is the same as in the higher-end models. Did you find it pretty easy to get started with?

Jeff Leach: It was pretty intuitive. There was a learning curve to start with, but it went pretty quick. I am still learning. It is very feature-rich. And so basic functionality was very simple. But I'm learning what different terms and functionalities mean on the audio engineering side. And then on the video side, I'm digging in deeper. It works out of the box pretty seamlessly. But once you want to get into the deeper functionalities it does take a little time and research, but it's very, very easy.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: In terms of getting the streams out, what platforms are you streaming to?

Jeff Leach: We're streaming to two Facebook pages and one you YouTube page as well. The church changed its name, first of the year, from First Baptist Downey to Legacy Church Downey. And so we still have an active First Baptist Facebook page. And so that is still receiving the live stream as well as the congregation moves from one platform or one page to the other. Wanting to cover both sides, I'm doing that through an Epiphan Webcaster X2, something that I had purchased and was playing with before the flight kit was delivered. That allows me a push to Switchboard, which is a third-party, cloud-based solution. It sends a single stream to Switchboard, and then you can pick your destinations and it will push them live for either. That's been nice. Our network there at the church is not very resilient and it's on the carrier side. And so if we tried to do three actual pushes or live streams at the same time, the bandwidth wouldn't support it. So third-party service is really necessary for that.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: That makes sense. I actually have a number of friends that are in the clergy that were asking me, ”What do we do?” when all this social distancing started. It's interesting to hear you say that you switched pretty quickly to prerecording the video and then getting it online, because I had told one friend who wasn't confident in the bandwidth they had at the church, I said, “There's nothing wrong with prerecording it and just making sure the congregation gets it when church is supposed to start.” How has the reception been with the congregation? You mentioned seeing the empty seats the first week wasn't so great, but other than that, have they been taking to it? Has it been easy for them to watch it?

Jeff Leach: Most definitely, they've taken to it. The first week, we only streamed to YouTube, and we had about 350 views of that strea, by the end of the week. This morning, four days after our Easter service, we just over 10,000 views of that service across the three platforms. The livestream is seeing anywhere from 200 to 240 people actually watching it pretty sustained from start to finish. In the comment section there's a lot of “welcomes, hellos, miss yous.” And so it is giving people a way that they wouldn't necessarily have to reach out to an individual that they would see on a Sunday. They are able to interact with each other during the service. And I think that's been a huge benefit for them.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: And so do you get a sense that this has been challenging for the worship team? I’ve talked to people who are doing this, and they say it's different preaching to a camera than preaching to a congregation.

Jeff Leach: Yes, it's most definitely different. They don't know where to look. You're looking into a room that seats upwards of 800 people and there's me, I'm sitting there at a table. And so that's kind of awkward. I asked our Lead Pastor, Shane Hicks, about this, because you asked the question what the adjustments are, and his response was, “There's been a high learning curve that required a lot of agility from the leadership, and a transition from leading people physically to leading in physical separation. We've had to focus on learning from others who are more experienced. And this has helped us develop eye contact, creating energy and production skills that our church wasn't experienced in before this crisis. The shift online has required a forced mental, emotional, and purposeful response that has impacted every level of the church’s functioning. God has shown us how to use the crisis as an opportunity to reach thousands where we were unaware of our existence before the crisis. Most definitely, it's a conscious effort. We've joked about putting placards in the seats. It's difficult to get excited or to have some energy with an empty house.”

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Do you think anything will change about how the church does things going forward?

Jeff Leach: We’ll most definitely continue the livestream. As we continue on, there's no question about that. We're in the process of sourcing and building a longterm system for the church to be able to do that. With what's going on in the world, it's difficult to find equipment in this kind of niche. And so we're building that out. I have since returned the flykit to Zak. Back in the middle of March, I purchased an ATEM Mini. They were backordered. I just got it this last Sunday. And so we're gonna use that in the interim. And the idea would be to go to one of Blackmagic’s larger boards that this is based off of, and then stay within the product line. It's very intuitive for a Sunday volunteer to come up and push buttons that are illuminated rather than having to try to learn an entire system that they touch very rarely. So we'll most definitely continue down this route, and it's been a good product for that. I'm actually using my ATEM Mini now for this zoom call. And in my living room, so this is not on, let's see. This is the table that I’m at now, and these are the bi-directional converters that Zak used. This is the Webcaster X2 that we use at the church, and it makes it very easy to switch between sources. That's the second computer I have at the table with me. It makes it very simple. I set this up in 25 minutes this morning in preparation for this interview. So I think that it's a good product for this. In small settings, it's most definitely an easy to use, resilient product. The only thing that I did have an issue with was audio. We were trying to get service out of our church sound system and the ATEM Mini has two 3.5mm jacks for audio up on top. And those were getting a ground loop or ground hum from the power board. And so we've gotten a Zoom recorder that gives our audio source. It's made for a webcam or podcast mic that is either USB-powered or battery-powered. We were not able to get it to work well with a powered external audio source that is AC-powered. That was the one complaint that I did have. But the Zoom works; it has XLRs on the bottom. So we can hook up other audio equipment for that. So that has been nice.

Zak Holley: I agree with him. I think one of the main downsides is that 3.5mm jack looking at the ATEM TV Studio HD compared to the ATEM Mini, the software is identical. It's very easy to learn the ATEM Mini. If you've already learned to use the software, it'd be even easier to learn the TV Studio if you began with the ATEM Mini. I love the picture-in-picture. I think the picture-in-picture is a great feature Blackmagic introduced that was done in the other products going forward. I'd love to see a solution similar to what the ATEM Mini provides in more of a TV Studio-style frame that's rackmountable. I do like that it's a keyboard-style switcher, but I am more fan of rackmountable gear for traveling. I just think it's easier to pack up if it's all set up. No one's touching wires and unplugging things for that reason. But like Jeff was saying, the 3.5mm ground on the board isn't isolated. So if you take an XLR input from a third-party console mixer directly from a mic even, there's a little crackle, a little hum. There are some forums I've found on Blackmagic stuff that I've addressed to Blackmagic and it seems to be that Blackmagic’s solution was that the audio has to be on the same ground as every HDMI input, so that the mic console or a mixer console has to be on the same power source as every camera's HDMI output. We can make that work in some situations, but it's not a common thing. It's something that if you're not familiar with, you're going to be scratching your head, why isn't it working? And I think that's why that Zoom recorder that he uses works great. I think they take a third XLR out of the console, put it in the Zoom, and the Zoom outputs 3.5 mm directly to ATEM, which is awesome.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Thanks so much for your time, Jeff and Zak. Stay safe and healthy.