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Streaming High School Graduations in the Era of COVID-19

Marty Jenoff of Maryland-based Focal Point Productions discusses his workflow for capturing socially distanced high school graduations as stream-first events.

Like many streaming producers, Marty Jenoff of Baltimore-area production studio Focal Point Productions has spent the last 3-4 adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the video business--cancelled events, pivoting to remote and distanced production, and meeting increased demand for stream-first or stream-only productions. In doing so, he's found new ways to leverage skills developed over nine years of producing streams for clients, and also faced challenges and new twists on familiar types of events that few if any videographers have had to adapt to before.

For schools everywhere, every year, May and June are graduation and commencement season, and for many video producers, this means filming these events to package as highlight reels or stream them for relatives who can't make the in-person event. As such, live streaming is a much-appreciated add-on that clearly takes a back seat to the in-person event. But under our current pandemic conditions, where commencement ceremonies have happened, schools have had to approach them very differently than they've done in the past, and with social-distancing guidelines mandating low attendance, streaming has become in many cases the primary vehicle for making these events accessible to the families and members of the larger school communities who most want to see them.

For Marty Jenoff, this has meant taking on a greater-than-usual number of school clients in the last month under conditions that are anything but usual. One key difference from other such productions in the past is that the streaming audience is the primary audience. These events also differed because, with state regulations and health guidelines that affected the configuration of these events undergoing ongoing changes in the weeks before the events, the bookings came later and the planning process was compressed as a result.

"We were brought [into the planning] as early as we could be," Jenoff says. "But with everything happening, they reached out to us that first week of May. So we had about a month to plan and prep everything. And our approach and our involvement was different because it was a stream-first. They had small audiences, but the bulk of their viewers or participants were going to be people watching it online."

Among other things, this meant prime shooting position of a sort event producers rarely experience. "They were really worried about making sure that the camera's close," Jenoff says. "I've never had the camera so close to the podium and to the action before. To be able to sit up so close was essential so that people watching live and recorded would get the best viewing experience possible." 

Producing live streams under social-distancing restrictions also meant working with a smaller crew and more compact gear, and asking that gear to do more. For most livestreaming jobs, Focal Point Productions brings a crew of 3-5 people or sometimes as many as 15. Jenoff streamed June's graduations with a crew of 2, including himself. Like a lot of streaming producers over the last few months, he was able to facilitate that with a production kit built around Blackmagic Design's recently released ATEM Mini Pro.

"About 20 feet away from the podium, we had a six-foot table with the with the ATEM Mini Pro, our recorder, my laptop, one camera on [my left] side, two cameras on [my right] side ... and a lot of cabling," Jenoff recalls. "I had one guy on [my left] side running the manned camera to get all the tight shots. And I was over here running the two wide-shot cameras, the laptop, and the ATEM Mini Pro. So I was able to operate the camera, the ATEM Mini, and just go back and forth. And it worked out really well, just having two of us to do the entire production." 

Focal Point's on-site gear also included a Blackmagic UltraStudio 4K to get the signal into Jenoff's laptop and a HyperDeck Studio Mini to record H.264 master files. "That way," he says, "once we were done, I could take that file and upload it directly to the client to use." Focal Point also used an additional device to record Apple ProRes files "so we'd have a backup recording if we had to do any editing or if in case we had any issues."

Of course, having a videographer right in front of the podium wasn't the only way these commencements' diverged from past years'. Each one attempted to minimize crowds in its own way. One scheduled students to arrive on the hour in groups of 20 to get their diplomas, have pictures taken, and then leave 30 minutes before the next group arrived. Another divided students into groups of 8-10 and followed a similar procedure. Each of these events took close to 8 hours to complete.

The first school commencement Focal Point did (in conjunction with another local video outfit called Coastal Productions) back in early June clocked in at a brisk 90 minutes. "That one was pretty unique and special," Jenoff says. "They had a car parade throughout campus, so they had a long route. All the families piled in the car, and they had decorations and streamers and paint on the cars. We had 3 cameras strategically placed around campus, plus a drone flying over above. They took about 40 seconds per kid. The car pulls up, they call their name. They literally jump out, get the diploma, take a picture, get back in the car." 

While most of Focal Point's commencement streams consisted primarily of footage captured live on-site, for one school they had to integrate a number of prerecorded videos that faculty members and students produced at home. In this age of remote productions pulling in live feeds or recorded clips captured under shooting conditions over which the professional producer has little or no control, each one represents potential for disaster, or at least dramatic inconsistencies in video and audio quality.

To ward off such issues, Jenoff says, "I made a very short, five-minute video of do's and don'ts that I send to clients, just to give them some tips on how to make your own recordings that much better without costing any additional money. These are tips like make sure that the camera's eye level; hold your phone [horizontal], not [vertical]; use earbuds; use a microphone; how to do lighting and backdrop; don't use Wi-Fi, use hardwired ethernet." With these school videos as with other clients, he said, "it's been a big help. It's definitely made those videos and recordings that I've gotten a lot better than what you're used to."

As more and more effects become stream-first or stream-only experiences, Jenoff says "calls are coming back in full force" from organizations looking for streaming alternatives for events that would otherwise be falling by the wayside. "People are really starting to look at livestreaming as the way to move on and to carry their organization or their business to get them through this next year, because I don't think we'll be seeing in-person events like we used to for a really long time," Jenoff says. "I love live streaming. It's great to be able to bring events to people where they are. It's really become a necessity. It's the only way that so much of the population can be a part of these different events and activities that are happening. And the fact that we can play a part in that is very rewarding and gratifying.'