Amateur Art Directors and the Demise of Staging

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Let me first get something out of my system, so to speak.

Content sucks.

Oh, I understand that the meetings we stage need content. I just don't want to deal with it. Every time we get involved in it, it doesn't matter what a great job we've done on a multi-camera system. It doesn't matter that we managed to light this seedy, low-ceilinged ballroom so well it looked like the Academy Awards. It doesn't even matter that our A1 has 26 wireless mics mixed so well they could be used by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It seems nothing else matters when the marketing department "logo and font police" come down on you. You all know the ones, they're the ones that don't understand why "Zapf Baloney Extra Demented" is not a font choice in your character generator. Or who want to hold a PMS color chip up next to a projected image and can't understand that reflex colors aren't available in NTSC.

So it's problematic for me that there's a new addition to the meeting that drags us back toward content responsibility, webcasting. Today's integrated webcasting tools, whether software or hardware based, require that we be involved with integrating the client's content into the webcast, often converting their slides, graphics and video to new formats, and changing them somewhat in the process. Oh, we don't have to go through this just to put up a PowerPoint slide, but we do if we're going to allow the webcast to get very sophisticated, like adding interactivity. And most of our clients seem to want to.

That being said, the new tools have added new capabilities to the live side of the staging event, as well as the webcast. Easy overtitling, compressed video windows, management of multiple cameras, and 3d transition effects have all gotten easier and less expensive. One of the best packages I have worked with lately is Wirecast Pro, from Vara Software. Because it allows multiple-layered CG moves in real time, we were able to do a number of ESPN-type crawls and graphic effects to the in-room video, as well as the webcast, for a recent corporate event. Now, none of these are things we couldn't do before, given the right hardware and operators. It's just that none of them were things we could do with $500 worth of software running on a MacBook Pro. And it achieved something I've wanted to do for a long time, webcasting integrated with the in-room video, without racks of complicated servers and scan converters.

It seems that lately, although there are hundreds of choices for how we integrate a remote audience into a show, the available tools break down into three general categories:

1. Mobile racks of webcasting tools and servers, integrated by individual companies, mostly for their own use. Almost all the earliest purveyors of webcasting services worked this way, because they had to.

2. Integrated show-and-webcast-in-a-box solutions, where the server, effects and switching are built into a single unit. Grass Valley, Sony, and NewTek have all introduced this type of box, with varying levels of capabilities and varying levels of success.

3. Software-based tools that use a standard PC or Mac notebook (or desktop) and require that switching and mixing be done outboard. Usually, these provide connection to an outside reflection server, which are available to rent time on commercially.

Now, I'm not here to talk about webcasting in and of itself. We've done that one to death, and there are as many reasons to use any particular method as there are methods themselves. And there are just as many people who will argue vehemently that their method is the only one. So I'll sidestep that minefield. I'm not a webcaster, I'm a staging tech, and that's where my concerns come in.

My chief concern, as it usually is, is to make sure that the overall show, both in and out of the room, go well. To that end, I'd rather not add anything that complicates operation or has a significant risk associated.

So I dislike all the available options, but there are some I will accept.

First of all, I truly distrust the show-in-a-box solutions. All in one solutions are like swiss army knives. They'll do it all, but don't seem particularly good at anything. When I saw Sony's product last year, everybody was really excited that this little suitcase combined video switching and effects, audio mixing, and webcasting in a single box. Personally, I looked at it negatively for two reasons. The first was that it's audio mixer was nowhere near as good as a stand alone audio mixer, and it's video switching was rather limited for live shows. I'm sure it was a nice device for people who specialize in webcasting, but I'm just as concerned with not limiting my live show. My second problem with the all-in-one solutions is simple. If they go down, the show is over. I've done shows where I lost some aspect of the show, a wireless mic failed, a camera power supply burned out, etc, but never had an entire show go dark because it was all running through a single device.

The "rack of webcasting hardware" systems have a virtue - they don't usually affect my in-room show very much. Normally, they are a separate output, and have their own operator, so they really don't change my show very much. However, because of this they also don't add anything to the in-room show.

The newer, software based solutions show potential. As most of you who read this column know, I've been looking for an in-room graphics replacement for TVL-type use for a long time, and I'm finally starting to see some of them emerging on the horizon. Most make use of the new, highly accelerated graphics systems, such as those available on the new, multi-intel-processor macs. Because of the way they work, they become another component in a component-based show. They add to capabilities but if something goes wrong we still have a show. Most of the ones I've been looking at aren't quite ready for prime time, but they show promise and are headed in a direction I like.

In the future, I think these kinds of tools will add a whole new type of polish to a show, both live and over the net. If I can only get the logo police to lighten up on the use of those primary reds...




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