Do some online research into an educational conference or newsworthy public announcement, and you’re likely to find an easy option to watch it livestreamed on your computer monitor or phone. The growing market for livestreamed events has created an increasing demand for videographers who have the skills to both shoot and livestream events. Some experienced video shooters are even starting to specialize in livestreaming in order to land work from a growing number of corporate, government and nonprofit clients who want to be able to get more viewers to check out their events.
To find out what the burgeoning livestreaming market has to offer imagemakers who know their way around standard video production, we spoke with the production houses Mainstream Media in Chicago and Sparksight in Austin, as well as livestreaming granddaddy Livestream in Brooklyn, New York, which offers a popular distribution platform, production tools, and its own in-house production team.
While the ability to stream live video over the Internet has existed for more than 20 years, it’s only recently that improvements in bandwidth and the proliferation of platforms that make it easy to view have really made it take off. “We almost feel like 2016 is the year of livestreaming,” says Livestream Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Sam Jacobs. “For the first time, we’re seeing all different kinds of markets and organizations really embrace and adopt the idea that live video is a critical part of their communications strategy and their marketing stack.”
In a media-saturated environment, Jacobs notes, the entertainment and curiosity value of live events is another reason organizations are putting more resources into producing livestreamed content. “Because attention is so scarce,” Jacobs explains, “everybody needs to invest in the areas where attention can be generated, where attention as a currency can be spent, and live seems to be one of those places.”
The types of events that get livestreamed range from conferences and conventions to community events such as public hearings, to commercial performances and concerts. Livestream (the company) works with more than 10,000 different organizations, and their top three categories are faith-based organizations, government and educational institutions.
For video shooters who want to add livestreaming to their repertoire, there can be a lot to learn. While the camera work, lighting, and audio capture skills that go into shooting a live event are largely the same as with video that’s destined for postproduction, going live introduces many technical issues that require meticulous attention before the shoot. “You have to test the entire signal flow,” explains Mainstream Media Co-Founder Nicholas Bacon.
Preproduction testing and rehearsals have to ensure that there will be adequate bandwidth—usually 5 to 10Mbps for a full 1080p HD stream—and that there aren’t any roadblocks between camera and distribution platform. To communicate technical needs to parties like IT staff, facility managers, content distribution networks, platform providers and website hosts, says Bacon, “you have to speak in many different languages.”
Having backups for power, connectivity and hardware is essential, since even momentary outages represent significant flaws in a livestreamed production. “If you’re shooting a film and your camera breaks or some piece of equipment goes down, you need to get another piece,” says Livestream Head of Production Joe Bandelli. “With livestreaming, you need to have everything set up so that if something goes down, you automatically have a failover. We’re constantly redundant.”
Most livestreams are transmitted over wired connections provided by the event space, since Wi-Fi doesn’t offer the consistent bandwidth. At locations where no wired connection is available, production crews have to be prepared to provide their own. Sparksight produces events involving multiple locations by using a cellular data connection, which has allowed them to stream from outdoor spots such as farms and even a boat. “The device that we use basically pulls from five to six cellular towers,” explains Technical Producer George Craig. “It will figure out which provider is offering the best strength and then use that to send video over.”
Beyond the technical knowledge required, working in real time during often lengthy events is not for the feeble or faint of heart. “The number one quality we look for in people is fearlessness,” says Nicholas Bacon. “The reality of working live events is that you have to make a lot of decisions, often quickly and often with many people watching you do that. So we really look for people who are not afraid to make a decision and go for it.”
Those who are up to the task will also need to add a few items to their gear bag. One of the simplest and most affordable approaches is to use a dedicated livestreaming camera such as Livestream’s Mevo, which connects directly to the Internet to stream video to Facebook Live or Livestream.com’s platform. Using a pro HD camera requires a separate encoder to capture and package the video for distribution on streaming platforms. On a multi-camera production, a switcher is also needed to move between different camera views.
While software that captures, switches and encodes footage is relatively affordable, the hardware that’s powerful enough to run it on can be pricier. Buying dedicated hardware with the software installed offers the reliability and support of an integrated system, but it can cost thousands of dollars. Some producers cut their costs significantly by building their own hardware. “The great thing about this technology is that it’s very well documented online,” says Bacon, who recommends low-cost software options like XSplit Broadcaster or OBS Studio for livestreamers who don’t yet have the funds for top-notch packages like Telestream’s Wirecast.
Choosing the right distribution platform from an ever-growing number of options is another facet of production that livestreaming pros need to handle. “You have to choose your platform based on where your audience is,” says Bacon. The various platforms also have different technical limitations, restrictions on advertising, and security features to consider. Some, like Livestream and Twitch, are attractive for their built-in audiences, while others are valued for their ability to keep event streams private. Mainstream often uses DaCast, which offers a white-label platform that’s easily embedded on client websites, while Sparksight usually opts for Livestream for its reliability and customization features. “We can upload our own imagery and banners for the event we’re producing,” notes Craig.
Whatever platform they’re viewing on, audiences have already begun to take it for granted that important events will be livestreamed. That means the medium’s lengthy debut seems to be drawing to a close. “But the next chapter,” says Sam Jacobs, “is really about using some of the new devices and new products that we’ve manufactured to create new kinds of content—to take things that you didn’t think were ‘events’ and [turn] them into immersive experiences for your fans and audience.”
One of the ways videographers are taking on a more creative role is by collaborating with event sponsors throughout the planning process. Joe Bandelli’s crew has worked with Tough Mudder to livestream an obstacle course with multiple cameras, and recently collaborated with the World Chess Championship Match in New York to optimize its venue’s design for livestreaming. “We were literally part of the entire planning process,” says Bandelli. “We’re telling them how to light every single room that we have a camera in. We’re telling them where our cameras are going to be to get the best possible coverage. So it’s a lot better, because they’re planning the rooms around us.”
That’s the kind of in-depth creative work that experienced livestreaming producers like Bandelli, Craig and Bacon are pushing the medium toward—and encouraging newcomers to pursue. “More people need to be considering livestreaming as an artistic or creative expression,” says Bacon. “We need more people in the industry who are pushing the boundaries, who are exploring what it means to be live, and are having those kinds of conversations not just with themselves but with their clients—asking the question, ‘Why does this need to be live?’ and then figuring out ways to make that experience better for themselves, their clients, and their audience.”