The success of any live event is dependent on five core elements: the people, the plan, the technology, the venue, and the audience; they all intersect to either make or break an event. The added layer of virtual attendees creates an even greater challenge, because you have to produce the event for people both inside and outside the room. The key is to use the right technology to make it easy to reach the live audience and virtual attendees and provide them a quality and worthwhile experience.
And I can tell you from experience that it better be good!
Over the last 20 years of producing live events, I’ve learned a lot about how things can go right and wrong, and from good to bad, and from bad to worse. Most problems stem from the things that fall through the cracks: forgotten tasks that didn’t make your checklist or that were not delegated. They can either creep up on you or blow up in your face, and we all know what’s at stake. As they say in the live event biz, “You’re only as good as your last show.”
You can avoid most problems with proper planning and clear communication. The best shows are the ones where everyone knows what to do, so the show comes off without a hitch. Whether you are in studio or on location, the same rules apply if you want to be successful. The key to succeeding is that you go in with a plan and strongly dissuade clients from disruptive last-minute changes. They may think it’s not a big deal, but you know better.
Have a Plan
Get on the same page with your clients to get them on board with deadlines and financial commitments. Give them an understanding of the live event requirements. Most clients aren’t familiar with what technology they need, but they know the outcome they want. It’s your job to educate them about what they need because you know what’s best for any given situation. Get as much information from your clients about their event so that you can recommend the right package to fit their needs and budget.
Determine if you’ll need multiple cameras versus a single camera production. Explain the differences—and why you might need more cameras, lighting, set design, multiple microphones, and additional crew. If your clients’ goal is to webcast its live event and create a high-quality video archive, it’s easier for them to understand that requirements are different if they have one speaker on stage at a time than if they’re presenting a panel discussion.
With every live event there are various templates that can be applied to the production. While each setup is distinct, there are standards to follow when the space allows.
Most live events take place in an auditorium, conference room, convention center, or ballroom. Go into each location with a game plan on how you will set up your tech area, where each station will be, and what needs to connect to what. Also, be sure to have backup equipment and crew in case of technical or physical problems. Don’t forget to test your webcast on location.
The best way to keep everyone on the same page is to prepare a call sheet, schedule, and production summary that includes every last bit of detail that covers the entire production. Give everyone on the crew a copy for reference, and lead a production meeting before the show so that all teams are synched up.
Stick to the Plan
Go into each show with a scripted game plan; ideally, it will be a detailed run of show documents that maps out the show flow. Your plan should also include setup diagrams that show signal flow; floor plans that show the room layout and location of AV, cameras, lighting, catering; and any other documents such as webcast information, call sheets, production schedules, and checklists for both the crew and clients to follow.
Stick to Budget and Deadlines
It’s easy to go over budget when you start adding extra cameras, wireless microphones, internet and power drops. However, the biggest cost overruns come from not correctly estimating the amount of time it actually takes to produce an event. In most cases, labor will be your biggest cost, and if you don’t account for overtime (and even double time) you run the risk of ending up way over budget. Having the proper staffing ratio is crucial to staying on time and budget.
Plan a Rehearsal
The more you know, the better you do, and the best way to know is to practice. Aside from presenters being able to practice clicking through their slides and getting comfortable with the environment, you need to know their transitions, cues for videos, music, camera angles, and blocking, along with how the show will open and close. Will your presenters have walk on music, require on-screen graphics, or need internet access? Is there an announcer or VOG? How will Q&A be handled? It’s best to have that all figured out in advance and to rehearse with your presenters and crew. If time permits, try to gather the crew together for a show flow meeting, then go through a tech rehearsal with the crew, followed by rehearsals with each presenter. Beginnings, middles, and ends, along with transitions, video rolls, lighting changes, and every audio and video cue should be rehearsed.
Conduct a Site Survey
Take a site survey at least a good 8 weeks ahead to inspect data and A/V ports, power requirements for lighting, ceiling height for rigging, and windows and doors for light and noise. Bring a digital camera, measuring tape, and a continuity tester as part of your arsenal. Knowing your location is your best defense against failure. Not only are you able to assess the space, but you also get to meet the people who manage the venue; ultimately, they are the ones who support you and your production.
Some venues will let you bring in all your own gear, without any buyout fee, but there are other venues that have exclusives on lighting and audio. It can even be within the jurisdiction of a local International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employee (IATSE) union, and you’ll be required to hire union labor. If you’re a producer, it’s best to work with a meeting planner who can deal with the hotel contract. That way, you can focus on the AV and event production. But be sure to make friends with the venue, both the in-house AV and banquets staff. Don’t forget that you’re in their house, and they are key partners in your success. The two most important aspects of your site survey are to gain intelligence and build relationships.
Create a Floor Plan
After the site survey, you’ll have all the right measurements to create a floor plan for the space. Most hotel event managers will have software that allows them to draft a floor plan to scale; if possible, you should ask for that before you start your own. That way, you’ll be able to place the AV equipment, lighting, and video department within and around the space. You can determine where the camera’s audio and lighting will be and how the AV team will work within the same space with the hotel banquet staff.
Have an A-team (and Take Care of Them)
Whenever possible, work with a team you know and trust and who knows your business. The best way to achieve your results is to be surrounded by people you trust, people who are professionals and experts in the field, and people you can rely on to do their jobs. Relationships are vital to your process. The keys to getting the job done are delegation and deference to expertise.
You need to rely on your team members to do their jobs and, sometimes, to take over your responsibilities, when you get called away to manage client issues and handle last-minute changes. With so many moving parts to your live event, you can’t micromanage or keep track of every detail within each department. Your team will be those extra eyes and ears to catch any issues and ultimately get the job done right. Redundant personnel and technology are crucial, and equipment failure should be expected. Backups of your backups really save the day in a pinch.
Know Your Role
You may be producer, director, technical director, and even camera operator all rolled up into one, or you may have the luxury of hiring a full crew. If you have a crew, it’s best to break it down into individual departments that all work together for the common goal of producing a live event. Each department has a department head, or lead, and an engineering component.
These are the main departments and crew members:
- The show producer has the final say, is on the phone a lot, and pays for things.
- The show director calls the show (may also be your video director).
- The video crew includes the video director, engineer, technical director/ switcher operator, and camera operators.
- The audio crew should have an audio 1 and audio 2 operator.
- The lighting crew includes lighting director, gaffer, electrician, and rigger.
- The graphics crew includes graphics 1 and graphics 2, plus perhaps projection and speaker timer.
- The web crew includes webcast producer(s) and technicians.
- The stage crew includes stage manager and stage hands.
- The set/strike crew provide help with the load in, set, strike, and load out.
It’s important to take care of your crew. Bring snacks and plenty of water to keep their energy up, and be sure to budget crew meals for long production days. That’s the best way to keep them happy and on their toes. Also, if you’re not working with a meeting planner, make sure you budget hotel rooms for crew members who have to spend the night at the venue.
Know Your Client(s)
If you are the event producer, you really need to communicate directly with the main client. Most executives and professional speakers have handlers or communications staff who write their material and maintain their messages. They employ administrative staff who directly support them and maintain their schedules, and a variety of reporting staff, directors, managers, and, well, you get the point. There are layers between you and the main client, who, in the end, is the person you are working for. Whether you are planning the event logistics, identifying the technical requirements, working on content, or estimating the budget, all things flow from the wants and needs of the main client.
You can save yourself a lot of work if you can get a meeting with the main client, well in advance, to discuss staging and presentation style. With all the handlers, you get a lot of filtered information and waste a lot of time getting through the layers. Having been in the AV and live event business for more than 20 years, I’ve worked with thousands of people, including C-suite executives, government officials, doctors, lawyers, middle managers, frontline staff, motivation speakers, techies, artists, musicians, actors, and the like. Through all these interactions, I’ve come to learn that the most important piece of the puzzle is direct communication with the presenter.
Live events are just that: live! There are no do-overs! Falling off the stage, the clicker not working, problems with videos, and dead links are all common occurrences, but they can all be avoided. You can’t foresee everything, which is why it’s so important to rehearse the things that you can foresee. Tech rehearsals and talent dress rehearsals are key to a successful live event. The real estate mantra says, “Location, location, location.” I follow the AV mantra, “Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal.”
AV and Video
Video village, as it’s called, is where the video department is located, either backstage or in an adjacent space. It’s where the director, technical director/switcher operator, producer, engineer, graphics team, projectionist, and webcast or videoconference producer resides. It’s the central nervous system of your equipment setup, signal flow and distribution, connectivity, interactive tools, and lots and lots of cabling. If you’re producing a live webcast, your video department will look like a remote TV studio; essentially, that’s what it is.
The intercom is your Achilles’ heel, because you need clear communication to be able to direct your crew and, as a crew member, to follow directions. In most cases, the audio department will set up your comms, typically belt packs and headsets fit with microphones and headphones. The best practice for comms is to use A/B channels to separate video from production and to give key crew members an A/B belt pack to be able to talk to both channels. That way the video director can talk to camera operators and video department separately from lighting, audio, graphics, stage manager, and other crew members on the production channel. It helps keep the crosstalk and headset chatter down to a minimum.
Audio is, by far, the most crucial element of a live event, and it is more important than video in a live show. Viewers might forgive video issues, but they typically have zero tolerance for poor audio or no sound. Audio can also become more challenging when combining wireless microphones, telephone call-ins, multipoint videoconferencing rooms, webcasts, and a live PA (public address) system.
That’s why you have an audio engineer who uses a variety of audio processors, compressors, auto-mixers, and delays to keep the audio levels consistent throughout the space—and to your recording and webcast.
A1 and A2 are the two key positions of your audio department. A1 runs the board, and A2 manages the microphone assignments, checks wireless frequencies, and does the actual clipping of the mics to the talent. The most common microphones used are Shure UHF-R wireless lavaliers (UR1) and wireless handhelds (Beta 87C). Some presenters prefer a countryman headset, which hooks around the ear and moves with your head turns. These mics provide a more consistent audio level than a lav mic, which is either clipped to a man’s tie (just under the knot) or on the lapel of either gender. The inherent problem with clipping to the lapel is when the speaker turns his or her head from side to side, the audio level varies.
Most audio engineers will use compression and auto-mixers to manage the audio signals and feedback when a presenter walks in front of the speakers or underneath a ceiling speaker. So, make sure that your audio team has enough time to ring out the room by setting the correct EQ levels to adjust to the acoustics of the space.
Having a well-lit show is an absolute must, for both the in-room and video experiences. The eye can see things that the cameras don’t, so having dramatic lighting will not only add that wow factor for your live audience, but it will help keep your virtual attendees and video on demand (VOD) viewers more engaged.
The most important factor of lighting is to create separation between your subjects and background. While you don’t have the same flexibility to light someone on stage with three-point lighting as you do for an interview, you should try to have an even stage wash and backlight, if possible. That’s where your lighting director comes in to offer solutions based on the venue. Large convention centers with very high ceilings are different from hotel ballrooms. In hotels, you can generally get away with flying a few Leko Source Fours (fixed degree ellipsoidal stage lights) on the air walls, or hang them from lighting trees. At convention centers, you’ll most likely need to have to fly lighting trusses for your front and backlights, and that’s where your riggers come into the picture. The riggers will drive the lifts and work with your lighting department to build the trusses, hang the lights, and lift the truss into place. The lighting director will focus the lights for your stage wash, backlighting, and any decorative lighting for effects.
Make sure you hire a lighting director and use a lighting board and instruments that can be programmed to give you an even stage wash (so presenters who move around the stage, or a panel discussion, are evenly lit across the stage) and LED uplights or curtain warmers so you can do color changes between presenters and segments based on color schemes and complexions. Dramatic lighting will keep your audience engaged and awake, so they don’t have to stare at plain dark curtains for hours on end.
If you’re working with performers within a large space, be prepared for them ask for a follow spot. They may choose to move onstage and offstage, so you’ll have to be able to follow them with a focused beam of light to keep them illuminated for the audience and the cameras.
The graphics team, with the projection, monitors, and cabling, will help keep your presenters on time. They can tell how things will look on screen as well as juggle all your digital media files and slides. For more complex shows, this department can have up to four people; for less complex ones, it can have as few as one. The best practice for Graphics is to have all your graphic sources on separate laptops and use a seamless switcher, such as an HD ScreenPro, to switch and translate the various signals of all your sources (HD-SDI, HDMI, VGA, NTSC composite SD) to the house projectors and screens. Your projectionist will scale and optimize the projection for viewing in your live event space, as well as for your recording and webcast. Graphic inputs include main slides (G1), backup slides (G2), presenter notes or Prezi presentations (G3), videos on a Mac laptop using Playback Pro (G4), main camera for iMag (G5), program feed from video switcher, and a still of the program title known as your show slide.
Since the graphics department usually resides in video village either backstage or in an adjacent space, it’s important to have enough monitors for viewing both preview and program. Give your video director and webcast producer a program slide feed so they know what slide is on and what the audience is seeing, whether slides, video, or iMag.
Given the right space and internet connection, your webcast producer(s) can make every room a broadcast studio. It’s important to complete all prewebcast equipment and connectivity testing well in advance and conduct it onsite for higher reliability. Have backups to your backups and your internet service provider on speed dial if connection issues arise. The best practice for webcast producers is to have a redundant encoding station running in the background and a telephone backup in case you need to switch to an audio and slideshow webcast. We’ll talk more about webcast production in Part 2 of this article, which will appear in the August/September issue.
The stage manager directs the traffic of all the action that takes place onstage. Stage managers run the rehearsal with the director to record camera blocking and provide visual and verbal cues to the talent, while being the eyes and ears of the show director. This job can be understated for corporate events, but it’s an essential position. A good stage manager is level-headed and organized, thinks fast on his feet, and has the right mix of politeness and assertiveness. In most cases, the stage manager has the most direct contact with the talent and does a lot to keep them at ease, on task, and energized. Think confidant, cheerleader, and drill sergeant all rolled into one.
Stagehands work under the direction of the stage manager, assisting with set changes and moving props, along with other backstage activities (such as dimming house lights, and opening and closing stage curtains).
While some live events may not have the budget for stage or set design, pipe and drapes, scenery, decor, furniture, and plants all help create your space and can convey an intimate or formal look. At the very least, black velour or gray drapery, with the combination of decorative stage lighting, can create a more polished look and give your event that wow factor.
Don’t forget to do an energy audit so you can order the correct amount of electric power drops for your event. The best practice with power is to order enough individual power drops to keep your departments separate so that you don’t blow a circuit and lose power during a show. The main requirement that you don’t ever want to settle for is wall power, which is primarily used by banquets to heat the food and coffee. One faulty toaster on the other side of the wall could trip your main speakers or lighting if you plug into wall power. So, be sure to ask for Spider boxes rated for 20 amps each with twist lock. For smaller shows, I’ve ordered four Spider boxes so that video, audio, projection, and lighting each get their own 20-amp circuit. For larger shows, I’ve ordered as many as 12. Your lighting director and video engineer can act as your electrician to help divvy up the power between departments, but for large shows with lots of lighting, be sure to bring in an electrician to help you work with the house engineers to deploy the power drops to all your departments.
Avoid Last-Minute Changes
In general, last-minute changes should be avoided. Fixing a typo on a slide or making a slight change to an element on stage usually won’t upset the apple cart, but adding new content at the last minute—such as a brand new slide deck, file, or video—or connecting a laptop at the last minute can lead to problems. While it may not seem like a big deal to your clients, last-minute changes do have an effect on the production—lighting and camera positions may need to be adjusted, stage elements may or may not be accessible, etc. If you don’t get time to test or practice, a last-minute change could blow up in your face, making your presenters and clients look foolish. But always be prepared for last-minute changes; if there’s time, update your script and rehearse. But know when to say, “No, we’re out of time,” because there’s really nothing worse than a major on-air blunder.
Be Prepared, and Always Have Backups
As the Boy Scouts’ motto says, “Be prepared.” Not only for emergencies, but for any old thing. Anything can happen. The presenter’s wireless microphone could go out. You could lose power. Make sure you have backup microphones and a reliable power source. If you have a lot of lighting, make sure you have a head electrician who can manage the power needs for all the lights so you don’t trip a breaker or blow a circuit. For graphics, it’s common to have a primary and backup computer to run your slides, and always wire the stage. You never know when presenters will come with their own laptops and have videos they want to run, so having the cabling already set will save the day.
Be sure to record your program on a high-quality format. Never rely on an online version as the master file. Webcasts are great for live, but for on-demand viewing, it’s best to produce a high-quality edited version directly from your HD master.
My best practice for live event recording is to record a full-screen line cut of the show that is called by your director and includes all the cameras, graphics, lower thirds, and video roll-ins. For the webcast, you send camera ISOs to your video window (and occasionally the program feed when you have no graphics) because for most webcasts, you send the slides, documents, and videos in a separate window.
Capture your video and audio signals at the highest quality you can for your desired output. While HD is great, it’s not practical for most corporate environments when low bandwidth streams of less than 300Kbps can scale better and can still provide a quality viewing experience. Your video department will be in charge of all your video capture, up and down conversion, and recording.
Just as lighting adds dramatic effect to your event, so does the music. People always respond favorably to good music, because it adds rhythm, melody, and emotion. Having the right “walk on” music to go with the “walk on” look of your set and lighting can set the mood you’re trying to achieve. Having upbeat “walk on” music for presenters helps energize them as they take the stage and makes it fun for the audience too.
Always take pictures of your setup and of the live event. Whether you use your mobile device or hire a professional photographer, documenting your event with high-quality stills can help your clients with marketing. It provides documentation that you can refer to for future events. Go crazy; take pictures of everything you can, because it all ends up being intelligence that you can use later. Panorama shots are great to have too so that you can see the whole ballroom in a 360 degree photo.
Roll With It
The old show business adage that “the show must go on” applies here. Regardless of what happens, there is an audience out there waiting to be educated, informed, and entertained, so you have to deliver. The fact that an event is live makes it easier and more difficult. There are no second takes. When something goes out live that shouldn’t have, there are no take backs. When you’re live, you have to roll with it when presenters are late or go off script, or there’s equipment failure, a crew member calls in sick, or any unplanned situation arises. The key is to keep a cool head, be a leader, and don’t let them see you sweat.
Keep a ‘Next Time’ List
No matter how hard you try to not make mistakes (with all your planning and A-Team around you), what can go wrong usually does at some point. It’s been said time and again that those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. That’s why you should always keep a list going of what you’ll do next time for your event. It may not even be a list of blunders; it may be tweaks in the production to make it better next time. For producers, your lists will become your best tools for producing your future events. From technical details to production design, you can use your lists as the starting point for future planning and evaluation. You may even be able to use what you learned from all of your next time lists to write an article.
Production Toolkit essentials
Don’t leave home without the following items:
- Roll of gaffers tape
- LED flashlight
- Black Sharpie marker • Ibuprofen
- Breath mints
A great resource for stage managers is this article by Lois Dawson. She reviews the items she keeps in her stage manager toolkit.
Find TEDx event design tips.
In Part 2, we’ll look specifically at how to deliver an effective webcast, including interactive and social media elements, to the audience offsite.
This article appears in the June/July 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as ” No Second Chances: Best Practices for Live Events in the Enterprise, Part 1.”