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Technical Specifications for Advanced Digital Production


As referenced in AFLCT's Virtual Best Practices Guide: with the support of some highly technical digital artists, we have compiled a set of specific technical recommendations concerning video, audio, lighting, computing, and more.

For the majority of most work that AFLCT roster artists will complete, the full level of digital sophistication shared in here is not necessary! 

If, however, you would like to learn more, please email us here and we can connect you with artists who can offer further insight and guidance. 

The information below is compiled from guidance provided by Leland Faulkner, Billy B, and Craig Norton, and has been sorted into topic areas. (Thanks, guys!)

INTERNET CONNECTION

Ethernet is hard-wired with a cable. There’s quite a bit of difference between Ethernet cables, known as Cat5, Cat5e and Cat6 cables once you peel back the protective sheath. When different cable types are mixed on your network, your network will perform at the speed of the slowest link. 

How do you tell what sort of cables you have? Most Ethernet cables have some information printed along the sheath. You’re looking for something that says “Category” followed by a number. On some cables, the word “category” is abbreviated to “cat”. If the cable doesn’t have anything printed on it, you could use a cable testing device but I suspect that it’s probably not worth the effort. But the main thing is that Cat 5, 5e and 6 will be good enough for most of us and anything else is hard to find. 

If you’re planning to cable your home, I’d advise that you ensure everything is being done with Category 6 cables and that you connect your wired devices using Category 6 as well. This will ensure you’re getting the fastest possible connections. Remember even with great cabling, your internet speed is governed by what your ISP provides. 

Some vendors are selling Cat 7 cables, this isn’t an officially recognized standard. There is a Category 8 that is official but it’s not intended for general purpose network cabling. Don’t get sucked in to paying for something you don’t really need. 

Basically, get the best cable you can, and the highest bandwidth you can budget for, to insure a strong, stable connection. 

AUDIO

Quality audio is important. If you are a musician you probably already have a mixing solution set up for your computer, Pro Tools or something similar. If you can get it to interface with Zoom you are far ahead of the game, and you probably have spent quite a bit of money on your system. 

However, some performers, mimes, storytellers, actors may not focus as much on capturing and controlling their audio, until now. 

If you tour with an audio system to give you vocal or audio support you probably already have what you need to make your system work. There are more ideal systems for doing this, but I cannibalized what I had on hand without spending a lot of money. What I have is DIY field operation solution. My biggest expense was buying an xlr to usb adapter. My strategy was to use my Fender PD 150, which is a lightweight compact speaker, mixing, and amplifying system designed to pack up like a suitcase. I have been through three of these systems, and would probably buy another one. They provide a big bang for the buck and have a small footprint. Now they are showing their range of applications for a Zoom cast studio. You can adapt my idea to your own equipment. I just wanted to use what I have, and not spend my whole stimulus check on new equipment.

Essentially I mix my show and my music as usual. I have a wireless lavalier (Sennheiser), and a computer I remotely control for supporting audio and music tracks. This all inputs into the onboard mixer on the Fender PD 150. I mix the levels so the music doesn’t overpower my vocal, and make sure my vocal sounds great without redlining. Here’s the trick. I send out a mono signal to both speaker channels. I can control the volume of each speaker separately, and that is important because although you are getting an identical signal going to both speaker channels you will use them for different purposes. I take one speaker and use it as a monitor to hear the same audio as the audience, and the other signal I feed into my computer via the usb adapter. I also plug in a cable that is a mini headphone plug to balance XLR back into the third channel on my mixer. Now I have three live Zoom casting audio channels, my vocals, my support audio, and the audience. This way I can hear questions easily and converse with having to wear headphones just walk about my space as needed with being fixed in place with a microphone on a stand. 

Audio equipment recs:

  • Vocals
    • Shure headset mic WBH53T into
    • Shure SLX 1 wireless battery pack transmitter sends to
    • Shure SLX 4 receiver XLR output (typical mic cord) to
    • QSC touch 8 mixer - Slight reverb and compression added
  • Guitar
    • Guitar cord to:
      • Shure SLX 1 wireless battery pack transmitter, Sends to
      • Shure SLX 4 receiver, XLR output (typical mic cord) to
      • QSC touch 8 mixer, Slight reverb and compression added
  • Ipod
    • 1/8 “ pin output to two channels, panned left and right, of QSC touch 8 mixer
  • Room
    • 2 AKG 535 condenser mics positioned on opposite walls, pointing toward performer in a V shape pattern, each with it own channel on the QSC touch 8 mixer (they use “phantom power”- or +48 V the electrical boost gives them high sensitivity and gives the listener a “live room” sense. If you use a condenser mic, it is best to plug them in and then turn on the phantom power, and the reverse process, turn off the phantom power, wait 60 seconds and then unplug them.)
  • In Ear Monitor system and good earbuds
    • Audio2000'S In-Ear Audio Monitor System (AWM6305U) $240, this is a good system for the money
    • UMPro30 3-Driver Balanced Earphone, $180
    • I send an “auxiliary mix” from my QSC touch 8 mixer to the Audio2000 which allows me to hear what I need to from the mixer, particularly the prerecorded music to dance to, to do the performance. If I listened to it via my speakers there would be delay issues and possible sound loops, feedback

All these “signals” (6 channels-sound sources) get mixed into a stereo mix which outputs through two microphone cords (XLR) which plug into my  XA11 Canon video camera ($1350.00). The idea is that running the sound into the camera will sync the video image with the sound. I have found that not quite to be true. In my experience the audio is still a few frames ahead of the video image. I plan to be working other options, and they do exist, to get perfect sync. 

VIDEO

I have set up the largest space in my home to be my Zoom casting studio. In your case it may be your garage, basement, or attic. 

As a mime, actor, storyteller, and magician I like to have the option of the audience seeing my whole body. In film there are three classic film shots, wide, medium, and close up. In the early days of silent film, the film makers would set the camera up and perform for it as though it were a proscenium stage and would move their bodies without moving the camera. I emulate this process for my Zoom casting productions because live switching between cameras without support is difficult, clunky, or expensive to achieve and run by remote control. You can use Ecamm or OBS to connect multiple cameras and get picture in picture effects, or even log in to a meeting with different computers, Ipads, tablets, or phones but my primary focus is delivering a live performance more than giving a slideshow or powerpoint or even a multi perspective show. That being said, I am working on mastering and utilizing this support software, but my primary focus is on delivering a live performance, and not the technical editing of the live show.

However, I think those softwares are excellent for titling, lecturing, and doing picture in picture. In my opinion though, giving preference to the authentic quality of the show is paramount. I am not trying to emulate Hollywood films, or broadcast television. I am doing a different job. 

One common issue is camera angle. A low angle is rarely flattering, and can often distort your appearance. Psychologically this low angle means you are above the viewer and possibly trying to have an intimidating presence. It is not pleasant or warming to the viewer. 

In general, especially if you are using a fixed shot like I am, a camera angle that is slightly elevated above head level is the most flattering and welcoming, it doesn’t turn the viewer into an observer like a high angle would do, yet it gives the viewer a sense of being on an even plane (or slightly above) with the artist, and avoids being intimidating and ugly. This is one reason selfie sticks are so popular. 

Video equipment recs:

  • Cameras - My most recent camera set up is this, 3 camera’s, the best video quality is camera 1, for half body speak-into-the-camera shots, and time wise the dominant camera, Camera 2 is for green screen full body shots, teaching dancing etc. , Camera 3 is the “chair cam”,  a guitar and head framing, intimate atmosphere kind of thing
    • XA11 Canon video camera -$1,350 -I purchased this for two reasons, it has two XLR microphone inputs, I believe it is the cheapest camera that has this feature, and it takes excellent footage outdoors, with a 50x optical zoom and the ability to shoot very close, think insects, shots. But as I said in the above explanation, “that running the sound into the camera will sync the video image with the sound. I have found that not quite to be true. In my experience the audio is still a few frames ahead of the video image. 
    • R800 Canon video Camera – $295 with accessory kit- $250 without. I bought this because of it’s universally good reviews on the internet for use in low budget live streaming. The accessory kit was not really that great but there were a few things that I do use; the very mild fish eye lens; good for capturing my whole body for dance moves and thus allowing the body to be positioned using a green screen.
    • Vixia HV40 Canon Camera – I had purchased this camera for $1,000 over 10 years ago. It uses mini HDV tapes. And it’s good for streaming because of it’s HDMI ports on the camera body. The video quality matches or is better than the R800. One of the bits of advice I heeded to was, to stick with one company for your cameras since each company seems to have their own “color code”.  I owned the HV40 so I stuck with Canons. 
  • HDMI Capture Cards - All my cameras are connected to my Macbook pro via a USB hub (HOOTOO brand). The camera’s HDMI signal is processed via a capture card.  So I use a HDMI cable from my camera to the capture card (to keep things confusing there are three different sizes for the ends of the cables, Type A-full size, Type C-mini and Type D-micro) and a USB 3.0 cable to the USB hub. The capture card I use can process 1080p but not 4K. I don’t think 4K (more pixels) is necessary for what we do. The originally recommended capture cards were sold out. Through a process of trial and error I found a capture card company that works for me, Magwell (two different company’s cards didn’t work for me). 
    • The last one I bought I got for $180, about $50 cheaper than my first purchases because the 2nd generation of the Magwell card came out. It works with 4K. A link to the 1st generation card is below. 
  • 3 USB HDMI Video Cards $700 - insert this into your browser - USB Capture HDMI Video Card, Broadcast Live Stream and Record, HDMI to USB Dongle Full HD 1080P Live Streaming Video Game Grabber Converter 

LIGHTING

Unless you have a dedicated webcam, or have hooked up a video camera, action camera, or DSLR to your computer you have little manual control over exposure. You are a slave to your computer webcam. That may be alright if you control your lighting. You want to be as kind to yourself as you can with what you have. If you are doing a natural shot in your home rather than a virtual backdrop please study your lighting. Outdoor and indoor lighting can often be completely different colors. Sunlight is blue in color with a temperature of 5600 degrees Kelvin. Tungsten lighting and some LED lighting is a yellow/orange at 3200 degrees Kelvin. Unless you have an artistic background in lighting it is best to avoid mixing the two. If you have LED lighting you can match the color temperature to your situation. 

If you have a background with an open window in your office, your study, or your studio where you are Zoom casting make sure it is not being overexposed which can be distracting and take attention away from you. You can close the curtain, or the door. Conversely you could use it. You can sit close to the window and if the light is indirect it can provide a flattering soft light with a nice ratio to both sides of your face, one side light, the other slightly darker. If you are shooting outdoors, try to do it in the shade and use a reflector. It makes a big difference. 

Most of you will need to invest in a lighting instrument that is appropriate to your use. If you are a dancer you will need a bigger light source, or multiple light sources, than someone who does their work in a more intimate manner seated in a chair for example. 

A classic pattern for lighting is called three point lighting and there are many instructions online for how to achieve it. I am not here to give you a full education in lighting, which I could do, I am really here to give you some down and dirty practical tips and help you develop best practices for your own work. How much research you do to accomplish this is up to you. 

Lighting equipment recs:

  • Lights- Lights are extremely important in live performance and live streaming. And now that I am using “green screen”, they are even more important. LED lights are great because they use a lot less energy and therefore don’t create that much heat. You don’t have to worry about flipping a breaker in your circuit box because of the small  demand for electricity. I would recommend lights that give you control over the “spectrum” output. That translates into 2 knobs you can turn, one bringing up or turning down the “yellow” and the other which controls the “intensity”. 
  • I purchased and waited 7 weeks for Neewer 3 Packs 660 LED Video Light Photography Lighting Kit with Stand: Dimmable 3200-5600K CRI96+ LED Panel, Premium 200cm Light Stand for Studio YouTube Video Outdoor Shooting  $250. 
    • This package really has lived up to its very positive reviews. The Neewer products are reviewing as equals to products 3 times their costs. 
  • I am using borrowed GVM 18s, a circle LED light which you can tell is popular because you can see it’s reflection in many news reporters' glasses, and it’s back ordered. What’s great about the “circle lights” is you can mount them so your camera is shooting outward from the middle of the circle. And as you walk up to the camera, or “mug” the camera, you are beautifully, evenly, lit. 
  • Also borrowed, and using only one of three Dracast CamLux Max Bi-Color 3-Light Kit. I have set this up right by my “chair cam”, so it’s not far away from me and although small, works well, at close range.

SCREENS, BACKDROPS, ETC.

One thing that is useful for me is using a green screen. The effect is actually called Chroma key and it could be blue or any color, but green seems to be the standard as it is the most universal to use. Any color corresponding to the key color will be invisible if evenly lit and exposed. It’s a fine line to light a green screen and make an acceptable lighting pattern for a Zoom cast. The main thing is to light your green screen first. Make the lighting as diffused, soft, big, bright, and even as possible. I am lucky because I have access to a 4,000 watt instrument called a soft light. I use this high, and in front to create what is called a butterfly pattern on my face, and simultaneously light my green screen. This seems to be the most adaptable pattern for my own use. I’d like to use more, but I would blow the breakers on my house electrical system. You can also bounce hard light onto a big surface like a wall or ceiling to create soft diffuse light. Or use a big piece of white foam core or a reflector to bounce the light. 

To get an effective background picture that is appropriate I often make my own, but there are many already made for free and for purchase online.. The thing to remember is to make it in the proper ratio of 9 x 16, at least I do because it corresponds to the size of my backdrop.

It is also a good idea to keep in mind the best lighting that would reflect the lighting in the image you choose to use as a background. 

My screen is quite large. I have attached it to a frame from a set piece I used in a production years ago, and pulled it out of storage to use as support for a 9x16 foot fabric. I have a similar fabric on the floor. You can get this much fabric for less than a hundred dollars on Amazon. You can attach the fabric to your wall, and the fabric I use as flooring while much less expensive than a green Marley or vinyl dance floor can also be slippery so use carpet tape to keep it from causing you to twist a knee or fall down. This is from the voice of experience and having to limp as I recovered for over a week. I tape and sandbag the floor fabric, and clip the other fabric to the frame. The fewer wrinkles the better. Steam them out. The more even the lighting the better. There are apps available to check the evenness of the light on your green screen, and they are very affordable, I recommend them. 

If you have enough room you can use more lights to accent your space, your body, etc, but that is beyond this basic technical instruction for what has become my own “best practice” and practical use of equipment I have on hand. 

My studio is temporary and portable, but it has been good to know I have it in my resource bag, and when I need to set up for a show I have all the necessary parts to do something with a certain level of quality. 

COMPUTERS, SOFTWARE, SUBSCRIPTIONS, ETC.

Equipment recs:

  • Computer
    • I purchased my 2015 used My Macbook Pro, 15" Macbook Pro Retina, 2.8GHz i7, 16GB Ram, 1TB SSD , AMD Radeon ( the graphic card ) for $850.
    • My 2013 Macbook pro’s graphic card couldn’t handle the multi monitor set up when there were multiple Zoom participants, so I bought this one. The new MAC operating system, Catalina, 15.5. is buggy as hell and has caused problems for performances, twice. But, It’s what I have. 
  • Monitors
    • I use three, one for the Ecamm software, one for the Zoom images and one for the green screen reference, and they are…
    • The laptop’s screen
    • An old Visio 32” flat screen TV (which I repaired ! via youtube!)
    • An old Visio 27” flat screen TV - The old flat screens are 720 pixels which I think are better for us as they must demand less processor power, and you can see what you need to see just find
  • Software, Subscriptions
    • The version of zoom that allows for 100 participants $240 a year
    • Ecamm Pro $240 a year
    • Adobe Premiere $280 a year

For information on delivering programming, visit our page Virtual Best Practices Guide.

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