Elevating webinars to an art form, and learning some important lessons along the way
Not another webinar…
The world and his dog have been busy putting out webinars over the last twelve months. And understandably so; with many of our traditional options for communication, collaboration and interaction swept out from under us, very few other options present themselves. But nobody can deny screen fatigue has become a very real phenomenon. Viewed only as a marketing tool, webinars have definitely reached a point of saturation.
But the thing is, webinars are so much more than a simple marketing tool. And they’re (potentially) so much more than a dry PowerPoint presentation, delivered in a poorly lit room, to a webcam with about as many pixels as there are viewers (i.e not a whole lot).
Practicing what we preach
At Bridge, we saw one particular opportunity. We saw the opportunity to practice what we preach. We are selling tools which have the potential (we think) to revolutionise not only the concept of remote IP-based production, but the concept of distributed production: multiple creatives contributing to a live production from sites all across the world (yes, even their kitchen tables). But what does it really feel like to do that? How can we preach to our customer base without knowing the true feeling (and adrenaline) of being in their shoes, of using our tools to make instant decisions?
When is a webinar not a webinar? When it’s the Bridge Show.
That’s why we decided to create our weekly 30-minute production: ‘The Bridge Show’. Far more than a webinar, we wanted every aspect of it to echo the process of a professional-level talk show production. But most crucially, we wanted to do so on a distributed basis.
This means that our office cafeteria – already a beautiful, underground, stone-lined room, has become our IP-based production studio. We’ve gone for an aesthetic that’s half Bond Villain lair, half Scandi-chic. It’s here that our Chairman Simen Frostad – already well known within the industry for his somewhat eccentric charisma – has taken to presenting like a Norwegian Duck to the Fjords.
The nature of the setup
Our setup is something of a paradox; mighty and mini all at once. Incredibly sophisticated and substantial for an enterprise-level webinar, but delivering broadcast-level outputs at a fraction of the size of a traditional studio. And it’s all thanks to IP.
Downstairs we have the studio floor. The central point of focus is the presenter desk, with a large backscreen behind. We have six cameras focused on both presenter and guest chair, and the central camera maintains a front mounted screen with a Widglet on a 12” iPadPro with our own PoE+ kit that delivers both power and Gigabit Ethernet to the iPad, allowing the presenter to see a range of different visuals. Whilst we tend to keep it set to the composite final output, through the use of our Widglets any camera source and any part of the production can be displayed, allowing the cameraman to monitor various values and make creative adjustments. Completely synchronous, embeddable in any standard web page and time precise with ultralow-latency, using our own Widglets was key to allowing us to visualize all forms of video, audio and ancillary data, and was key to the our ability to integrate remotely accessible mosaics and multiviewers in our setup. When combined with our dual 100G network appliance VB440 monitoring and analysis tool, we were able to view everything from anywhere within the network.
All of this is facilitated by a PoE (Power over Ethernet) iPad, which allows for browser access to the full VB440 functionality that underpins the whole process.
When it comes to sound, audio is Simen’s (Simen Frostad, Chairman of Bridge Technologies) background and great love, so we enjoy a ‘guest’ microphone every week – lent to us by our good friends at Rainbow Studios, just down the road. This is also where the amazing Aksel delivers his incredible classical piano performances that frequently feature on the show. This is the joy of an IP setup – the incredible flexibility it brings, allowing us to swap out network components and access remote feeds with ease.
All of these elements feed to both our Director’s desk and MCR, without a single SDI cable in sight. Whilst incidentally our Director’s desk is within direct eyeline of the presenting desk, the reality is that it (and the MCR) could be located a continent away if we wanted – they would still be able to perform the full range of functions in real time.
Our director’s desk is manned by our very own Deniz. Although she doesn’t come from a production background, the ease and intuitiveness of the Widglets-based setup makes the process entirely usable by anybody who has the creative eye needed for the job. Here, she manages every part of the production – remote operation of the cameras, backscreen selection and control, audio monitoring and adjustment, graphics overlays, and remote control of the picture switcher as she selects and combines appropriate sources – including remote sources from our guests who drop in through various video conferencing software from across the globe. Again, Widglets sits at the heart of her
ability to access and control each element of the production without the need for anything more sophisticated than a browser.
All of this is then replicated in our MCR upstairs, manned by Gry, where a Widglets-based mosaic wall gives an overview of all of the preview feeds and VTs (along with visual insight into the monitoring of their video, audio and technical performance). As with any studio, this is of course complimented by countdown clock and a sophisticated intercoms system. Here, Gry manages both the recording and the direct-to-YouTube live output.
And then, of course, there is the beating heart of the whole setup. Because the system is IP based, the power comes from the remotely located rack, whilst the control of that power occurs from – well, from wherever we want. Our rack comprises the expected range of receivers, converters, audio mixers, media players, comms systems, light controls and master clock, along with two 100gb switches (one for redundancy) which facilitate the flow of terabytes of uncompressed signal through the system.
And right at the core of this: our VB440 – which doesn’t just monitor the performance of this incredibly complex installation, but also makes it possible for it to be accessed remotely, from anywhere in the world, with next-to-no latency.
The essence of the whole setup is the ability to access the incredible power of all of the hardware in
our mini-rack, from anywhere, in duplicate. Any user with an internet connection and a browser has
full production insight at their fingertips. This can therefore be scaled to whatever level required;
we’ve gone pretty grand with ours – all the bells and whistles – but when you have the luxury of
space and some very good industry friends who have been happy to furnish you with equipment,
why wouldn’t you?
IP for Everyone
Being actively involved in the learning curve associated with making a distributed production work gives us an insight that is fundamental to the way we inform our clients in the future. We weren’t perfect out of the gate, but we were responsive, and this allowed us to redesign systems based on real production experience, not abstract notions or ideals.
It’s also given us the ability to really engage with a lot of our business collaborators and partners. We work directly with some of the biggest names in the industry (we won’t mention who for fear of making them blush) who have been integrating our Widglets technology directly into their own systems; be they intercoms, master control systems or individual mixing and control panels. Being able to use their systems within our production setup has given us even greater insight into what they’re achieving, and how we can help them to push the bounds of broadcast further in the future.
What we’ve discovered
Well, we can certainly tell you that live production isn’t easy (though to be fair, we never really thought it was). It’s full of stress and uncertainty. But it does bring a level of energy to the result which can’t be matched by a taped recording – and we love that in our Bridge Show. What we have discovered is that with IP and the right set of ultra-low latency tools, live production doesn’t have to be any more stressful just because it’s remote or distributed. And it doesn’t have to be the preserve only of the ‘big boys’: IP actually democratizes and liberalises production – it has made it possible for us to produce a full-scale show with broadcast-level production values on a weekly basis, using a four man crew and taking just half a day. IP – done right – reduces both the time and resources associated with production, which can only be a good thing.
Ultimately, the Bridge Show has been vital to us over the past year. First and foremost, it has represented a great and fun way to stay truly connected with our business partners and clients, maintaining the ethos of connection and lightheartedness which sit at the heart of what we do. And as we’ve indicated throughout, it’s given us an unrivalled first-hand insight into what production environments need, and how our tools contribute to them. But perhaps most of all, it’s given our whole team something to be immensely proud of – and that alone is enough to justify our slightly hair-brained, completely OTT (haha), ‘Webinar’ endeavor.