College Sailing Live Broadcast Revisited
Here’s a post I’ve been meaning to put out all summer, but other (paying) work got me backed up so I’m just getting to it now. Did you happen to catch my live production of the 2012 College Sailing Team Race National Championship? Whether you did or you didn’t, here’s a little taste of what the show looked like:
It may not compare to the multimillion-dollar productions you see for things like the Americas Cup, Olympic Sailing Regatta or the Volvo Ocean Race, but this is far and away the most comprehensive live coverage college sailing has ever seen. I’m proud of the work done by myself and my crew and I’d like to share some of our behind-the-scenes production workflows with you.
Since the 2009 Nationals in San Francisco, I have been doing some form of video coverage for ICSA’s spring championships, including live coverage in 2009 and 2010. Back in those days, I was working on a shoestring budget streaming on sailgroove.org, where a simple one-camera setup with one or two people shooting and commentating was acceptable and welcomed by the fans at home since no one had ever tried anything like it before. This year, working for myself, it seemed to me that all the variables might just line up to allow me to do what I’ve always wanted: a real, television-style broadcast of racing. With my years of experience, new cheaper technology, and the event coming to my hometown, I decided to go for it. I pitched ICSA (Intercollegiate Sailing Association, the governing body of college sailing) on an ambitious multi-cam presentation, focusing my live efforts solely on team racing, while doing only regular old daily highlights for the women’s regatta. ICSA, in turn, found title sponsor Maclaren (maclarenbaby.com) to fund the project, and I went to work.
The venue at Austin Yacht Club presented some real advantages as well as some real challenges. The organizers at AYC and the University of Texas sailing team put together a great plan to race just off the main docks, moving the learn-to-sail pavilion to the very end, for viewing and boat rotation. This pavilion offered an excellent raised platform for shooting, commentating and even directing the show. But it lacked two key ingredients: power and internet.
The first, I was assured, would be no problem. AYC had several reliable generators that would be able to keep our cameras and computers running. For the second, I was referred to AYC member and wireless consultant Jorge Trevino. Jorge was amazing. He set me up with a plan to upgrade the internet at AYC and purchase and install a wireless relay system that would temporarily extend the yacht club’s wifi range more than enough distance to cover my 1600 foot gap. Jorge met with me on several occasions and with the help of AYC grounds manager Tom Cunningham, we climbed on the roof to rig wires and antennas and eventually had a fast and smooth connection. I can’t thank Austin Yacht Club enough for their help in enabling this broadcast, on top of all the other responsibilities they had in putting on this incredibly huge and complicated event.
The other half of the setup was acquiring, learning and testing the equipment needed for a live broadcast. My usual gig is shooting highlight videos, and for that my kit consists of a camera, shoulder rig, a couple of microphones, extra lenses, a light and a bounce card. For this project, I supplemented that with about 50 additional items purchased from Amazon.com and B&H Photo/Video.
At the heart of the production was the Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio switcher, capable of producing a live feed that integrated up to eight cameras, audio from a mixer, and live graphics created ahead of time or created on the fly in Photoshop. From there, I added an audio mixer with a an analog to digital switcher, some headsets, converters and cables to hook up laptops. My awesome technical director Chad (more on him below) advised me to rent a Panasonic HPX 170 camera to use for our main video feed and found me a great camera operator to go with it. Due to budget constraints, we couldn’t add a second camera and camera operator, but we did get very lucky that GoPro was our official supplier for the production and hooked us up with Hero 2 cameras with skeleton housing. These normally waterproof onboard cams allowed us to stream HD feeds from fixed positions around the pavilion, including a course cam, a dock cam and an announcers cam. The housing allowed us to keep them powered all day with USB cables running to cell phone chargers and allowed us to stream the video feed to the switcher via HDMI cable. Being able to cut to multiple cameras was especially helpful when Reid had to move his tripod to navigate the wooden posts on the pavilion that held up the roof.
To deliver the final mix down to the audience, I used the New Livestream. I have used Livestream.com as a streaming solution for many years, but the company recently launched a new version of their product that takes live streaming to the next level. Premiering with the Volvo Ocean Race (new.livestream.com/volvooceanrace), the New Livestream allows broadcasters to post live video, recorded video, photos and text live, with each new post popping up on the screen like magic. This is great for sailing since events tend to run all day for many days, and not every viewer can watch all 30+ hours of live video coverage. But when they do check in, they’ve got video highlights, snapshots, links to results and a transcript of what has been happening on the racecourse. Plus, the stream has live DVR functionality, so viewers can rewind and rewatch the good stuff in real time! You can still see our New Livestream page at new.livestream.com/collegesailingnationals/team-race
As you can imagine, the more complicated the setup, the more people I needed to run the show. Early on, I reserved local videographer and postproduction expert Chad Owen to help me design and execute the plan for the show. He became the technical director for the show, cutting between cameras, mixing audio levels, creating and inserting the pre-produced video material at the intro and exit, and creating all the graphics and scoreboards for the show.
Reid Connell, who had never covered sailing before, did an amazing job of running the camera, taking the commentators’ verbal cues to switch between races and focus on particular boats while keeping the viewers clued in to the big picture. Again, another camera would have been hugely helpful here, but Reid made the absolute best of what we had.
Jane Macky was my co-commentator and was integral to keeping the show fun and exciting, despite light winds and multiple delays in racing. As 2009 Female Sailor of the Year and cohost of Chalk Talk, a weekly college sailing talk show I produce, Jane knew exactly what to analyze on the course and who to talk to on the dock for pertinent interviews. Plus, she has a great kiwi accent that adds instant credibility to any sailing broadcast.
Finally, Cait Taylor was our assistant director, checking scores, monitoring the chat room and passing on questions, getting info from the race committee, and doing whatever else we needed done. As a former University of Texas Sailing Team member, Cait was a huge help to the non-sailors on the crew and could intelligently vet the comments coming from the sailing fans watching at home.
Cait’s other service that was absolutely invaluable was providing a generator that actually worked. I almost forgot–the one big kink in our production stemmed from the one factor my crew was not responsible for: the generators. On the first day we had two AYC generators that failed repeatedly, each time forcing us to restart them and reboot everything from the router to the switchers to the computers that ran the show. Once restarted, the machines worked fine–until they inexplicably failed again. Cait brought a beefy 60 lb. replacement from home and the second day everything purred from morning ’til night.
The only other hiccup was in the cabling department. I purchased several cables from several online distributors that carried power, video, audio, internet and data from machine to machine. The two failures we had were an HDMI cable on Day 1 that I had been using for my computer monitor at home for months, and a new Apple Thunderbolt cable on Day 2, that we used to get the final HD stream back into a computer and out to the internet. Luckily, a UT sailor replaced my HDMI cable on a scheduled trip to Target, and I just happened to have accidentally bought two Thunderbolt cables in preparation for the show. We started a half hour late waiting for the cable to be delivered from home, but all in all, everything was pretty darn smooth.
I learned a lot from the broadcast and can’t wait to do it again. I now have a box of gadgets at the ready, and a crew of highly qualified individuals trained to run it. I’m excited to keep scaling up my capabilities, adding additional cameras and experimenting with remote video sources from chase boats or even from onboard cameras. These things are now possible and becoming more and more realistic for those who can’t afford to rent out government-controlled radio frequencies for RF transmission (as is used for World Match Race Tour events) or helicopter-relayed signals (as are used for America’s Cup broadcasts.) Teradek and DVEO have already developed wifi solutions for transmitting HD video, and GoPro has promised to add web streaming capability to their Wifi BacPac accessory for the onboard Hero cams. Of course, using these solutions over long distances and over water provide challenges, but solving those problems is half the fun!
This week I’ll be providing commentary and renting part of my kit to the Knickerbocker Cup match race event at Manhasset Bay Yacht Club. Look for the live stream at knickerbockercup.org. For inquiries about bringing me, my kit and/or my crew on to broadcast your event live, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.