Today we’re taking a look at how the live broadcast scenario, utilizing tools like the Blackmagic HD Link Pro and ATEM switcher can teach you valuable lessons about cinematography, filmmaking, and storytelling.
By David C. Weldon Jr.
Everyone in this industry has a different path that gets them to where they want to be. We all have skills that develop over time and become an integral part of what we are doing today or what we will do in the future.
I spent a decade working in Broadcast Television, specifically sports. I’ve operated camera for over 250 NHL games; I’ve Directed for the Arena Football League (AFL), NCAA Basketball, NCAA Hockey, etc. I left the sports world because it wasn’t fulfilling my passions and desires to be a storyteller. I eventually figured out that my future is to be a Director of Photography, which led me to connect with Shane Hurlbut, ASC.
When I first started working for Shane, a small part of me thought, “Well, I’m about to start over.” “Starting over” in the sense of a new path and new knowledge that I didn’t have yet. This was six years ago, so it’s not quite the same now as it was when it started. What I have learned is that you never really know how your past experiences will influence your present and future work.
Directing Live Broadcast and Working as a Director of Photography
I quickly made the connection that my background of working as a Director in live broadcast programs was going to make me faster and extremely efficient at being a Director of Photography. Not only does it directly relate to a scenario where you have multiple camera operators, but just from the standpoint of working with a crew and being able to be a leader. It’s your decisions that guide the crew and bring the vision of the Director to life. In many broadcast situations, the Producer of the event is like the Director on the movie set. They are the one who has a vision that you are looking to deliver.
We have created a “live broadcast” environment to how we capture this year’s “On Set with Shane” series for Shane’s Inner Circle.
Blackmagic’s Live Production Equipment
When we started to look into creating content for the Hurlblog and Shane’s Inner Circle this year, we had to find a more efficient way of doing our productions. We wanted to keep the quality high, maximize Shane’s time while he isn’t on a movie set, and deliver the content quickly.
At the core of our content, what matters most is getting Shane’s perspective on the topic at hand. That’s why we are all here, to learn from his years of experience! The design is to put Shane in our Edit/Color Suite where we can pre-rig lighting, have two or three cameras locked down so they shoot Shane sitting at the desk, and since he isn’t going to get up and move around and walk, the microphones don’t move, the cameras don’t move, and the lights don’t move.
In a small room next to the Edit/Color Suite. I have this setup:
We use the Blackmagic Production Studio 4K. I can connect the two cameras shooting Shane, Audio inputs (both Boom Mic and Wireless Lavalier), and SDI Output from the Blackmagic Mini Monitor that is in the HP Z840 Workstation, which is giving us a feed from DaVinci Resolve 12. I am using a Macbook Pro with the ATEM Software installed, which gives me the control surface, like a physical switcher.
Just like a normal video switcher, there is a Preview row of buttons and a Program row of buttons. This switcher has 1M/E (Mix/Effects) allowing me to throw in a lower third graphic over a video image. I can also dissolve between inputs, changing the duration of the dissolve, etc. It is a pretty basic switcher.
This Blackmagic ATEM has four SDI inputs and four HDMI inputs. It can handle a 4K UHD, 1080p, 720p, and lower resolution.
Frame Rates and a Cool Tool
There is one thing to know that is extremely important: in any of the resolution sizes (4K, 1080p, 720p), you cannot have a 60p signal. Why is this important?
Apple Macbook Pro Laptops. Or any Apple product really.
Normally Shane spends a number of hours making lighting diagrams for these videos, dialing them into Photoshop files, and then uploading them. But with Shane’s time becoming more restricted, we needed to find a way to do it faster.
There is a function in Apple Keynote where you can connect an Apple iPad (any version) wirelessly to a Macbook Pro. You can also use an iPhone for this same setup. You connect your iPad or iPhone to Keynote and use it as a remote device to either view your Keynote presentation or to DRAW on the presentation.
Telestrating with Keynote
Yes, DRAW. Just like Jim Nantz and Phil Simms of CBS Sports do for CBS during the Pro Football Championship to diagram a play with their Telestrator, you can essentially do the same on your Keynote presentation. We first discovered this on Shane’s Illumination Experience Tour and it worked incredibly well.
The next step is to take the Thunderbolt or Mini-Display output from the Macbook Pro and connect that to a Mini-Display to HDMI Adapter. Take that HDMI cable and go right into your input of the ATEM Switcher.
Now, this is where the 60p part comes into play. On the output of a Macbook Pro, 60p is the native resolution output. Since the ATEM Switcher does not see 60p, you have to choose a different resolution format. It is important to use the Thunderbolt or Mini-Display port out of the Macbook Pro because on the Retina Display model that has the HDMI output on the right-hand side, you are limited to 60hz or 50hz (essentially 60p or 50p). Over the Thunderbolt and Mini-Display port, you have the choice of 24hz, 25hz, 30hz, 50hz, and 60hz.
We work in either 24hz or 30hz, depending on what the footage that Shane is talking about was recorded in (Into the Badlands was encoded at 29.97p, so we stay in a 30p workflow so that we don’t get that weird jarring playback problem when you playback 29.97p footage on a 24p timeline).
I have an input on my switcher that is strictly Shane’s iPad, where he can draw on the iPad with his Apple Pencil and he can draw a lighting diagram as he explains it step-by-step while recorded.
Color Control with the Blackmagic HD Link Pro
Shane is always working with LUTs, especially when he is shooting with RED Dragons.
For every shoot, we make sure that we are recording in REDLOGFILM and then we apply a LUT to our Flanders Scientific CM250 monitors as Shane dials in the image.
When we are shooting the “On Set with Shane” series covering Into the Badlands, we shoot these with RED Dragons, outputting a clean 1080p from the camera, while recording internally as a backup. Since we record in REDLOGFILM internally on the camera, this also outputs REDLOGFILM or we could choose to output a Gamma Curve from the Dragon if we wanted to.
Working with LUTs
We wanted to have our cameras feed the switcher with the LUT attached to it, so we had to use the Blackmagic HD Link Pro LUT Box in order to do this. I loaded the LUT into the software of the box by connecting it to a Macbook Pro via USB 2.0, opening the software, and installing the CUBE file onto the LUT Box. Then I take the SDI cable from the camera and go directly into the LUT box. Then from the LUT box, I take an SDI cable from the output and go directly into the desired input of the Blackmagic ATEM Switcher.
My image from the camera will have the LUT applied and when I am switching between inputs, the color is correct and I can record all the cameras with the correct color attached.
Audio on the Blackmagic ATEM Switcher
There are audio inputs built into the ATEM Switcher as well. There are two AES XLR inputs, as well as two AES XLR outputs and two Stereo (White & RED RCA) inputs. Each camera can also carry audio over SDI, giving you more inputs for audio as well.
At the bottom of the ATEM Software Control surface, there are four tabs – Switcher, Media, Audio, and Camera.
The Audio tab will take you to the screen above where you can see all of your audio inputs. You can have control to pan the channel left or right, you can adjust the fader, preview the audio channel and solo it, almost everything you can get from a small portable mixer.
I chose to just use the Audio panel to be the mastering of the audio. I use a small Behringer Mixer to take the XLR from the Rode Link Wireless Lavalier that Shane wears and the XLR from the Rode M5 boom mic that is above Shane out of frame.
I then take the XLR out of the mixer and go into the ATEM switcher. This specific Behringer Mixer is only $150.00. I bought it years ago and it still works great. I use the mixer because it gives me EQ control, lows, mids, and highs, and I have fader control, and my favorite — there is a built-in limiter/compressor built in, which comes in great. For a $150 mixer, this thing kicks ass.
The monitors we are using are rack mounted in this little setup and there is a 17” Blackmagic 4K Monitor as well as two 4K smaller monitors, the Studio Duo monitors. We also have started using the 4K Duo Scope monitors because these monitors give the ability to have either a video feed, audio reference, waveform, or vectorscopes.
Recording the “Line Cut”
A Line Cut is what comes out of the switcher. This is a broadcast term for the cut that comes out. It’s essentially like doing a “live edit” but avoiding all of that time of trying to match up sequences and audio files, etc.
There is a very simple and easy way to record this cut by using the Blackmagic Hyper Deck Studio 12G. This recorder will capture 4K UHD, 1080p, 720p, etc. It records Uncompressed 10-bit and all of the flavors of ProRes. You connect via HDMI or SDI and have multiple forms of audio inputs and outputs for monitoring. It uses SSD drives, just like the ones the Blackmagic cameras record to. It has two SSD docks so that if you fill-up the first SSD, it will automatically switch over to the second dock, continuing to record and allowing you to pull the first SSD, and then if the second dock SSD fills up, it will go back to the first SSD dock. This is perfect for a sporting event, a concert, or anything that can go on for hours.
Each of the items that we use is set up to be in a Rack Mount. We purchased a $20.00 rack mount from Amazon. It’s a small tabletop rack mount, which allowed me to put the Monitors, Switcher, and Recorder on top of each other and then put short SDI cables in the back, keeping everything neat and easy.
Directing Your Camera Team
It is all about anticipation. You have to anticipate what the action on camera will be; thus, you have to be able to anticipate how to direct your camera operators where to go, where to be, capturing the frame you are looking for. In a live broadcast setting, you would be telling your crew “Ready Camera 1, Take Camera 1.” “Take Camera 1” is the command to the Technical Director (the person pushing the buttons on the switcher) to physically push the button for Camera 1 to go live to the broadcast.
The “Ready” lets both the Camera Operator and Technical Director know what is coming next and then the “Take” lets them both know that Camera 1 is going to be live next. This forces the Camera Operator to hold a steady shot or get ready for a pan or tilt or maybe something a little more artistic. Every person on the crew should wear a headset so that the Director can communicate direction to them. It’s different than wearing a two-way surveillance kit connected to a Motorola walkie-talkie that you normally see on set. These headsets are a ClearComm or a brand like Telex where it has the ability to lock on from each channel and you can have multiple people talk at once, aka a “Party Line.”
Shane and other Directors of Photography often use these systems by putting headsets on camera operators, 1st ACs, Gaffers, and Key Grips, so that the heads of each department can get communication right away and easily ask questions. The key to these systems is the ability to “lock on” and continue to talk without holding a button or accidentally “stepping” on another person as they attempt to talk.
These systems can be very expensive. The really good ones can be upwards of $15,000. Some of the cheaper ones like an HME system can be under $10,000, but this can be costly for any level of production.
One trick that we do is using Skype. No matter if you are in an area with Wifi or LTE, 3G, etc., if you have a Skype account you can call multiple people and put everyone on the same call. This way it doesn’t matter what type of phone you have; nor does it use your minutes, just your data and if you’re able to connect to wifi, it is free for everyone. As long as everyone has a pair of headphones with a microphone, you can talk back and forth and the delay is only a half second or so. I make sure that my camera operators hit mute. That way it is easier for them to hear when I direct. Otherwise, you get a lot of background noise or you end up hearing the talent speaking on a delay.
The Bottom Line
We found a way to make things more efficient in our office environment, and I was able to incorporate my past experience to advance our educational projects. These important skills will help my career in the future working full-time as a Director of Photography.
The ability to think quickly on your feet in a live broadcast environment is a direct connection to being on set and shooting talent or capturing a storyline. You have the luxury of getting it a second time or third time; very rarely do you do one take and move on. In live sports, you get one take, the only take. There is no second chance. If you miss it by taking the wrong camera or not coming out of replay quick enough, the game continues on but you quickly make adjustments to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.