When COVID hit, I knew immediately everything had changed. My life had been relying on air travel for more than 12 years, living in different cities around the world, from Tokyo to London, making 80 trips a year, mostly long haul, tons of miles, tons of trees planted, tons of memories created.
By mid-March, my mind was set: this would totally disrupt travel for at least 2 years, if not more.
Whilst I had prepared my business for a recession, I hadn't expected a pandemic — I needed to urgently ramp up my ability to virtually continue all my lines of business, no interruption. I wanted to be future-ready by end-March, I hibernated the costs I knew could be (aka, I activated my recession contingency planning), and went all in for a remote, travel-less work.
The experience is everything
I always believed that the experience, whether delivering on stage as a speaker, or during an on-site client meeting, is key. I've thus always kept pushing the quality, and design, of my deliveries, giving up presenting with slides a long time ago for instance, preferring full-on immersive movies matching my speech, and position on stage.
My goal was then simple for this COVID era: translate the high production value, online — the only way to keep the customer, the audience, highly engaged, and myself ahead of the curve. It needed to be a movie experience, the race to better production values was on, and the pandemic would only accelerate it (and, heh, with hindsight, look at what Apple did with their awe-inspiring keynotes!).
Start with the gear you've got
I've been producing podcasts for a decade —'Layovers' being the most well-known of them, #1 for aviation in 15+ countries, from Japan to India— so the sound part of things was pretty much nailed down already: the fabulous Shure S7MB microphone, feeding into a dbx 286s Preamp/Compressor (to create a warmer sound, fitted to my voice), feeding into a MixPre-3 audio USB mixer for my Mac Pro desktop to record. Perfect sound, I was ready for my worst nightmare, webinars.
"webinars" (they're usually bad, convince me otherwise).
On the video side, I only had one webcam, a Logitech Brio 4K (still the best webcam out there). What else? My Leica SL2 had been my most recent travel companion, and, as an extremely versatile video camera, became my first COVID companion.
First, the lights, then, the eyes
I knew the cool kids did look good on Instagram with ring lights, and Amazon told me I could get this Neewer 55W dimmable LED ring light the next day, perfectly big to surround the rig I was building.
I was getting into a rabbit hole, but I was having fun.
By mid-March, I had been invited to do two pre-recorded speeches. I didn't know then, but I do now, pre-recorded is my (and many clients') absolute favorite way of delivering speeches online: no broadband dropping, no "can you hear me" silliness, no screen sharing disasters. Press play, done.
But, ha, if a client wants 25 minutes, I can't send them a 30 minute file. I needed to gate myself. How? A teleprompter. I write the script, read it on camera, and the set of mirrors does the trick. And so another piece was added to my rig, a Filmcity Easy teleprompter, on which my iPad Pro 11" sits flat, pushing the prompts (via PromtSmartPro app, which listens to my voice to speed up / slow down my lines). My eyes never shy away from looking at the audience. Always look people in the eyes my dad would tell me.
I had a Rode GO lavalier mic laying around, I gaffed with black tape on my black t-shirt, no one can notice (high-contrast color-grading helps). Final Cut Pro to mix the footage and sound, edit, add overlays, Star Wars transitions, information inserts, in-picture movies and some cool Adobe After Effects. It's all magic, but it's all technology. Happy Paul.
If the US late night talk shows do multi-camera at home, I can do it too!
I quickly ran into one problem however: clients started to ask for live performances. Could I deliver the same immersive experience with no post-production? Challenge accepted.
I wanted to be mobile, standing up, sitting down, moving around — that dynamic that draws in. I needed a multi-camera environment.
I drew plans of my home office, to find ways to create multiple potential angles in a limited space (so that, for instance, I would deliver a speech standing, but answer a Q&A sitting down).
My second camera would be a Sigma FP, the smallest full frame camera in the market, a beast for video rendering, and, importantly for me, using the same lens mount that I already had, the Leica L-mount alliance. (I would have otherwise gone for a Sony A7 series, with vastly better autofocus, even though I prefer filming in fixed focal lengths, or maybe a Blackmagic Design Pocket camera).
A bonus of the Sigma is that, back in March, it was one of the only cameras on the market that doubled as a webcam with a simple USB cable, so I'd look cool on Zoom with friends too.
For broadcasting, I linked it to my MacPro with a BlackMagic Design UltraStudio Mini Recorder, which basically transforms the HDMI feed into USB, giving me more flexibility in the mix on my Mac.
I added a few Elgato Key Lights, they can be app controlled, and are cleverly designed to not take too much space.
I bought an additional wide lens (a Sigma, Leica lenses are crazily expensive!) to have everything from super wide angle, regular, to close ups (Sigma DG 14-24 f2.8, Leica SL 50 f1.4, Leica SL 90 f2).
I added a second Logitech Brio for more exposition angles, and picked up an old iPhone 7 Plus with a MoonDogLabs anamorphic lens for a super wide shot of my office (because, why the hell not at this point!).
I could now do silly faces from all angles, but I still needed to learn how to mix it all live. The BlackMagic Design ATEM Pro, a broadcasting mixer, looked very appealing even though it wouldn't do 4K, but was out of stock everywhere. Software route it was, then. I cut my teeth on OBS, open source and free, then moved to Wirecast in April for its versatility.
Streaming 4K is a bad idea anyway, as you need to ensure both ends have the broadband and latency to make it work, though saving your own feed in 4K is future-proof good practice.
A one man production
We were in the middle of London lockdown, and I've always thrived to fix stuff by myself anyway (thank you Mom!): how can I live produce and at the same time deliver, live, with no assistance, whilst guaranteeing no one notices? Multitasking is famously not a great ability of men, I needed to simplify the process.
I used what sits in front of me all day, my Apple Pro Display XDR screen (it's massive, helps with my eyesight!) on its OC White ProBoom Ultima broadcast arm: it almost floats, I can move it around, out of view of the camera angles — all the video feeds are there, facing me. A quick keyboard shortcut and, boom, another feed goes live to the audience, or Zoom.
To simplify the audio, and make it more "stage-like", I picked up a Rode HS2 headset microphone (similar to what we have on actual stages). To monitor the audio levels live, or simply interact during a Q&A, I got one of those transparent earbud sets you see on secret agents, or bouncers, with a cable that runs on my back — again, hardly noticeable to the audience.
And last but not least, I acquired a Rode Rodecaster Pro mixer, to give me more flexibility with multiple audio feeding into the Mac, and special sound effects on top of it all — I now use it for podcasting as well, the cycle has closed.
That was only 1.0, always go further
When COVID hit, I didn't know I would end up with a mini TV studio at home. It's been fun to create, it will keep evolving. I've already planned to revamp it all differently, switching room (a rabbit hole, I told you), out of the shortcomings I've flagged down, and I feel privileged that I was able to keep working to finance it all.
Last time I used it was with one of my airline clients — it felt I was almost cheating them by being virtual, instead of flying. We will travel again, I told them. We want a similar studio, they replied.
Some upcoming events with an awesome experience
Adobe MAX 2020 - 20 - 22 October 2020 - Trust the creativity specialists to know how to handle a true immersive experience — their physical events were always excellent, the online translation should hold up. Bonus: it's free, and there's Conan.
Skift Aviation Forum 2020 - 19 November, 2020 - I'm an air travel nerd, have worked with IATA, airports, and many airlines you probably flew on — I even organized a hackaton in a A380 from Hong Kong to London! In this pandemic year, trust Skift to deliver the goods when it comes about thinking of the future of the industry (and I know you all want to be in a plane again soon!)
STEP Saudi - 24 - 25 November 2020 - STEP Dubai is the definitive GCC tech event, I should know, I've spoken at, and MCd it, for 5 years — it was actually the last conference I attended before deciding to stop traveling in mid-February. They've done a bang job of stepping (pun!) up in a few months creating a fully online STEP Anywhere a few weeks ago. Their platform should shine once more for their sister event.