Social media is a very powerful tool for us here at Telestream. We can instantaneously communicate with our customers and community to provide support, news and product tips and tricks. It also allows us to find, and follow, some pretty amazing people. Thanks to Twitter, we have been following Imry Halevi for quite a while. Halevi’s knowledge of streaming with Wirecast and his passion for his work are both apparent though his tweets. We spent some time speaking with him about his role as Director of Multimedia & Production at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Imry! Let’s begin with the basics. How long have you been livestreaming and how did you get into the industry?
I’ve been in the video production industry for 10 years. I got into it when I was a student at Boston University. The university had just opened a new hockey arena, and they were looking for someone to help create content for their new video board, and operate some of the technical equipment during games and events. From the first moment I stepped into that brand new control room, I knew I had found my passion.
What are your livestreams all about? Who watches them, and how do they access them?
I manage all the video streams for Harvard University’s Department of Athletics, with its 42 Division I teams. We stream our games online to allow parents of student-athletes, and other fans of Harvard, to follow our teams and our players when they cannot attend games in person. We broadcast most of our productions to the newly launched “Ivy League Digital Network”, a website that hosts the video streams from all eight Ivy League schools. A few of our productions get broadcast elsewhere, such as ESPN3 and other online platforms.
That seems like a large production! What kind of set up do you have?
Our larger productions (Football, Basketball, Ice Hockey and Lacrosse) use control rooms based around large-scale video switchers and routers. They contain equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and are built to support comprehensive productions entailing live video streaming, as well as video board productions and coaches’ scouting films. These control rooms are great, but are limited to those sports listed above. For all our other productions (soccer, squash, field hockey, softball, volleyball, water polo, swimming & diving, rowing, wrestling and rugby) we set up Wirecast-based productions. A typical production includes 1-2 cameras, connected to a Macbook Pro using Blackmagic Design Mini Recorders. Two commentator headsets and an ambient microphone are connected to a mixer, and then to one of the cameras for input into the laptop. We also have a Clear-Com communications system to allow the camera operators to speak with the director. Our goal is to keep these productions as versatile, compact and mobile as possible, while maintaining high production standards across the board.
Sounds like there can be many things to remember and supervise at one time. What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of creating your streams?
My biggest struggle is maintaining consistency over a large number of streams. We produce over 200 broadcasts a year, often with 2-4 overlapping games a day. I rely on a group of 35-40 passionate and talented students from local area colleges to operate our technical equipment, and produce the best shows possible for all our games. With so many productions, and so many people involved, consistency becomes a concern. I try to provide my team with all the guidelines and tools I can, to help them meet my expectations for all our shows.
How do you make sure that every event is as good as it can be?
The first, and most important thing I have to do is hire a good group of assistants to help me create successful productions. Since I rely on college students for my staff, I have to look for new people every year due to students graduating, going for semesters abroad, etc. Without a dedicated staff, I couldn’t do anything.
Second, I research and spec-out the best equipment for us to produce our shows. I look for gear that’s mobile, expandable and budget-friendly. I want to make sure that our equipment never limits our productions, but that we keep in mind any limitations we have, such as budget and our need to travel between different venues. Every summer, I research new gear and software, and try to come up with new workflows to make our productions easier to set up, and better for our fans.
Third, I try to outline as much of the pre-game setup as I can in a detailed Operations Checklist, and distribute it to my entire staff. Even after 10 years in the industry, I often find myself forgetting little details and referring back to lists. A detailed outline of each step helps keep everyone on the same page, and helps assure me that the little details aren’t lost in the shuffle of game-day. They are just “what to do” lists, rather than “how to do” lists. I expect everyone to know what they’re doing, but completely understand that there are many steps to remember.
Finally, during games, I try to emphasize to my team what’s important and what’s not. It’s easy to get lost in the possibilities – all the cool production elements you can add to your broadcasts using Wirecast. It’s important to get the little things right, like white-balancing cameras, leveling tripods, and keeping score bugs updated, before trying anything new.
With the high turnover of students every year, how do you go about getting everyone acquainted with new technologies and workflows.
My team is made up of 35-40 part time student assistants, and two full-time student interns. These interns help me with directing all our broadcasts throughout the year (the other students operate the cameras and other gear). In preparation for the season, I spend every summer teaching the two new interns how to use all our gear. That includes a considerable amount of time on Wirecast, and all its intricacies and hidden features. Every year, I encounter the same thing – the interns are stunned that we can do so many things without a physical video switcher. That we can create as custom a show as we’d like, all with just one software.
Are there processes you’ve changed as you’ve gotten more experienced?
I’ve definitely tried to automate and consolidate as many things as possible, when hardware and software allow it. We used to need to create scoreboard on our own, now we use Wirecast’s built-in scoreboard function. We used to use external preview monitors for our directors to watch live cameras. Now we use Wirecast’s live thumbnails. So, the less equipment we need to set up, the less setup work we have to do, the more time we can devote to building creative production elements, and adding interesting content to our shows.
I’m most proud of our rowing productions. Every spring, we go out on the Charles River, and live stream our rowing races. As technology has progressed, we’ve been able to add a live clock, a GPS map and HD camera feeds to our productions. Since we do it all from a boat, without hardline Internet or AC power, I find it exciting every time. It’s fun to do these different kinds of productions, and it’s nice to see the feedback we get. People are really appreciative that we go to the trouble of streaming such logistically challenging events.
Awesome! Live streaming while floating on a river! These are also done live? How do you manage to get a quality stream while floating in a boat?
We do stream all our rowing races live, as well as make them available on-demand. We use a Verizon 4G Jet Pack to provide Wifi to our Macbook Pro on the river. Luckily, there’s pretty good cell coverage over the Charles River, and we haven¹t had any connectivity issues. We stream at 2Mbps, with a broadcast produced at 720p.
The batteries on the Macbook Pro, the camera and the 4G Jet Pack are pretty good. However, we use a small Black & Decker Portable Power Station to power everything for the first 2 hours of each race day. After that, we rely on the internal batteries.
Very cool. What other programs/accessories do you use besides Wirecast to create your streams?
Cameras – JVC GY-HM600 – Provide convenient HD-SDI output, versatile audio inputs, and the ability to record on SD cards using XD CAM EX codecs.
Capture – Blackmagic Design Ultra Studio Mini Recorders – I’m still amazed that such a product exists. Three years ago, I would have had to spend $5,000 for equipment that would allow me to capture HD-SDI into a Macbook Pro. Now, I can do it under $130, and even have the device powered by the Thunderbolt connection (no need for AC power).
Tripods – Manfrotto 502HD Fluid Tripod Heads and 546B Tripods. I find that many productions try to reduce their costs by buying very cheap tripods. I think that one of the most important elements in any sports production is the tripod head, sometimes even more so than the cameras themselves. Smooth fluid motion makes such a difference, compared to jumpy and uneven movement. It’s really the difference between a professional and an amateur camera look.
Computer – Macbook Pro with Retina Display, 2.7GHz Quad-core i7 16GB/512GB Flash Storage.
Audio – Sennheiser HMD 280 headsets for commentators, VidPro XM-88 Shotgun microphone for ambient sound, and Behringer XENYX mixer. I have found that these microphones provide the best sound quality (within our budget) for our productions, and the Behringer mixer is just so easy to use and learn, it makes big difference in troubleshooting any in-game issues.
Communications – Clear-Com Encore party-line system.
Other software – We use Local/Remote Desktop to bring in a game clock for our score bug.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made when running an event?
The first-ever production I did on my own, directing my own team, and having no one above me to supervise – I forgot to press “Record”. It’s probably all for the best, since I don’t really remember it going so smoothly…
I bet we all know what that is like! What advice would you give to other streamers or video makers, or anyone new to livestreaming?
It’s not about the money, it’s about attention to detail. I can set up a first-class professional-looking multi-camera HD production for under $10K, or set up a terrible-looking amateur-level show for $100K. If you take the time to make sure your cameras are balanced and shaded, your tripods are level and drag is optimized, your graphics are accurate and conform to title safe guidelines and your audio is not over modulated and is R/L balanced, your production will be great. I find that many people skip these easy steps, and have their productions suffer greatly as a result.
Thanks Imry, it was great to hear about your work with Wirecast and livestreaming Harvard Univeristy Sports. We wish you success in the future!