Tools For Livestreaming Live Performance

01 Basic Workflows and Best Practices for Livestreaming Live Performances

Filter Your Content Through a Platform

The first wave of digital live performance happened in unsecured Zoom calls. Performers invited their audiences into the same video chat as actors and expectedly, chaos ensued. “Zoom-bombing” has entered the collective lexicon as artists were surprised to see the negative impact of anonymous internet trolls on their productions. Even if a performance wasn't targeted, audiences are not aware of proper video chat etiquette. I'm not alone in preferring to see the face of a live performer instead of a whole array of live videos of my fellow audience members watching someone else perform. The same way that we have FOH security and stanchions between the audiences and the stage, we need to have a means to manage audience access to what we broadcast. We need to filter our performances through an existing live streaming platform that we can distribute our work through while we also rigorously moderate and police the conduct of our digital audiences. Fortunately, there are already a number of digital platforms available that can help you distribute your production to your audiences.

Selecting a Platform and Rights Management Awareness

For the interests of this post, we're going to concentrate on platforms that provide your work for free. From an audience-building standpoint, free access to your content is the model to pursue at the present. There are ticketed platforms being built and promoted, but given the sheer deluge of free, high-quality content on the Internet, it's going to be difficult for anyone without massive celebrity appeal to convince enough audience members to pay for a ticket to generate a return on investment. There's just too much else out there for internet audiences to watch for free instead. What we can do is build brand recognition, cultivate new audiences and provide performance spaces for our artists and technical challenges for our technicians to solve.
 

That also broaches a significant issue when it comes to the performance of Rights-Managed material. Any text or music outside of public domain will likely require a significant outlay of money to purchase the rights for a digital performance. The same hurdle faces productions with union performers and designers. Those particular challenges are outside my wheelhouse and the purview of this series. I would just encourage you to research and be aware of the legality of your production as we navigate this new digital medium as a community.

YouTube will allow you to stream your content live after an initial 24 hour waiting period. This can be as simple as an individual capture through one actor's webcam and as complex as a fully-realized production through the incorporation of a streaming encoder, similar to the Pixel Playhouse "Earnest" that I mentioned earlier. Your audiences can interact through chat and performances can be recorded and digitally archived.

Similarly to YouTube, you can go live with a simple webcam set-up. The preferred method for a realized production is to use their Live Producer interface so that you can integrate your streaming encoder and produce high-quality content with multiple video feeds.

Primarily a streaming platform for video games, Twitch.tv is making headway in live musical performance. It's longevity in the streaming market means that there are a number of streaming tools and plug-ins that can overlay on your stream to facilitate audience engagement and elevate the work that you're creating in dynamic ways. It has a robust community of fans but may not cross over significantly with typical theatrical audiences.

Streaming to Multiple Platforms Concurrently

Any of those platforms will work to create high-quality live streams for your productions. The big question is where you think that you'll be able to concentrate and target the primary demographics of your audience. You can also rebroadcasting software like Restream to broadcast your production to multiple platforms concurrently. This could broaden your potential audience significantly, but it also comes at the risk of major audience fragmentation. Concentrating 100 viewers on one platform as opposed to 40 across three distinct platforms will encourage organic audience-interaction, not just with your performers, but with one another.

One of the best discoveries that we've made in moving to the streaming model is how streaming viewers are able to play off one another as well as what they're seeing on the screen. Instead of sitting quietly in a dark theater, intimately together and yet very alone, our socially distant audiences are able to engage with one another as they share their emotional reactions, jokes and hot takes on the drama unfolding onscreen. They'll also remain in contact and build connections and friendships with one another if you also provide them with a space like a forum or Discord server to continue to share their appreciation of the work that you're creating for them. It's a beautiful way to help your audience grow and organically connect with you and one another.

Broadcast Software Orientation

There are a number of different Broadcast software packages out there. Oftentimes called “encoders”, I'll be focusing on the pros and cons of the major two free options on the market: OBS Studio and OBS Streamlabs.

Open Broadcast Software has two flagship programs on the market. Streamlabs is the far more accessible and intuitive of the two. It quickly lets you drag video assets into a workspace, resize them and quickly build the scenes that will comprise your production. It also backs up its scenes and assets to the cloud, so that you can easily work on a project concurrently with multiple people or across multiple computers. Where it pales in comparison to OBS Studio is the amount of detail that you have in being able to manipulate content. It is the iMovie to OBS Studio's Adobe Premiere.

OBS Studio is a far more robust piece of software for editing and manipulating the content that you're going to be broadcasting. You have a multitude of options for transforming and cropping your camera and video assets. The downside to the program is that it stores all references and video assets to your local hard drive. If you build a show file and send it to someone, you'll need to .zip up all of the video assets and walk your collaborators through how to re-target every reference to the proper file.
 

To align with our Pixel Playhouse "Earnest" workflow, we'll be continuing with an emphasis on OBS Studio, but the choice of either is largely up to personal preference until you reach the major limitation of one or the other.

Broadcast Basics - Setting Up OBS Studio

Now that you've created an account with your streaming platform of choice and downloaded your encoder software, it's time to start creating the building blocks for your first stream. Our lesson today is going to walk you through how to stream a basic Zoom reading with multiple participants.

Stream Key

Your streaming platform will have a numerical code known as your “Stream Key” available someone on your account. You can also directly link an OBS account with your stream platform. In either case, you should take great care to keep this key private and off-screen from any live broadcast. Anyone with that key has the ability to stream anything that they want to your channel. Knowing what we've learned about Zoom bombing, we can't trust anonymous folks on the internet with access to your platform and your streaming identity. You can type in your stream key or link your account under the Settings > Stream option on OBS Studio.

01 - Stream Setup.png
Video Settings

When it boots up for the first time, OBS Studio should automatically detect the best output settings for your computer. Unless you have a pressing need to change them, I'd recommend leaving them as is for a first pass at your initial stream. Take a quick look at your Video settings as well so that you can reference your Canvas resolution. That's the full dimension of your video output and you should be creating images and backdrops that fill that entire space.

Output
02 - Recording Options.png

Under the recording tab, make sure that you're saving video of your streaming content to a specific folder and in a file type that you're able to access and easily edit. Not every video-editing software can edit .mkv files, but some video-encoding types will cause you to lose an entire recording in the event of a crash. Be aware of where you and how you save your recordings. They're great assets for promotional materials and as internal reference for what worked, what didn't and even remembering actor blocking if you record rehearsals.

Building Scenes

Take a moment to rename your production under the Scene Collection tab on the top window. We're going to be building a basic show with a few scenes for streaming playback. Your scenes are the various “Looks” of your stream. They're comprised of an assortment of different video/audio assets called “sources”. We're going to start with a simple scene that we can use as a virtual lobby for our audiences. This lets us go live, and build interest in the virtual lobby without taking our actual camera feeds live right from the start of a broadcast.


You can right-click on the first scene to rename it to “Virtual Lobby” and then we'll use the + icon underneath the Sources window to drop in a still image. You can see that I've inserted a gradient backdrop image.

03 - Image Backdrop.png

After that we're going to add a Text source so that we can let our audience know what they're waiting for. It's important to remember while labeling your sources that no two sources can have the same name. Sources persist through all scenes, so my gradient backdrop source can be used in multiple scenes concurrently.

You can hold CTRL while dragging a corner of a source to resize it. You can hold ALT while dragging a side of a source to crop it. Cropped sources will have a green edge where they've been cropped.

04 - Cropping.png
Basic Display Capture

Our next scene is going to be a Display Capture. That means that it is copying the exact output that you have on your monitor. If you're fortunate to have two monitors, I'd recommend capturing a second screen so that you can still make live edits in OBS. That's not always feasible, so we're going to capture our own display, with a few tweaks.

Click the + icon to build a new scene that we'll call “Zoom Call Capture”. Our source for this scene is going to be a Display Capture. You can use the drop-down menu to select which display you want to capture if you have more than one. If you don't, you'll get to see a great example of video feedback as the display of the OBS window repeats itself into infinity.

05 - Display Capture.png

It's important to note that when you share a display capture, your audience will see everything on your display. That means no tabbing away from your call while you're live. Your audience will see you checking your email.


Here I've taken an active zoom call with myself on it and captured it on an external monitor for you to see. We still want to curate some of what people see here. I don't want my audiences to see anything but the camera feeds of my Zoom call, so I've cropped down the display using that ALT + drag option that we discussed earlier.

06 - Capturing a Zoom Window.png

That left a lot of negative space from where I cropped, so let's take a moment to design what our audience sees. I've added the gradient back in as a background. Your sources will stack on top of one another like Photoshop layers, so always be aware of what's stacked on top of what while you're building your scenes. Here I've used another text element to give myself a quick title to help new audience members understand what they've tuned into.

07 - Layering Elements on a Capture.png
Going Live
Changing Scenes Live

With all that accomplished, you're good to go live with a very easy-to-build set-up. You can navigate between scenes by just clicking on them in the Scene tab. If you're able to use a second monitor, you can also use OBS' Studio Mode in the bottom right corner to operate more like a traditional live camera broadcast, where you cue up a given take and then cut to it on a cue.

08 - Studio Mode.png
Engage Your Audience

Always keep in mind that you have a direct line of communication with your audiences in the chat. Try to monitor it actively so that you're able to help them learn more about your organization and what you're doing. Your chat will also likely need technical support at times and will clue you in to technical issues as you try things out and make mistakes for the first time. We're in a wonderful time where we're able to actively engage with our audiences while they see our work and I'd encourage you to think of new ways to use that connection as we develop this new medium together. We had some great examples in “Earnest” that I'll go into in a later post.

Looking Forward

If you follow this workflow, you should be all set to start off on your own adventures in livestreaming. I'm always available to provide tips or help walk through you any issues that you may have. Feel free to reach out to me at a.schmedake@schmedakelightingdesign.com

Next time, we'll be going a little more complex. We're going to talk about using an NDI plugin for OBS to pull individual Skype video feeds so that we can take our performers and move them around a scene and start to create more complex sequences with cinematic cutting. Till next time!

​© 2020 by Andrew Schmedake. 

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