Tools For Livestreaming Live Performance

02 An Actor Prepares... To Self-Record

Full disclosure, if you couldn't tell by the words “Lighting Design” in the title of these website, I'm not an actor. After I'm done calling a focus, I much prefer to be behind a lighting console rather than on the stage. Effectively lighting a specific moment or narrative beat in a live performance so that it's synchronous with what an actor is doing and just is one of my favorite parts of the creative process.

So while I may not be on-camera, in this era of remote production I find myself working more and more with on-screen performers as I walk them through the technical set-ups for their own at-home performance spaces. Even if we can't be in the same room, I can still help a performer effectively create a level of production value that elevates their performance in a similar way to the lighting that I design for in-person live performances. Today, we'll be reviewing some of the lessons that I cover during those remote consults.

Framing Yourself

Now that all performances are being digitized, we need to re-orient our performances to be aware of the methods and workflows of acting for a camera. This is even an adjustment for seasoned camera-ready actors as we're also moving into a workflow where there isn't a camera operator to pull focus or track your movement. With the static camera framing of a laptop webcam or even a DSLR on a tripod, the performer now needs to be their own camera operator by framing the action with their blocking.

Camera Placement and Angle

Your camera placement is the most significant part of your technical setup. It's the lens through which your audience is going to be able to experience your performance. That means that even something as simple as elevating the camera to the same height as your eyes makes all the difference between them appreciating the emotional resonance of a moment or wondering why they're staring up your nostrils like Lin-Manuel Miranda here.

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Your ideal camera placement is going to be at the same height as your eyes for where you'll spend most of your performance. That often means putting your laptop on top of several books if you're seated for the production or on top of a bookshelf or tall dresser if you're going to be standing and moving around. Make sure that your leaning tower of old textbooks is stable enough to support your laptop and that you're leaving the vents uncovered so that air can still circulate and cool your laptop. 

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Mugging for Camera

The most dramatic and emotionally-compelling framing of a performance is a close up of the human face. Audiences are able to see every facet of an actor's visage and they're able to respond viscerally to what they can see in a performer's eyes. Most remote live performances are already framed this way, because our laptop webcams already produce a great

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medium-closeup when we sit arms-length away from the device. Unfortunately, with all that exciting stuff that you can put on a screen, like the images of your fellow performers, your script and even an open Facebook tab, it's much too easy to lose eye-contact with the audience and look away from your camera.

I don't want to watch even the most incredible performance given by someone who looks like they're staring at my feet, even though we're interacting through a screen. Use a post-it to remind you to make eye-contact with your webcam at the top of your laptop. If you need a script, open it on an external monitor behind your laptop. Try to clear your desktop so that you're encouraged to maintain eye-contact with your camera and through it, your audience.

Awareness of Your Framing
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As we move away from static productions with performers seated in front of their devices, we begin to run into the firstobstacle to remote live performance. Without a camera operator to track an actor moving through a scene, the framing of a scene becomes entirely static. Performers need to be aware of the bounds of what their performance space is. Take the time to walk the range of your performance space and identify where you're in frame. It'll be a slowly expanding cone that opens up as you step further away from camera. Try to tape out when you walk out of range on the floor so that you're quickly able to orient yourself and stay in frame.

Blocking as Camera Shots

Without a live camera operator, we also don't have the ability to zoom in and out to create the different kinds of wide, medium and close shots that we could in the past. Instead, now the actor has absolute control over what kind of shot they're going to be in based on how close they are to the camera. By walking towards or away from a camera, they can create their own wide shots and close-ups. You may even tape out the marks for a close-up or a wide shot on your floor to help keep yourself oriented in your at-home performance space.

What's Onscreen?
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One of the most unintentionally hilarious moments from Broadway.com's streaming celebration of Stephen Sondheim's 90th Birthday was getting a glimpse of Melissa Errico's bookshelf. Right next to her eyes in the middle of the frame is a book on “Irish Erotic Art.” It was impossible to miss. Whatever your thoughts on Ms. Errico's reading habits may be, we can agree that the audience should have been appreciating her performance and not scrubbing through her bookshelf. 

 

When we move into remote performances

out of our own homes, we're inviting our audiences into our private living spaces. We need to be mindful of just how much of our private lives we choose to share with our audiences when we perform from home. We need to curate and design everything that they're going to see the same way that we design the sets and environments for live performance. Put thought into what your performance space is going to be and look like. Don't shoot yourself with a window or lamp in the background, it'll make you look like a silhouette. Find a clean wall that you can specifically decorate for the individual needs of each performance.

Relative Human Scale

As we move into more dynamic and mobile staging, we need to compose our blocking with thought to shot composition. When two performers are both on camera in the same scene, what does it signify to have one actor in a close-up and another standing further away in a wide shot? Is one meant to be more emotionally resonant at that specific beat? Or are we trying to juxtapose Jack running down the beanstalk with the Giant?

Now that performers have absolute control over their framing and relative size, we need to be highly aware of the relative size between two actors on two different camera shots on screen. Unless we're making intentional choices about what it means for them to be is vastly different proportions, we need to compose their staging in such a way that they look like they're normal people interacting with one another. Always keep an eye on your relative size versus the people who you're interacting with so that you can maintain a constant relative scale to one another. It helps our audience

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suspend their disbelief that you aren't actually in the same room as one another.

Interacting With Ghosts

That brings us to the most difficult challenge for performer giving a remote performance. It's a complete inversion of a typical process for an actor to try to engage with and have an emotional connection with someone who isn't even in the same room. As we move into more complex staging, where a performer may not even be looking at their laptop and the faces of their scene partners, that grows even harder.

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What we can do to help continue to convey the illusion that two performers are in the same room is connect their eyelines across their individual frames. This performance of “Someone in a Tree” acknowledges the Brady Bunch framing of a Zoom call as its performers look offscreen and in the general direction of where their scene partners are in the final cut of the video. They're actually looking at their ceilings or floors, but the action creates the illusion of a connection. In our “Earnest”, we accomplished a similar effect for a multitude of different scene compositions by having our performers

spike marks on the walls of their apartments so that they could maintain the illusion of a connection.

Being Your Own Technician

For as long as we need to maintain social distance from one another, we are going to need to ask our on-screen performers to be their own technicians. They're going to have to learn new workflows and technical skills as they illuminate themselves, hook up their own cameras and perform the tasks of a whole production crew with the limited support of their housemates and families. The best way that we can support them as designers and technicians is to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual trust and patience. We need to be mindful that they're often starting from scratch as technicians and that they're investing both the time to create a great performance while also doing the in-person work that we used to take care of. The best way to be respectful of that commitment and also create something with the production value that we'd like to build is to have clear lines of communication, a plan for what you're going to accomplish with your performer and a sense of patience and adaptability when things inevitably go wrong.

I regularly set aside at least an hour of one-on-one time with a performer to talk them through their technical set-up while they screen share with me. Everyone wants to be doing their best work in these days. We just need to set-up expectations that it's going to take time and mutual collaboration. The same way that it always has. Technical rehearsals aren't going away just because we can't be in the same room. They're even more important now that every part of a production now has a major technical element.

At-Home Streaming Equipment

We don't need to be creating television studios in our living rooms to succeed with at-home streaming. The ROI for the content we produce certainly isn't at the place that we can monetize a free theatrical stream to afford that kind of set-up yet. However, there is a bare minimum requirement to a performance that your audience needs to be able to see and hear you. Let's run down some of the basic requirements and best practices for building your own at-home studio with the tools that you have in your own home.

Camera

Your laptop webcam is probably sufficient enough for a bare-bones production. However, take a moment to really look at how you look onscreen. Any video that you transmit through the internet is going to degrade somewhat, so make sure that you're working from the best possible starting point before things fall off once the video signal leaves your computer. If you already look pixelated or are in a tiny aspect ratio on your end, it may be time to invest in an upgrade, once Amazon's finally able to restock webcams.

The more important consideration is camera placement. Find an environment that's private and won't be disturbed by the activities of the people who share your living space. Make sure that your background is neutral or not so interesting as to pull focus from your performance. Elevate the camera itself so that it's at the same height as your eyes. Make sure that you have room to move around and stage yourself in a wide, medium and close shot.

Lighting

Similarly to your laptop webcam, you can likely use your household lighting fixtures to light yourself for performances. Make sure that you don't have a light source like a floor lamp or a window in your camera shot. The camera will typically over-expose for the light source and leave you looking dark and a silhouette.

The typical camera-lighting set-up is a three-light set-up. A key light that is the brightest source on a subject, a fill light that fills in the shadows created by the key light and a back light to set the subject off from the background. We can adapt that by taking two floor lamps and putting the at roughly equal spacing left and right of your camera. Be mindful of the color of light coming out of your lamps as well as from your screen itself. Most laptop screens put out a significant amount of blue-white light that can make you look ghostly if contrasted with a very warm floor lamp. You can always try new shades on your floor lamps to adjust the color and brightness of the light coming out of them.

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My home studio uses a two-light system with a gel applied to my window to tone down the natural blue color of daylight. The Venetian blinds let me adjust the brightness of natural light when it's my key light while the lamp to the right of the desk acts as my fill. The lamp in the far corner of the room bounces light off the ceiling to give an ambient glow to the room that gives a soft light to my bookshelf and artwork. It also acts as my backlight.

You can see the effect here on a video capture of my webcam in OBS. The sunlight is the dominant key source on the right side of my face, but the left side of my face is filled in with the dimmer floor lamp. The bounce from the floor lamp in the back of the room keeps the sunlight from creating any overly bright spots on my background. 

You should also be particularly mindful of the natural light in your studio. Consider whether you'll be performing or recording in the daytime or night time. How is the sun going to affect your set-up? If it's the brightest source in the room, it can make

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you look overexposed and too bright. If your room looks great in the afternoon but looks like an inky-black troll's cave at night, you may want to think about how you light your background separately from yourself so that you aren't acting in a black hole.

Audio

You don't need a podcast-ready microphone to perform online. It'll certainly elevate the work that you're doing right next to your laptop, but it's not going to do you much good if you're up and moving around your at-home studio and it can't pick up your voice from over 2' away. Your audio needs are going to be dependent on the kind of production that you're working on, but there is one upgrade that I can recommend across the board.

Consider buying blue-tooth in-ear headphones. They don't need to be as nice as Apple Airpods, but they are going to be a major upgrade to your ability to move freely as you perform while also navigating audio feedback. We've all experienced the video-conference problem of someone leaving their laptop speakers turned up too loud so that their microphone rebroadcasts what they're hearing in a frustrating echo of audio feedback. We should all be wearing headphones on live performances to prevent that basic technical problem and a bluetooth solution helps us cut the cord so that performers can move freely and explore new blocking possibilities. The in-ear solution is the most elegant from a costume design standpoint; a clunky pair of Beats by Dre aren't going to naturally blend into every time period and style of performance.

Internet

A strong internet connection and upload speed are going to define how well you're able to send the best audio and video signal from your at-home studio to your collaborators. It can look amazing on your end, but with a poor internet connection, you'll look like a pixelated and distorted mess. At a bare minimum, you should look into hardwiring your computer to your internet router so that your WiFi signal's strength or weakness isn't slowing down your connection. Most laptops don't ship with standard ethernet ports any more, so you may need to purchase an adapter and an ethernet cable that can reach from your studio to your router. It's a simple step that will do a lot to improve the fidelity of your performance.

You can check the strength and fidelity of your internet connection in two ways. Hop on a call with a friend and have them record what they see coming from you. You can test and evaluate whether your set-up is going to be able to effectively support your performances. You can also run a speed test online to confirm your upload/download speeds. You should be aiming for a minimum of 8 Mbps up/down to ensure that you're going to come across clearly and cleanly over the internet.

If your current tier of internet can't provide that level of connection, it may be time to upgrade if you'd like to seriously pursue remote live performance. Your ability to send a solid signal that guarantees that your performance is going to come across loud and clear is one of the definitive things that's going to make or break your contribution to a production. Back when we could perform in person we bought headshots. Now, we need to look at the other infrastructure investments that are going to make us stand out and able to contribute a solid performance to a show. Internet strength and stability is one hugely defining aspect to your ability to connect to your collaborators and your audience as you share your artistry.

Looking Forward

Now that we've taken the time to prepare our performers for how they're going to get up and start giving dynamic and mobile performances in curated environments at their own homes, it's time to start building the digital framework that their staging will inhabit. Our next article is going to talk about taking multiple separate feeds from the cast of a production, storyboarding them into a complex sequence and incorporating cinematic cutting into a remote live performance.

As always, 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 Till next time!

​© 2020 by Andrew Schmedake. 

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