When Ryan Bodie made the cover of EventDV in May 2008, the magazine profiled him as a broadcast commercial producer-turned wedding videographer with filmmaking ambitions-specifically, Christian filmmaking ambitions, as evidenced by his emerging Christian film series for young adults, Click Clack Jack.
Nary a word in the article addressed Bodie's current passion, streaming live events, has established his company, Florida-based Studio 26 Productions, as the go-to live event webcast provider in his region and in some key entertainment areas, including-though not limited to-Christian rock concerts and other music shows, ranging from concert series in the spring to festivals in the summer and one-off arena gigs such as the Hillsong United Christian rock show he produced and streamed in August. Bodie estimates that his crew does roughly 80 live events per year, with maybe half of those involving music.
Live webcasting is much more than Bodie's "current" passion. He and his crew have been shooting, switching, and delivering shows live over the web for 7 years now. His projects have ranged from concerts to corporate gigs to conferences, lectures, and more. I had the opportunity to speak with him when on the cusp of a new adventure, a series of live-produced and delivered, MTV Unplugged-style shows featuring popular and up-and-coming Christian rock acts. Designed to be shot, impromptu, in a band's home or rehearsal space, Bodie's new project has the working title "Home Invasion."
The new show, Bodie says, "came about by accident. A good friend of mine is a DJ who's extremely well known in the Christian radio world. Last year, he was voted Christian DJ of the year." Over the past year or two, Bodie says, he's gotten into the habit of stopping by DJ Jayar's The Joy FM studio when he had guests on such as for Friday cooking shows. "Sometimes I would tape it and sometimes I wouldn't," Bodie says. Two Jayar events he's shot offsite were "celebrity challenge" shows involving Tampa Bay Rays 2nd baseman Ben Zobrist and Christian artist Toby Mac ("Toby vs. Zoby"), which developed a sizeable following on YouTube and Vimeo.
Jayar has "been in the business 15 years," Bodie says, "and he knows all of these artists who come down all of the time. We'd take them out to a local place to eat and hang out and get to know them." Talking to Jayar one night, Bodie recalls, it occurred to him that "what we should do is if someone comes in town is say, ‘Hey why don't you come over tonight and we'll have you guys do an acoustic set. And so we did it. We did it recently with this band named Leland. We just came over unannounced and said, ‘All right, man, live acoustic set, we'll live-stream it. We'll live record it and switch. And we'll see what happens.' So we went to his kid's room, where there were toys, literally, strewn about the entire room. We were stepping on squeaky ducks while we're walking to the chair for this Christian artist to play one of their new hit songs. And so it was just really fun. We had about 10 to 15 kids and people just in the room hanging out. And we shot it and streamed it. And it was very successful. And so we decided, ‘We're going to start doing this all of the time."
Not every show happens exactly like the Leland show, Bodie says, but the template for the show is established. "We're not going to shoot every artist in his kid's room' that was a novelty thing. Now we're actually going to do it in a living room or have a little bit more room to work with lighting and my crew, because we were really limited upstairs. But now we're going to start doing this thing where when the artists come in town, and we're going to be either going to them or having them come to us, and do live streaming of two or three of their songs."
What's perhaps most surprising about Home Invasion so far, Bodie says, is that his studio is actually making money at it. "It's turning into another revenue for us where we'll go somewhere and bring our equipment and our audio equipment and full-on set up in about an hour. We'll set up all of the microphones, all of the equipment that we need, the lighting, the live-switching stuff. And then we live stream for about 10 to 20 minutes of a few songs. And it's now allowing us to generate extra revenue because it's pretty simple to do and a lot of people want to do it. We're starting to get requests to go places and do this. What started off as just a fun thing to do because I love music is turning out to be a pretty solid web show where we'll start booking guests and interviewing and doing it all live and recording it for archiving on the internet."
Bodie's Home Invasion crew currently consists of 2 camera operators and an audio tech. The crew sets up with 3 main cameras and sometimes a GoPro, and Bodie will operate the moving camera. One of the challenges for him, Bodie says, is whether to shoot or handle the switch and run the audio, since he loves to do both. "It kind of just depends on the situation, if I need a shooting fix, so to speak. It depends on how long it's been since I shot something that I liked. Directing and switching is cool, but once we get set up, I love being behind the camera."
Working with the Panasonic AG–AF100
Bodie says it's nice with these smaller shows to have the option of shooting, since that's not the case with arena concerts and other productions/webcasts of that scale. "If we're running a bigger show and I have multiple cameras, then I kind of have to direct because there's so much going on. But if it's just two or three cameras like we've been doing with the web show, then I have the two guys that work for me and they both just shoot and direct. They can live switch. In fact, that's who live-switches all of the local government webcasts we do."
As for gear, Bodie says his company shoots virtually all of its events using Panasonic's AG-AF100 these days because "they'll let us put the DSLR lenses right on them. So we get that great, great low-light look that you get with DSLRs, which saves us on set up time for lighting." With smaller-sensor cameras, Bodie says, "I would need to bring six or seven lights, but now I only need to bring two or three."
As for opting for the AF100s over DSLRs, Bodie says, partly it's the 12-minute continuous shooting limitation that makes it hard to cover live events. "And the other serious handicap with the DSLR is it's extremely difficult right now with the Canon cameras to get a signal out where you can still use your monitor and also be running a good signal back to your switcher. There are lots of factors involved. We've done it. We live-switched the Canon 5D and we were the first people to do it two years ago at WEVA just as a test. It was real low-quality. We weren't doing HD or anything in the live stream. From that date, I've spent the last two years trying to figure out how we can live-stream with the Canons, because I love the look of the cameras. When the AF100s came out, we tested one, and it was just simple, easy, and beautiful. It's one cable coming off of the camera, sending an HD signal-so easy to use, user friendly. The camera is a little heavier, a little bigger. I like the simplicity of the Canons but I'll deal with having a little bit bigger camera." After all, Bodie notes, when Studio 26 started producing live events 7 years ago, " we were using huge shouldermount cams anyway."
Many event shooters have been put off by the boxiness of the AF100, and Bodie acknowledges that "it's a weird shape. And it's pretty light despite its shape. Obviously, people can throw it up on a rig and then it's the same as anything else. Once you put a lens up on it and you have that capability of having a Canon lens on there it's almost lie shooting like with the Z1U or Z7 or HVX200."
Webcasting with the NewTek TriCaster
The other key piece of equipment in the Studio 26 live webcasting arsenal is-surprise, surprise-the NewTek TriCaster Studio. Somewhat surprising is that the TriCaster model Bodie owns does not support HD output, but he says 7 out of 10 shows he produces are not streamed in HD. As for HD models such as the TriCaster 300 and 850, Bodie says, "I rent them probably about four or five times a year and they're amazing, I love them. The 300 will do an HD and an SD stream and both record those streams with the clean output or with the program out simultaneously and separate. All my gear is compatible with them, and running the show is the same except for the HD output. I have a client coming up that wants the HD, so I'll rent the 850 or the 300 for their gig."
Usually Bodie will generate all graphics and titles with the TriCaster, although on larger shows with significant IMAG components, he'll use an additional computer for CG and text. "We do a couple of big events a year where we'll have 3 20-foot screens and each screen will have the same or different images on them-sometimes text, sometimes video, sometimes a satellite feed from somewhere else in the world. And we'll also be sending up our signal somewhere else in the world. And so with stuff like that it's just when you go to do the text, I'll just have another computer actually running the graphics, but it still comes through my system real clean."
Crewing events is a lot like streaming in SD or HD—it depends on the client and their budget, and the tendency is often to go smaller in the tough economy. "Typically we run our live events with at least two people, but for the most part I like to have three. And then what I'll do to save the client some money is if we need that fourth, fifth, or sixth person, a lot of times I'll have the client supply them because they might have somebody that would cost them less than it costs me. And I'm not looking to make money off of every single person I have there. Once we have our set base of what we're charging, my sole focus is how to make this look the absolute best it can within that budget. And so if they can bring in people that I don't have to pay I'll use them. They can be my cable pullers. They can run my IMAG that comes in to me from outside, or they can control basically the Extron, which will send the signal to the three different screens. And they'll be on headsets. We'll be directing them, but those are pretty simple tasks. They just require a person to be there to do them."
Getting Audio Right
Another key issue for Bodie, as for any webcaster who does a lot of work with concert events, is getting audio right. "If it's a music gig," Bodie says, "we push to have our own audio guy come in and take their board and take submixes out of their board so that we have full control over all of the audio going to the live stream."
Part of the reason having your own audio tech is so important, Bodie says, is that there can be a world of difference between a mix that sounds good in a live venue and a mix that works in a webcast. "What happens is, when you're mixing for a room there's a lot of variables involved. There's acoustics and links and how many people are in the room. A lot of times, when you mix for a room, you have to bring up the vocals a little bit and you might bring down the instruments a little bit in order to get a good mix. The problem is, if you take that mix and stick it on a CD or out on to the Internet, the vocals are super-loud, and the music isn't as loud, because you don't have that room ambience happening any more. So the vocals are loud. It makes it sound uninteresting and un professional. So when we do stuff like that we like to bring our own audio guy. We'll take some mix out of every one of their channels, run it into his, mix it like he's recording for a CD instead of an in-house event, and send that feed to me."
Marketing the Webcast Business
One issue Bodie has dealt with in his business is volume. While his company currently does about 80 live shows a year, it used to do more-"taking every gig that comes to town"-and Bodie found that pace difficult to sustain because it didn't leave him time to market and promote the business, keep the new business flowing in, and keep the notion of streaming events foremost in his potential clients' minds. "You start doing that and all of a sudden you think, ‘Oh man, I haven't stayed up with my promotion contacts.' The next thing you know, they're not either using you or they're not broadcasting that event. They're thinking, ‘Oh well, he hasn't called and we'll just save some money this year."
In addition to maintaining the marketing side of the business, Bodie's role on-site also involves keeping one eye on the event at hand and one on the future. "This year, I've been at most of the events, not necessarily working the live switch, but testing the streaming options and testing cameras. I'll be there running the live stream and a separate one, trying out another company, trying out another streaming service, trying out another camera just to take advantage of the lighting and everything else that's on the music to see if I really like that camera or that service or that system."
Venue and Bandwidth Issues
And these are constantly changing and evolving elements of the live event webcasting business, Bodie says—it's in the nature of working so many different venues and types and doing streams for different audiences that the approach will vary. "The biggest hurdle is if they're doing it on a budget you are tied to your weakest link. And in this case, you'd be tied to your weakest viewer bandwidth. So you've got to determine that. Who are you expecting to watch? Who do you care that's watching? If you don't care that your 65-year-old grandmother with a dial-up connection is watching, then we don't have to worry about her. Most people nowadays have at least 1-1.5Mbps download. We've been able to do higher-quality streams over the last year or two because the weakest link is a lot stronger now."
The second thing Bodie determines, he says, is, "What will our upload speed be? What are we working with? If I can only stream up 500Kbps," he sais, it doesn't matter what kind of bandwidth the audience's connections support. "The stream will be choppy because I'm not putting up a very high-quality stream. So we run a couple of speed tests and a ping test at the event location to determine how much information is lost on the way up. And once we run those, we say, ‘We can use your line or we can't use your line if we want to do what you want to do.' If they want to do an HD signal, we almost always bring our own line in. And if they're in a weak area, we have to bring our own line in, and that's pretty simple too. We just use whatever the local internet provider is. So we'll pay an installation fee of anywhere from $50 to $100. You can usually get it waved if you talk them out of it. And you just get it for a month. So for about $100 or $200 you have one month of service and you're the only one using that dedicated line, and you've gopt the highest-quality stream you want to get. And so at a lot of our events," he continues, "like the music and lecture series we do January through March at Holley Hall and the Player Theater, we run our own lines for those."
Bodie acknowledges that those events weren't always webcasts, but the tide has turned in recent years to where webcasting events have become the norm for his business, and producing for DVD has become an afterthought at best, and often out of the delivery equation entirely. Until a year or two ago, he says, streaming was always "an upsell because there were just so many factors involved in it that were out of our control. Now we actually get requests for streaming, where before we'd say, ‘We're going to live stream. We'll give you a DVD when we're done and you'll walk away with a live-switched event and it's going to be great. But just so you know, if you want to monetize this we can add an extra feature and add a webcast to it and it would cost X.' Now, it's the opposite. People are saying, ‘Hey, can you live stream this?' and we'll say, ‘Yes, and would you like to upgrade and get the DVD archive when we're done too?' It means we bring less equipment because recording equipment takes up a ton of space the DVD actual stuff and the rack mounts and stuff. The DVD that I give them is just an archive that they'll keep forever at their offices. But they hire us for the web stream."