The C&C Architects team has many years of experience designing for assembly and performance facilities – religious gathering spaces, theaters, music venues, etc. With the sudden switch to remote gathering due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen organizations scrambling to digitally connect to their regular audiences. There are a plethora of primers online for selecting software and planning/scheduling (see this great intro from CCV.org on basics, this streaming tutorial from Terry White regarding his equipment, and the wonderful NPR Training blog when you want to dive into details).
But what about the bigger picture? How do you keep the artistry and connect to your audience when you can’t be in the same room? You’re still in a room, and that space has ramifications on the quality of the experience. As architects, when we begin a design project, our first steps are learning and synthesizing. We need to figure out what your goals are and how you accomplish them currently, and then bring our expertise to improving that performance. Moving online is no different. Here we’ll touch on the most important topics to consider and provide some suggestions.
In this article, we’re going to discuss the planning, room design, lighting, and acoustics. All of these elements work together to provide a polished solution.
Online Is Not The Same
Don’t attempt to replicate your live event. A Sunday service in a church is much different when viewed behind a screen. Enjoying a music group perform live is different than hearing them on headphones. The primary difference is the sense of community. In a large gathering space, you can connect not only to the action on the stage, but also with your neighbors. Seated in rows, or standing in a crowd provides a sense of belonging to a larger group, even if the view of the stage isn’t ideal. Replicating that effect online is extremely difficult, so to compensate, we recommend focusing on the audience-performer connection solely. Imagine that you’re talking or performing for one single person and work to connect with them through your screen.
Learn to adapt the overall event to match how people will be observing it. Think carefully about what the important aspects of your specific event are and focus on those elements, even if it means pushing something else aside in the meantime. There’s a very good chance that if you were regularly hosting a gathering event, the primary focus is not visual. Religious ceremonies, music performances, and even theatrical productions are primarily audio. If your message is spoken or sung, make sure that the audio is the best part of your digital experience. If your message is primarily visual, such as dance or other visual performance art, then make sure that the video is the best part of the digital experience.
Folks might excuse lackluster video but will not stay tuned to poor audio.
Look to the Experts
Once you’ve identified where your important message is, think of the folks that deliver that message best. Television, radio, and other successful online experiences can provide good lessons. And don’t forget to listen, look, and follow other events and see what they do best and what you think could be improved.
If your content is primarily talking or audio content, consider whether your presentation needs to be video at all. If it does, think strongly about what the visual elements of your video say about you and the goals you are achieving. Would a podcast achieve the same goals (with much less effort) than a video series? This is a great option if your work will be a single or small group discussion or presentation with little or no plans for visual work.
If you have visual content, but will be doing work on multiple scales (either with more than one person or with some type of physical action on-stage/on-screen) consider a multiple-camera configuration and investigate using a switcher to change focus areas. Even two cameras – one focused tight on the host and a second on the wider studio – can provide good visual contrast for folks watching. This is great for cooking, art, performance arts, and religious presentations that switch between music worship and spoken word.
Also, be sure to confirm that any content you are including in your stream is permitted for use. Most contemporary music has a copyright that can be flagged automatically through a hosting service (Facebook, Youtube, etc) which might prevent your stream from reaching your audience. Re-broadcasting even clips from commercial works can cause your stream to go into review and require time and effort to make it available. Some church denominations have shared resources that individual churches can tap into for music performance rights.
Considering that your focus has changed to focusing on the connection to a single viewer, filming in the original sanctuary or auditorium space is probably not ideal. A too-large space loses all of its intimacy when trying to connect without a crowd. Even a makeshift “studio” in a home, extra room, or basement can be far more successful than trying to adapt an expansive space designed for a crowd.
Don’t underestimate the role that the room – your new studio – can play in the online experience. Imagine a television or radio studio and how important those spaces are to the final result. Your new “studio” has built-in characteristics (like the size, the shape, and the openings) that you likely can’t change. These all affect the acoustics and the lighting.
Some things can change, like your lighting, audio, and video equipment, the overall acoustic performance of the room, and what a camera sees. Late-night television is a perfect example of how to put on a performance with primarily one speaker and variations. The format has been fine-tuned for decades, and audiences are used to tuning in and connecting with a host and their guests.
Note, specifically, how close the camera is cropped on the host when standing and when sitting. How much of the set can be seen behind and around them? This eye-level, “top-half” crop is key to engaging the audience. Close enough to be personal and see facial expressions, but far enough away to get the context of the space. It also provides a little bit of flexibility to move and gesture without going off-camera. Remember, the goal is to provide the ideal circumstances to connect with each individual watching you.
After you’ve identified your equipment setup, determine the best place in your facility and try to design your “set” around what is visible from the camera. It doesn’t need to be professional set design, and depending on your circumstances, it may even benefit from being obvious that you’re on-location. But definitely pay attention to your surroundings, clean your room, check and make sure there are no mirrors or other objects that could be distracting. If you can avoid doors that lead to occupied rooms on-camera, that will also help ensure there are fewer distractions.
A green screen can be very useful to take the view to the next level if your camera and streaming software provide digital enhancements. Or a fixed backdrop may be useful to simplify your room and let the audience focus solely on the host. If you don’t have access to either of those, just try to ensure your camera is focused on the host(s) and look to the cropping rules mentioned above to ensure the intimacy is maintained.
Unless you’re intentionally being dramatic, you want diffuse, natural front lighting. Diffuse lighting is the opposite of direct lighting and means that the light is spread out more. Stage lighting accomplishes this through many different fixtures that light the scene from various angles. You should avoid single points of light that cast heavy shadows across faces, or that can make performers disappear if they step outside of the light. Having a large window in your studio can help bring in a lot of light in, but be sure that it’s not behind you (creating a silhouette) or shining direct sunlight onto the video view. If you can organize your space to have the performers generally facing a large window (with sheer curtains on it, or that faces away from the sun), you may not need any electric lighting at all.
One major benefit of electric lighting, though, is how it can be controlled. Positioning the lighting and adapting the intensity can help organize your camera’s focus. Here are some intro-level LED lights that are very adjustable (color temperature, diffusers, orientation) and come with stands. For a simple setup, these will work excellent on either side of a camera. GVM 2-Pack LED Lighting Panel with Tripods There are also tutorials you can find online for creating your own light diffusers using existing lamps.
If your studio has good diffuse overall room lighting via a window or existing electric lighting, use that as a base. You can add in lights to provide accent or spotlighting aimed at the host or specific actions on-screen to help accentuate or minimize distracting shadows. You can tell if you need these fill lights if facial expressions are difficult to read or if the video feels too “black and white”.
Be extra careful if you need to be behind a computer or other screen. It obviously places a “fence” between the viewer and the host visually, but can also introduce unflattering light onto a host’s face. Make sure the camera doesn’t include the back of a screen in the frame and provide accent lighting to compensate for screen glow if possible.
Not shown: proper cable management! Be sure to be diligent about where and how your power, video, audio, and lighting cables are positioned in the studio. You’ll want them to be tidy IF they need to be seen. And you’ll likely be adjusting things, so avoid confusing tangles.
As we mentioned above, viewers will tolerate mediocre video if they’re interested in the content, but they will not stay if the audio is bad. In addition to focusing on your equipment, do not neglect the room acoustics. A “boomy” room can be as distracting as static, lowering speech intelligibility. As with an in-person assembly space, everyone needs to be able to hear and understand what is being said. This is another reason to move your stream out of the original auditorium space into a more controlled environment. Most auditoria are designed for optimal acoustics when the seats are filled with naturally sound-absorptive persons.
For streaming, as with most studios, it is generally fine to make the space as “dry” as possible by adding in acoustic absorption. A good microphone can compensate for some amount of echo in a room, but a quiet, absorptive room allows the microphones to be turned up as much as possible and will provide a better recording or streaming experience. A room with a lot of fabric (upholstered furniture, curtains, etc) will provide a good portion of your acoustic absorption. If there are large blank walls behind or around the set, find ways to add absorption to keep acoustic reflections down.
NPR reporters often build literal pillow forts to record audio when they’re traveling to send back to the station. Their website often has helpful hints for getting the best quality audio, like this recent post. The reason is to provide source audio as dry as possible and minimize any exterior noise source. In a pinch, consider stacking pillows, quilts, or other heavy, sound-absorptive items in your room but off-camera.
In addition to making the room as absorptive as possible, be sure to find any possible exterior noise sources that may interrupt or disrupt your performance or stream. A window facing a street may likely welcome a siren or loud truck at some point. A fan or other equipment may create a hum or shake that transfers to the set.
Especially if you’re planning on streaming live, think through all the possible interruptions and distractions that may occur during your event in order to plan around them. Good architecture is about solving problems through research and planning.
Let us know
These are rough guidelines to help your start your process and get thinking about how to move your events online. Every single event has its own intricacies and nuance that could create exceptions. So please send us your notes and questions about your setup! Scott Hand, one of our Principal Architects with a specialty in performing arts design and architectural acoustics, is happy to answer questions.