Tag Archives: video

Equipment for recording lectures

One of the big challenges facing lecturers in the University here is that, for at least the next term and probably the whole academic year, all of the lectures need to be recorded. Most of the small-group teaching, practical sessions, and so forth will be going ahead — with extensive Covid-prevention measures in place — but there’s no way we can pack big lecture halls full of people in the way we’ve become accustomed to over the last few centuries, so lectures will all be delivered online this year.

One aspect of my University job recently has been to find and evaluate some of the kit people might want to use for recording, either at home, or in the meeting rooms in the department that we’re equipping for this purpose. (At home, the sitting room has been converted into a recording studio for the 21 lectures Rose needs to get on disk!)

I’ve been making videos of some of my tests and experiments, mostly for internal use, but some of them might be helpful to others. If you should be considering purchasing a USB desk-standing microphone, for example, you might be interested in one of my recordings from yesterday:

I’ve been gathering some of these into a YouTube playlist as well:

Recording Equipment for Lockdown Lectures

I’ll add more there in due course, so do subscribe to my channel if it might be of interest.

First experiments with an Instamic

New toy! I bought an Instamic: a tiny voice recorder that I wanted to use in situations where conventional microphones might be difficult or a nuisance, especially when I’m recording with my GoPro Max, which has no facility to take an external mic input.

Here’s my quick first test on yesterday’s dog-walk, in case it’s of interest!

Look through the window!

Today’s very quick tip for improving your video calls.

This one’s pretty obvious, of course. You won’t need to be told this. But perhaps you’ll have a friend who does?

Quentin’s Zoom Webinar Checklist

What are Zoom Webinars?

Most of us are pretty familiar with standard Zoom calls by now, but if you’re asked to organise one with more than a couple of dozen participants, you may wish to make use of Zoom’s ‘Webinar mode‘, where you have a limited number of presenters (or ‘panelists’) and the majority of participants are just ‘attendees’. Attendees are able to watch, listen, and type questions, but are not normally visible or audible themselves, unless you promote them to be panelists too (which you can do on the fly).

Webinar mode is a paid add-on, but if you have a basic paid Zoom plan, you can add it on a monthly basis when you need it. It gives you some extra options like an Eventbrite-style registration system, polls, Q&A chat windows, post-call surveys, the ability to livestream to YouTube, etc. You can find out the details on Zoom’s site. Overall, while there are a few things I would like to change, it works really quite well.

But it is a bit different from a normal Zoom call, and having run a few of these now, ranging from tens to hundreds of attendees, I’ve come up with some tips and a checklist I run through beforehand, and I thought others might find them useful.

This may all look like a daunting amount of preparation, but it needn’t take too long, and going through it can remove a much more daunting amount of stress! If any of these steps does take a significant amount of time, then it’s certainly something you want to find out before, rather than during, your webinar!

Before we get to the checklist, though…

There are lots of general video-conferencing basic tips you can find out there on the web, of course. Things like:

  • Make sure your camera is around eye-level or higher. Laptop users, I’m looking at you! At your nostrils, to be precise. Get yourself a cardboard box.
  • Make sure there’s more light in front of you than there is behind you.
  • Use ethernet rather than wifi if you possibly can.
  • Use a decent microphone (which doesn’t pick-up your keyboard noise). Use earplugs, if your system is prone to echos or feedback.
  • Avoid distracting (or boring) backgrounds.
  • Don’t use virtual backgrounds or automatic blurring.
  • Mute yourself when your microphone isn’t needed.

I won’t go into any more of these because I assume we all know them by now, but make sure your panelists do, too. In fact, if there’s just one tip you should take away, it’s this:

Have at least one trial session!

The trial session should include you, any speakers, and one or two other helpers. You want everyone to know what it’s like to be a panelist, and what it’s like to be an attendee. Things you’ll want to find out:

  • Can attendees take part in the chat? If so, will that distract the speaker?
  • If, instead, you’re using the Q&A window, who sees what and when? Have one of your test attendees submit questions and answer them privately, publicly, or reject them. What do they see?
  • Suppose you want to allow an attendee to say something using audio, how do you do it?
  • How much of this will the speaker be able to see when they’re sharing their Powerpoint presentation?
  • If they have a video embedded in their presentation, will everyone hear its audio?

You need more than just two of you to try this kind of thing out.

You’ll also want to check all of the basic things listed in the previous section for each speaker, of course, and consider whether anything is likely to change. Are they in the same venue, on the same network, using the same machine, and will the lighting be different at the time of the actual webinar?

However, don’t hold your trial session just before the event! You may need to tell your keynote speaker that they’ll need to find a different location because they’re just a silhouette. Or they must borrow a different microphone. Or plug in an external keyboard. Or lock their children in the basement.

We were preparing for one lecture where the trial session was great. Our speaker normally worked from her conservatory/garden room, the lighting was good, and the acoustics were better than expected; everything was ready to go. And then, a couple of days beforehand, I looked at the weather forecast and realised that we were in for a major heatwave on that day! The conservatory was not going to be the right venue after all, and she had to do significant moving of furniture, lighting and equipment (followed, of course, by another trial session to check the new setup).

If your speakers are going to be sharing their screen, test that out in advance with every speaker. A couple of days ago, in a trial session, two of my panelists discovered that they hadn’t done Zoom screen-sharing on their Macs before. They needed to go into System Preferences and grant Zoom the appropriate permissions, then restart the app. You don’t want them to discover this just after you’ve introduced them to the audience.

One last point on trial sessions: when you set up a Zoom webinar, you’ll be asked if you want to enable a ‘Practice session’. This is also useful, but it is slightly different: Practice sessions allow panelists, and panelists only, to connect and check things out and chat just before the meeting starts. All the other attendees just get told that the meeting will begin soon, until you, the host, click the magic ‘Broadcast’ button, and the stage curtain rises.

So yes, you probably want to do a ‘practice session’ too, but think of it as ‘waiting in the wings’, rather than the dress rehearsal. It isn’t the right time for experimenting with what attendees can or can’t see or do, nor is it the time for discovering potential issues that may take longer to fix. That’s why I picked a different name for a ‘trial session’ above: don’t rely just on the practice session unless you and all the presenters have done this together on a regular basis. Set up a separate webinar for your trial, and make sure you use the same settings for the real event. Make sure, too, that your panelists are quite clear about which meeting link is which!

A couple of other tips…

We’ve also learned:

  • Giving the talk, running the meeting, and collating questions are three jobs and ideally need three people.
  • You will get lots of last-minute requests for the meeting link, no matter how many times you’ve sent it out beforehand. Have it to hand at all times. Perhaps create a TinyURL link to it in case you have to text it to someone at short notice.
  • Consider disaster scenarios. What happens if your speaker’s machine or network connection dies just before, or during, the event? For our big important event (a) she had two machines – we tested both of them in advance – and (b) somebody else had a copy of her slides, and we arranged that the speaker could call in by phone to provide the audio if all else failed!
  • Make yourself a checklist. The following might just be some useful starting points.

OK, now is it time for the checklist?

Some of these involve Zoom settings that you can set up beforehand, others can be changed on the fly or during the meeting. In the case of the former, you may need to use the Zoom web interface to make the change; you can’t do everything through the app.

In advance, or at the start while people are taking their seats:

  • Are you recording this? Have you notified everyone? Will you make it available afterwards?
  • Do you want attendees to be able to use the chat? Turn it off if not.
  • Do you want attendees to be able to use/see the Q&A window? Set appropriately.
  • Have you enabled screen-sharing for participants? That’s an option on the host’s screen-sharing menu.

Tell the panel:

  • Turn off your phone. If you still have a landline, take it off the hook.
  • Turn off notifications on your desktop and quit all other apps.
  • Make sure your family and dog know you’re not to be disturbed.
  • Have you made contingency plans so you aren’t distracted if your doorbell rings?

When the meeting starts, tell the attendees:

  • Whether you’re recording the meeting, whether the video will be available, and where.
  • Whether you’re using Zoom’s ‘Raise Hand’ feature.
  • How you’re handling Q&A. “Don’t worry if your question isn’t acknowledged in the Q&A window, or is even marked as ‘dismissed’ – we will have read it!” For one big lecture, we had dozens of questions, and two of us were gathering them into a separate shared Google doc, prioritising and reordering them as the talk was happening, so that we had a sensible list of the best ones by the time the lecture was over.
  • What should participants do if something suddenly goes badly wrong? “If we haven’t reconnected on the original link within 10 minutes, we’ll reschedule the remainder of the session and send you an email with the details.” You don’t want hundreds of people wondering whether they should be sitting there waiting. It’s highly unlikely this will be needed, but it’s the equivalent of telling people where the fire exits are. It’s highly unlikely you’ll need the fire exits either, but if you do, you’ll be glad you told them!

During the webinar:

  • You may want to ‘Spotlight’ a speaker’s video. Normally, Zoom will show the video stream of the current speaker. (Viewers can override this at their end by ‘pinning’ a certain view.) If your webinar is a panel session, you want this auto-switching. If it’s a single speaker, then you should also be fine, because everybody else will be muted, so it won’t switch anyway. However, ‘spotlighting’ the speaker’s video is a good safety measure to stop unexpected switches when somebody’s dog barks in the background after you forgot to mute them!

  • If, at the conclusion, you have questions or discussions involving other panelists, you probably want to switch off spotlighting at that point, so that the other speakers are visible again, and questions don’t come as disembodied voices from the ether.

And finally:

  • Think about how you are going to finish the meeting professionally. Consider the final words you want to be ringing in hundreds of people’s ears as they depart. You don’t want them to be, “Thank God that’s over! Now I need a drink.” Beware the still-live microphones and cameras — yours and the other panelists’ — until you click ‘End’ and you know the meeting is truly over for everybody. Then you can go and get a drink. You’ll have deserved it.

Right, there are many more things I could cover, but I hope that highlights a few things that you might want to consider, especially if you haven’t done this webinar thing before! Have fun, and I hope it goes well!

One man and his vlog

Yesterday I realised I was looking particularly suave and debonair, so decided it would be the right time to point a camera at myself. Mmm…

If you want to try using a decent digital camera for videoconferencing, you normally either need:

  • something which will capture an HDMI output signal from your camera and feed it into your computer over USB, like the Elgato Cam Link,

  • or you need some software which can capture the live preview output and make it available to your operating system as if it were a locally-connected camera. On the Mac, I do this with a combination of Camera Live – which makes it avaliable as a ‘Syphon’ server – and CamTwist, which can take a variety of inputs, including Syphon, and blend them into a ‘virtual camera’ output. There are various tutorials online on how to do this. OBS is a similar popular app, but doesn’t yet support virtual camera output on the Mac.

  • Finally, for some versions of some Mac apps, you may need to remove the app’s signature (which identifies it with a certain set of permissions), to enable it to see virtual cameras as well as physical ones. At the time of writing, Zoom needs:

$ codesign --remove-signature /Applications/zoom.us.app/

P.S. Sadly, various other people have used the phrase ‘One man and his vlog’, so I can’t pinch it on any kind of long-term basis 🙂

The Ring cycle?

I have a Ring video doorbell. When there’s movement in front of my door, or when someone rings the bell, it captures a brief video clip and saves it to the cloud.

It occurs to me that:

  • Amazon owns Ring.
  • Amazon delivers to my door.
  • Amazon could register that they had successfully delivered to my door by holding the delivery (or its barcode) up to the doorbell’s camera.
  • Perhaps I should patent the idea?

A well-rounded view

Over lunch yesterday, my friend Richard was expanding my limited knowledge of spherical cameras: cameras which can take an all-round image – or even video – of the world; an immersive view which you can then explore in a VR headset, or by holding up your phone and moving it around, or (suboptimally) in a regular browser window by dragging around with your mouse, StreetView-style.

Richard’s done a nice blog post about this, from which I’m shamelessly cribbing! Thanks, Richard!

The normal way to get high-resolution all-round footage is to use a special rig like this one:

These are actually not that expensive… assuming that you already have ten GoPro cameras lying around ready to go in them. If not… it’s a different story.

But there are now more compact and affordable options if you don’t mind sacrificing some resolution – things like the Ricoh Theta V. For more information about how it works, Richard pointed me at this great video:

Now, we all know that you can get interesting feedback effects when, say, standing in a lift or changing room with mirrors on opposite walls, or by pointing live cameras at their own output.

What happens when you explore the same ideas in a spherical world? Cool things:

Oh, and if you’re like me, the next question is, “Can you do this kind of thing with live footage?” And the answer is yes. Here’s… ahem… a recording… to prove it…

A final thought.

In the old days, some comedy shows would emphasise that they were “recorded in front of a live audience”, so that you knew that the laugh track wasn’t canned. Soon, we’ll be able to recreate the effect of a live audience so realistically that it won’t be sufficient to persuade you that the recording was actually done in front of real people. Even if you have multiple spherical recordings.

So here’s a challenge to ponder over the weekend: How could you prove that a YouTube video of an event was originally a real event, shown to real people?

FCPX 10.1 Media tracking

A geeky post for video editors…

While working on my FCPXchange utility, I did some experiments to see how well Final Cut Pro kept track of files if you moved them around under its feet. I was quite impressed with the results:

Now, exploring a bit further, later, I realised that it can’t be using Spotlight, at least not exclusively, to track the file, because it could still find it even when I put it in a folder explicitly excluded from Spotlight indexing.

And then I realised that all my changes had been moves not copies. If I did anything which involved copying the media and then deleting the original, FCP could no longer track it, whereas, if it were using Spotlight metadata, presumably it could track that in the copy too.

Now, I don’t know much about the deeper workings of HFS+, but I’m guessing that it’s effectively tracking ‘inodes’ here, which means that the same bit of content can be found, whatever name it may have in folders. This, however, will only work with the original copy on the same disk. If you start shifting files around between disks or servers, you’ll thwart it!

Pavlovian Titillation

One of the reasons I am sometimes envious of design/media companies is that they can get away with names that, in other sectors, would cause people at least to snigger, if not positively guffaw.

Can you imagine a law firm, or a steel manufacturing plant, deciding to name itself The Marmalade? Even in the technology world that I tend to inhabit, where many companies, let’s face it, have some pretty silly names, I’m still impressed.

But you can get away with such names if you have other ways to make people take you seriously. And Seb Wills pointed me at this Fast Company post which suggests that The Marmalade may not find that too hard. The embedded video clip, showcasing some of their work, contains some very impressive sequences.

Smooth panning

A handy tip for those who don’t have expensive fluid video tripod heads.

Fotoshop, by Adobé

This is beautifully done.

Fotoshop by Adobé from Jesse Rosten on Vimeo.

More info here.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser