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What is a Live Production System?

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Over the past few months, many organizations pivoted to video. Some are doing it well, while others struggle. Audiences intuitively know the difference between TV-style and amateur video when they see it. But not everyone knows what makes the difference between watchable and unwatchable video. So, what technology empowers productions to take the step to professional grade?

Part of the answer lies in the use of what is commonly known in the television trade as a production switcher. A switcher’s basic function is to switch between two or more live camera or video feeds and is, for the most part, operated manually. The other part of the answer depends on the storyteller, not the tools.

Production switchers were once the domain of well-financed TV stations and found only in broadcast studios. But over the past decade or so, the switcher has become democratized and multi-functional, hence the name live production system. When proprietary and very expensive hand-built switchers became replicated in software using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, the software-based video revolution was born. Add the internet as your distribution method, and the democratization of video was off to the races. We see it used successfully in education, business, sports, esports, streaming, live music, individual brands and beyond. It is effective, affordable, and accessible for all.

About the author

Scott Carroll is External Communications Director at The Vizrt Group

The pandemic is serving to rapidly accelerate the adoption rate of live video production tools that were already becoming more mainstream. It does, however, require more than firing up a smart phone or a Zoom call.

So, what can a switcher do?

It’s best to start with the basic elements of TV-style production that have proven they help distinguish pro video from smartphone video. These elements include:

  • Live switching between two or more cameras
  • Overlaying graphics
  • Bringing in other pieces of video
  • Special effects

Switching between cameras breaks up the monotony of looking at the same camera angle. You can use different angles or different visuals and storytelling options. More than any other technique, switching feeds creates that TV-style feel.

Graphics add an underrated and extraordinarily powerful dimension to visual storytelling. When you’re watching TV, you’re looking at one of two things: content coming out of a camera – and/or – a graphic being overlaid on top of what is coming out of a camera. Turn on any TV program and you’ll see this in action. The basic graphical element is known as the “lower third,” which is typically used to convey the name and title of the person talking on a program.

We’re so used to looking at graphics on TV that we rarely notice they are there. Since we’re living in a software-driven world, and graphics are software-driven, we’re seeing an explosion in the use of graphics for storytelling. Very exciting times in this regard.

We’ve also all seen newscasters talking to an audience with a piece of video playing in a box behind them. This common technique incorporates the final two elements of basic TV-style production: bringing in other pieces of video and special effects.

For that second piece of video to be playing, you need to have that video pre-produced and ready to be played out when the time comes. Having it in a separate video box, with perhaps a frame or border around it, is an example of a special effect. In a typical newscast, the news anchor would introduce the piece with the video ready to play in the background. A switch would be made to playout the pre-produced piece that a field reporter would have prepped earlier. There are other examples of bringing in video and other types of special effects, but this is one of the most commonly used techniques that demonstrates both.

Most modern production switchers worth their salt will incorporate a feature called the “mix/effect” bus or “M/E”. They enable this kind of technique. Producers like M/E’s and they generally like as many as they can get. More M/E’s equates to more creative power.

Macros and automation

The idea of automating your production is becoming more and more popular. A “macro” is used to create an automated sequence that ranges in complexity. It takes some learning on the front end to create a macro but once you get the hang of writing one, the sky is truly the limit. Many people make a really good living because they have mastered the art of creating a macro to automate a sequence of a show. For example, you could reduce any number of button pushes normally required for a show opener (play music, fade in, pan camera left to right, zoom in, cut to camera 2, fade music out, turn mic volume up) into one button push by automating that sequence by creating a macro.

Other ways of automating your video production include popular tools that allow you to create your show in a Microsoft Word document that includes switcher commands tied to a pre-written script. Your on-camera talent reads the script while your switcher executes commands automatically. Using this technique makes it possible for one person to run an entire show by themselves!

These techniques are only made possible through software, and there are many other tricks of the trade available that make visual storytelling easier to create and manage, even for novices.

SDI/HDMI vs. NDI

Another recent development is a technology called NDI or Network Device Interface. NDI is a free-to-use technology used to move live video signals across a standard Ethernet network in real time.

If you think about it, the entire world has moved to Internet Protocol or IP to move data around. Banks, airlines, stock exchanges, schools, retail businesses – you name it – all depend on IP, 24/7. Even the delivery of your favorite shows now relies heavily on IP distribution. Oddly enough, creating live video may be the final frontier for IP as the traditional way of making video – the first 100 feet of production still very much uses proprietary cable technology including SDI (used mainly in the professional video making space) and HDMI, which has more limitations than SDI but has been generally accepted by most consumers.

Both are good, but neither play well with IP. Nor can they take advantage of the enormous possibilities of IP. This is where NDI excels. Whereas SDI and/or HDMI can transfer one signal down one channel down in one direction only using one cable, NDI-enabled devices on a network allow all signals to see and be seen by all other signals at the same time. On your network.

This opens up enormous creative possibilities, saves time and money and is increasingly enabling switchers to find a home in modern businesses.

It's a revolution

It’s fair to say all kinds of non-traditional visual storytellers (i.e. organizations and people who aren’t television people) are leading this dramatic change in the way video is being used and that the pandemic is clearly accelerating the rate of adoption far greater than normal.

Schools, houses of worship, corporate entities, YouTubers, etc. are using these production tools and techniques very much how early authors would use language to write books or articles that would convey information, imagination, education and inspiration. 

The results of using this technology are measurable: in viewership and engagement. Thanks primarily to the rise of software and the democratization of visual storytelling – we can all pick it up, use it, and create professional video!