A Real Interactive Film Festival

by Yoram Schaffer

A Case Study

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After receiving good responses to the article about the creation of hybrid film festivals, we decided to take it to the next level: enhance interactivity to the extreme. And as always, the best way is to simply do it.
Well, “simply do it” is an underestimation of the task. Simple it is not. But the wonderful team around me likes challenges. Well, at least they pretend they like them as I do.
I admire them not only for that but for the fact that they help me realize those dreams. Just like they did when we decided to develop our own DRM (piracy protection), a field that is totally dominated by Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe.
But that’s a topic for another post.

Why Go Interactive

The seemingly trivial question must be posed: Because if a hybrid film festival is taking place both physically (in-person)and virtually; and if a festival is a place where films are screened and the audience is silently watching — then why bother to be “interactive”? Let the audience watch online and settle for that.
While screening a film online is definitely a prerequisite for a hybrid/virtual film festival, it is far from being sufficient. At least if one wishes to adhere to the conventions of the word “festive”, which is cheerful and jovially celebratory as defined in the Oxford Dictionary.
In other words — have fun. And how can you have fun when you’re sitting alone in front of your screen instead of celebrating with your fellow humans?
And that feeling of celebration, so we think, can be achieved through interactivity.

The Goal

Conduct a hybrid screening, whereby viewers in a theater are watching a film, online viewers watch the film in parallel from their devices and both audiences participate in a Q&A with the director, who is at her home.
The moderator for this Q&A is also at his home (i.e — another remote participant). The audience in the theater can hear and see both director and moderator. The audience can also pose questions, by using a wireless microphone which is moving in the room. The audience is videotaped by a crew who wanders freely in the venue.
The screen in the venue shows different compositions of feeds, according to event director decisions: director only, moderator only, the audience only, all of them together in a split-screen or any combination of the different feeds (audience plus director, director plus moderator, etc.).
The online audience can watch and listen to everyone and can send questions through a text chat. The chat is visible to the moderator and the director and can also be shown on the screen in the venue, as it is a feed-in itself.

The Plan

Necessary ingredients:

  • A film to be screened.
  • A theater, with the audience (physical screening).
  • The audience at home (i.e — connected).
  • A filmmaker for a Q&A session, from home.
  • A host/moderator, also from home.
  • A camera crew, in the venue.
  • A wireless microphone, in the venue.
  • Sound console, in the venue.
  • Good internet connection with the stable upload, in the venue.
  • A chat, available to viewers at home.
  • A remote control room with live stream switcher, receiving all feeds(such as OBS or Livestream Studio).

It might sound much in terms of coordination and staff, but even for a regular film festival, when comparing it to the necessary logistics every physical event has to deal with like hotels, transportation, receptions, paper tickets, etc. — organization of the above should not be an issue.

The Challenge

  • Create a smooth experience for all participants, wherever they are.
  • Prevent audio feedback -:)
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Mike Gilbert / flickr

Stage 1: Pre-screening

While the audience gathers in the venue, online viewers can watch recorded interviews with the filmmaker and actors, listen to the soundtrack and watch image slideshows from the production, behind-the-scenes video, etc. — all of those are streamed according to the decisions of the event director in the remote control room, which is provided by Movies Everywhere.

The event begins with a short speech from the festival director. The camera crew in the venue records it and sends the feed (upload) to the control room, which is transferring it to online viewers. The microphone on stage is sending the audio (through the sound console in the venue) to the control room so that viewers at home will be able to hear the speech clearly.
Alternatively, the camera crew will send (wirelessly) ambient sound from the venue through the console. In that case, the output sound is already pre-mixed in the venue and sent to the control room. therefore, it is separate from the image feed, which is sent directly from the camera to the control room.

It’s the responsibility of the sound person in the venue to upload a well-balanced output. In other words: all sound coming from the venue is mixed and is broadcast to online viewers as is.
At that stage, the film director and the moderator are not present.

Stage 2: Screening

The film is screened in the venue (local projector) and in parallel online, through Movies Everywhere servers. Screenings are simultaneous but don’t have to be synchronized, as they play from totally different sources.

Stage 3: Post-screening (Q&A)

  • All the above feeds are present (camera in the venue, microphone), plus two additional sources: a director and moderator.
  • Of utmost importance is that the two personalities be accompanied in advance by the digital production crew to ensure a smooth event. That includes heavy testing of their internet connections, camera and microphone quality, visible image (e.g – no backlight), and aesthetic background.
  • The director and producer should have a computer in front of them and see what the online viewers are seeing (a composite image). However, they should receive only the visual feed, otherwise, they will hear themselves which can create audio feedback (prevention of which seems to be the biggest challenge -:)).
  • The director and moderator should hear the audio from the venue in a separate feed, through their headphones. Don’t be misled by this short sentence: it is extremely complicated to achieve that, but beyond the scope of this post to describe how we do it.
  • It is also mandatory that the director and moderator will wear headphones, to prevent audio feedback (because if the film director hears the audience in the venue through speakers and the audience in the venue will hear the speakers, a loop will be created).
  • Online viewers can pose questions through a chat available to them on the screening page. Those questions are visible to the director and moderator because they see the composite image broadcast from the control room.

Connections, Feeds and Broadcast

How do all those different sources connect between themselves?
We have a control room, which accepts feeds from all sources. It s a “control room” because it boasts the following capabilities:

  • Ability to live stream.
  • Ability to accept different sources, either as guests to the broadcast or as external sources (e.g — Zoom).
  • Ability to compose different sources into one image through a switcher.
  • Ability to create transitions between different visual sources.
  • Ability to mix audio
  • Ability to insert recorded media, titles, and graphics into the composite image.

Sources and Functionalities

  • Camera crew in the venue, with an encoder and upload mechanisms, such as Teradek VidiU or LiveU Solo.
  • The camera crew sends audio wirelessly to the sound console in the venue.
  • Audio console in the venue, with an internet connection, sending feeds to the control room as “guest”.
  • Director/moderator / any other additional source, connected as a “guest” to the broadcast, or as an external source (Zoom, Jitsi, etc) to the control room. On the integration of Zoom and the likes in live broadcasts, I might write in another post, though it’s covered quite well in numerous tutorials available on the internet.
  • The control room itself has its own feeds such as pre-recorded interviews, clips, music, graphics, etc.

Visualising

It might not be too easy to understand the above inter-connections, so I’ll try to summarize it in the following table:

GroupDirectorModeratorAudience in venueAudience online
Audience in venueCan hear and viewCan hear and viewCan watch on screen if shotNo
Online audienceCan hear and viewCan hear and viewCan hear and viewNo
Remote guest 1 (director)NoCan hear and viewCan hear the questions and view when shotNo
Remote guest 2 (moderator)Can hear and viewNoCan hear the questios and view when shotNo

The audience in the venue can hear and view the director and the moderator. The audience can also see itself on the screen if the camera crew filmed them, but it cannot see the online audience and so on.
NOTE: The online audience can see and hear everyone else, but is not visible to anyone. The online audience can pose questions or express opinions in the text chat and that chat can be visible to other participants. I didn’t include that in the table which is already heavily loaded.

Questions? – 🙂