It just sounds simple. When presenting online, it becomes a challenge.
A few weeks ago I participated in a fascinating online presentation by sound artist Meira Asher. Although it is not the topic of this post, I warmly recommend you find out more about this multi-talented woman, a human rights activist, and a researcher in the fields of Social Documentary and the Amplification of the Human Body.
During her presentation, which was done on Zoom, Asher shared videos with the audience. For that, she pasted each time a link in the chat and said “see you in 5 minutes” or “see you in 2 minutes” — whatever the length of the video was.
Although simple and straightforward, it created issues: Not everyone was reacting at the same time (some didn’t find the link, as their chat was not open, others were just slow to respond) so that not everyone came back to the presentation in a synchronous manner. Another issue was that some of the videos were locked or private and we had to go back to Meira and ask her to open them. This back and forth was somewhat awkward. And, as distraction mounted, some of the audience just churned… which might have been prevented if we were all on the same page (literally!).
At first glance, it sounds trivial: Share the video by sharing your screen! So many people do that today. But when the video is presented in an artistic environment, whereby every pixel and every sound bite is important, presenting a video by sharing your screen is of low quality and may have dropped.
Yes, Zoom has an Optimize feature, but in order for that to work well, it’s critical to have a strong graphics card and a fast, stable internet connection.
And what if you don’t have both?…
There are platforms that offer Youtube embedding inside the meeting or webinar. That way, Youtube plays directly from the Youtube server, not from or through your screen. One of those platforms is whereby.com, which I love and use for many years. Another one I recently found and looks cool is gotalk.to.
But both have drawbacks: They can host relatively small meetings (4–25 users), which is fine for a team in a workplace, but not for an audience in a Q&A. Actually, they CAN host more uses, but then it becomes extremely expensive.
Another disadvantage of embedding a Youtube video on those platforms is that the player is not controlled by the host. Once it appears on the user’s screen, the user has control over the video. So if your audience is not very attentive or cooperative, they will, like in the case of the presentation mentioned above, not play the video at the same time. Result: you lose your audience.
We need a solution that is synchronized, namely — that it will play for all users at the same time. In a class or a venue, the presenter simply clicks on the play. So simple! So why can’t we do it in an online presentation?!
True, controlling video playback can be achieved through screen sharing, but as mentioned above, it’s problematic, quality-wise.
Simplicity & Quality
Another possible solution would be to live-stream the whole presentation through a switcher like gamers do. That allows the presenter to control both the timing and the exact content shown.
Is it simple? — No. One has to train and get to know well the non-intuitive OBS, Wirecast, Xsplit, or vMix. They are all excellent software, but have a shallow learning curve (yes, it’s not a mistake: a shallow learning curve means that you learn slower. With a sharp curve, you learn fast. Draw a plot and you’ll see).
And, when you live-stream a video from your own desktop or laptop, you need a high-quality internet connection, CPU, and graphics card. Which again, many gamers have, but not your average producer-director who just wants to participate in a Q&A.
For many months, we were stuck and our clients too. We managed to stream full movies from our server right from the beginning of Movies Everywhere. After all, streaming is our business. When it came to a Q&A session, we managed to insert Zoom meetings and webinars on to the screening page, as well as Facebook and Youtube Live, but when a filmmaker asked us to show a video during his or her presentation, we couldn’t offer an optimized and easy way to do it.
In a few cases, we actually did use the Optimize video feature in Zoom. The result was not bad, but only because powerful computers and internet connections were used. We understood that it could not become a routine solution, as those cases are not the average.
In other cases, festival teams or we ourselves live-streamed through professional switchers, but that required gear, knowledge, and personnel.
Then there was a relatively simple Q&A which I managed (as admin) and one of the guests spontaneously asked to showcase during the session a short video he was working on. I was dumbfounded. I said “sorry, we can’t” and felt it was a failure on our part. Why can’t we provide a simple playback, something which is so trivial in an in-person meeting?
We had to find a solution. And it had to be simple, accessible to all technical levels, doesn’t require fast internet or professional gear. Above all, it has to be of high quality.
At that time, we already had a full armored battery of integrations: With Zoom, Facebook, Vimeo, Youtube. What we were lacking was the decisions about the way we want the thing to run, namely:
- How to push an integration (e.g — Zoom) to the screening page.
- How to pull (stop) an integration and make it disappear smoothly.
- How to “control the control” — should we ask users to click play? Should we do it for them? Should we ask them to join a Zoom session, or should we make it live automatically? Should we auto-play an embedded Youtube (recorded or live)?
Those of you who moderate Zoom meetings surely identify with those dilemmas, when you ask yourself whether to mute everyone upon entry, to have the video on or off automatically upon joining the meeting, etc.
After many trials, we understood that the best practices are nuanced. They are based both on psychology and on the cultural norms that are slowly consolidated in the digital-social arena.
- Allow and admin (event organizer) to decide whether to make the Zoom/Facebook/Youtube the main screen for all or allow users to decide if they want they join the external broadcast or meeting. We called the first option “Force Live On Air”.
- Add a popup message when an element is pushed into the event page or removed from it. The admin has to fill in a text which appears as the popup. For example: “Meeting with director Mary Chong is about to start” or “video excerpt is about to stream”. That gives users orientation, as an event in Movies Everywhere can include multiple elements.
- If a user is joining late to the page, join him or her to what is going on right now. If for example, the other users are already in a Zoom session with the filmmaker, start the Zoom for that joining user too.
- When a video element is added to the page — whether if it’s coming from Movies Everywhere server or an external source (Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo), it will auto-play. Only then, the user can minimize it.
- Greet your audience before the film starts. Show the film. Start a Q&A. — That’s a 3 step process. For that: * Push the Zoom (Force Live) to the screening page before the playback starts. That way, each user coming into the page, will see the Zoom and not the film, which otherwise starts automatically. * At the end of the greetings, start the movie from the admin (we call it “Enforce”). * At the end of the movie, push the Zoom or Facebook Live (wherever the Q&A takes place) back to the page.
- Conduct a presentation in which the presenter is speaking and intermittently showing a video (video and speaker are switching). That is a more elaborate process, but is smooth and solves the issue of integrating videos in high quality.
For that: First, prepare in advance one video with black spaces of 4–5 seconds between the segments. The videos should be ordered according to the presentation line-up.
Assuming you would want to start with an intro video, start with it at the set time (Event Start). * When the intro video ends and the black segment appears, go live with your presenter (Force Live On-Air on Zoom).
* Then, when the presenter wants to show a video during the presentation, click on Enforce mentioned above. Remember we had a black of 4–5 seconds? That’s the number of times users will have to wait until they watch the next segment you prepared on the time lime. * When that video segment ends and the black you prepared shows, click on Force Live On Air again to bring your speaker back online. * At the next video segment, click on Enforce again and the video will play from the point you stopped it last time.
Repeat for any other video segment you’d want to insert during the presentation.
Important note: If you didn’t stop the video on time in between the segments, you cannot go back… There is no Rewind. So if you’re unsure of yourself, prepare in advance a black of 10 seconds between the segments.
From theory to practice
The best way is to simply practice what I wrote. Before that, have a clear idea of how the event should look like. It might seem complicated in the beginning, but please try to relate to it as a live event in every aspect: Would you dare to go live in a theater or a TV show without having a rigorous lineup and rehearse it first? I believe that online events should be treated the same way.