Fireside Chat Spurs Student Film crew’s Live Broadcast

It was an absorbing scene; lights were low and a fire glowed in the hearth while Thomas Moore held the Big Room in quiet reflection. A hushed audience waited their turn to pose questions. But all around and even above the room, a flurry of silent, split-second creativity swirled as a team of students—and one alum—recorded and transmitted a live-stream video of the event, complete with professional-style audio, audience pans and multiple camera shots.

“Working with the student crew to produce the Tom Moore broadcast was tremendously fun,” said Jim McClure, digital arts teacher. Jim and several faculty members supported the crew of five HMS students and alum Joe Laszlo ’13 who produced and broadcasted the event, but gave minimal help, he said. ”Aside from some technical assistance, this project was 100% student and alumni produced and directed,” he said. “Every decision—from where to put the cameras, how to set up the lighting, how to cut the scenes during the show—was done by the students. I think they did a remarkable job!” About 60 home viewers logged in to the High Mowing website to watch the live stream of the Chat, “Becoming a Soulful Person in a Soulful World.” It was the third in an annual series hosted by the school.

Headsets on skulls and sound-deadening sneakers on feet, the students scurried without a sound between cameras, microphone and an impromptu control room in the Ann Freidl math room directly above the Big Room, to broadcast the 90-minute event as it unfolded, “without a hitch,” said Jim.

As guest producer, Joe trained camera operators Augusta Kokas ‘16, Kirill Bykanov ‘18, and Toby Edson ‘19 in how to set up the cameras, intercoms and lighting. This was a great role for Joe, said Jim, as he was teaching rather than doing the work himself and his rapport with students was immediate. Joe brought knowledge and skill to the project; always a technical crew member while attending HMS, he now studies film at Fitchburg State University and recently worked to help re-design the Ashby, NH public TV station. Joe also operated as the de facto Assistant Director and worked on editing, advising the students and answering their questions.

Whatever their skill level, the students took up the project with professionalism, said Jim. “Augusta had operated a camera last year, so she brought her experience to the team. Kirill and Toby were brand new and rose to the challenge admirably,” he said. “We train the camera operators to be alert and creative in looking for interesting shots. It is a fun game to try to frame the most creative shot so that the director will pick your camera! Some of the panning audience shots were quite artistic and added a lot to the presentation by giving the viewers the sense of the audience's participation,” he explained.

State-of-the-art equipment made for a challenging and fun experience for the students—and a professional-level result. “Our new rack setup is similar to how commercial broadcasting setups operate,” said Jim. “Up to four individuals can sit at the booth and communicate with each other over headsets simultaneously while the director communicates with the camera operators.” He said the camera operators are trained to mostly listen to directions and ask few questions. “The camera operators can talk if there is a real emergency, like their camera is failing or whatever, but otherwise communication is 99% from the director to the camera operators.”

The rest comes down to creativity, skill and cooperation. Jeb Johnston ’17 returned to the booth as the director, a role he filled in last year’s Fireside Chat. Jeb's job was the most stressful: while contending with new equipment and software, he monitored the incoming camera feeds, selecting the shots he liked best in real-time and communicating with the camera operators over the intercom to help them fine-tune their shots.  

“There is an interesting back-and-forth 'ballet' that occurs between the director and the camera operators,” explains Jim, “as the camera operators try to create what they think are the most interesting shots from their angles and the director works to get from them what he thinks are the most essential shots. Most of these negotiations need to be intuitive, as there is little time to hold long conversations during the middle of the broadcast,” he said. “Each member of the crew is essentially trying to anticipate the needs of the others and respond immediately in kind. As you can see from the recording of the broadcast, Jeb made excellent shot selections and the team worked as a unit to get engaging pictures of the speaker as he engaged with the audience.”

What happens behind all of that is the actual live streaming of the event. That was the task of Broadcast Engineer Johann Schlaefereit ’18 who operated the computerized unit that compressed the live video stream and transmitted it to the Internet; a job, warned Jim, that is often comprised of periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror when the broadcast feed hiccups for some reason. “Johann did a great job and there were no major outages during the transmission,” Jim said. “We monitored the live stream presentation locally over 4G LTE and it looked and sounded good.”

Johann also took on the task of “wiring the talent"—fitting Moore and host Robert Sim with microphones—which is a tricky operation that requires taping the mic in such a way that it is invisible but free from clothing and other noise-producing obstructions.

The event was supported by several HMS faculty and staff, to whom Jim expressed his gratitude. “We owe enormous thanks to Suzan Moffett, who did a masterful job of organizing the myriad details for the event, to (alum) Alexis Pittman, who gave the team everything they needed from an IT perspective - and who rolled with it when we announced on the day of the chat that we wanted to relocate the booth to the Ann Friedl room, and to Heather, Xavier, and all of the other staff who worked hard to make such a beautiful event,” Jim wrote in an email.

Watch a recording of the live-streamed conversation with Thomas Moore on "Becoming a Soulful Person in a Soulful World."