I love a challenge and there's no greater feeling than solving a technical niggle that's been irritating you for a while. Over the past few years I've provided video event filming services for some of the best meetups in the London tech scene. Budgets aren't always high, but the content is usually fantastic and they're regular as clockwork. As a result I'm always looking for the best way to deliver high quality coverage and content for my clients at an affordable level. I'm constantly pushing myself to do better and to come up with new ways of streamlining my workflow.
Two of my favourite events to film every month are Hacker News Meetup London and Product Tank. They both take place in the same venue (and have done for the past two years) and require a relatively simple set up. A speaker stands on a stage and delivers a presentation to a packed hall of 400 smart people. A single camera is used for the coverage, with wireless mics for clear sound recording, something that's cheap and cheerful. Historically the method for filming this has been to follow the speaker, on a medium to close up shot, as they talk to the audience and then to zoom out to a wide view to show whatever's being displayed on screen. Whilst my clients are more than happy with this method it's always irked me as being a little bit unsexy.
A while ago I started requesting copies of presentation slides from speakers, to digitally insert them into their filmed presentations in post. It added a little bit of extra work but the output was greatly enhanced. This method had worked well for a while, but it still wasn't perfect. Events like Hacker News and Product Tank often feature coding and product demos, something that's done live on stage and can't be replicated by asking for presentation slides from a speaker. One way around this is to install screen recording software on the presentation laptop, but when you've got each speaker with their own machine (each with different specs) it can become rather difficult to reliably get a good recording and matching it up in post can be a nightmare too. I tried to play about with software solutions, like Presto, but they were too fussy to get right and rather buggy. There had to be a better method.
My problem was that I had to reliably and consistently get a high quality recording of a presentation, or demo, from an unknown number of different computers and devices that I probably wouldn't see (or have access to) until moments before the presentation started. Software wasn't an option so I had to look for an affordable, easy to set-up and portable hardware solution.
The requirements were as follows:
- An exact real-time recording of whatever was being projected, or displayed, to the audience in the venue.
- Compatibility. A kit that can work seamlessly with any laptop or projector.
- Support for VGA and HDMI inputs.
- To be able to scale presentation recordings to 1080p HD at 25fps.
- Idiot proof.
After many months of research and trialling different methods I finally came to an affordable solution. The initial investment in the kit to be able to achieve what I wanted was just over £1,000, but its already proved its worth many times over.
Step One: Splitting the Feed
The feed from the presentation machine needs to be recorded, but also displayed on stage. The relatively simple and cheap solution to this is to buy an HDMI splitter, or VGA splitter depending on what input the projector/screen takes. Personally I've found HDMI to be a huge bag of hurt, especially when running it over long distances, and so almost always use VGA. Sure it's incredibly old tech, but it's reliable as hell and doesn't have copy protection, which can be an issue when trying to take a recording from HDMI devices.
One of the split feeds runs to the stage's presentation display, the other to your scaler.
Step Two: Scaling
Most laptops, especially Macs, have unfriendly-for-video output resolutions, unfortunately the same can be said for projectors too. Occasionally you'll be lucky and get something which will supply you with a 1080p 50hz feed (60Hz in the US), but don't bank on it. The solution to this is to force whatever feed we're being given into being what we want, so we need a scaler (a pretty unsexy box that takes a variety of inputs and scales it to whatever standard we tell it to).
The scaler in my kit bag, at the moment, is the Kramer VP-435. It takes Component, UXVGA and HDMI inputs and throws them out to a reliable HDMI output for recording.
Run the split signal from the presentation machine into the scaler, select what you want to output as and away we go!
Step Three: Recording
We've now got a reliable feed from any presentation device that's 1080p HD compliant, all that's left is to record it. As the scaler is outputting via HDMI we need an HDMI recording device.
I'm currently using the Atomos Ninja2. It'll record an HDMI input onto a 2.5" HDD or SDD into a video NLE friendly ProRes or DNxHD file. The most useful feature I've found with the Ninja2, vs Blackmagic's cheaper alternatives, is the inclusion of a touchscreen display which also acts as a portable monitor, showing you what's recording.
Whack a hard drive into the Ninja2, 500GB will give you over 10 hours of recording at ProRes 422, and hit record. Couldn't be simpler.
Granted that all of the above is a little more extra work than zooming in on a speaker and zooming out when they're showing something on screen, but your event and client deserves the best. Set up takes a little longer, but I've actually found it much faster to work with this method in post, rather than inserting images of presentation slides at the right moment and animating them. As for the reliability? I recently stress tested this solution at London's Music Hackday with over 53 different laptops, it worked like a charm every time and without fail.
As ever if you have any further questions about any of the above, or perhaps you want to get in touch for a quote to film your event, please feel free to shoot me an email.