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Thoughts on conference videos

February 17, 2010

What most computer conferences try to do is to get a bunch of volunteers to record the talks and the sit down afterwards and edit them and convert them to a format that can be uploaded online. I’ve seen many conferences try this and fail. Often everything gets recorded, but most of it never comes online, because they understimate the work, and overestimate the willingness of people to help. This happened with Plone Conference 2007 and several PyCons. OSCON, surprisingly, didn’t even try. Plone conference 2008 succeeded, and Plone Conference 2009 seems to be succeeding too. Getting conference videos online is clearly a lot of work, and it’s difficult to make them good quality.

Plone Conference 2009 did something that I have been suggesting for years: Just record it and put it up immediately, without editing and fiddling. That way you maximize the chances of videos actually coming online with the least amount of effort. The Plone Conference 2009 people did this with Ustream, so they had streaming directly from all of the rooms, and the streams was recorded and ended up online. My Transmogrifier talk has an UStream version and as you see and hear, the sound is crap and the beginning is missing. But still, it’s online, and was so immediately. Awesome!

But they also are doing the common work of editing and putting up videos post conference on http://plone.blip.tv/. And my Transmogrifier talk is there as well. It’s “HD” now, although somewhat more of the beginning is missing. The audio is different from the Ustream version, but still pretty bad. Which audio is better is probably a matter of opinion.

So the video volunteers have put downs some three months of unpaid time, to get video up that are only a little bit better than the videos streamed directly online. Is it really worth all that work to get videos that have the conference sponsors first in the video? Well, it can be, if the volunteers do it because they think it’s fun, or because they like to learn more, so they can make professional quality videos later. But note that learning and fun is the only major benefits if this, because the outcome is still not very good. In fact, I think the only conference I’ve talked at that puts up a video that is as good as the conference deserves so far is PyCon 2009, much thanks to that they used framegrabbers for the slides. So DYI is possible, but clearly hard to achieve.

Ruby conferences seems to usually be recorded by a company called “Confreaks”. Is it cheap? Well… no. Looking at their prices, it probably would have added 100-200 dollars to the price of a Plone conference. Basically the cost is some 4-5.000 dollars per room, per day. But the result is a wide screen with the slides big and nice, and the speaker is a small talking head, and the conference logos in the remaining space. That’s how a conference talk should look online. If you want to see an example, I can recommend Chris Wanstrath’s “Ripping off Python” talk. Even more awesome is of course the TED talks, but they have fully professional broadcasting quality camera crews, and and basically treat the conference talks as if they are making a documentary for BBC or something. I guess that goes under the “ridiculous overkill” department. But then again, you need to pay 6.000 dollars for the privilege of being allowed in to their conferences.

Conclusion

So currently, you have two good paths, in my opinion: Stream directly, or record to something uploadable and stick the videos up with no editing. It’s good enough, you get the videos up while the conference is still buzzing, and people can check out the talks they missed while still being on the conference or the post conference sprint. Awesome, fun, cheap and not very good quality. Or you put out for professionals, something that likely is going to be prohibitively expensive for most open source conferences, unless you can get an average of 200 people per room, which isn’t how Python conferences generally work.

This puts us in the bad position of either going for cheap and cheerful, or prohibitely expensive. Not a nice position to be in. Can something be done? Yes, I think so. What we need is software that takes two video streams, one from a camera and one from a framegrabber, one audiostream, a logo and the name of the talk and presenter, and makes that into one widescreen video, with the slides big and the video small. I don’t think a powerful laptop would have a problem with doing that. Maybe doing that and compressing to a good format at once is too much, but then the laptops can be on encoding and uploading duty during the nights. With that all you need is one cameraman following the speaker, and out you get a video that you can upload online. That would make this kind of conferences videos much easier to make, and it would make the price for a professional quality conference video significantly cheaper. You still need people that understands audio to get good sound, but you would be able to make useable conference videos quickly with just one volunteer, one laptop, one videocamera, one framegrabber and an audio feed from the sound system per room. Still a lot of equipment, and still expensive, but a step forward.

Step up video people, I’m sure there are enough persons in the Python community who are interested in video to create this software in time for PyCon 2011! :)

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10 Comments
  1. May I add that when it comes to video, sound is often more important than the moving images. Investing in cordless lavalier (very small, clip-on) mics might be a good idea.

    Showing the screen side by side with the camera is a very good concept too. Then you are guaranteed to get good resolution of the part of the moving images that is important.

  2. Right, bad sound is very annoying. I’m probably going to sign up to help with audio/video for the Plone Conference 2010, because the problems with the sound should be easily avoidable.

  3. Hi Lennart-

    FWIW, I’m quite proud of what I was able to get done for Plone Conference 2006. No streaming, the technology wasn’t quite there yet, but we did have professional 2-camera crews (one camera for speaker, the other to shoot the screen) in 3 rooms with real sound. We had all of the videos up on archive.org under Creative Commons licenses in 6 weeks. I paid (IIRC) about $4000 — I got a great deal from a friend who was about a year into building her professional business. Bottom line: it is difficult, but possible.

  4. Thank you for describing our current video production method. :)

    We’ve been using Telestream’s Wirecast succesfully for streaming for many years. Framegrabbing is done via Wirecast’s Desktop Presenter software (comes free with Wirecast) or Epiphan’s VGA2USB dongle. Video is encoded directly to H.264. If we need some trimming from the beginning and the end we use Quicktime Pro. After that the video is published through our Plone site at moniviestin.jyu.fi.

    We use wireless microphones for the presenters or audio from the mixer if one is available in the premises. It’s pointless to use camera’s own microphone.

  5. Yeah, I wasn’t there 2006, so I didn’t see that. :)
    I looked at them now, and they are indeed similar quality of the PyCon2009 ones. Nice!

  6. Cool! Do you have any public examples, so people can compare quality with the Ustream one? I would be very interested at least! :)

  7. I hope the Plone Conference 2010 videos (http://ploneconf2010.blip.tv) met your expectations :)

    -Matt

  8. It more than met up. I haven’t seen so many yet, but at least mine was awesome quality.

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