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iMag on a budget – Graphics and Lower Thirds

Posted on : 03-24-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , , ,


(Note: this is the sixth post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

Video is nice and all, but adding on those ever-popular lower-thirds graphics adds a bit of panache that makes your video stand out as professional, and not home-hacked. It’s also incredibly helpful for visual learners, and for underlining important content that shouldn’t be missed. We use them for word definitions, key points, and the text of supplemental scripture passages.

Thankfully for us, the ATEM Television Studio includes support for 1 upstream and 2 downstream keys. Definition time: keying refers to taking a video feed and cutting out parts of it based on color, luminance (brightness), or a separate feed. An upstream key happens first, typically, (think the weather guy in front of a green screen) and a downstream key is added after all video compositing is finished (think lower-third or logo bug). They both work more or less the same.

We started with a chroma key, as it’s super simple. Using ProPresenter, we set the background of our presentation to a bright magenta. (We chose this over green simply because our content was more likely to contain greens rather than magentas). This output went directly into our TVS using one of the HDMI inputs.

When we activated the upstream key, we set the chroma key to cut out anything magenta, which let the video of our pastor show through. This was OK, mostly. However, because of some problems, we eventually shelled out the money to upgrade to the “proper” solution outlined below. Those problems?

  1. The most ‘fool-proof’ method of using this key was to leave the key turned on during the whole service. Unfortunately, that meant that if we played back any video or other graphics through our system that included colors close to that precise shade of magenta, those parts of our slides would become transparent and show our video through them. Not great.
  2. The alternative method was to only turn on the key during the preaching portion of the service. However, if the operator missed turning on that key, the moment we went to the slide intended to be keyed out, a bright-magenta screen would show up instead. Since we usually show a pre-sermon intro video, this window was rather small. We had some purple screens show up, and that wasn’t nice. Furthermore, for some reason I had a hard time training our volunteers to understand the key well enough to ensure they wouldn’t screw it up again in the future. *sigh*.
  3. ProPresenter fades all of their transitions, even the swipey ones. When a graphic faded out, the magenta behind it would essentially grow brighter and brighter as it disappeared. Unfortunately, a chroma key is only so effective, so there was always a brief flash of dark purple on our screen right before the magenta got bright enough to be recognized as the key color. Our best solution was to make the fades go really fast (or use cuts), but that was very jarring and not ideal.
  4. The solution to our purple flashes would be to use PowerPoint or Keynote to run your slides, which could animate a slide-in motion of your graphics without fading. But we like the features of ProPresenter, and we paid a lot of money for it, so we weren’t going back to the stone ages of PowerPoint.


So what did we end up doing? ProPresenter has an add-on product that costs more than the software itself. (Yes, it’s stupid. No, there’s nothing we could do about it but pony up the cash.) For $1,000 you can get an “Alpha Keyer Module” that allows you to set ProPresenter to create two simultaneous outputs: one “Fill” that contains the graphics you want to show, and one “Key” that tells the switcher what parts of the screen to show, and at what transparency level. What stinks is that it only works on a Mac. What stinks worse is that it also requires you to have an extra piece of BlackMagic hardware that retails for about $1,000. I found one used on eBay for $600.

The great news is that once it’s properly configured, ProPresenter does all the heavy lifting. You plug in your UltraStudio 3D or UltraStudio 4K with a thunderbolt cable, and connect the two outputs to two of your SDI ports on your TVS. We set one of our Downstream Keys to use those two feeds (Fill and Key), and we can leave it on all the time. No purple involved, no human switching involved. We can use nice long fades and it looks absolutely beautiful. Expensive, but super-worth it. (Note, however, that leaves us with only 2 SDI feeds for cameras. There are still 2 HDMI feeds you can use if you need them.)

Tip: For some reason, Renewed Vision recommends turning on Additive Blend in your settings for ProPresenter. Don’t do this. You can follow their instructions here, but leave the Additive Blend box unchecked. On your Downstream Key on your ATEM, make sure “Pre-multiplied Key” is checked.

Bonus tip: If you’re not using the Alpha Keyer, or if you’re having issues switching between HDMI sources, try an ConnectPRO HDMI EDID Ghost. When we were plugging our iMac directly into our switcher for graphics, there were some issues involved with the HDMI “handshake” that gets negotiated when you connect and disconnect displays, especially if we turned on the Switcher after the Mac was already on. The EDID Ghost is a little box that accepts an HDMI in from your computer and sends HDMI out to your TVS. It copies the handshake of your TVS and fakes the computer into thinking it’s always connected. You can turn your TVS on, off, disconnect it, or even use an HDMI switch or splitter to send that signal to other devices as well, and your iMac will never know the difference.

Next up: Live Streaming

iMag on a budget – Recording

Posted on : 03-24-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , , ,


(Note: this is the fifth post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

Our initial plan for recording was to use the H.264 encoder built into the ATEM TVS. If you connect the switcher to a PC or Mac, using the free control software allows you to record already-compressed video to your hard drive. If you want to use Livestream, you can also use their software to stream directly from that same feed. It’s pretty slick. (See more on the streaming post)

All that aside, we had one occasion where the H.264 stream failed to start recording when we were also live streaming the H.264 feed at the same time. Granted, it’s possible that I just didn’t give it enough time, because since then we’ve noticed that it will frequently take a few seconds to get rolling (we’ve temporarily suspended live streaming). For my purposes, however, I certainly didn’t feel comfortable relying on a feature that had threatened to fail on us before. It also made me leery to trust such a high-importance item to a PC that may or may not crash at any moment. Our sermon video needs to get recorded right the first time!

The other problem with relying on the H.264 feed was quality. The compressor does a pretty good job, but the fact remains that H.264 is lossy compression, which means that you’re losing quality right off the bat. I want the option to be able to go back and edit the video in post-production, and I’d rather begin that process with pristine video.

Finally, we also wanted the ability to directly distribute our sermon videos in the highest-quality format with a minimum of work.

Enter the Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Shuttle 2. ($327) This compact device records uncompressed video to Solid State Drives. It accepts either HDMI or SDI input, and also supports loop through output. In other words, you can dump your live video into this device directly from one of the three program outputs on your TVS (It has 2 SDI and 1 HDMI program outputs), and even daisy-chain 2 or more of them together. After our service, we can pop the SSD out of the shuttle and plug it into an eSata dock. Given the speed of eSata and the SSD, we can edit the footage directly on the SSD and export either back to that same SSD or elsewhere. Very handy.

A new venue that wants our video can simply purchase their own dock and attach it to their video system/projector/TV via HDMI. All we need to do is dump the completed video onto an SSD and send it their way—no need for trying to master, burn, and verify Blu-Ray discs, no need to rely on network-based streaming, which is dodgy in some rural areas.

For recording, we use a 240GB Intel 520 Solid-State Drive, which gives us enough space for two 40-45 minute sermon recordings (we record both Sunday morning services), plus a little room to spare. For distribution of finished videos, we’d just go with a 120GB drive. The most important part is sustained read and write speeds, as uncompressed video is very high bandwidth. BMD keeps a list of compatible drives to guide you.

One of the biggest pluses here for me though is redundancy. Now we record directly to a solid state drive with the HyperDeck, and simultaneously make a backup recording with the TVS’s H.264 to PC feature. If either fails, we’re still golden!

You might ask why we don’t just take the digital recording from our fancy-schmancy new cameras and work from there? Well, precisely because the feed that comes out of our TVS unit already has graphics and overlays embedded in it, while the camera’s recording does. (We don’t want to have to manually add them in post-production) Which leads us to….

Next up: Graphics and Lower Thirds

iMag on a budget – Cameras

Posted on : 03-22-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , ,


(Note: this is the fourth post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

As I mentioned, we started this project with older prosumer-grade cameras that did support HD, but lacked SDI connectors. The one camera just directly plugged into our switcher via HDMI, and the other camera used an Analog-to-SDI converter. We used this method both to get the necessary distance over cable, and to remedy the fact that this camera didn’t have HDMI out.

Tip: We only use two cameras primarily due to the advice of North Coast Church. They’re very, very big, with many venues and lots of experience, and they still only use one camera for their preaching feed. They found that for people watching a preacher in a church setting, it’s jarring to be switching angles, so it’s best not to. We basically have one straight-on shot for the whole sermon, with a backup camera cued up that we also use for staging of live-streaming and web video.

Tip: You want a straight-on, eye-level shot if you can get it. We try for a torso shot, which covers from about the preacher’s waist to maybe 4-6 inches above his head. Since our preachers remain within a pretty tight box, we can catch almost all gestures and good facial expressions and rarely have to move the camera.

Tip: for people viewing on the web, it’s nice to get a sense that you’re “there” during the sermon. This is typically done by inserting one or more wide-angle shots that capture the building and atmosphere of the church. We’re set to use a live backup switcher to also stream web video, so on that switcher we can start with a wide shot of the worship center and stage at the beginning of the sermon to help establish the scene (without affecting our local/recorded feed). This is obviously optional, but a nice side-effect of having a redundant system. We don’t want to establish that scene for our venues, because it would just serve to highlight the fact that they’re not at a “main” location.

With our original cameras, the system worked tolerably well. We had HD video that looked good. We had about 3 frames of delay (maybe slightly less) on our iMag video, which is tolerable when live and easily fixed when exporting our recordings.

Why, then, did we replace our cameras at a cost of $8,700, more or less doubling the cost of our project?

  1. Our main camera was failing. Audio already didn’t work. This wasn’t a big problem, (we were taking our sound from the soundboard, not the camera) but an indicator of failing hardware. More problematic was the way the camera did not hold white balance. You never knew what you were going to get color-wise on your video. The four screen shots below were from the same 40-minute sermon! We knew we were going to have to replace them eventually, and this pushed us over the edge to do it now, before it was too late.
  2. Our cameras didn’t match. No matter how hard we tried to adjust white balances, sharpness, and saturation, we could not get the two video feeds to look the same. This is a big problem when cutting between cameras. (This is ultimately why we bought two identical cameras together, for consistency)
  3. Our cameras did not have SDI output. This means we were relying on a sometimes-questionable HDMI connection and a powered video converter for our feeds. By upgrading to cameras with SDI, we were able to eliminate those two potential failure points.
  4. Our cameras did not have Genlock. In order to provide smooth fades and cuts, the TVS has a built-in frame sync devices that ensures the video in your system is synchronized. However, this feature adds some delay in the video, which is bad if you’re doing iMag. (Too much delay and you hear the preacher before his lips move, and it’s really jarring) You can avoid this by using Genlock, where a sync generator tells all your video equipment when to sync their frames. Our keying device and our switcher supported Genlock, but our cameras didn’t.
  5. Our cameras were tape-based. When recording our sermons, we would occasionally have screw-ups with our lower-thirds overlays or slides, which would force us to rely on our second (or third) service recordings. On one isolated occasion (on older firmware) our TVS froze up. This can be easily remedied if you have a direct on-camera recording to cut in during post-production, but tapes are a terrible hassle. Our new cameras allow us to record forever, eventually just looping back and overwriting old recordings. If we need a recording we can quickly pop the card out and use it (the micro P2 cards fit a standard SDHC reader), and if we don’t need it, there’s no need to go back and rewind or switch tapes.
These were all taken from the same sermon, on the same camera!

These were all taken from the same sermon, on the same camera!

Which cameras to buy? Well, I did a lot of research. I’ve heard many churches recommend Sony EX-3’s, because they have nice 1/2” sensors that perform decently in low light. Unfortunately, their successors (PMW-300K) are $8,000 each, and the lens they come with maxes out at 14x zoom, which would be barely enough for our church, and using a lens at its max zoom is usually to be avoided due to optics issues. I looked into getting creative with DSLR-style cameras, but the larger sensors on that type of camera makes it tough to keep things in focus, and we’ve got volunteers running our cameras. I finally settled on Panasonic AG-HPX250PJ cameras, which have 1/3” sensors that are very competitive with the Sony’s 1/2” sensors, and a 22x zoom that would be more than enough for our sanctuary. At $4,700 each, they weren’t cheap, especially when you add in the (ridiculous) price of the Micro P2 media and adapters they use. Compared to anything else though? An absolute steal when you consider the price of the competition. Because I also got in on a couple of Panasonic rebates totaling $1,500, the two of them (with media) ended up costing us a total of around $8,700.

Note: If you buy the MicroP2 Adapters (about $195), rumor has it that you can use them with regular high-speed (Think UHS-I) SDHC cards and record to some of the lower-bitrate formats the camera supports. You lose some of the features of the P2 cards, but can save a couple hundred bucks. I haven’t tried, because the rebates I got on the media made the micro P2 cards a better bet.

Want to research and buy your own? Here’s the criteria I looked for:

  • Sensors no smaller than 1/3” and no bigger than 2/3”. Bigger typically does better with low light situations, but I found some convincing video samples to help me decide to go with the Panny’s 1/3” sensors. Anything bigger and you might have issues keeping your subjects in focus.
  • Genlock. Cuts down on sync issues.
  • SDI-out. I didn’t want converters that could fail (or that depended on power supplies that could fail)
  • Zoom. If your sanctuary is big enough to merit iMag, you may have to get a camera with interchangeable lenses in order to get a long enough ‘reach’. (Problem is, many long-zoom lenses are really expensive.) The 22x on the Panny’s is about as long as they get when it comes to built-in lenses.
  • Remote ‘paint.’ The (one-step-up) Panasonic HPX255 supports a CCU unit that allows for remotely adjusting various video settings and controlling the camera. This would have been nice, but at the extra cost (for the camera, plus the controller) I couldn’t justify it. For multi-camera setups, it’s very helpful in matching video color balance, etc.

Next up: Recording

iMag on a budget – Switcher and System Overview

Posted on : 03-22-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , ,


(Note: this is the third post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

Ten years ago, the equipment required to do this well would have cost a fortune. Thankfully, due to technology advancements, a growing prosumer market, and the efforts of a company called BlackMagic Design (henceforth BMD), you can now do this on the cheap (relatively speaking, of course!)

At the heart of our system lies a Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio Production Switcher (hereafter TVS) switcher ($945). This switcher has a few crucial features: consumer-grade HDMI inputs and outputs alongside pro-grade HD-SDI inputs and outputs, keying support, a built-in H.264 encoder, built-in frame-sync, and low price. Seriously, the next-cheapest comparable product costs 5 times as much, and from there the sky’s the limit.

Initially we set this up with our lower-thirds/slide show overlays coming in to the switcher via HDMI from our iMac, which runs ProPresenter. When we upgraded our Alpha Keying system, that involved changing the signal from our iMac over to SDI. It now takes up 2 of our available 4 SDI inputs (ouch!), leaving the other two for cameras.

Because HDMI has serious distance limitations (12′ is pushing it), in order to get video signal to and from our main camera pedestal we needed to use SDI, which maxes out around 300′. To accomplish this, we attached the analog output (Component 1080i) of our camera to a BMD Analog to SDI Mini Converter ($280). That SDI cable then runs the distance to our soundbooth and directly into the switcher. Our second camera sits in the soundbooth, close to the ATEM switcher, and also had HDMI-out, so we just plugged it in directly via HDMI.

The TVS supports coaxial digital audio input, so I just ran an RCA cable from our soundboard’s digital output jack and used an RCA to BNC connector to plug it in to the TVS with. This way, our recording and/or live feed would get clean sound directly from our system rather than trying to use audio picked up by our cameras’ mics.

The Television Studio device has both HDMI and SDI outputs for the live (program) feed and multi-view displays. We just plugged the HDMI program output into our existing video scaler/sender and we were live! Later on, we evolved to using the SDI program outputs directly to our projectors, and that worked great as well. The multi-view output is a handy view that includes input monitoring alongside, preview and program feeds. I plugged in an HDMI-capable (full HD) monitor for use in our soundbooth via HDMI, though it was an adventure buying a monitor that worked right…

Caution: when buying monitors for multi-view, you’ll need to be careful–the TVS outputs signal that uses a YUV colorspace. This will look totally wrong (green) if your monitor only supports an RGB signal, which is common. I’ve found that most Dell monitors have a setting that allows you to switch from RGB to YUV, so I bought Dell IPS monitors for my multi-view displays. A monitor with DVI input (and not HDMI) is fine, as you can use an HDMI to DVI adapter cable to connect it. Alternatively, you can just get an LCD TV with HDMI input on it and know it will support YUV, since that’s common in broadcast signals.

Since the main camera we use is so far away from our TVS location, I ran an SDI cable for our second multi-view out to the camera pedestal, and attached another monitor to it using a cheap-o generic SDI to HDMI converter (about $35 on Amazon). Now our camera operator can see all that’s going on, and can even run the show if necessary via a tablet remote control!

For audio, the ATEM requires coaxial digital audio input if you don’t want to use the audio from the cameras (which is not recommended). If your soundbooth is analog, use this device to convert: Beringer SRC2496.

On the control side, the TVS can be controlled by any PC or Mac running the free BMD control software, as long as they’re on the same computer network as the switcher (it has an Ethernet port). You can also control it with an iPad or Android device connected to the same network. I donated an old Nook Color I had lying around to use as a portable controller, and the software you’d want is called METAControl. The free version works well, and you can add some functionality with an in-app purchase (We did). In addition to the tablet control, we primarily control our TVS with a PC running the software, largely because you can use a PC connected with USB to record directly from the device into H.264 mp4 files.

Next up: Cameras

iMag on a budget – Initial Considerations

Posted on : 03-22-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , ,


(Note: this is the second post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

Our church is on the cusp of branching out to a multi-site configuration, though much different probably than most you’ve seen or heard of. Our goal is to partner with small (often dying) churches in rural areas that are incapable of hiring and keeping highly-trained preaching pastors. We have been blessed with gifted preachers, and are centrally located to a half a state’s worth of rural churches, and so we’re perfectly poised to help. The current plan is to hire local “campus” pastors to handle the people-work involved in each local church body, and then provide them with video-based preaching and support for those pastors.

I was tasked with figuring out how to best tackle the preaching distribution part. My initial budget? Somewhere around $1,500. Actually, I didn’t really have a budget, but the goal was to provide a visible demonstration of the technology that would garner support for an increased budget in the next fiscal year. We found the funds to get the initial integration done, and the response was good enough to get funding for a more ‘proper’ integration, though still on the cheap. I think we did a pretty good job for relatively little cash, and I’d love to help you do the same.

Caution: If the furthest person in your worship center is 50′ or less from the speaker, many ‘experts’ say you shouldn’t bother with iMag, as it won’t add anything. That might be a general rule of thumb, but we found that as long as screens are appropriately placed, people sitting 25-30′ or more tend to look at the screens. Why? Because you can actually see facial expressions if a close shot is being used. (Our current worship facility doubles as a gym, with the stage along one side of it, so we’re borderline “don’t do it,” but it’s been a big hit.)

Caution: The more your preacher moves, the harder iMag becomes to justify in smaller worship centers. With a (relatively) stationary preacher, you should be able to stay at a torso shot, providing actual magnification of facial expressions. If he’s always moving, you’ll have to zoom further out, and at some point the guy on the screen looks smaller than the guy in real life. You can still stream live video to other venues or the web, but on-site video will be de-Mag, not iMag!

Caution: if you do this poorly, you could hinder your congregation’s ability to pay attention to the sermon itself. Please keep it above the cringe factor. I doubt you can find a way to do it significantly cheaper than outlined below without risking doing it poorly. If you don’t have the funds, don’t do it.

Caution: if you want to do iMag during your music, you’re on your own. To do compelling iMag during worship takes a lot more work, a lot more creativity, and probably a few more cameras and operators, meaning some different gear as well. I’d wager that if you have the resources to do this tolerably well, you have the funds to hire an integrator and aren’t reading this guide. (If your church has tons of money and you’re still being super-frugal though, I heartily applaud your faithful stewardship of God’s money! You’re still on your own though…)

Tip: this project was a lot of fun for me personally. If you have a nerd in your church, even if they’re young-ish, get them on this thing and they’ll thank you for the chance to tinker. Once it’s up and running, youth—who are less likely to be afraid of technology—can typically provide good help if you can properly train them.

With no further ado, our main priorities were as follows:

  • Produce high-quality sermon videos with integrated slides/overlays that could be distributed directly to other church locations.
  • Project live, non-cringe-worthy iMag video during the preaching portion of services.
  • Upload and/or live-stream sermon content via the web.

The equipment we already had was:

  • 2x 5000-lumen projectors displayed on 200” DaLite 4:3 screens.
  • A TVOne Video scaler/switch sending video via VGA over Cat5 to these projectors.
  • An iMac running ProPresenter for lyrics.
  • A rather powerful production PC (used for Audio recording)
  • 2 older prosumer-grade HD cameras at varying levels of failure. (Sony HVR-Z1U and Sony HDR-FX7)
  • A digital soundboard with the necessary digital coaxial output.

You can find our final equipment purchase tally on the last post, but our total cash outlay was as follows:

Initial Integration: $2,500. This included a video compositing device, recording hardware, and one video converter.
Alpha Keying Upgrade: $1,600. This was mostly a streamlining upgrade necessary for eliminating errors associated with volunteer labor.
Redundancy: $1350. This allows us a permanent live failover system, as well as the nice side effect of being able to produce two outputs simultaneously to make live streaming more compelling.
Camera Replacements: $8,700. One of our cameras was exhibiting bad video and audio errors, and we chose to upgrade them both to ensure consistency in training and video output.
Total iMag cost: $14,150

If we had just gone with 1 camera (not two) plus SSD-based recording, and not splurged on the higher-quality alpha transparency overlays, we could have done this for about $5,000.

We also upgraded our projection system along the way, which was well worth it. Our elder board chairman was recently at a Mars Hill church over vacation and when he came back he said “we have nicer screens than they did!”
Screen Upgrades: $5,000.
Projectors: $3,000.

Next up: our Switcher, and a general system overview

iMag on a budget – Quality Video Without a Megachurch Budget

Posted on : 03-22-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , ,


I’ve done a lot of research and integration work recently to institute iMag (live image magnification) and recording of the sermons at our church. Most places on the internet that I’ve found are stacked with advice, but unfortunately many of them assume a hollywood-sized budget and scads of tech-savvy volunteers. We didn’t have a half-million dollar budget, so I had to get creative.

Halfway through our integration, I talked with a guy from another church who was also working on implementing video at their church. He wasn’t as tech-savvy as I, so they hired an integrator. What they got was a standard-definition system that probably didn’t fit their needs too well, and has too much video lag to be used as iMag. (They were primarily going for web streaming) It cost them $15,000. I built a high-definition system myself for about the same price, which also has a few extra benefits that they didn’t get with their system. (we added some new screens on at the end, too!)

So I figured I’d share my work, in the hopes that it might save someone else some money.

I’d like to share my work with you. Note that this integration happened in late 2013/early 2014, so assume technology is current as of then.

I’ve broken it down to these steps:

  1. Initial Considerations
  2. Switcher and General Overview
  3. Cameras
  4. Recording
  5. Graphics and Lower Thirds
  6. Live Streaming
  7. Projection
  8. Redundancy
  9. Final Recommendations

Note: While you’ll soon find out that I’m a huge fan of BlackMagic Design, I am not at all affiliated with them and don’t receive any compensation from them. However, there are a few Amazon links that I do receive referral compensation from if you click through those links to purchase items. I appreciate your support in that way if you do purchase any of those items. And of course, if you just want to say “thank you” in a practical way, I really like chai, and you can buy me a cup with a PayPal donation:

Next up: Initial Considerations