An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist – Part Two

A view of cameras, microphone, and streaming software for the May 22 Community Concert.

In Part One, Gentle Reader, I explained how a mild mannered ordinary local church pastor with a somewhat strange skill set became a televangelist, and some of the tools he used to become one.

(I will now abandon the use of “Gentle Reader” references, since I’ve never much cared for that 19th century style of English prose.)

Two months later, we have seen marked improvements on the technical side and have made some changes to the experience of worship as well. We continue to use YouTube Live as the streaming method; we have not sought to expand to send streams to other services at the same time. We use email reminders (typically Friday afternoon and another on Sunday morning) to give our newsletter subscribers a quick way to find the links to the video and to the worship materials on our website.

The order of service has had one significant addition: a hymn for people to sing together at home. This came as a suggestion from a worshiper, and we implemented it in about two weeks once we were satisfied that the musicians could manage preparing two songs. We’ve had some very positive feedback on that addition, and we’ve tried to really support it by making the lyrics available with our worship materials and, more recently, including them in the video stream.

The worship leaders also changed their positions. Webcams, including the Logitech C922, are designed for a short distance between the lens and the subject. That put the two musicians closer together than physical distancing guidelines recommend – and sent the wrong message. For some weeks now the leaders have stood at music stands with a six foot table (our communion table) between them. The webcam serves as a wide shot that includes both participants and displays the distinctive cross above and behind.

The real technical achievement is moving to more than one camera.

The hardware video switcher, a Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini, arrived on April 27. The most basic function of this device is to switch between four different audio/visual signals arriving via HDMI. It has a USB connection, and a computer recognizes it as it would a webcam – an audio/video source. Once cabled to the laptop, the ATEM became another source OBS could use.

What about cameras with an HDMI out port? This developed into a rather frustrating exercise. I have owned a Canon Vixia HF R52 for some years. I’ve used it to shoot videos of lava, and it was the main camera for the What I’m Thinking video series for a long time. When I worked for the Connecticut Conference, we used a pair of identical cameras for studio recordings and for live streams. I knew its HDMI out would work.

I really wanted to have at least two cameras, though, and preferably three (three cameras is common on TV studio sets). I bought a pair of very inexpensive cameras, expecting they wouldn’t be great, but that they’d do. Well, they didn’t. They connected over HDMI just fine, but the HDMI output when in shooting mode displayed what was on the screen, which sounds good until you notice all the little icons about battery life, focus mode, and so on. There was no item in the camera’s menu that allowed me to turn off the little pictures that cluttered the picture. In addition, connecting the HDMI cable turned off the camera’s own display, so a camera operator couldn’t see what the camera saw.

I hoped I’d be able to use my own DSLR, but ran into the same problem (both of them, in fact). I couldn’t turn off the icons. The camera’s live display went dark.

This time when I went shopping I made a visit to the manufacturer’s websites and read the full user’s manual. The Canon Vixia HF R800 met the criteria, and with its older sibling has captured our worship service since.

But wait, there’s more! These cameras come with HDMI cables, but they’re about three feet long. That’s not long enough. They use a mini-HDMI connector, so that was something to check carefully in ordering. We chose to continue using the webcam for the wide shot, but now it had to be further away from the computer. That meant procuring a USB extension cable. I don’t even want to talk about tripods.

Well. We strive and we learn.

Our Current Configuration

A Sunday configuration with the technical station at right, consisting of hardware switcher, laptop running a software switcher and encoder, and an audio mixer.
The worship service of June 14, 2020.

We use three cameras. The Logitech webcam gives us a wide shot, which we do not move. The two Canon Vixia camera are both mounted on tripods with halfway decent fluid heads (as is the Logitech). They each provide a “one shot” (single individual) for those standing at the music stand lecterns. One of the team serves as camera operator – they are about eight feet apart.

The two Vixias feed their signals via HDMI to the ATEM Mini. The ATEM and the webcam connect to a laptop via USB, as does the Behringer mixing board. The laptop runs the OBS Studio software. We added another person to the team to handle the switching chores. I admit that it is a hodgepodge system. There are literally two devices performing video switching chores. It has, however, allowed us to significantly improve the worship’s video dimension.

We have become more proficient with OBS as well. We use more titling, particularly during the hymn for singing at home. We use recorded video of the worship space sometimes when people are moving back and forth to microphones.

Controlling the ATEM Mini with my toe.

I use all three cameras during the Wednesday song performances as well as the Community Concerts. I put the ATEM literally at my feet and change cameras with my big toe. I have not learned to sing and change cameras at the same time, so it mostly happens between songs.

Blackmagic released another version of the ATEM – the ATEM Mini Pro – just after I’d placed our order. Both products spent a lot of time in backorder (as I write this, they’re on backorder again). The Pro device includes a streaming encoder itself, allowing it to push out a stream without a laptop running OBS. It also includes a multiview feature that allows the operator to see the output of all connected cameras on a connected monitor.

The Experience

Hardware and liturgy changes aside, the experience of leading these services online has remained pretty consistent. They take real effort to plan, although they are simpler in some ways. We select fewer pieces of music than our previous services. There is a prelude but not a postlude, one hymn rather than four, one anthem but no offertory. Only three musicians participate, and one records her performance in advance. The service is shorter. The combined story and sermon takes less time than the two individually.

The major difference between these experiences and a worshiping congregation is the absence of the worshiping congregation. The worship leaders do not experience the energy of the gathered people. Instead, we pour our efforts into an unresponsive camera lens. We cannot even see the live comments made on YouTube.

In retrospect, I wonder if a video conferencing solution might have provided some of that feedback, given us some of that missing energy. My experience of teleconferences does not give me a great deal of confidence that it would. Having held a few church board meetings in this way, I have found more discomfort with the technology than I had feared. Some weeks of experience could have helped with this, of course.

We have received appreciative notes from people about the services we are providing, and the viewer numbers are close to an in-person Sunday. At least half of the views happen at some time after Sunday. If nothing else, we have learned that people will engage in a worship experience at some time other than ten o’clock on Sunday morning – and that we should continue to make one available.

Looking Ahead

Church of the Holy Cross is now working on the ways we will hold in-person worship with due caution and care for the health of the worshipers. We will continue to stream our services. It introduces yet more technical challenges. We will need to use the sanctuary’s installed sound system, which fortunately can be piped to the computer as an audio source… via a long USB cable that will need to actively bolster the signal. The cameras will have to be further away from the switcher – more extension cables. The cameras will need operators. The operators will need instruction. And so on.

Pray for us!

With a Grateful Heart

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The youth rejoice.

In company with many of my fellow citizens, I’ve felt a lot of sorrow this week, and a burden on my soul. The deaths of Alton Sterling, then Philandro Castile, then Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa, came as a relentless beat of violence. They laid bare once again how incomplete is America’s effort to eradicate racism from its society, and how overly ready we are to turn to force – deadly force – when fear and rage drive us.

 

On Saturday, I took the road south from Hilo to another UCC church, Kalapana Mauna Kea First Congregational Church, as they were celebrating their 193rd anniversary and holding a Ho ‘Ike, a musical celebration including musicians from a number of congregations around the island and a 90-person group of young people doing service projects at local churches across Hawai’i.

As I was watching liturgical hula for the first time (video below), I felt my soul rise. It was exactly what I needed.

Later on, I joined the kahu (pastors) and other church leaders in the house for an impromptu rendition of a Hawaiian song. Well, I’ve only been here three months, my Hawaiian can be generously described as minimal, and I simply didn’t grow up with the songs – but when you don’t know the melody, you can harmonize, and when you don’t know the words, you do your best with the vowels as they come along.

So thank you, Kalapana Mauna Kea, Kahu Mike Warren, and all the leadership and musicians of the day that made it so special. I’ve been richly blessed. May God bless you even more.