Showing posts with label Scotland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scotland. Show all posts

Sunday, 13 September 2020

The 2020 SSFF Awards Ceremony

Which ancient philosopher said, "It's times like these we need film more than ever"? Plato? Confucius? Probably neither, if like me you believe the first film ever made was 'Le Voyage Dans La Lune' by Georges Méliès in 1902.

   But there were many points when the Scottish Short Film Festival 2020 might not have happened at all.

   The first was just after SSFF2019 at the Glasgow Art School when then festival director (me) had his I-phone stolen and was almost stranded in Glasgow City Centre at 11:30pm on a Saturday night. Stressed, dehydrated, suffering from a lingering back pain and not quite turning a profit (even from a sold out event on the Saturday) and after seven years, I turned to festival manager at the time Gina Vereker said, "I'm sorry, that was the last one for me. If you want to carry the torch as festival director, it's yours."

   Gina, who is a freelance events manager, took a while to think it over, and thankfully said yes.

   What followed was a total revamp of the format, website, and entries re-opened for another year in November 2019. Gina deftly breathed new passion into the project and carried things forward, building momentum and anticipation throughout the whole marketing process, and despite being unable to secure funding from sponsors, plowed onwards undeterred.

Gina Vereker & William Samson. Photo by me on Gina's phone

   Then, around March 2020, the Covid-19 coronavirus reared its ugly head and decided to ruin everything for everyone, everywhere. The venue Gina had been pursuing at the CCA Glasgow, due to government's guidelines, had to shut its doors to events, and Gina and I were forced to sit down and rethink the festival. With patience and understanding from the filmmakers, we considered moving the whole thing online, only then realising the huge opportunities this opened up:

   1: We could show more films over the course of a week, as people would have time to spread things out and watch them in a relaxed manner.

   2: We could show films to people overseas, possibly putting names and faces in front of important people in Hollywood.

   Thus encouraged, we looked into various ways of doing this, considering pay-per-view or something similar, but decided in the end on embedding password-protected films on the website.

   Meanwhile we had received an amazing 64-strong submission total via Film Freeway, for which we were extremely grateful. The films, as ever, exhibited a huge amount of energy, creativity and imagination and were a joy to watch. However, it wasn't all a case of sitting back and letting the films wash over us; each judge was tasked with assigning a score to each film over the following 12 categories : Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Editing, Best Costume/Make Up, Best Music, Best Sound, Best Director, Best Script, Best Documentary, Best Cinematography, Most Creative/Original and finally all round Best Film. We also strived (strove?) to give back encouraging and helpful advice to each and every entry received.

   As this was going on, progress was being made towards presentation of the chosen films. Thought was also being put into the Awards Ceremony and how that would work, while keeping everyone safe and staying in compliance with government guidelines. I figured we could at least conduct it from my office using the green screen and suggested selling tickets to a large scale Zoom event. Gina on the other hand was tempted by the opportunities offered by a public Facebook live-stream, which would increase publicity for the film-makers, actors, and everyone else nominated for an award.

   I, who had adorned the tech hat for this year's Awards ceremony, wasn't exactly sure how that would work, but decided to rise to the challenge and find out. 

Gina and me. Photo by William

   A judges' meeting was held on Zoom to thrash out the shortlist, the nominations and winners. What came next was a gathering of Q&A videos, because one of the highlights of any film festival, we're sure you'll agree, is the connection with the filmmakers - the glimpse behind the magic curtain to find out how the film came about and what challenges were overcome. Again, I suggested password-protecting the Q&As as they were golden content and should add value to, and therefor move, more tickets, but Gina opted to keep them public so the filmmakers could use them to promote themselves.

   Everything was coming together. The humorous and dependable William Samson was re-recruited as host. All that was left was how to do the live-stream Awards ceremony.

   First of all, armed with the list of nominations and winners, 12 nomination videos ('Nom Vids') in a kind of Oscars style were put together. These were automatic and William had to familiarise himself  to get the timing right, as there would be no pausing or going back. Hence the 5 second countdown in each corner.

   From previous experience I knew we needed an encoder, so with limited budget I downloaded the free OBS for Mac. This was sometimes temperamental but had a lot of great features and resembled VLC Player in terms of playlists. You could use chroma key with images in the background, fade to video clips, and have intro and outro credit sequences queued up ready to go. The most useful was the 'Your Livestream Will Start Soon' video loop, which a) gives you those ever precious seconds to get yourself together, and b) adds anticipation.

   Warning : Deep Tech Ahead! Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.

   Problem: How to connect the Zoom audio into the OBS livestream? Ordinarily I might have tried to connect an audio jack from the speaker output to the mic input of my MacBook with a Y splitter cable connected to my headphones. But new MacBook pros don't have mic input jacks.

   Solution: Download and install a free virtual cable called VB. Tell Zoom to output to this, and tell OBS this is where you want the Zoom input to come from.

Gina, William and me sticking to the two metre rule. Photo by Richard Vereker

   What transpired next was a fortnight-long experimental foray into the unfamiliar territory of live-streaming with green screens, video clips and Zoom call integration. It began with William and I messing about live on the Raptor Newz facebook page, progressed to a half decent but laggy Raptor Newz episode, took another step up with the Judges' Discussion livestream, and culminated in the Awards Ceremony. 

   The hardest part was the Zoom calls. Why? Should be easy, right? Wrong.

   a) There was echo as the voice of the person on the other end would come through the mac's speakers and go into the mic. Hence the use of headsets. We looked into such things as Apple earbuds, but the prices were too prohibitive.

   b) The audio and video were out of synch by 160ms, or four frames at 25 fps. This was because the captured Zoom video took 160 ms longer to reach the live stream than the audio. To fix this, you have to add an offset of 160 ms to the headset mic and the ZOOM audio input (via the VB cable) to slow them down slightly, so they arrive at the livestream at the same time as the video.

   c) There was an occasional nasty flicker. This was alleviated by ensuring Zoom and OBS were operating at the same frame rate (25 fps).

   So far so good, then. Famous last words etc.

   On the morning of Friday 11th September, the day before the Awards Ceremony, while I was walking a group of neighbourhood kids to the local school, one of them, while listening to music on his phone, decided just to walk out into the middle of a busy road at a green light. Every morning up to this incident I'd kept telling the child, "Put away your phone, don't walk while using your phone." Fortunately no cars were coming and the kid was fine, but following this I experienced chest pains making it difficult to breathe. No cough, fever or loss of sense of taste or smell, just chest pains, which I'd experienced at times before of high pressure. I went to bed hoping to sleep it off, missing concerned phone calls from both William and Gina.

  The next day and feeling much improved, I got to work on the intro and credits video clips, as well as the Audience Choice Award video, which had been decided by vote the night before. Everything was moving towards completion and the day flew by.

   Due to a desire for staff safety and adherence to government guidelines of using hand sanitiser, masks, open windows and a minimum interpersonal space of two metres, it was decided that we use Gina's kitchen, which was bigger than my office, despite the slower internet connection. A zoom chat with 'Ghillie' film-makers Mike Marriage and Jamie Cooper was tentatively arranged. The most important part was delivery of the awards, but if possible I wanted to pick up the gauntlet of having some kind of live interaction with filmmakers within the livestream.

   We met at Gina's at 6pm in the pouring rain, with plenty of time (or so we thought) before the 8pm kick off. Set up the green screen and lights, hooked up the Mac to a second monitor and using a wireless keyboard and mouse, I was able to run the tech while William and Gina were able to present the show with the open MacBook screen to guide them and record them using the 720p FaceTime camera. 

   We were all good to go, doing a couple of rehearsals, when another problem presented itself: I needed my headset to monitor everything. William could do the nominations 'deaf' as it were, but he needed a headset to talk to Mike and Jamie. Gina's husband Richard had a spare headset. Much time was wasted trying to get the MacBook to play continuously through two headsets before I realised I could just wipe down my headset before giving it to William. I'd be 'deaf' to the Zoom call, which made me nervous, but during our set up check at 7:30 with Mike and Jamie the levels seemed to look okay. Mike and Jamie popped out of the Zoom Room with a view to popping back nearer the time.

   Ideally we would have had twenty minutes here to stand around outside, chilling and having a smoke in the cool evening air (had we been smokers) gathering our thoughts in preparation. But no, it was one final visit to the loo and then on with the show!

   Shortly after 8pm we went live. 

William and me warming up

   "Okay, I'll switch on the mics now!" said I, only to state loudly a few minutes later, "After this is the short intro." But luckily I don't think I was heard over the trailer audio.

   We had about a ten second lag, but everything seemed to be going fine. People could see us, people could hear us. All good.

   William and Gina did an admirable job and the first half went swimmingly. So much so that I made the fatal error of thinking, "This is going to be a breeze."

   Then for some reason OBS chose that moment to play up. Remember I said it was temperamental? The Best Sound clip had vanished from the Scene List. 

   Blackness. Dead air. 

   I took a breath and told myself not to panic. Instead I gestured to William to keep talking while I tried to figure out the problem, of which he did an excellent job.

   Skipping ahead to Best Editing seemed the best option, but that didn't work either. I gestured again to William and he in turn gestured to Gina to come on stage and continue the stall tactics. How they both managed to stay cool, calm and collected in front of the camera was beyond me, but they did great, in fact their improv was highly entertaining. So much so, I kept it in the edit.

   I realised I had to re-import the clips afresh. This seemed to work. In fact to be on the safe side I re-imported everything one step ahead of the segment William was at. Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film, Audience Choice Award. This meant each one started with a burst of loud volume I had to turn down as quickly as possible.

   Anyway, we'd refound our stride, and again I made the mistake of thinking, "We've done it! Just the credits to go! I've reimported them haven't I?" I saw the scene labeled RN Credits at the very bottom of the scene list. "Ah yes, this must be it." I queued it up, Gina and William signed off and I faded it in and sat back with a huge sigh of relief.

   But wait. Gina was saying something. Her lips were moving but I couldn't hear her. I'd gone temporarily deaf for real. Something about "Wrong credits." 

   I was like, "No, this is totally fine, look, white words on black screen going up, it's credits all right!" That's when I noticed the name 'Phil Hole.'

   It was the Raptor Newz Credits. 'Donuts by Phil Hole. Sound by Mike St And. Wardrobe by Ikea. All rights reserved and some left.'

   I knew I should have deleted all the extraneous scenes from the Scene List but hadn't had time to do it.

   I faded in the right credits hoping against hope I wouldn't have to re-import them and they played fine.

   And that was it. Made sure all the mics were off. Disconnected the livestream. Scanned the comments for something about the wrong credits, saw nothing and finally relaxed.

   William, Gina, Richard and I spent the next half hour decompressing and laughing with relief. It hadn't been perfect, but we'd given it our best shot and people seemed happy. Awards were delivered, and the Zoom livestream was perfect. 160 ms, baby!

From top left going clockwise: Mike Marriage (director), William Samson, Jamie Cooper (Producer)

   Looking back over the video to edit it for Vimeo and re-share I found there wasn't much to do, except trimming, cutting out a few moments of dead air and the wrong credits. In retrospect I should have realised the MacBook mic would not be good enough for two people standing apart and perhaps should have tried to connect my H2 recorder via USB. But again, with all that was going on, I'm just glad we got something out there. It might have taken another day to convince the MacBook to recognise yet another audio input.

   A day later and the livestream had a reach of 1,623, with 594 engagements, 128 comments, 5 shares and 765 views, which is none too shabby for an event.

   The 2020 SSFF wasn't without its challenges, but on the whole, if people look at the creativity, imagination and skill of the modern day film-force of and about Scotland that we were able to deliver and recognise, we hope you'll agree it is a worthwhile cause. In fact personally I would count the whole experience as by far my favourite distraction of 2020.

   With Gina at the helm the good ship SSFF has successfully completed another voyage, and long may she continue on her travels!