Ten Technical Tips for Terrific TEDx Talks
Congratulations, you have been tapped to produce the technical portion of your local TEDx!
The difficult work of creating a proposal, agreeing to a budget and determining the theme is now behind you. Now all that’s left is to create a schedule for load in, tech and show, determine the correct equipment for the job, figure out a look for the stage and the lighting, interface with the venue, hire the crew, gather and test all the assets, figure out the load in points, crew meals rigging-whew I’m tiring myself out just writing all this!
While it may seem overwhelming at first, like any big task you just need to tackle it bit by bit until it’s done. Here are a couple of tidbits to think about while putting together your amazing, one of a kind TEDx event!
An often overlooked but extremely important element of any TED is the look of the stage itself. It’s important to come up with a stage design concept that echoes and reinforces the theme and location while also beautifying the stage. In this example below we stacked wine barrels and did some tasteful color washes with inexpensive LED PAR’s.
The wine barrels reinforce the location, in this case for TEDx Sonoma aka wine county.
When we were coming up with ideas for stage design for TEDxBerkeley, the theme was solve for X. We thought about creating a big X to place on stage, but that seemed a little plain. What if we were to projection map it?! Then the X would become a reveal, going from the standard flat TED red to an animated logo when the talent walks out!
As you can see in the example, that’s exactly what we did. This clip of John Koening’s talk “The Conquest of New Words” was actually recently featured on TED.com’s home page, which is the ultimate goal of any serious TEDx producer and speaker (You’re welcome John, thanks for the funny joke at our expense!)
Stage design is labor and material intensive, takes critical thinking and creative chops and is the one thing that will absolutely put you head and shoulder above the other TEDx events if you take the time to do it right.
Lighting is so important! Lighting for stage has many important differences than lighting for film or TV. For starters, when lighting for a stage there are competing motivations-the light needs to bright but not so bright as to make the presenters squint. It needs to be placed high enough so that it doesn’t create shadows, but low enough that it doesn’t create “raccoon eyes”, where the presenters eyes are shrouded in shadow because of the shade created by their eye brows. Lighting is one of the most difficult trades to master-if you are not already a lighting designer, my advice is to hire one! While I can’t tell you exactly how to get there, I can tell you what I look for. Even, diffused lighting that is flattering to the presenters; The presence of backlighting to separate out the subject and the background; Not to intense and not to dim; Good balance between the background, foreground subject and projection; Not hitting the projection and causing hotspots; Finally I am looking for smooth, even skin tones so that the presenters look natural on camera. Here is a good example from another TEDx Sonoma talk we produced that checks all those boxes.
If everything else in your TED goes haywire, you can still get a solid 70% if you nail the audio. Mess up the audio and no matter how good everything else is, the event is a failure. It’s called a TED Talk, so if the audience can’t hear the ideas being communicated then the talk, and by default you haven’t done their job. This is not to say everything always goes perfect-it’s a live event after all (see this year’s Grammys)! But when things go south, it’s your job to have a contingency plan. Have some wired mics on standby! Run that spare hand held out the moment you get a drop out! Don’t wait for it to get better, it probably won’t. As the producer, it’s your job to overcome these kind of difficulties.
Consider video production the icing on the cake. Everyone likes cake, even unfrosted. But how much better is it with the thick layer of sweet, sweet frosting! Once you have projection dialed in, sound is perfect, you know when and where everyone should be, then turn to video production.
Live video is our passion and speciality here at Repertoire so I could write a whole article on this alone but start with the basics. Try to round up two HD cameras with decent zoom lenses (12x and above) and good fluid head tripods. If the cameras are your primary record, make sure to send audio to the cameras to get the clean audio off the mixer. If you are shorthanded, one person can run both cameras-one can be a locked off wide shot and the other punches in to get close ups. Later on in post, you can use the audio waveforms to sync the two angles and to time the dropping in of slides. Warning-it takes a long time to cut 12-20 multicam talks together in post! You don’t want to take weeks to upload your videos because by then they have lost all their viral appeal. That’s why we use a Tricaster 8000 production switcher to cut together up to 8 live cameras and slides. The video is practically done by the time the speaker leaves the stage. The only thing left to do in post is to cut heads and tails, add in the slates and sponsor slide and export to a web friendly codec.
Here is our senior video director Jake Richmond directing and switching three Sony PXW-320’s and two PMW-300’s with 40x lenses.
The important thing here is that screens are big enough to see all the way from the back and bright enough to overcome the stage lights and other light emitting scenic elements. We typically use twin 15,000 lumen Digital Projection projectors and 16’x9’ screens. This setup is good for all but the biggest of venues. For a smaller stage, we might use a 10’x5’9 Screen and 8K projectors. This is all going to depend on your venue, which is why location scouting and pre-production is so important.
One important note on projector placement-ideally you will be able to place the projectors high enough so that you can get a clean shot of the speaker without the screen in the background, as the screen will most likely be a different color temp than your stage lights. If this is not possible, try to match your stage lights to the color temp of the screen, or visa versa. Here is an example where the stage was not big enough to fly the screens, so we matched the stage lights to the same 5600K color temperature as the projector. Note the skin tones in both the video frame grab and the projection are roughly the same.
Venue and Crew
This may be your passion project, but without buy in from your (most likely) volunteer crew you won’t get very far. You need these fantastic men and women who live and breath theater to pull off a successful show. Here are a few of the key positions you should definitely hire if you have the resources/connections to do so. Here are few key positions to consider:
Stage Manager (creates the Run of Show, runs rehearsal)
Technical Director (ensures all the tech is in the right configuration and working properly)
A1 (runs the front of house mixer, responsible for overall sound quality)
A2 (mics the presenters, creates mic assignment, runs mics if needed)
Video Director (calls camera operator moves, switches, responsible for live stream and record)
Of course there are also camera operators, stage hands, electricians, carpenters and probably a sizable army of volunteers. Each position is important. Treat them with respect, buy them food and lavish them with compliments-getting them onboard with your vision is crucial.
Venue staff is another important HR factor to consider. Keep in mind, they are in charge of the venue. If they something can’t happen for whatever reason, that is the end of the story. Work within the established venue rules to accomplish your goals-no one ever succeeded by making an enemy out of the venue manager.
Signal flow is important when you have lots of different sources feeding various devices. One example might be a main PC that is feeding the screens, and second PC with the same content feeding notes to the downstage monitors. This doesn’t need to be an overly complicated process-I create my signal flow charts in Powerpoint. Put down all the sources, all the destinations, the cables connecting them and figure out the most convenient path to connect it all.
Run of Show
Run of Show is simply a schedule with all the cues built in. The more descriptive, the more down to the minute you can get it the better! Here is an example from TEDx Berkeley.
This is data entry-if you are like most people it’s not your favorite thing to do but as the producer, you need to know exactly what is going to happen when. Drafting the ROS is the best way to do this.
Most likely the TEDx Curator is going to be in a rush to get their people up on the stage to rehearse. They spent a ton of time and energy booking these speakers and they want them to experience the rush of stepping onto your beautifully designed stage as soon as possible-tell them to wait until you have performed a thorough tech check. Nothing will undermine a speaker’s confidence like a mic that doesn’t work or feeds back, a missing video or presentation not sized up correctly or with the wrong aspect ratio. Check every mic, roll every video before the talent gets there. Only then will you know you are ready for the next step…
Again, so important! Without adequate rehearsal time you are basically flying blind. This does not necessarily mean every presenter needs to give their entire talk-with up to twenty presenters and speeches up to twenty minutes long it may be impossible. At the very least though, have them walk through the process of entering and exiting stage-there should be a very specific path they walk for blocking and safety reasons. Have them quickly click through their entire presentation to ensure it’s show ready. This give both presenter and tech crew a chance to make adjustments, plan for reveals and basically to get on the same page. Plan on spending at least half a day (5 hours) on rehearsals.
Of course, if this still all seems overwhelming, you can always call Repertoire to produce the event for you! That way you get the accolades and you can sleep the night before so that you look great while accepting your award. Soon, this will be you!