A behind-the-scenes look at live streaming the Christmas Festival
What does it take to produce a live broadcast of a concert featuring more than 450 choral singers, nearly 100 orchestral musicians, and five conductors?
Just ask St. Olaf College. For the first time, it will offer a live video stream of the December 4 St. Olaf Christmas Festival concert — meaning that people around the world will be able to watch the renowned event in real time on their computer, tablet, or mobile device.
“Our goal is to make viewers feel like they have the best seat in the house,” says St. Olaf Director of Broadcast Media Services Jeffrey O’Donnell ’02, who is overseeing the production of the live stream. “To do that requires an enormous amount of planning, equipment, and expertise.”
That includes 10 HD cameras throughout the performance space, each individually controlled from new, high-tech video studios in Skifter Hall; an Emmy Award–winning director/producer team; and 17 skilled broadcast technicians, including 11 current St. Olaf students and three alumni.
“The Christmas Festival includes such a wide variety of music performed by six different ensembles — and there’s a huge range of mood and emotions throughout the program,” O’Donnell says. “We want to create a broadcast program that does it justice.”
The annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival is one of the oldest musical celebrations of Christmas in the United States, and tickets to the highly anticipated concerts are always in high demand.
While the festival is regularly broadcast nationwide on public television and radio, until now the only way to see it live each year has been in person.
As the college’s streaming operation and infrastructure have expanded — it now broadcasts concerts, lectures, and athletic events throughout the year — it became possible to think about broadcasting a performance as complex as the St. Olaf Christmas Festival as well.
“The live stream allows us to bring this message to those who have never experienced Christmas Festival, or people who have not experienced it for a very long time,” says Christmas Festival Artistic Director Anton Armstrong ’78. “It allows us to share the power of this message of hope, love, kindness, and justice. The festival transcends entertainment and it transforms the human spirit.”
O’Donnell’s team, which includes Chief Engineer Joshua Wyatt and Lighting Supervisor Sean Tonko, brought the director/producer team of Philip Byrd and Janet Shapiro on board to lead the video stream production.
The Emmy Award–winning duo has been involved in previous St. Olaf Christmas Festival broadcasts on PBS and has already spent tens of hours creating a shooting script and meticulously planning each camera shot. Making sure each camera operator knows where to go for the next shot — down to the specific row of musicians in a specific section of a specific ensemble — is the most complicated part of recording the two-hour-long Christmas Festival, Byrd says.
“I approach directing this almost like its own performance,” he says. “If you’re running a camera, you have a list of your shots and can think of me as the conductor.”
This attention to detail will create a production in which viewers at home will be able to see the performers much closer than they would in person.
“You’ll be able to see their facial expressions, see them play the flute or cello in detail,” O’Donnell says.
And if the video stream is done well, Byrd notes, what viewers at home see on the screen will only enhance the emotionally moving music of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival.
“Our goal is to use people’s eyes to open up their ears,” he says.