All Right On The Virtual Night!

by Jason Allen

There’s a tried and true formula for an industry awards night – find a big ballroom in a capital city, fill it full of production and theming, fly in the luminaries, put on a big show with dinner, and hand out the gongs. But of course, all of that went completely out the window for the premiere night for the Australian events industry in 2020.

Faced with COVID restrictions and closed borders, the 2020 edition of the annual Australian Event Awards, slated for 21 October, almost didn’t go ahead. It was only after a monumental effort from the organisers and their production and technical partners that the show evolved into four separate, but linked, gala events, a ‘virtual’ show in Melbourne, and a livestreamed broadcast pulling it all together. On the night, winners included ‘Highway to Hell’, the Perth Festival’s closing event, for ‘Best Cultural, Arts or Music Event’, and the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup, for ‘Australian Event of the Year’.

Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, and Brisbane all got their (COVID-safe) dinner and a show, with Sydney functioning as HQ for the livestream. Big Picture set up their broadcast control room at the Luna Park venue, with internet services supplied by Barrett Evolution and streaming production from Firesteel. The P.A. People were brought in to supply the video links between each site, and with five separate shows across four time zones needing to be co-ordinated, the all-important distributed comms system to keep it all on track.

“Each state had its own local production,” explains Andy Carson, Senior Systems Engineer (Event Communications) at The P.A. People. “It was slightly different in every state, but basically the local suppliers provided audio, lighting, video, and cameras. We took a live feed from the local vision mixer at each venue along with an audio split and sent them via SRT over the public internet back to Sydney, to the broadcast control room at Luna Park. Ian Cooper mixed audio on a Yamaha PM10 supplied by Coda. After the video and audio was switched and mixed by Big Picture, we sent the mixed feed back out via SRT to each site.”

Australian Event Awards 2020 - Virtual Event Solution

The P.A. People sent a pre-configured rack to each remote site that contained a network switch, Clear-Com LQ audio-over-Ethernet interface, Clear-Com FreeSpeak II wireless comms system with  beltpacks, and a computer loaded with SDI to NDI converters. There were also PTZ NDI cameras at each venue that sent confidence shots back to the control room.

“We have a Clear-Com matrix frame in a Sydney data centre,” elaborates Andy. “This enabled us to link all the site’s comms together. We are also hosting an instance of Clear-Com’s Agent-IC in the cloud, which enables to run comms on mobile devices, anywhere. All up, there were four channels of comms running to each site. They included the linked global show call from the caller in Sydney, who could speak to every site at once, the local show call channel for each state to talk to each other, the channel for the camera call in each state, and a channel to talk to the local techs without talking over the show call. Everything was linked via the internet and into the FreeSpeak II system in each state, so the local techs could all go wireless while talking to us in Sydney.”

Co-ordinating the shows was down the skill and experience of the show callers, with help from some very capable presenters and rock-solid comms. “Each state had its own stage manager and caller, and the awards shows were designed to run around dinner,” outlines Andy. “The whole production relied on the showcallers to keep everyone in check. The P.A. People and Barrett Evolution have done many multi-site productions across national and international borders, and it’s always full on! We enabled IFB for every presenter and IFB connectivity to the show callers, so they could talk to every presenter’s IEMs individually. We even did IFB feeds into Zoom to cue respondents for the virtual Melbourne event!”.

With virtual and livestreamed events blossoming amid the pandemic, The P.A. People have been constantly busy providing services for remote comms and production, enabling them to hone and perfect their local and remote systems.  “We have clients that are doing major events every month,” offers Andy. “As the virtual event market has expanded, it’s allowed us to expand our requirements and polish all our native IP technologies.”