Schools looking to extend student, parent and community reach in the digital age are increasingly turning to video production and streaming, especially as the technology to deliver compelling content becomes more accessible. With this trend, student-run broadcast and AV studios are popping up across U.S. campuses, as administrators seek to bring live sports and performances to those unable to attend; train students on the tools of the trade; and for other purposes. When South Carolina-based Spartanburg High School began building its hybrid SDI/optical fiber video production center earlier this year, it didn’t anticipate just how vital the setup would become in enabling virtual events, educator training and distance learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaning on guidance from theatrical systems integrator Productions Unlimited and technology consultant Design Phase, Spartanburg High School Technology Coordinator Adam Babcock spearheaded the project. The resulting workflow launched in Summer 2020 and supports video production across campus venues, with streaming powered by AJA HELO H.264 streaming, encoding and recording devices.
In the initial design phase, Babcock and team placed the emphasis on production, with streaming a secondary focus, but as the pandemic hit, streaming became a top priority. With no audiences allowed in the arena or performing arts center and stadium attendance limited to a quarter capacity, it proved vital to sharing school and district events, as well as training and instruction. “AJA HELO was recommended during the design process based on the success that other high schools have had with it, and it’s one of the best decisions we’ve made. HELO makes it easy to send all of our live streams where they need to go,” Babcock shared. “We love that we can log in remotely, change all the configurations and stream to nearly any CDN we want, so we can be up and running in no time, which has been essential given the uptick in virtual content we’ve had to distribute this year with the pandemic.”
Every Spartanburg production is student-run and originates from one of three locations, with footage shot on a combination of cameras located in the football stadium, arena or performing arts center. The arena and stadium workflows largely mirror one another with the exception of the camera count. Stadium productions use footage captured footage from three PTZ cameras and three handheld cameras, while arena productions include footage from four PTZ cameras and three handheld cameras. Camera feeds from each location are converted to optical fiber via an in-stadium or in-arena video hub and transported to another video hub in the main control room, which is located backstage in the performing arts center. There they are converted back to SDI and input through a switcher, with the switched output sent through an AJA HELO for live streaming to YouTube or The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) network, depending upon the event, as well as to on-site stadium or arena displays. In the future, Babcock plans to use another HELO to stream live feeds to concession stand signage.
Since the fine arts center serves as the high school’s central production hub, all camera feeds in its workflow are directly fed into the control room video hub on-site. Each stream comprises footage shot from one PTZ camera and four handheld cameras. Regardless of the production locale, all content is recorded to YouTube or NFHS, or in the case of training, district meetings and distance learning, via Microsoft Stream, and made available for on-demand viewing.
Babcock is confident that Spartanburg High School’s new gear and workflow will be key for school and district operations moving forward. Even as restrictions relax and normal activities resume in the future, he expects some reluctance among parents, students and staff to brave big public outdoor or even smaller indoor events. With HELO powering its current setup, no one will have to miss out. “I didn’t realize just how useful HELO would be until we started using it,” explained Babcock. “I can point it at any server that handles RTSP, and it can actually solve some common video conversion and combination issues, not to mention we’ve also used it for audio re-embedding. The variety of HDMI and SDI pass through options will also come in handy for feeding stadium and arena concession stands. At the end of the day, it’s such a versatile device and one of our smartest investments.”
Beyond supporting the school’s video production and streaming needs, the setup allows students to get their feet wet in live production, which Babcock and the Spartanburg School District understand is crucial for students looking to get a head start on a future career in broadcast; run their own YouTube channel; or even just learn the basics of motion graphics.