We have all seen a lot of 'virtual choir' videos recently. Oliver Peters took the concept a stage further and edited a whole hour and a half virtual holiday cabaret show. In Final Cut Pro, of course!
The pandemic affected many lives and businesses in 2020, but one sector hit harder than most has been live entertainment. Not just concerts and theater, but it also impacted countless crews and performers working in small shows, theme parks, cruises, clubs, and more. The internet has proven to be a creative outlet for some who have put together all manner of solo and ensemble performances remotely, thanks to webcams, smartphones, and services like Zoom.
TinMen, the creative production company where I hang my hat during the day was approached by one of our regular clients, Katy Harris, to handle the post for a holiday cabaret show for her charity, Les Trèfles du Coeur. Harris’s personal experiences with cancer drove her to found this small charity, which benefits patients undergoing treatment at the St. Louis Hospital in Paris. As a veteran artistic director for live entertainment, Harris has a wide network of performers with whom she’s worked on both sides of the Atlantic. In past years she mounted a live holiday cabaret show in Paris as a fundraiser, which featured some of these entertainers. That wasn’t possible in 2020, and so the internet would have to become the alternative.
(Click for larger images, click again for pixel to pixel)
Designing a virtual cabaret show
Harris conceived the show as a virtual version of a cabaret, with 22 solo performances, English and French emcees (master of ceremonies), and a 42-voice virtual choir finale. All running about 80 minutes in total. For me, the first challenge seemed to be the virtual choir ending segment. Anyone who thinks this is simply a matter of recording a massive Zoom call is in for a shock!
Initially I thought about using one of the various Final Cut Pro videoconference/video wall Motion templates; but, it quickly became apparent that a manual approach would be better. That’s because the number and arrangement of singers would change at nearly ever measure within the four-minute medley of classic Christmas carols. This ranged from as few as eight up to the full 42 at the end, with various combinations in between.
Andre Bohrer, one of our other editors, worked out all of the grid patterns in Adobe Illustrator, generating a series of template files for the various pages. The final design became a pattern of Mondrian-style rectangles within our 16 x 9 video frame. Harris used these JPEGs to assign singers into boxes. She then organized a timeline against the scratch track of the medley in iMovie, which became my template for the final layout.
Since most performers were working from home, the videos would largely consist of iPhone (or other) recordings. We had instructed them to record in landscape mode, 1920 x 1080 at 29.97fps. Sound quality and sync was obviously a concern, so each sang along to a scratch track of the medley with a countdown at the head. Most wore earbuds (or similar), which allowed them to hear the track from an external source, but record only the clean vocals. The countdown provided a sync reference for me. As long as they counted reasonably in sync with the countdown on the track, then I would have a starting point for later alignment.
Fortunately this plan came together well, with only a couple of vertical submissions. It was, of course, a given that the video and audio quality would vary, depending on the technical skills and the resources of each individual. The video issues with iPhones are obvious, but the vocal recording would also be a challenge. Audio recordings would either come from the on-board or an attached external microphone.
Some of these 42 singers also provided solo numbers for the 22 standalone videos within the show, using this same production approach. These performances ranged from classics, like “The Christmas Song,” to modern numbers, like “Let It Go,” from Frozen. In addition to their clean vocals, the singers also supplied the backing track that they had used - usually a karaoke version of that song. Since these had no countdown, I synced the vocals to the track by ear and musical sense. Although a few of the 22 supplied completely edited and mixed videos, it was up to me to mix the majority.
Editing and mixing the solo acts
iPhone/webcam recordings often present a sync issue, because the native recordings may be at a variable frame rate and not a solid 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97, or 30fps rate. Final Cut deals with this, but once you separate the audio track in an audio application, the project clock is based on sample rate and not frame rate. When you bounce out a solid 48kHz file, it may not sync back up to the picture. After encountering this a couple of times, I opted to first transcode every file to ProResLT - forcing it into a constant 29.97/48kHz file. Even then, audio often needed to be slipped a few frames.
Each solo performance was built as a standalone element for easier organization within the final rundown. First step - sync the video to the track and exported an FCPXML, which I then imported into Logic Pro. There, I balanced levels and added a variety of plug-ins to both the vocals and the backing track. Typically these included some noise reduction, EQ, compression, and reverb. In a few cases, I also tweaked the vocals with pitch correction/auto-tuning, which is built into Logic Pro. The vocal and music tracks were bounced out separately, so that I maintained control of the final balance back in Final Cut.
There were no internal picture edits, although I added graphic enhancements to each. This is a holiday show and we wanted a lively, playful visual appearance throughout. But not a single background element, which would really become monotonous over 80 minutes. The room backgrounds in these home recordings were a mixed bag, depending on the home or apartment - some more decorated than others. To spruce up the visuals, each video was embellished with different backgrounds, holiday adornments, and simple snow, snowflake, or sparkle animations.
The project’s graphic designer, Michael Montgomery (Big Dreamer Design, Inc), had supplied some background and animation elements, like the wreath animation used for the opening title and the lower third song and artist titles. Unfortunately, you chew through those pretty quickly when you try to do something different for each of the 22 solo acts, plus emcee intros. To mix it up, I generated elements in Motion and also the free Boris FX Particle Illusion application. I also downloaded a ton of stock animations and some video clips from Envato Elements.
The Christmas medley finale - a virtual choir singalong
This 80-minute cabaret show culminates in a medley of classic Christmas songs in both French and English, arranged and created by Scott Erickson. Building it took a series of steps, since Erickson was going to handle this particular mix. Final Cut Pro’s audio roles feature is perfect for a video like this. Each of the 42 singers was assigned an audio role according to their name.
As I downloaded videos from Harris (who organized the clips and takes), the transcoded versions were placed onto the timeline as connected clips in sync with the medley scratch track. These came in batches and resulted in more or less an alphabetical, vertical sorting on the timeline. At this stage, it didn’t matter which box a person would ultimately appear in, since that arrangement would change throughout. Some singers would appear more often than others. A particular arrangement might be based on French versus English-speaking singers or which performers had appeared together in the same cast at some point in the past.
To start, each singer was arbitrarily positioned into a grid - seven across with six vertical rows. Once each was in sync, I detached the audio and slipped the picture a few frames when necessary. As each row was filled, those seven were compounded, as were the same set of audio tracks. This was important, because I needed to manage the screen real estate within the interface and handle temporary volume as I added new singers to the group.
I was cutting the video on a 10-core iMac Pro and playback was good up to about 25 real-time layers. By using compound clips, I could easily disable earlier rows as needed, once I exceeded 25. This was important, because I needed fluid playback to judge sync - not only audio/video sync of the clip, but sync against the music and the other signers. Remember, the point is to build a piece that sounds like a coordinated ensemble choir.
A video in this 42-box, temporary grid layout with my scratch mix was exported for reference. I then broke apart all of the audio compounds to reveal 42 individual audio role lanes. I restored each track’s volume to a normal, isolated level (no effects). These were then exported by roles as separate audio files. This made it easy for Erickson to line up all 42 tracks at the head and be in sync, without the need to deal with AAF, OMF, or XML files.
With the mix for the medley underway, I tackled the picture next. The first step was to break apart all of the compound video clips. Then, drop in the reference video Harris had built for the box layout. At each change in the layout, such as from 20 to 35 boxes on a page, all connected clips were bladed. Once I had added all of the cut points, I next removed clips for any person not appearing in that specific section. Going section by section, I scaled and positioned each person’s clip to fit into their assigned rectangle within that grid page.
One extra visual feature occurs during “Silent Night.” Some clips are treated with a blue color wash, which also changed between measures. This relates to casts that had worked together in previous shows. Once the boxes were all arranged, the template was replaced by our holiday background and transition elements were added. Since this finale was envisioned as an audience singalong, the final picture step was the addition of song lyric subtitles.
Once Erickson finished his mix in Pro Tools, the final composite track came back to me and was married to the final video. For the most part, his mix involved EQ, compression, and reverb. A few harmony parts were also tuned and doubled. But, in general, no real mixing “magic” tricks were required - just mixing talent.
With all of the pieces completed, the last step was to compile these standalone elements into a cohesive cabaret show, including intro, emcees (with French or English subtitles), transitional elements, and additional open, close, and emcee bed music, supplied by Bill Brown.
As one can imagine, projects like these take hours of work and include many on both sides of the camera. But it’s always worth it for a great cause.
For more information about the charity: lestreflesducoeur.com
The Christmas Medley:
Holiday Cabaret de Noël in full: