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The Vanderbilt Commencement Ceremony Production, Part 1

The commencement ceremony at Vanderbilt University is a huge event with hundreds of graduates and televising it has to go right the first time.

The Vanderbilt Commencement Ceremony Production, Part 1

Aug 26, 2014 8:36 PM,
With Bennett Liles

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Part 1 | Part 2

Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

From Sound & Video Contractor Magazine, this is the SVC Podcast with Nic Dugger of TNDV. Show notes for the podcast can be found on the web site of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at

The commencement ceremony at Vanderbilt University is a huge event with hundreds of graduates and televising it has to go right the first time. TNDV was brought in for the show and Nic Dugger is going to tell us how they set it all up for big screens and the webcast. That’s right here on the SVC Podcast.

Nic, it’s good to have you back with us again on the SVC Podcast from TNDV up there in Nashville to talk about the Vanderbilt commencement telecast. What else has been going on at TNDV lately?

Well I’ll tell you, TNDV has already had a very busy year this year. I think probably the biggest news is we bought our very own headquarters facility here in Nashville so we have a giant warehouse where we can park all of our mobile production units inside. We now have offices and conference rooms and break rooms all in a building that we own, so that’s been very exciting. [Timestamp: 1:15]

Okay, quite a bit going on and it’s kind of interesting because we haven’t talked about televising a big commencement ceremony before but I’m sure that comes with its own set of challenges. That’s going to be especially true with a big university with hundreds of graduates crossing the stage. This one isn’t the first big project like this for TNDV is it?

No. We’ve actually been doing this for a number of years and we’ve been doing it for a number of years with Vanderbilt, so this was a unique year because they finally decided to go high def this year which was a big choice because for the fact that we do feed the web and do feed the video boards, high def is certainly not necessary. But luckily for us, a client like Vanderbilt University recognizes that that higher resolution improves production quality overall. You know, just like a nicer PA system makes sound better and more lights make the event look better, going to high definition makes our product all that much more better so we were thrilled they finally made that step up for us this year. We’ll continue to do HD from here on out. [Timestamp: 2:17]

And of course a commencement ceremony is a live event, no retakes and it’s a very big crowd. Did they make any special stipulations for this one or anything that was different than before?

Well thankfully, like I said we’ve been doing this event for a number of years so we’ve become close with this client. We’re very familiar with what they’re looking for and I think the most important thing for us to remember is that while it may be two or three or four hundred students going across that stage that day, each individual – for their 5 or 10 or 15 seconds they’re going across the stage it’s the most important to them and the people that are watching. So you don’t ever get to sit back and relax or become complacent during those 400 some-odd names because if you slack off for just one of them, that’s one family or one mom or dad or grandparent that won’t see their grandchild or child crossing that stage so you have to stay focused for a very long amount of time, hours in some cases, and make sure that every name is correct, every lower third is correct, the pronunciation is correct. So the attention to detail for long periods of time is crucial. [Timestamp: 3.23]

Yeah, a very select audience and one that is very highly motivated and in tune with what’s going on and you have to make sure they don’t miss their one special moment or they’re going to loaded for bear.

Absolutely. So we want to make sure it’s perfect and looks good and sounds good and when those students who have invested so much time and money get their opportunity to shine on stage, we want to make sure it looks perfect.

So, describe the setup for us. What all did you have in there?

Well for Vanderbilt, they actually have two setups. They have a setup inside their gymnasium. We use that for what they refer to as “Senior Day.” They give out a bunch of awards and they have a guest speaker come in and for that we set up a four-camera system with our truck parked outside. And that also becomes the rain location so if there’s a problem with the outdoor festivities on Friday, the following day, we’re already partially loaded into the gym so we can quickly retreat back to the gym and set back up in there. For commencement on Friday, we’re set up over on the lawn. They have an alumni lawn that seats hundreds and hundreds of people and for that we add some cameras. We step it up to a six-camera HD shoot with full graphics and full replay support and a full broadcast audio mix. The idea is that the truck can be parked in either location and work just as efficiently. So if there’s rain in the forecast we know that we can get over to the gym where we’re already pre-cabled and ready to go and set up quickly if there is rain in the forecast. [Timestamp: 4:48]

And the camera signals and communications back to the truck, is that all a standard situation using fiber for you now?

Yeah it’s – you know it’s all SMPTE fiber, which we run thousands of feet because they want the truck to be out sight and not parked there on the lawn for anybody to see. So we have to run quite a bit of cable to each of these cameras to make sure that we can stay out of sight. We don’t want to disturb the attendees with our production clutter but we leave both locations fully cabled so no matter where we pull the trucks on the morning of commencement, the camera cable is laying there waiting for us. [Timestamp: 5:21]

And it’s a very big video display setup for that big a crowd and most likely having it outside. Not everybody can get in close enough to see their special person crossing the stage so you have to have some very big video displays. So you still use projection on this one?

No. We do all LED. It’s been a number of years since we’ve used projectors, so we build custom video boards for both locations, so inside the gym we have the large LED screen that fed via an SDI cable from the truck. It’s actually a separate feed from what we send out to the web, so if we want to put a logo or a tight shot up on the video board, we have the ability to do that and still switch the cameras to the web. Same thing for the lawn. They build a custom large LED video board for the entire lawn crowd to see. We send that feed independently of our line cut that we do for the web just for creative control. [Timestamp: 6:13]

And what all do they have during the ceremony? Do they have any live music or is it mainly speeches and the handing out of the degrees?

Yeah, obviously handing out the diplomas is the majority of the event but they do always have a keynote speaker of some sort for that senior day I mentioned. Then they’ll always allow the valedictorian to give an address. There’s always a benediction and then the chancellor or the provost will get up and say some words. Vanderbilt, especially, is a very historic university and they take commencement very seriously. It’s obviously a very important stepping stone in these students’ lives. So they make sure it’s not just the handing out of diplomas. They make sure there’s some good, intellectual content to be gained by the crowd as well. [Timestamp: 6:53]

And if the weather doesn’t work somebody along the line makes a decision at some point to fall back to the gym where you’re already partially set up but that’s a much different environment. It would seem like you kind of have to shift gears a lot to do it inside there on short notice.

Yeah it’s disappointing the years that it rains, but we’ll certainly take moving in the gym versus a cancellation. So it’s not as ideal as the nice outdoor lawn setting, you know, a nice spring Tennessee day is a great day to share with your family, but if it rains, moving inside – it’s not the end of the world. The university really goes out of their way to make sure that’s a comfortable environment for the hundreds of attendees to still be able to enjoy the day. [Timestamp: 7:34]

And how do you get it out on the Web? You come out of your mixer you’re your switcher with the audio and video and then what happens?

We do. We actually have a live streaming encoder there onsite and we use the high speed internet that’s provided by the university to get that live video stream to the Web. Then the Vanderbilt IT department makes sure it gets out to all the viewers and they’re able to support hundreds and hundreds of simultaneous live viewers. Then again, that was a nice change this year being able to hand off a high def feed versus standard def. The quality was significantly increased and just sitting in the truck watching a backup version of the stream I can immediately tell the quality overall. [Timestamp: 8:13]

And until recently, watching an event like that online was a little like looking at it under water but you guys have really taken it up a notch.

Yeah. You know the sharpness, the detail, the levels of chroma and saturation in the image, it’s all obvious when you use high def feeds starting with extra pixels. It certainly pays off, even if you’re watching on your iPhone or your iPad.

And TNDV also did the University of Virginia ceremony. Was that one quite a bit different than Vanderbilt’s version or was it pretty much the same kind of setup?

It was very similar as far as what the production was. Different, of course, because a different university and different policies. At UVA they really focused on the architecture on campus. They wanted to make sure that the shots included a lot of the pretty statues and the nice-looking buildings on campus, but essentially it was the same goal. They had a guest speaker for the senior day and then commencement day of course was very highly attended; hundreds and hundreds of visitors were there onsite. All in all it was a very successful event as well. [Timestamp: 9:12]

And you have that all done and commencement season has for the most part sort of slid on into history for this year so what has TNDV got coming up next?

Well we have a very busy summer ahead of us. We do a lot of outdoor music festivals, many of which are also live streams. So we’ll take part in festivals like in Monterrey, California there’s the California Roots Festival, up in Michigan there’s the Faster Horses Music Festival, and then we get to go down to Walt Disney World this year. We’re gonna be providing all the production facilities for Disney’s Night of Joy, a two-night concert festival there within the theme park. It’s a political season too; a lot of elections this year so we have a number of election return coverages we’re going to help with and a couple of debates, so we have all kinds of great stuff coming up in the next few months. [Timestamp: 9:57]

Okay, and in part two we’re going to be talking with Cody Heimann about doing the sound system for the Vanderbilt commencement and see what his setup was like for that. Thanks for joining us for this one, Nic, and for giving us an outline on how TNDV handled the Vanderbilt commencement.

My pleasure. I look forward to talking to you again soon.

Thank you for being with us for the SVC Podcast with Nic Dugger of TNDV. Show notes are available on the web site of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at In part two we’ll be talking with Cody Heimann about the sound setup at the Vanderbilt commencement ceremony on the next SVC Podcast.

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