The World’s Biggest Stages Go Virtual: 10 Observations from the RNC/DNC/VMA
By Doug Binder, Senior Creative Director, InVision Communications
How do you reproduce the live, arena-style rituals of amped up patriotism and musical mind-benders in a pandemic? And what can the events business learn from it?
Let’s start with the conventions. The productions were top-notch, but not without a few glitches and awkward pauses. A lot of the direction validated many of the teachings of the event industry’s crash course in pivoting to virtual since March. It also included some moments that, in hindsight, we should have known would be problematic. We’ll call them revelations.
1. Keep it bite-sized. Bursts of short speeches and videos make for engaging viewing and assures the viewer that, if this isn’t your cup of chai, the next activity might be. These bits are also good for retention. Be careful to maintain focus in message and to engineer cohesion. In short: make it a meal.
2. Backdrops matter. Seeing people in their day-to-day humanizes us all, and I don’t think it’s gotten stale…yet. The DNC speakers used more “real” backdrops, as well as, DNC2020 logos and imagery. The RNC established a more consistent patriotic look with backdrops draped wall-to-wall with American flags. (Each rightly captured their brand in the eyes of the fans/loyalists/base/constituency
2a. Backdrops matter, part 2. Roll calls used to be THE high point of any convention – so much character and enthusiasm. The DNC roll call, set against the vistas of 57 states and territories, was definitely more inspiring and effective than the RNC delegates set against a claustrophobic step-and-repeat. Of course, when it comes to backdrops, if you live in the White House, you’re rocking a pretty impressive (if controversial) backdrop.
3. Audiences matter. Before even Caesar, the best orators played to the crowd (“friends, Romans…” etc.). Political conventions exist for the roar of a loyal and predictable audience. I found it odd that too often at both conventions, speakers still used built-in applause lines; but instead of applause, the only sound was their voices echoing off the stony walls. And if someone yells and gesticulates grandly in an empty room, does it resonate in my living room? Answer: depends on whom you ask.
3a. Audiences matter, part 2. The conventions were not able to capture the rapture and energy of an arena spectacle. But that didn’t stop them from showing wide shots of eerily empty spaces, the exact opposite of a packed arena.
3b. Audiences matter, part 3. It was reassuring that those vying to lead the free world for four years did not resort to cardboard cutouts and cheer tracks, a la empty sports stadiums and arenas. Keepin’ it classy!
4. Eye contact matters. Because there are no audiences, speakers’ eyes should be set on nothing else but the camera with the red light. And when you are talking to that camera, you are talking not to thousands of rabid fans. You are talking to one person or a family. Be authentic, empathic and respectful.
5. Live vs. recording. Recorded content (or simulive) is safer. Live just feels more urgent and exciting. In the case of the conventions, there were a number of recorded speeches that felt tone-deaf, because they were captured days in advance of the broadcast moment when our fast-changing society was already different. I can see true-live becoming more prevalent as we settle into this new reality.
6. Leaders lead. I liked that former Vice President Biden led some of the DNC panels, speaking to remote panelists via video. Especially powerful was having seven of his past rivals join for a unifying conversation. He listened but he also led.
7. Stock footage brokers hit the jackpot. Casual viewers of the conventions were exposed to more stock footage than video professionals are in a year. Unfortunately, stock footage looks like stock footage. It isn’t fun or ideal, but it’s cheap, easy and safe. Even so, some segment producers tried to shape their narrative of today’s America by using scenes from other countries and other years without the appropriate context.
8. Sometimes you need more than a bite. I love when faces and voices coalesce into a symphony. I’ve attempted a number of those since March (with varying degrees of success). The DNC’s Tuesday “keynote” took this a bit far. By piecing together too many short bites the result was jagged and jarring. It might have been better to give a few participants longer segments to drive home vital messages and sprinkle in other bites for emphasis.
9. Audiences matter, part 4. The walls of video-conferenced faces: This feels akin to the cardboard cutouts, but I’m willing to give it time to mature. To me, it seems to heighten the sense of isolation, like a cell block in riot or the Brady kids’ third-generation spawn. Perhaps some creative montaging and editing will make this feel more human.
10. Rethink and reimagine everything. MTV’s VMAs were something they haven’t been in decades: they were thrilling, dangerous and downright bizarre. If you hadn’t missed your coworkers before, waking up Monday made me long for the water cooler.
More than anything, the VMAs erased and replaced a sense of place -- the stage, theater and physical walls that used to house our work, our community and our dreams, now symbolize isolation. They transported the action and audiences into worlds without borders, walls or even gravity. Some of the concepts played were incoherent, but most pushed the idea of what can be possible in our virtual worlds if we’re willing to transcend convention (pun intended).
Winter is coming and walls are still a thing. So, let’s build on the good work of our peers and keep pushing what’s possible to achieve what’s always been our mission: to engage, enlighten, inspire and thrill.
Okay, we’re off to virtual Burning Man!