Community Holiday events during the pandemic

Every year around this time I make a post about how I covered my town’s annual holiday celebrations. The historic small town of Doylestown, PA has held an over century long tradition of celebrating the start of the holiday season. The evening after Thanksgiving, thousands gather in the town center. Choirs sing, music plays, and a marching band escorts Santa in on a vintage 1923 fire truck to countdown and light the town tree for the first time. In recent years, it even “snows” thanks to snow making machines. It’s like out of Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie. Still photos of the experience resemble a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s a big deal.

2019 Doylestown, PA Tree Lighting Ceremony

I have covered this event in video form throughout my life. In the late 80’s, early 90’s, while employed at my area’s local cable station. Then again, in current times, since 2016 for the local Business & Community group, Discover Doylestown.  I greatly enjoy doing this each year, and each year push myself to find a new and creative technique. I’ve used Go Pros, I’ve used an iPad as my “camera,” and have even recorded it in 360 VR.

2018 Tree Ceremony in 8K 360 VR

This year would make for a whole different set of challenges. As with every mass crowd gathering event in 2020, the large crowd simply can’t happen right now. So, the holiday planning committee was tasked with finding a “virtual” way to provide some sort of tree lighting ceremony, and present it to the local community via Facebook & YouTube.

2020’s “Virtual” Tree Ceremony – the finished video.


I recorded it with my Panasonic HC-X1000 camera, in Cine 4k at 24p. It made for a great look, and even in the darker scenes, looked sharp and crisp in 4K. For sound, a wireless lav for Santa, and the cast was done with a Comica shotgun mic. Designed for DSLR cameras, but in this case mounted on a stationary boom pole in front of the talent. Worked well on what was sometimes a noisy street.  It was shot around 9pm on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The Starbucks in front of the tree had just closed, and the usual bar crowd around the many establishments weren’t around due to restrictions of the pandemic. So, town was pretty light of people. It was still challenging to shoot around occasional people that would pop up in the background, or cars going through the intersection. The main concept of the video was that they were all out there alone.  More on achieving that effect later.  For Santa’s view of flying over town, I used my DJI MAVIC Air drone. To do this responsibly, I needed to shoot with some daylight, so I came back and flew right at daybreak, and cropped the camera angle to avoid seeing that it was daybreak. It worked better than I hoped. It still looked pretty dark to the drone’s camera.

Now to put it together. I’m a Final Cut Pro X user–I’m quite comfortable with it. New to play with was Apple Motion, which I used for the special effects of the “magic dust,” and Santa’s “sleigh” flying over the tree at the end. This was a good project to learn how to use Motion. When it comes to new software, I am not one that can learn it by “just playing around.”  I need to have a project or task that I need to complete. This was the project I needed to understand it better. I realize that I have only brushed the surface of what Motion is capable of, but at least I have the basics now.


Using non traditional effects on traditional video in FCPX.

I have used this technique before, but for this video, REALLY used it a lot. Since I also work with 360 VR video, I have used many of the FCPX tools for that medium. One of them is the “360 Patch.”  For 360 video, it is used normally to mask out the camera mount from the bottom of the scene.  I have discovered that this effect also works with traditional “flat” video.  In the example below, I used it to mask out the obtrusive stop sign next to Santa. The 360 Patch is key frameable, so I can adjust it per frame to follow the camera movement. I did a lot of key frame matching in this video, which made me happier at my decision to shoot at 24p (less frames to change).

At the perfect take I needed to use of one of Santa’s lines, a car went behind him!  Ugh!  I can’t have that!  So, I used the 360 Patch in two parts of the image, and…frame by frame, adjusted it to cover the car lights going by. It was a quick shot, and it worked!

This also worked well to mask out a person that I didn’t notice was in the background when shooting the scene, as well as “turning off” the bright Starbucks sign by the tree during the pivotal lighting scene, along with removing the car parked next to the tree.  The 360 Patch effect (original to FCPX) has a lot of uses outside 360 video.

Final Cut Pro X “360 Patch” is also useful for traditional video. Great to mask out objectionable objects.

Back in the planning stages, “Santa” said to me: “hey can you make it look like I throw something magical at the tree, then it lights?”  Well, challenge accepted. When we all showed up on the night of the shoot, Santa had a clear bag of actual glitter he was going to throw. I had him just act like he was throwing it from his bag, and I’ll do the effect digital. The digital glitter could be much more controlled, more visible, plus the fact that he would need to throw that glitter several times from different shooting angles.  This is where I put Apple Motion to work. It was actually a fairly simple effect, but worked well with the scene, and his hand motion. The hardest part of this scene was shooting it live. It took several takes to get the timing of him throwing the “magic dust,” and the tree turning on, which was done by someone sitting behind it and just plugging it in. The last take is the one used. Timing was perfect!

It takes a team…..

This was such a fulfilling project to work on, and one for the record books. Everyone on the committee and others all volunteered to try to make the event happen in a “covid appropriate” way. It debuted as a Premiere video on Facebook at 6:30pm the evening after Thanksgiving–the same time the tree would have been lit normally. It was well received with over 7,500 views in a week. We are all hoping and planning to return to the huge crowds next year.  A Slideshow of some of the “Behind the Scenes” photos:

Live from “The North Pole”

During the pandemic, it was simply not feasible to have crowds of children coming into the small “Santa House” in town, sitting on his lap, taking pictures, etc. The small footprint wouldn’t even allow for social distancing for photos. It was decided among the committee to have Santa read letters kids left for him in designated mailboxes around the town. He would read them weekly live on Facebook. We created a little “set” at the headquarters for the business/community group (Discover Doylestown), which was also a historic building, complete with fire place. Perfect! Now for the live stream. Since I was brought up doing local television, that’s how I think. So I wanted to make this much more polished than hitting “the red button” on an iPad.

a 2nd Generation iPad Mini was “the camera.” Running Larix Broadcaster to send an RSTP stream to the office server. All that was needed.

I used a technique I developed for the town’s rolling car show from the summer. The camera was still an iPad, but it was used just to feed a video/audio feed back to my home office server. From there, I used OBS Studio to mix it into a polished “TV show,” complete with music, graphics, commercials, etc. It worked fantastic, and I didn’t have to bring my whole iMac setup to the location—I “brought the location to the iMac.” This is turning out to be a nice way to do polished streaming events on a budget. 

OBS Studio is incredibly robust for being Open Source.

Below is a sample of what it looked like, and the ending of the series, which featured all of us involved in the production, including a shot of myself at the home office (aka Mission Control).

The “Thank Yous” of the last live show.