With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, Biden’s campaign has set up a studio inside his home. Since campaigning on the road has been suspended for all candidates, it only makes sense that keeping your name, face, and message makes sense.
Since I’m a gear-head, let’s break down the tech behind the setup…
First, let’s go over lighting:
There are two different setups I’ve seen for lighting, however, I think one is for a “daytime” look and one is a “night time” look. During the day, it looks as if they have the windows open to light the background. To control the natural light, they’ve got some thick, black curtains set up. I imagine they’re also using the curtains or sheets or blankets to control the acoustics as well, judging by how closely the fabric is to his desk.
Surrounding Joe are between 4 and 5 (depending on the time of day/natural lighting conditions) ARRI SkyPanel S30-C LED Softlights. Two of which are used to light Joe and his desk from the front, one to fill from underneath to reduce any raccoon eyes, and ensure his face is evenly lit. One more is used as a hair light to create separation between Biden and the background. The last one that may or may not be there is bounced off the ceiling to help light the background when it’s dark outside.
Next up, Audio:
I’ve been looking at all the photos I can find (which are included in this post) and the most I can gather on the two overhead shotgun microphones is that they might be Røde mics? They are definitely XLR shotgun microphones. The two mics are either used to capture audio for when he moves his head (as shotgun mics are VERY directional) or it’s just a persistent setup for when there are two people behind the desk. The mics are then plugged into some sort of mixer (not pictured) and then output mono and fed directly into the camera via XLR.
This setup is used so that Biden can sit down whenever to either record or be in an interview. If he needed to be mic’d up every time he was going live, he would almost have to wear a mic all the time, which is also why wireless mics aren’t being used. Being in the middle of a pivotal election, a wild hot mic would be easier to tap than a phone line, and boy, the information you’d get!
One thing that’s slightly speculative is what all the wires coming from the chair are. It’s possible that they’re all for in-ear monitors to hear the person on the other end of the interview or to get cues from campaign staff. My money is on the latter, as he also has a big monitor speaker on the floor by the desk, and I’m sure he doesn’t use it to listen to music while he works at that tiny desk.
Okay, now for the camera:
He’s got a Blackmagic Design URSA Mini (possibly Pro?) set up with a Prompter People Proline Plus (try saying that ten times fast) teleprompter with a talent monitor attachment. I’m fairly certain that they’re both 24″ monitors, especially considering how far back the camera is from him. It’s probably safe to assume the prompter screen has talking points/script and the talent monitor shows either the camera’s feed or the feed for the interview. Both screens are connected via SDI and appear to be fed through a Decimator Design HDMI/SDI cross convertor. The HDMI most likely comes from two separate computers; one specifically for the telepropter and another coming from the broadcast/recording computer.
The broadcast computer also ingests the SDI feed from the URSA Mini probably through a Blackmagic card. As for software, I cannot say. They probably use a variety of things, depending on what show or network he’s appearing on. A lot of that stuff could very well be proprietary.
Also, considering that the majority of the lens is being contained within the teleprompter, I can’t say with certainty which lens it is, however… I’m willing to say that there’s a good chance that it’s an Angenieux 15-40mm Cinema Zoom with some sort of servo motor, and is probably usually used on the 40mm end of the zoom range, and only once brought to the 15mm side for the reveal on the Jimmy Kimmel show.
To top it all off, or rather… what everything’s resting atop is a Vinten Vision 250 tripod/fluid head system. Which is handy, since it can support up to 72 pounds (32.66kg). This tripod and prompter setup probably lives together, as the fluid head could be a little unwieldy with just the camera on it. You’ll also notice that they have a counterweight attached to help balance out the monitors, lessening the strain on the fluid head.
Last but certainly not least; The Set
Okay, so it’s not much of a set, per se, it’s more of his actual family room or study or whatever rooms nice houses have. Calling it a basement or a bunker is a bit inaccurate. What’s also inaccurate is calling that desk a desk. While it works, visually, it’s a console table. Since it’s only a console table, they’ve propped it up with a couple cases, possibly ones used for the ARRI SkyPanels. Because the cases were a bit too tall, they then used a small folding table to prop the chair up just a bit more. Then, to add some accent lighting, they propped the little side table up with the lid from a flight case and put a lamp on it.
Along with the lamp, they’ve neatly placed an assortment of family photos. That’s not to say that those photos weren’t already on that table, however, someone definitely checked them over. I will note, though, that the photos hanging on the wall above the lamp were most likely specifically printed and placed there as ever-present highlights from the campaign trail and to fill the negative space, making it seem more homely and lived-in.
So, what’s left? How about the why?
Why have a $50,000+ setup when $10,000 or even $500 would make do? Image, accessibility, communication. Now, I don’t mean that the Biden Campaign is flexing that it has a huge budget for a bunch of equipment. In fact, judging by all the asset tags on the gear, they don’t even own it. There’s a good chance that the gear is owned by the crew they hired for their ads and such.
Having a high quality, persistent setup means that no matter how often, or what time, or how long he needs to record for or be live for the equipment will be ready and will work. All this gear could literally run for days on end and not falter. This is absolutely necessary, especially when dealing with the 24-hour news cycle. As soon as a political opponent says something, you need to be able to jump onto a news outlet to make a statement as quickly as possible.
Also, with being on broadcast news regularly, you want to have the highest of quality feed for the team on the other end to work with. This way, Biden looks like he belongs on TV especially when placed next to other TV personalities and especially when next to someone calling in from the built-in webcam on their computer. It’s all about projecting the image of professionalism, and especially in this case, projecting a presidential image.
Yes, Bernie Sanders’ campaign did a literal fireside chat with a few lamps in a small living room and a couple cameras. Which worked for a one-off Q&A session broadcast live on YouTube in 720p, but we’re talking Television broadcast quality that is repeatable regularly and consistently. The one consistency in Bernie’s videos is how inconsistent they look. They don’t look very professionally shot. You’re running for the highest authority in the nation, there is a set level of expectations that the people have for what that leader looks like on camera.
I will say, it’s great that they had an actual fire going. You can almost see how hot it’s making Bernie, especially in that thick sweater. It’s also awesome that they were able to use two separate angles, and live switch. On top of that, they were using something so they could throw in (very well made) graphics and text. On the other hand, the backdrop is a bland, plain, white wall. There’s no real depth between the subjects and the background (understandably so, they had NO ROOM) and the light temperature is all over the place. To reiterate: they did an INCREDIBLE job with what they had, but they could have done better, and I hope they know that. (see some other argument of mine about never settling for “okay” or “good enough”)
Some say that the 1960 Presidential election was won and lost because JFK was willing to put up with all the new fangled TV business: make-up, fitted clothes, etc. meanwhile Nixon didn’t want anything to do with it, and he came off as awkward and unpresidential. Going the extra mile for your visual image can and has turned the tide.
Overall, I completely agree, the gear doesn’t make the message. It’s better to just make something rather than waiting to make anything until you can afford to purchase the biggest and best gear. You don’t need $50,000 of gear to win a presidential election. However, because of the visual paradigm that a majority of Americans have, it sure as hell can help. Whether you’re running for president or if you’re trying to sell shoes; the higher quality of your final image, the better and easier it is to distribute, the more likely you’ll be able to get the masses to push the button you want them to.