Christopher Carter's "Nailing Virtual Performances" Podcast Interview
by Christian Painter and Roland Sarlot
What We'll Explore
Christopher Carter shares technical details of virtual performances such as cameras, microphones, lighting, using a producer, streaming platforms, and more to create killer performances keeping you miles ahead of the competition.
Who is Christopher Carter?
Although known today in the corporate speaking industry, Christopher has been a full-time professional for 30 years with thousands of performances in the college market. He has won the Campus Entertainment of the Year award several times, received the prestigious Dunninger Award from the Psychic Entertainers Association, and won the Milbourne Christopher Award for Mentalism. More recently, he's been perfecting his skills with virtual shows, having performed over 80 in the first months of the pandemic and produced even more.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Christian Painter: On this tantalizing episode of the "Magic Business Podcast"...
Christopher Carter: Every aspect of the production, from the camera, the lights, the sound, to the technology and the computer, to the set, needs to be planned. And I don't care what level you are, there's always a step up you can take it.
Christian Painter: Welcome to the Magic Business Podcast, where we share insightful and delightful inner secrets about the business of magic. This is where magic professionals present their real-life experiences and their most guarded secrets to help further your career in the magical arts. I'm your host, Christian Painter, in partnership with the MagicOracle.Club, where you can hear all of our Magic Business podcasts.
If you've wondered about how you could get started in the virtual performing world, we have a surprise for you. Christopher Carter is about to share some amazing information with you. Get ready to take notes.
Christopher resides in Chicago and has been a full-time professional for 30 years. His primary focus has been the college market, and recently he's moved into the corporate speaking industry. He has won the Campus Entertainment of the Year award several times. He has received the prestigious Dunninger Award from the Psychic Entertainers Association. He has also won the Milbourne Christopher Award for Mentalism. Lately, he's been perfecting his skills with virtual shows, having performed over 80 virtual shows. He is here today to share his insights into this new market. Welcome to the show Chris.
Christopher Carter: Thanks a lot. It is incredible to be part of this. I think what you're doing is going to be really exciting for the people who want to up their game as far as their business goes.
Christian Painter: And I'm really happy that you've decided to share some of these secrets, because right now this is the newest market I think out there for entertainers, and most people have no idea what they're doing.
Christopher Carter: Well, let me just kind of rephrase that for you. This is not only the newest market for most entertainers, this is the only market.
Christian Painter: Fair enough.
Christopher Carter: And that's very, very important because the virtual show world is largely the only game in town. So if you are a professional performer, and you do not have a giant stash of cash to keep you going, virtual performance is the main thing that's keeping you right now from having to go out and get a day job.
Christian Painter: And let's just start from ground zero. I want to start some shows, what's the first thing I have to get? What do I have to do?
Christopher Carter: Well, the first thing is a mindset, because there is a belief that a lot of magicians seem to hold that production values don't matter, that you can just set up your laptop in your bedroom and hop on to Zoom and do a virtual show. That is technically true, but professionally not the best way to go. Production values really do matter. People who are buying virtual shows, regardless of the market, really want to see that you are a step up in production values from all of your competition. So get out of your head the idea that production values are unimportant. They are extremely important, but here's the other half of that, you don't actually have to have production values that are as good as maybe your local television network. It doesn't have to be like that. You do have to have as good, or better production values than anybody else in your market, and getting that is not as difficult as it sounds. I have this theory at least that wherever you are, you can upgrade the production value of your virtual show at least 25% by just making very minor changes in your equipment and the way you have it set up.
Christian Painter: So I'm going to guess your production value isn't just a cool backdrop.
Christopher Carter: Production value isn't just a cool backdrop, although the cool backdrop does help. Think of production value as the sum of a number of things. First of all, the quality of your live feed, whatever you're streaming on, whether you're streaming on Zoom or you're streaming on YouTube Live. Those are my two favorite formats to stream on. So the actual broadcast quality of that, the bitrate they go up to, that's part of the production value. The second is the quality of your camera, the quality of your mic, the quality of your lights, and then, yeah, absolutely, your backdrop. Think of it this way, if you were to go watch a play, there would be a set, and that set would be an important component of the show. Nobody just threw up a bunch of drapes and called it a set. They planned every little detail. Well, that's the same thing in our virtual shows. Every aspect of the production, from the camera, the lights, the sound, to the technology and the computer, to the set, needs to be planned. And I don't care what level you are, there's always a step up. You can take it.
Christian Painter: Well, let's start with the camera. Can I just use the camera on my computer? What do I have to do?
Christopher Carter: It's funny because my wife, as I mentioned, does a lot of library shows, and I give webinars to the librarians on how they can up their game when they are presenting performers for their patrons, because the librarians, they need to come on and do introductions. I'll tell them the first thing that I'm going to tell our listeners here today, "Yes, you can use the camera that's on your laptop, but you shouldn't." It's almost always the case that an external camera will be of a much higher quality than the camera that's already on your laptop. Now at that point the sky is the limit. I mean, if you just kind of imagine a hierarchy leaving from your laptop camera, the next up would be a high-quality webcam. Logitech makes some of the best out there. The next up from that, in my opinion, are your cellphones, and the new or more recent iPhones make excellent external cameras. And then there are a number of point-and-shoot cameras that make really good external cameras. After that, DSLRs are the next level up. Many of the biggest YouTubers out there swear by their DSLR cameras. And I use a 4K video camera that you would use to shoot professional videography. But the point is, wherever you are, there's always a next level to go.
Christian Painter: All right. So, give me a price range of, let's say, a mid-level camera.
Christopher Carter: A mid-level camera that is really good to use would be one of the lower level Canon DSLRs. At least, in my opinion, that would be a mid-level. Those are terrific because those feed via a USB port directly into your computers, so you don't need to buy a video capture card in order to plug them in.
Christian Painter: Okay.
Christopher Carter: Other cameras that are really good mid-level are pretty much any range of digital point-and-shoot, which can be an excellent mid-level cameras. Or as I mentioned earlier, your cellphones. Again, cellphones can be patched in usually using a USB port, but they can also be done by a Bluetooth or a Wi-Fi connection as well.
Christian Painter: Let's go back to the camera. So, how much will that cost me, that mid-level camera?
Christopher Carter: The lower level DSLRs, $700 or $800.
Christian Painter: Okay.
Christopher Carter: But let's say that you're stuck right now with, you know, your laptop camera. At that point, I would say go up to a Logitech webcam, which would cost anywhere from $80 to about $130. I would buy that $130 one because the higher quality you can go, the better. That Logitech webcam is going to do a fantastic job for you.
Christian Painter: Now, how many cameras should I have? One? Two? How many?
Christopher Carter: Well, that really depends a lot on the nature of the show. You can have easily anywhere from one to three. Once you're moving past three, it gets a little bit more complicated, but one to three are easy to control. I'd use two. I've discovered for my own purposes, a broad shot and a close-up shot are all that I need. I really don't need a third camera angle.
Christian Painter: So now, let's move to mics, my sound. What do I need?
Christopher Carter: The first most important thing that you need is an external mic. The mic that is already part of your laptop is rarely going to be sufficient. The primary reason is because it picks up everything. It's going to be filled with room echo and the ambient sound. I prefer using a lavalier mic, and there are many, many good lavalier mics that plug into the USB port. But other mics that are very good, right now, I'm speaking to you on a Blue Yeti, which is a really good podcaster's external mic. And I have used and really do like the microphones that are part of your AirPods. So if you have AirPods, those make a very good external mic, really high-quality sound, surprisingly so. They look a little funny coming out of your ears, but the quality of sound is terrific, and they allow you to move around. For my purposes, the best mic is one that allows you to move a little bit, because I use a camera at a little bit farther distance to allow myself a wider shot. Some people who are using camera closer and they're only performing on their tabletop can do really well with a shotgun mic. But I love a lavalier mic.
Christian Painter: That makes sense. Kinda like not too much different than how people pick their mics for actual live shows.
Christopher Carter: Exactly. One of the nice things about a lavalier mic is that what it picks up is primarily the sound that's coming out of your mouth. It really doesn't pick up a lot of the ambient room sound. And so I have found people telling me that the mic that I use during performance has a much more intimate quality to it than your typical shotgun mic.
Christian Painter: How about this... lighting? I know that's going to be important, because I know, when I'm on Zoom meetings, everyone's got some sort of different light, some people are in the dark. Just tell me about lighting.
Christopher Carter: Well, the first thing that I want people to understand about lighting is the concept of three-point lighting, which is what photographers and professional video people try to use as much as possible. And the three-point lighting means that the light is coming on the subject, in this case you, from multiple sources. So you will have two lights coming from the front. You'll have a key light and a fill light. The key light comes in from an angle. So let's say that, hypothetically, it comes in from about 45-degree angle from the right. That's going to be the brighter of your lights, and that does the bulk of the illumination of your face. But that will cause some shadows on the left side of your face, and so you bring in another light coming from the left side at a similar angle to fill in those shadows. But that light is usually kept at a slightly lower intensity, the idea being that although you wanna fill in the shadows, you don't want to eliminate the shadows because the shadowing on the face is what gives you three dimensions. When the camera is looking at you, you need to stand out a little bit. So you have your key light coming in from one side, your fill light, and then some sort of backlight. The best way to do that really is to have a light that's aimed on your backdrop that is not particularly intense, just gives a little bit of glow so that you stand out from your backdrop. This is the ideal scenario.
Now, many people may have only available to them just the little ring lights. Ring lights are fantastic if you're doing a tabletop show in front of your camera, but they can have a tendency to wash out your face and make it look flat. So I really recommend that if you're using a ring light, you keep it a little bit of an angle so that it doesn't come to you dead on, so that there's just enough shadowing on one side of the face to allow you to stand out from it.
Christian Painter: Holy cow, that is way more complex than I expect.
Christopher Carter: Ultimately, it's not really. You just need more than one light. Now, this is where things do get a little bit complicated. In addition to the volume of light, the color of the light matters. So we introduce a concept called color temperature. And for those who are not familiar with it, the color temperature of light describes the spectrum of light that's within a particular light source. So roughly 5,200 degrees Kelvin is the color temperature of sunlight, 5,200 to 5,500. I'm working from memory. I'm not 100% on that, but it's in that range. So you go outside on a beautiful sunny day, and that full sunlight is measured at somewhere from 5,200 to 5,500 degrees Kelvin. You think, "Fantastic. What I need is something that looks like good sunlight." And so you go to the lightbulb store, and you look at color temperatures on potential lamps. And you find one. And you put it into your lamp, and suddenly, you discover, "Wait, that looks horrible on me." The reason is that, even though it's rated at that color temperature, it has mostly blue light in it. It has very little of the rest of the spectrum, and so it makes you look ugly and washed out.
Now, your typical incandescent in-room light is in the lower maybe 3,200- to 3,500-degree Kelvin color temperature, and it has a lot of amber in it. So it's going to make your skin look warmer and richer in reds. You have to decide based on all the light in the room what color temperature you need. It's really, really easy to find good quality photographer's lights on Amazon, let's say, that are diffused so that they don't look like a beam on your face and look like a giant spotlight landing on your face. A lot of people like to use white boxes for this, and basically a white box is just a lightbulb in an umbrella that has a diffuser across the front, and it puts this nice big wash of white light on your face so that it's not super, super intense. But if you have a 5,500-degree Kelvin color temperature bulb in there, you're going to end up looking just really pasty white. I have become really, really fond of LED lights that allow you to adjust the color temperature, because I find, for me looking a little pale, that a warmer color temperature somewhere in the 3,500, 3,600-degree Kelvin range makes me look good. It makes me look like I'm not a corpse.
Christian Painter: Now, you know, I was going to ask you about that, because I know here in my house, I have lightbulbs where I can change the white color, right, so I can have a really white one or a warmer white. And I'm gonna assume they had the same kind of bulbs for the purpose that you're saying.
Christopher Carter: Exactly. You can buy bulbs in the whole range of potential color temperatures to put into it. So it would be a single lamp. But the reason that I'm really fond of LED lights and an LED lightbox is because you can adjust the intensity of the LED lamps that are in it and you can adjust the color temperature. So you can experiment, and for the tune of $60 per lamp and you'll only need 2 of them, you can experiment and find something that looks really good on you.
Christian Painter: You know, what I really think about what you're saying is if you look at a show online you can tell immediately whether it's gonna be a fun show to watch by having that great lighting and seeing things out, but it's not much different than when you're lighting a stage, right, where you try to kill the shadows behind you and that sort of thing.
Christopher Carter: Yeah, exactly. The principle is the same. The good news is that when you're creating a virtual show, you're really lighting a much smaller space. So you don't need the volume of lighting instruments that you would need. I'll give you an example of what I use, because I sometimes use green-screen effect, so I have two white boxes that are aimed on the green screen itself. Those are the backlights.
Christian Painter: Okay.
Christopher Carter: And then I have two LED lightboxes that are aimed on me in the center, and each one of those is made nice and warm. All I need from the backlight is it separates me. So I'm using four lighting instruments. The vast majority of people need a maximum of three.
Christian Painter: All right. It sounds like a lot of planning to put together a good production value for your show then.
Christopher Carter: Well, of course, it does. But I mean, it's no more planning than should go into the planning that makes a good show. The problem with virtual shows is that we're juggling not only the show, which we think we're used to doing, but also the technology. And so it's really important to get that technology under control to get as much mastery of it as you can before you actually do the virtual show, because otherwise, you're going to end up looking nervous, and your concentration is going to be shot, you're spending so much time trying to figure out what the technology should be doing.
Christian Painter: Good point. So let me ask you then, would you suggest someone get their spouse or a friend to kind of run the technology while you do the show?
Christopher Carter: Absolutely. If that's possible, I absolutely would suggest it. You can do it on your own, but all of the shows that we generate out of my house, because I do virtual programs and my wife does virtual programs, are team efforts. We're each helping each other do them. And it really helps a lot. There's an awful lot you can do when you have a spouse or a friend or an assistant as a producer.
Christian Painter: How do you stay focused? Because we don't have an audience like we're used to. We're playing to a camera. How do you make sure you're staying focused on that camera properly?
Christopher Carter: Well, I have two methods for that, because I also train people on how to interact with video. So it's like my other job. When I work with business people, I have a program teaching and coaching salespeople and customer service people on how to interact with video. So this is my first recommendation. You have to understand that when you're in a face-to-face conversation with a person, you're never really looking them directly in the eyes. You're looking at their face and scanning it for clues. But they're doing the same thing for you. And we look at a person's face because that's our number one clue that they're with us, they're in the moment, they're paying attention to us. Here's the problem with video. You cannot simultaneously look somebody in the face and have them look you directly in the eyes. Because if they're on, for example, a Zoom screen and you're looking at their face, your eyes have dropped. Your eyes are not looking in the camera. The only thing that gives the illusion of looking directly in the face of somebody is looking directly at the camera. So we have to make a choice. Which is more important, for us to see their face and be able to scan it for clues or for them to see us looking at their face? And the answer to that is it's infinitely more important for them to see us looking at their face, because when they see our eyes going directly in the camera, they feel that we are looking directly into their face. And that is when they feel connected to. If they see our eyes drop, they feel like we're not even paying attention to them. So it's really important that we focus our eyes as much as reasonable directly into the camera.
So, how do you develop a habit for doing that? Well, the first thing you do is you get yourself off the video, and you can do this easily in most streaming platforms. For example in Zoom, you can just get rid of self-view, and all of a sudden you're no longer visible on the screen. So that's the first thing you do. Because our natural tendency is to look at ourselves, like, "Do I look okay? Is there spinach in my teeth?" The second thing that I recommend is for people to spend five to six minutes each day having a Zoom conversation with themselves. And what I mean by that is set up a Zoom meeting and talk to the camera as if you are talking to somebody. And you know, just explore the space, move around it, see how you look in the frame when you talk from different sections of the frame, how you look in the frame when you get closer to the camera or when you get farther from the camera, and talk about anything you want. Talk about what you had for breakfast. Just talk to it like you're talking to a friend. And every day tape it and then show it to somebody, a friend, a spouse, it doesn't matter, but somebody who knows you and likes you and just say, "What do you think? Do I look better over here? Do I look better over here? Do I feel like I'm coming across as a genuine person when I'm talking to the camera?" And what you'll discover over the course of the week by looking at your recordings of that is how you look, you know. It creates a crucial level of self-awareness, and it gets you into the habit of looking directly into the camera.
Christian Painter: Chris, this suspiciously sounds like practice.
Christopher Carter: It sounds a hell of a lot like practice, but it doesn't take very long. You know, talking into a camera is unnatural for the first day or two, and then it becomes second nature. Really, what you want to do is look directly into the camera and talk to it like you're talking to somebody that you know. And if it helps you, imagine somebody that you know on the other side of that camera, but just get used to it. It's something that happens with comfort level and practice.
Christian Painter: Earlier, before this podcast, you happened to mention to me something about educating the people, well, your clients. Tell me about that.
Christopher Carter: Well, once all of this went down, the next question is how do you get the word out that you do it. And there are a lot of ways. Many people just, you know, popped it up on their website. That's, of course, a very good way. But it became clear to me very quickly that so many people were going to be pitching their widget as virtual performers that not only I, but we, meaning me and my wife, needed something to help us stand out. And so, what I began to do was plan a series of webinars, and we started them with her clients, and her clients are primarily libraries, as I mentioned. And they're webinars to teach her buyers how to host and promote and put on a virtual program. So all of those buyers, you know, they're going, "What are we going to do to connect to our client base or to our customers?" Well my webinar is how to do that. So I walked them through the technology. I walked them through the process of hiring a virtual performer. I showed them, you know, the potential security risks, you know, the problem with Zoom bombers and how to take care of that, and really just covered every single thing that I could. And after a series of three of these webinars, I discovered that all of a sudden my wife and me, as a team, were becoming considered as real experts. And who are they going to contact when they wanted somebody to actually perform for them? Well, her. And that's exactly what happened. We gave this free webinar in different regions all over the country, and allowed it to be replayed. That was absolutely the most effective promotional technique that we've developed so far. And I've used it with my own client base as well, but I try not to talk too much about my own client base because I have some promotional secrets that I do want to keep to myself.
Christian Painter: Absolutely understood. And I will tell you right now listeners, I think Chris just dropped a brick of gold, and you did pick that up and run with it. That is really powerful stuff. Oh, do you have something else you wanted to add to it?
Christopher Carter: I do want to add to that. The important thing to understand is that most of our clients haven't done anything like this, and they're nervous. They don't know what it's going to look like. They don't know what they have to do. So setting yourself up as a subject matter expert through any kind of training you can come up with, film tutorials that you can send to them to guide them through the process, film tutorials that you can send so that they can give them to their end user to guide them through the process, anything you can come up with that is educational, they eat it up. They love it. It gets huge views, and then they go, "Wow, you're the person that I want to talk to, because obviously, you know more about this than anybody."
Christian Painter: My mouth is hanging open because that's just so brilliant. I want to say we're hosted on the Magic Oracle Club. And we like to say it because when we bring our experts in, you become a Magic Oracle. But I like to ask this question, it's a challenging question, and I know you're humble and you will say you're the expert but you are definitely one of the experts now in this new market, and I'm sure you've had a lot of people ask you questions. But what's a question that they seldom ask you but they probably should be asking you?
Christopher Carter: Well, actually, there's quite a lot. I want to just preface my answer by saying that there is always somebody who knows more. And so, while I have a certain level of expertise that came from actually doing them, I'm not going to tell you that I am the key expert on video productions and creating live feeds. Okay, having said that, that's really the number one thing that everybody says, "How should I be promoting my show," or they say, you know, "What should I be charging?" What they really should be saying is, "What is the extra value that I can give to my customer?" And this kind of thing, this use of education, is a really good example of that. What you really should be saying is, "What else can I give you?" So you book me for a program. Okay, that's fine. How do I promote it? Well, how about a unique video for whomever is the end user of that booking, those clients, so the person who pays your check, and send that to them to tease the video. That's just a simple example. Because we have the ability to create video now, we can do so much to add value, and that's really the main thing that should be asked is, "What else can I do for my client?"
Christian Painter: So you're actually making a little sizzle reel for the promotional purposes for the client.
Christopher Carter: Yeah, exactly. So, for every program, I have kind of a showreel, you know, this is what the show will look like. And then, for every program, I tape a personal invitation. So I say, you know, "Hi, this is Christopher Carter. I am so excited to be with you of Eastern New Mexico University on Friday the 17th of December, 7:00 p.m. If you'd like to find out more about what this is going to be like, check out this video." So now, it's me talking to them. And I just film it, I drop it in in front of that little sizzle reel, send it to my client, and they give it out to all of their people. All of a sudden, they have a real person talking to them, inviting them to the show.
Christian Painter: That is powerful stuff. Chris, we have run out of time, but I want to thank you so much for being on the show. The amount of information you just dropped, I'm sure some people will probably need to listen to this two or three times to absorb everything you've said.
Christopher Carter: Well, it's been a real pleasure being on with you.
Christian Painter: Thank you for listening to our Magic Business Podcast. Please visit the MagicOracle.Club, where you can hear all of our Magic Business podcasts and enjoy a vast array of additional magical knowledge. A fantastic show and performance is solid gold. Money cannot buy it. You cannot steal it. You cannot borrow it. It must be forged in the fires of your will. And it will reflect your hard work, your commitment, and your discipline. It shows self-respect, patience, work ethic, and passion. And now, it's time for you to get out there and create your show. As always, we, at the Magic Oracle, wish you continued success on your path in the magical arts.
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