Behind the Fourth Wall: The Making of Helping Hands 2020
The All Within My Hands Helping Hands Concert & Auction was a hybrid live experience which saw fans and band interacting in real time for the first time during this pandemic. Steffan Chirazi pieces together how technology, art, and passion dovetailed at another level to get this show on the digital road to your homes.
What was going to be next in 2020 for Metallica?
There’d been the special live acoustic trip of “Blackened” via the internet, there’d been a hugely successful drive-in movie event in the early fall, so what next? The answer arrived with the All Within My Hands Helping Hands Concert & Auction, and the “next” was typically unique and utterly “Metallica.” Was it a live gig? Undoubtably. Was it a streamed event? Undeniably. Was it interactive? Unquestionably. Did it manage to achieve deeply personal exchanges within the safety remit this godforsaken COVID-19 hell demands of everyone? Unequivocally. In fact, when we look back, November 14, 2020 saw the fourth wall conquered, thanks to “Virtual Crowd” technology and a presentation which saw band and fans managing to interact live with each other, despite being in all corners of the globe. Indeed, we might just have experienced the future standard with regards to technology and live events.
Such things don’t just happen. They’re the result of minds which operate at the top of their games, and many a long hour… or 200… spent designing and creating something which retains uniqueness yet also brings people together. What follows is an abbreviated oral history of how Helping Hands 2020 came to be, as told by Dan Braun (Creative Director/Scenic Designer/Webcast Producer), John Wiseman (Senior VP Worldwide Sales, PRG – video production and equipment), Brad Serling (Founder/CEO, nugs.net – streaming platform), Nick Whitehouse and Kim Sawyer (CEO and Corporate Production Director, respectively, Fireplay – creative design and production studio), and Rob Koenig (Metallica lighting director).
THE ORIGINS OF THE IDEA
Dan Braun: It was great to do the drive-in show. It was special and it was a different format, people had to get in their cars and go to the drive-in. I know somebody who drove 300 miles to find a drive-in, and that’s awesome, but we did that. Just webcasting a show? We did the [Howard] Stern thing after the drive-in, and that’s interesting, but there’s a format for the Stern thing. Just doing a show in an empty theater and webcasting it? That’s not us. So what I started thinking about was that we were making a new event; this was not [just] a virtual Metallica concert, this was a different kind of event.
John Wiseman: The way you thrive is innovation, and the way you survive is innovation. If you don’t evolve you die, even in the best of times. So, once we knew Covid wasn’t going anywhere for a while and that the industry as we know it was “off,” we immediately went to some of the studio technology that we knew, and built what we call XR studios. Those are the 3-D live studios, and really, it was driven by a need for people who had projects that had stopped that needed to be rebooted and finished. For example, Katy Perry was coming up on the finals of American Idol. Big deal, big show in America: here’s these kids competing all year and now they want to see who’s going to win. Well, the finale comes out and we ended up creating a stage where she could (because she was pregnant) do her bit as a judge from a sterile stage, it could be pitched straight on to live TV, and then while we were there, she had a new album coming out so we thought, well, okay, let’s do a video for that too. All in one place.
Nick Whitehouse: Way back in March/April time, when things really started to close down, one of our old music clients came to us and wanted to perform with a choir in real time behind him and [have it] all sync together. They tried to do it via Zoom and Teams and all the other things that existed, and nothing could get it in sync together or be mixed audio-wise traditionally like you would mix, you know, 100 people on an audio console. So we took the challenge on, we started investigating how to make that happen, and we came up with a solution where we could put 150 people together not using any of those systems. We were using a custom back end that would deliver all these syncs totally together and allow the flexibility to manipulate all of them and audio mix.
JW: We ended up talking with Nick from Fireplay. And I’m not exactly sure who had the idea, but Virtual Crowd [the technology allowing audiences and performers to interact in real time] was developed without me; it was developed with my partner Randy Hutson, Nick, and a couple of the other guys. They brought it to me because I’m the guy who deals with clients. They said, “We want to show you this.” And I was not interested, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t interested because I didn’t want this to be a way of business. I hate fake shows. I hadn’t seen it yet, but it was filling a need that I didn’t want to be filled. So I had an appointment, went online, did the whole thing, and said, “Okay, this is amazing, I get it. I totally get it. The Virtual Crowd.” They had done it with a guy named Cole Swindell in our Nashville office, but they’d done it with one video wall where the artist was facing the video wall, and there were maybe, you know, 50-60 people up on the wall. I thought that was pretty cool, I could see where there’s a little bit of a vibe to this. Dan [Braun] and I have been friends for a long time, we started together with Poison back in Green Bay in ’87 or ’88, so I arranged for Dan, myself, the Fireplay team, the PRG team, and the Virtual Crowd team to meet; it’s a joint venture with all of us.
DB: I’m fortunate to work with a tech company [Salesforce] and I get exposed to a lot of different technology. It became clear to me that we needed to somehow use whatever technology’s available to create a new event. I was really passionate about the idea that this was not a webcast Metallica concert, it was a different event. So I thought, well, how do we do that? And I thought about what was missing from the drive-in show. What was missing was the band being able to connect with their fans, and you’ve heard me say this many times, I have a great belief that a Metallica concert is 50% band and 50% audience. So what was missing from the drive-in show, clearly, was the audience. I’d been thinking about where we could find companies that did this kind of stuff, and that’s when I asked John who he could find, which was Fireplay.
JW: My job is to make the connection between the technology, the clients, and my company, right? So I have to sometimes translate. Dan kicked around this idea, what if we did this in 360° and the band could walk up [to the walls] and talk? He just immediately got it. None of that translation was necessary. Dan not only got it, he took it to the next level immediately. It was his idea to do it in the big rectangle. He said let’s build a cage, let’s put the band in the middle of it, and let’s have the band have the ability to talk to these people one-on-one, and then we just kicked around how it would work and what needed to happen. We brought in Clair Brothers [another production and sound company – ED], which just goes to show you the collaboration because Clair Brothers is one of our big competitors. We reached out to them because we thought they had built a better piece of the mousetrap, and at the end, it’s about success. It’s not about egos, it’s not about who did it, it’s not about whose name is on it; we’re all the guys in the background. It’s all about the band, it’s about the music, it’s about the connection between the band and the fans, so we’re all invisible and we should be. The only reason we would become visible is if it’s messed up.
DB: We looked at it and thought, well, okay, what if we bring in all of these folks like a giant Zoom call? We kept working at it and we came up with an idea that we could bring the audience in to the band and surround them with screens, so it’s like they’re playing in the round in front of hundreds of people which turns out to be thousands of people as we rotate them in and out of these screens. Yeah, people have done that. There’s been some corporate shows that have done that, the NBA has had some people on the screens, the WWE has some people on the screens, one of the America’s Got… something shows, and I thought, that’s all fine and good, that’s neat, but that’s not enough. So what we did was create an environment where the band would be able to interact with their fans. We’ve talked a lot over the years about ways of trying to remove any barrier between the band and the audience. And we did that here using technology so that the band was not only able to speak to an audience member but, unlike even at a “conventional” concert, the audience member was able to speak back.
HOW THE IDEA BECAME A REALITY
Brad Serling: I’ve been doing live concert streams for 25 years. The very first one I did was with Metallica for the Molson Ice Polar Beach Party in ’95 [Tuktoyaktuk], so this felt like a full circle moment up at HQ doing the band’s first ever pay-per-view, I think their first ever in 39 years? Back then [in '95] we had eight different modems that we put into a road case and we bonded them all together, eight 28.8 modems. That’s how we got the signal out from the closest inhabited village.
NW: Everything we’re using didn’t exist before March. Dan’s ask next time may be completely different and it will be cool for us to try and meet that. And I think with everything that’s developed, we’re trying to develop these concepts and ideas, but until we’ve got a reason to push it forwards, and to push it forwards fast, it’s slower because we’re concentrating on delivering the things that people want. But as soon as we get someone who says, “I want to do that,” that’s when we put it on the front burner and figure out how to get it delivered for that date.
JW: We knew that the video [walls] would work. We had tested, you know, for a couple of months we had tested the product and got it to the point where we pulled the trigger with about three weeks to go. But there was a lot of work that went in before that. Dan and Lug [Metallica’s tireless and prodigious Production Manager] and Tony D [part of Metallica’s management team] all had backup plans with an additional pipeline to the internet and that sort of thing. We did a lot of the work to ensure the quality was done before it went on the trucks in Los Angeles to head up to HQ. We build it in the shop. We look at it, we test it. We have the best guys in the world, and then we send it up there. We basically say, “Look, we’re going to build you guys a race car. We’re not going to drive it and we’re not going to put the gas in it, but when it gets there, it’s going to work.” And whenever you’re trying to push the technological envelope, you always push it right to the edge, and that’s how you shift the paradigm.
DB: There were probably close to 100 people working on this whole thing if you really get down to the whole end of it. We had video people, we had software people, we had the hardware of the video system, we had all of our audio production people, we had all the band techs, we had lighting, we had camera operators… there were a lot of people doing this, but that’s what a Metallica event is. And it’s not like four people on a screen was going to be enough. It never is with us, it’s not the way we do things. And you know that I would never do this without telling you that this isn’t something I’ve done. There were a gazillion people working their hearts out, I mean just painstakingly busting their butts to make sure that this experience was special. And you know, we’re fortunate. We have this group of people that if you come into the tribe, if you come into this family and stay, it’s because you’re affected by the passion of the guys onstage. And their passion onstage inspires us to try to make the experience better and better and better, and we’re blessed to have just an incredible number of people.
BS: I’ve done thousands of livestreams, but I think the most significant technology difference [for this stream] was that the band has two different fiber lines going into the building, so that just made a huge difference right there. And that was only a recent addition. So what that means is they had redundant gigabit fiber, which means a gig up, gig down, so we had plenty of bandwidth available to us.
KS: I think that while we were in the innovation process over the past, you know, six or seven or eight months now, it was super important to us that real time and latency was low so that we were able to actually have fans physically and verbally react in real time to what they were seeing. And then on top of it, too, we’re a design company. We wanted to make sure that the experience, the set, and the production were beautiful and wouldn’t look like everyone else’s production.
BS: Jeff Yeager [the fan club’s interaction and hi-tech logistics chief, not to mention photographer] has been our greatest asset and ally since day one of Live Metallica. In terms of the livestream, really, he was the boots on the ground. He works in HQ every day, so he knows where the bodies are buried, and he knows where the conduits are for the wires. He knew that we should run this fiber over the roof of the building to get to the truck… those types of things. So he was, in terms of in-the-weeds logistics, incredibly helpful because HQ’s his home. I was up maybe six weeks before the event, and he just helped me run line tests on the different fiber lines they had; that’s how we made the decision to bring in the truck just in case, because both those fiber lines I was talking about are through the same provider. So he was just helpful in that kind of back and forth logistics.
NW: Everyone’s internet connection is different; everyone’s arrives at a different time and part of the magic of the system we have in place is it manages to figure that out and sync it together. And obviously you can’t do anything about a really bad internet connection, but we also have checks in place that allows the artist to know whether someone’s got a good enough connection to have that one-to-one conversation with or whether they’re just managing to see it.
KS: There were over fifteen moderators from all over the country dealing with the attending fans, and they were each taking certain chunk of guests and making sure that they were able to vet them out: ensuring that their mic was okay, that their camera was good to go, and vet them out to be prepared to be on the screen. Our system allows a really cool feature, particularly for the performers. As they’re looking up at the screen and they want to call out on people, they get an indicator to know that yes, this person is ready. His mic is on, his camera’s good, his connection is good and so we could call on that person and it allows for that live interaction to be very seamless and way more comfortable for the performer too. So that was all done remotely, and then on site, we had me as a producer. We had our designer on site too, who was handling everything in real time as we were transitioning fans onto and off the screens. Every song, we kept switching fans. And then we had our audio mixers and production mixers on site too.
Rob Koenig: All those giant video screens in the room were basically 160 feet of video by 14 feet tall. Gene McAuliffe [camera director] and I did a pixel count, and we had in the region of 20 million pixels! So it was over 80 million diodes of light being emitted into the room, which shifted what we could do with our lighting altogether. You had all these other unknown factors, and you had X amount of people on each wall in their own video window, and God knows what they were going to do, what they were going to be wearing, bright red t-shirts, all this kind of stuff. So we basically treated this [in lighting terms] like a TV show. We did a lot of things a little bit more safely, in a “TV friendly” environment, but we also didn’t want it to look like the Channel 6 newscast that night. So we took some chances on how to light the guys, still creating a vibe in the room, but also conscious that the wall wasn’t really a vibe more than it was a series of windows into everyone’s house. We didn’t want the vibe in the room to become so separate from what was going on out there that it looked silly and disjointed, so we brought all of that in and made it cohesive.
NW: The smoothness of the look on those screens with all the fans? That’s Andie who’s a creative and a programmer on this thing. She’s the one who created the look, who programs the servers, she’s definitely a little genius. She treats the incoming feeds, it’s almost like an “Instagram filter” type thing to smooth everything and fits it with the artwork that Dan provided and the look he wanted. We can change those to anything as well, so it’s a very cool system, and it really does lend itself to blending into whatever an artist wants.
BS: We were all next to each other, which was good. The folks who were directing the fan interaction piece were in a tent right behind where we were set up with our live encoders, and we were right outside the tent where Gene and the whole video team were actually cutting the show. And then the audio was being mixed by [Greg] Fidelman at HQ I think, so we were all in the back.
KS: Between the remote moderators and who we had on site, it’s pretty remarkable how many people we were able to hire and bring back to work to put on a production like this. It was just over 30 total for two weeks, which is great. What is really cool is that the road crew that would’ve been out on tour hanging their audio/lights or something like that, we’ve retrained them to be these moderators. And it’s really cool because now instead of having to worry about when the next thing’s coming, hopefully we do a lot more of these in the near future and they can have a regular kind of income until we can get back to doing this in real life.
THE IMPORTANCE OF REDUNDANCY AND WHY LATENCY WAS A NON-ISSUE
[LAYMAN’S TERMS: EVERYONE WAS IN SYNC WHETHER IN DUBLIN, DALLAS, OR DUBAI]
BS: You never want to go out just sending only one stream from the event, so we always want to have some level of redundancy, even if it’s not truly redundant. I mean we’ll always have at least two different encoders running, sending two different streams. Whether they’re actually on different circuits leaving the building, that depends on where we are. So in Metallica’s case they had two fiber lines, but they’re both through AT&T and they were both coming off the same feed from the street, so if something catastrophic had happened on the street, that would be out of the band’s control and down to the local provider. Shit happens. It could go down. So that’s why you have redundancy, but that extra layer of redundancy was having the satellite dish, which meant that we were sending a broadcast signal up to a satellite, not over the internet, running off completely independent power on its own generator. So if everything went down in the building, we’d still be able to send a signal. We covered all the bases, because there was no way I was going to let Metallica’s first ever pay-per-view get taken down.
JW: The thing that I think blew me away the most is there was no delay. None. If you’re a scientist, you can show where there was like one one-millionth of a second latency, but it was like your brain couldn’t process the latency that was there. That’s what’s most important.
BS: Without getting too deep in the weeds, there were two types of tickets that we sold. One was the GA ticket and one was the VIP ticket. The GA ticket was kinda like your general admission seat, you got the basic stream. The VIP ticket got you into the stream, those are the fans that you saw on the wall during the broadcast. The VIP fans were actually watching a different stream to the GA fans, and the reason was because of the latency factor. We have the ability to dial it in across the board to reduce that latency for everyone, but we would have to charge more for the pay-per-view and we’d rather keep the pay-per-view price at $15 dollars, which I think is insanely cheap, but the band was adamant about keeping it that price because they wanted to keep it a level playing field for as many fans as possible, which was very cool.
The fans who were on the wall, I think it was about 280 at a time, were cued up and there was a separate moderator and director who chose who was showing up when, those people were all watching the lowest latency stream that we could provide, maybe it was 50 milliseconds or something. They were all pretty much in sync, but they were a little bit behind the band. And for the GA fans, they were all watching the show and latency wasn’t an issue at all because they were not in the stream, they were simply watching.
MANAGING THE VIRTUAL CROWD
NW: The band wanted it to be spontaneous, like, “If we see somebody we want to talk to, we want to be able to call their name and talk to them immediately.” So I think that was half the fun of it as well, because if it was pre-planned then it’s almost going back to that whole TV scripted thing. This wasn’t. This was “I like the look of that guy, I want to talk to him right now.” Which I think made it cooler.
KS: We had 280 people in total per song across four screens, so divided by four that’s 70 people on each screen. And then pretty much we switched audience members after every song. It was the Virtual Crowd capability [allowing] us to be able to switch people through each song, and also why we [needed] as many moderators as we did, with people behind the scenes prepping the fans as they were ready to kind of go live and be on the screen. The person’s name was green because green is go, so it’s an easy way to demonstrate it, but instead, just to be more cohesive and seamless to the overall aesthetic, we actually made it gray and it matched the raw gray border of each of the hexagons. We simply muted out the person’s name and seat number if they weren’t available to talk or if they didn’t have a good enough connection. The only times that you saw people’s names, that indicated that they were able to talk. It was pretty cool.
Honestly, everyone was well behaved. They were all having a blast and there wasn’t any, to my knowledge, inappropriate behavior. There were just some, you know, bad connections and so instead of having a black screen, we would be able to find that and replace them with someone else who had a better connection. But as far as I could tell, everyone was just having a blast.
JW: For me, watching it, what I loved the most is, you know, it wasn’t just another show. It was in a really special, weird, bizarre time, but what I saw was joy in all four band members’ faces as they interacted. It was – the words I would use would be – like fucking joy. It was cool.
IS THIS THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE?
DB: I think that what we’re seeing right now is an adaptation of technology that would’ve taken fifteen years. You know, technology is way in front of how we use it. The biggest problem with technology is the human being able to adapt it. And so what’s happening is people who never shopped online are shopping online. People who never used a Zoom call are using Zoom calls. People who would’ve never teleconferenced are all over Zoom and Google and all these different platforms for communicating out of necessity. And so I don’t know when we come out of this what we’re going to be looking at doing, but I think it’s going to be different and I think it’s going to be exciting and I think it’s going to be a lot better. I think there’s a lot of things these guys can do that they haven’t explored…
NW: What’s super cool too about this is as we do start to go back, I know that the artists and the promoters are worried about doing it in reduced capacities, this allows us to do a stream from those venues, geofence it, and those people who can’t or don’t want to leave the house can buy a ticket and watch the show virtually in that local arena as well, so there may be a hybrid thing too. This might bring enough money into the equation to make it [financially] viable. And we need to make sure everyone’s safe, so there’re additional protocols and longer loading time, so this might be a way to boost the income per gig so that it makes sense.
DB: We’ll use this as a point of departure for whatever is next, which we have no idea what it is. I don’t know what it’ll be, but I do believe that there’ll be more, and I hope these guys don’t stop reaching out to their fans. I think it’s important for people’s mental health, for people’s enjoyment, confidence that there is a normal part of the world. We’re going to be okay. I think maybe that’s the real message; it’s going to be different, it’s eff’d up, it’s this, it’s that, but we’re going to be okay. We’re going to get through this together.
…AND ONE FINAL, VERY IMPORTANT, WORD FROM DAN BRAUN
I think we would be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit about how this event was special in another way. This wasn’t the guys doing a pay-per-view to put some money in their pockets. We’ve had people who’ve been part of the Metallica Family for years who donated enormous amounts of equipment for this, and we’ve had a lot of support around our community because this was an event to raise money for a foundation that does a lot of good for a lot of people. And at this time in the world, I think it’s critically important that people try to do what they can to help other people. I don’t want to get into politics in any way, shape, or form, but I look around at things and I think that we've got to be able to do better. If that guy’s hungry, give him a sandwich! I don’t care what your politics are. That guy’s hungry, give him a sandwich! I mean, we’ve got to be able to agree on that.
This is a passionate thing for the guys, and I think everybody who worked on the event shares that passion. I know the office folks who work so hard in the background were really involved and passionate about making this special and trying to generate as much for the foundation as they could, because All Within My Hands is making a difference in people’s lives. And I think that when it’s important to Lars, James, Kirk, and Rob that we’re giving people a helping hand, it’s literally an inspiration that runs through everybody who’s involved in the event. It’s a privilege to be able to work on something that’s helping our people who don’t have enough.
It is, indeed, a privilege, and everyone who contributed, whether a dollar of their dough or their blood, sweat, tears, and time, are part of the incredible success story which was Helping Hands 2020. The overall attendance got into stadium-sized numbers, whilst the VIPs participating in the event directly via the screens numbered over 3900 people. Let’s remember, too, the hugely successful auction which took tireless and diligent effort and contributions from so many in and around the Metallica and
All Within My Hands teams. The upshot of all the combined team efforts is that between everyone – and that doubtless includes you – over $1.3 million dollars were raised!
During a pandemic.
When so many are in need or struggling themselves.
It is both heart-warming and humbling to recognize just what this event managed to achieve, from the relief and joy it provided through such a unique live experience, and the sheer level of financial aid generated.
And one final thing: I’ve seen many people asking whether the Helping Hands Concert counts as a “gig attended.” In my personal opinion, if you were on the wall, the only feasible answer is yes. Now let’s see what these mad, crazy, and glorious bastards have planned for us next!
The All Within My Hands Helping Hands Concert & Auction Credits:
Butch Allen - COVID-19 Compliance Officer
Christopher Aman - Broadcast Audio Mixer
Conrad Bakki - Customer Service Representative
Jeff Bass - Robert Assistant/Body Work
Mike "Mic" Bollella - Monitor/Audio Tech
Dan Braun - Creative Director/Scenic Designer/Webcast Producer
Joe Cabrera - Lighting Programmer
Karina Carrillo - Chef
Steffan Chirazi - So What! Editor
Jimmy Clark - Backline Tech
Adam Correia - Monitor Engineer
Bob Cowan - Monitor Engineer
Justin Crew - Backline Tech
Peter Delgrosso - AWMH Advisory Board Member
Tony DiCioccio - Big Shot
Paul Donahue - AWMH Advisory Board Member
Derek "Dewey" Evans - Stage Manager
Greg Fidelman - Audio Producer/Engineer
Wes Fiske - Space Bar Tech
Renata Franca - Executive Assistant
Ed Frank - AWMH Executive Director
Bruce "Frenchie" French - Band Chef
Seth Fromberg - Head of Security
Lida Galka - Chef Assistant
Randall Garriott - Video Engineer
Eric Geiger - Lead LED/Crew Chief
Brie Gentry - Band Liaison
Alyssa Goldstein - Director of Product Development
Brenda Goodman - AWMH Advisory Board Member
Jason Gossman - Audio Engineer
Sarah Gustafson - Wardrobe
Zach Harmon - Backline Crew Chief
Castor Hetfield - Percussion
Christian David Holland - Virtual Crowd Audio
Vicki Huxel - Production Coordinator
Chris Johnston - Studio Assistant
Amanda Jones - Customer Engagement Specialist
Dave Keipert - LED/Camera Op
Addie Kellerman - Digital Marketing Manager
Sara Lyn Killion - Audio Engineer
Chad Koehler - Rigger
Rob Koenig - Lighting Director
Andreanne LaFrance - Media Server Programmer/Operator
Jacob Lima - nugs.net
Dana Lindstrom - Studio Assistant
Melanie Lucas - Head of Digital
Jon-Michael Marino - AWMH Auction Manager
Ray Masterson - James Assistant
Kent Matcke - Audio Engineer
Gene McAuliffe - Video Director
Suzanne Mollenkopf - HQ Office Manager
Jim Monti - Audio Engineer
John Moore - Video Engineer/Camera Lead
Cameron Muir - Interactive Content Designer
Brett Murray - Digital Media Producer
Dan Nykolayko - Digital Content Manager
Matthew Ortiz - Camera Op
Michael "Kilty" Pettit - Carpenter
Audrey Prieto - Digital Site Manager
Austin Rancadore - Store Manager
Marc Reiter - Metallica Creative Director
Renee Richardson - AWMH Associate Director
Jena Rockwood - Merchandising and Customer Service Manager
Henry Salvia - Keyboards
Kimberly Sawyer - Fireplay Corporate Production Director
Brad Serling - nugs.net
Vickie Strate - HQ Manager
Layne Ulrich - Percussion and Studio Assistant
Avi Vinocur - Mandolin, Guitar, Background Vocals, and Studio Assistant
Eric Wasserman - Business Management
Benny Welch - LED/Camera Op
Nick Whitehouse - Fireplay CEO
John Wiseman - PRG Senior VP Worldwide Sales
Martin Woytas - Lighting Tech
Jeff Yeager - HQ IT/Webmaster
Chad Zaemisch - Backline Tech
John "Lug" Zajonc - Production Manager