Over the past year and a half, we have used the STH “Blue Door” studio. This studio is how we did everything from shooting product photography, recording main camera and B-Roll for YouTube, and even where I had Zoom calls during the global pandemic. Over the past year and a half or so, this thing has been completely awesome. While not perfect, it was completely revolutionary to how I worked and how we were able to create STH content as a team over various lockdowns.
But what a lot of folks are wondering at this point is how does a guy end up with something like this? Let us take a quick step back in time. Here is the video version of the studio and its evolution which has a lot more detail than we will go into here.
In 2019 I walked around Taipei Taiwan with Linus Sebastian of Linus Tech Tips fame. He had an idea to do a project that eventually became the Jellyfish Fryer video. I said I would fly up to Vancouver to go film and when he asked what I wanted I had a simple answer. I just wanted to see how they did things at LTT. After filming for a day, I went from knowing nothing to having a vision. It may not have been a perfect vision, but it was one I wanted to action.
About a month after that video, we got a little place in Sunnyvale California to build a smaller-scale version of the studio that was nice but incorporated some of the key components. It was very bad at first, but I actually loved the photography from that space. The first case of COVID reported in California was in Mountain View, in a hospital a few minutes away. The county quickly went to lockdown and as a result, we were losing access to the shared building where the STH studio was housed. Not being able to do product photography for the STH main site was a huge issue so I had to act fast. As in I had to grab the lights and cameras from the studio and ensure we could set them up somewhere.
That somewhere was my living room. In the age of COVID I did not need a social gathering space. My buddy Joe and I also shot there using some of the rudimentary gear. Joe worked for Direct TV, Google, and other places and he was not exactly impressed with what I had had and his feedback led to that original Sunnyvale studio. Still, I decided to repurpose that space again.
For those who are not aware, real estate in Mountain View, California is not exactly “cheap”. I live in a lower-end part of the town where Google is based and home prices here are about $1200/ sq ft or just under $13000/ sq meter. Space is at a premium and this is what I had to work with in an uncertain time amid lockdowns.
The original idea was to put everything on tripods and C-stands. That worked, but it looked horrible, sounded horrible, and was a hazard. Cables were on the ground through my primary bedroom to kitchen morning migratory path. Light from the sun would come in directly from the windows above, or bounced off the house behind me, and create crazy light spots and colors. The ceiling is high with wood floors which made crazy audio echos even trying shotgun and lav mics.
Just to get usable video given the light and noise, I was recording after 10PM. This setup was barely functional but that was actually better than the alternative with the studio space closed for months and we still needed to get reviews done.
As it appeared as though the pandemic was not going to be over in a week or two, I began getting acoustic blankets to start blocking some light and audio both from the room echo and the outside. I tried all kinds of ways to get that setup, but I needed more than tripods. It was at that point I decided to get F34 trussing and just stop doing this poorly, especially since I did not want to start ruining the walls.
Originally I was going to have totems on wheels, but then I went on a journey of realizing I should just make a cube structure it was finally complete. These F34 truss segments each can hold thousands of pounds so a few blankets and lights are no problem. (Everything overhead is safety cabled.)
I put the blankets over the structure and that created an amazing sounding space that also had no light other than what I added. It needed a backdrop, hence the blue doors.
Just going through the setup here, there are Aputure 300x’s here. I started with the cheap 60W lights but the higher power lights help a lot for the photo/ video setup given the distance. I also played with diffusers.
The rear is lit by two RGB light panels. Overhead there is an Aputure 120d II. Originally I had a parabolic diffuser above that looked great, but it created the echo if I was sitting underneath it. Now I either use the lantern or another soft box with a grid.
There is also an overhead camera. I use this less than I probably would like, so that may be fixed in a future revision. Oh and all of this lighting and overhead cameras and such are all controlled by Amazon Alexa which is one of the best things I have done. This saves me so much time it is a must-do in the future studio.
The main camera was originally on a tripod. I cannot really use the teleprompter type setups since then everyone knows I am just reading. Early on though, I did use the teleprompter to show the Zoom video call feeds from other people so I could be looking directly at someone when speaking on Zoom. I later added a dedicated Zoom camera which is a ZCam unit but dropped the glass to make more room. The challenge with the main camera was that I did not want to deal with cables and tripods.
I found a ProAim pan and tilt head that I mounted the main camera to. The benefit here is that I can adjust the camera when I sit using the little remote joystick.
For Zoom calls I usually use a Lenovo Project TinyMiniMicro 1L PC in a Tiny-in-One touchscreen monitor. I also mounted my old TV for a big screen display in the studio.
Just outside of the studio, I have the travel cases for the gear but also a little shelving system that maintains humidity and dust control for the camera gear when it is not in use.
In the F34 trussing, I can run wires for all of the power and communication needed which keeps everything off of the ground. That wiring includes the Rode NTG4+ that has a dedicated XLR connection to the Canon C70 main camera.
In the background are the blue doors that have probably seen 100 or so videos on the STH YoTube channel at this point. This is just a studio background because that is what was available when the pandemic started.
If you want to see more on this, although not server related, check out the video above.
The STH Blue Door Studio Impact
Let us talk impact. I can walk into the studio turning on lights with my voice (using Amazon Alexa.) I can transition between YouTube or Zoom in under 30 seconds. I can slide the table (which was my kitchen table) to take product shots. We have to take photos and B-roll of small items all the way up to complex servers that cost as much as a Ferrari so I needed the space to scale up and this space worked. It is super stable and safe. In an earthquake, this is probably the safest place In the neighborhood.
Every Zoom call is consistent in terms of quality. It may not look the best but it is consistent. Sometimes our YouTube videos feature segments that are filmed over 2 months or more but nobody notices because it is that consistent.
There are better backgrounds and setups for sure. This does not look perfect at all. What it does do is removes friction from filming or taking photos. When setup is seconds for any task, it is hard not to go from an idea to taking photos or video. I can do 8 hours of Zoom calls, YouTube talking head, B-Roll, and photography, and spend under 10 minutes of aggregate equipment transition time during that 8 hour period which is awesome.
The other aspect to this is that I have been on a large number of presentations over the past year and a half where highly paid executives are at home and I am distracted by loud echos, something going on in the background, and so forth. This setup does cost thousands of dollars to build. There are corners to be cut. At the same time, in the era of remote work, a 100 sq ft or so space that is on wheels and moveable that is designed to capture someone and isolate them into meetings or recordings is not too high of a price to pay. I have had folks who have seen this ask to rent it out because it is such a tight package.
Now the reason we are doing this overview of the studio is that it is being decommissioned today. We need to get back to a dedicated space where we can hire more folks to work on set than we had previously. And that is where things are going to take a bit of a turn for STH.
We are currently in the major process of moving facilities to get dedicated studio space and a larger team for this effort. As a result, the blue doors are likely going to be retired as we get into a much larger facility and have the ability to change the workflow. We have been reviewing so many large and high-end systems that we needed to make a big move, and that is happening. Expect more details on this in August. Still, the experience of the pandemic-constrained studio taught me a lot that will be useful as we scale up the operation.
So that is the ultimate Zoom and YouTube studio tour. There are 100% items I would change, and that I would frankly suggest changing, but I know there are people out there who just need inspiration to do something cool. Getting a tripod or two is easy, but having a vision for something bigger is hard. Hopefully, this helps our readers inform their visions for future workspaces.
For our regular STH readers, just know this is a very rough few weeks for the team as we work through the transition. This little studio became a cornerstone and was so efficient that taking a few weeks to tear it down and setup the new location is causing a huge disruption. At the same time, the goal is that by September we will have a much more robust setup than we have had.