A Virtual DJ, a Drone, and an All-Out Zoom Wedding
It was supposed to be a magical destination wedding. Jenny Cooper and Sean Steuer, who live in Los Angeles, had invited 120 people to join them at the Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta in Mexico—an all-inclusive resort with five infinity pools, a swim-up bar, and entertainment that includes folkloric dancing and acrobatic performances.
Cooper’s mother had bought 100 glow sticks for a neon “our love shines bright” welcome party. Guests were being told the wedding was at the hotel, but on the morning of, they would be instructed to gather in the lobby. A chartered catamaran would whisk them away to a private island where they’d watch the couple exchange “I do’s” in a “tropical, bohemian paradise” with lanterns and torches illuminating the beach. Then they’d all hit the dance floor, accompanied by fire dancers and drummers.
Pre-pandemic, the plan was to do a “legal wedding” in town on March 28, with their upstairs neighbors and best friends, Christi and Jack Scott, as witnesses and Christi’s father, Pastor Phil Aijian, as the officiant. Puerto Vallarta would be the big show where they exchanged vows in front of a large group of family and friends. But then the novel coronavirus started creeping across the globe.
First, older family members began canceling their plans to attend. Then Australia closed its borders, which meant Cooper’s brother, Harry, would be unable to join. By the mid-March deadline for the final hotel payment, more than half of the guests had dropped out. The clothiers making Steuer’s tux and Cooper’s dress suspended production, and the jewelry shop that had their rings shut down. Steuer and Cooper made a mad dash to their county courthouse to obtain a marriage license the day before it closed.
At that time, says Cooper, they felt like “virus be damned, we are still going!” By March 18, though, the May wedding was obviously off. No one was going to Mexico. The glow sticks could maybe be used for something else.
So when it became apparent that their dream ceremony was off the table—far into the foreseeable future anyway—Steuer and Cooper regrouped, determined not to allow anything stop them from becoming Mr. and Mrs. Steuer. “We are both in our mid-thirties, so we knew we didn’t have the luxury of time to postpone the marriage until next year before starting a family,” says Cooper. “And who’s to say if the situation with travel and gatherings will be different by then?”
When they announced that Mexico was canceled, Steuer and Cooper were flooded with responses like “We will have margaritas on May 5th in honor of you both,” and realized they didn’t want to say “I do” without the company of their “beloved gang” in some capacity. They decided then to shift gears, keeping their Cinco de Mayo wedding date and finding a way to stream the ceremony. Christi Scott’s father was even still willing to marry them in person. (They assured the pastor they would social distance during the ceremony and put tape on the floor to mark where he would stand, six feet away.) This meant they now had a month and a half to put together a virtual wedding that would be (almost) as fun as an in-person celebration on a secluded beach, accessible only by boat.
Cooper and Steuer are, of course, not alone. About 450,000 weddings were planned in the US between March and May, says Jeffra Trumpower, senior creative director at WeddingWire, which pairs couples with wedding vendors. “Couples have gotten creative in the ways they’re honoring their original wedding date,” she says. And companies have gotten creative in how they serve those would-be newlyweds.
Simply Eloped has launched a virtual wedding package, and for $200 it will provide wedding planning assistance, a virtual officiant, advice on obtaining a marriage license, and tech support. For $800, Wedfuly will run your Zoom wedding, coordinating “guests” on up to 1,000 devices. Add-on options include virtual wedding photographers ($400), custom virtual backdrops, ($75), and virtual live music ($200). They can even hire your favorite musician to perform or celebrity to officiate (price TBD).
Wendy Kidd, a wedding planner with Each & Every Detail, says her company has always offered livestreaming services for couples, but they’ve mostly consisted of an occasional grandparent FaceTiming in. If a spouse had a large extended family overseas, they might commission a proper livestream, but that was rare. Now she’s building on that experience to help Covid-19-era spouses virtually broadcast their nuptials.
Steuer and Cooper aren’t hiring a service. The groom is a tech ops specialist at Netflix; the bride owns a vintage-trailer bar company, and when the world is not in the middle of a mandated “stay at home” order, pours signature cocktails at weddings and events around Los Angeles. She’s crafty, he’s a techie—they were born to do this! But first they must figure out how to keep their camera from overheating and turning them green, dodge neighbors throwing water at their drone, and save the bride’s parents from almost missing the ceremony.
March 22: The Decision to Go Virtual—and to Go Big
Guests have been asking if they can still see them get married, and Steuer knows he can make it work technically, so they decide to livestream the wedding. “We may not be able to hug our parents or do the conga with our best friends, but knowing they are here—even if ‘here’ means using the power of daisy-chained Jabra pucks and a high-quality PTZ camera—means the world,” he says. But in pivoting from a Mexican beach to life under lockdown, Steuer recognizes this has to be more than just him and his bride standing before a propped-up iPad. Visions of multiple camera angles, mood lighting, and a full-on virtual DJ-fueled dance party with guests joining in from their homes, swirl around in his mind.
That night, Cooper can’t sleep so she uses an app called Canva to create an invitation mocked up to look like a Netflix menu. The copy: “When a deadly virus sweeps the world, Jenny and Sean are forced to cancel their dream wedding and find an alternative way to celebrate their love with their friends and family.”
March 23: The More the Merrier
Cooper posts the invite in a Facebook group for brides to see if others are planning on going virtual. “It had a huge response,” she says. “Lots of congratulations and support. Lots of ‘Well done for letting love win’ kind of comments. Some logistical questions like ‘Do you already have your marriage license?’ ‘How are you going to set this up?’ ‘What platform are you going to use?’” This confirms her enthusiasm. She ends up inviting a few curious brides to watch her wedding livestream.
March 24: Actually, for Some Guests, a Virtual Wedding Is Better
A virtual wedding means guests can now attend with their plus ones—or twos or threes. So those who weren’t able to travel to Mexico are officially back in.
Hannah Cookman, Cooper’s oldest friend, couldn’t make the in-person wedding because she was worried about how Zika would affect her conception plans. Now she can “wear her best dress” and dance along with the couple in “a living-room disco for two.”
Steuer’s college friend, Derick Tekus, was planning to go to Mexico, but without his family—too expensive. Now everyone can attend. “We are going to ‘beach up’ the house,” he says.
The groom’s mother, Patricia Steuer, who had been advised against traveling to Mexico by her oncologist, was dreading breaking the news to the couple. Now, she’s thankful she’s able to participate. She and her husband bought a special backdrop to hang behind them during the ceremony, and also ordered a custom cake inscribed with the bride and groom’s names and wedding date to eat at home in Reno, Nevada.
“Everyone is thrilled to have something to look forward to and to celebrate,” says Cooper, who calls this “a big silver lining in what could easily be described as a very shitty situation.”
March 26: The Venue Decision: Apartment or Backyard?
The couple has to choose between their apartment or a friend’s backyard overlooking the ocean. “Obviously the second option would be preferable, but we have more control over the tech from our apartment,” Steuer says. Having the best AV experience possible is his goal. Cooper jokes that since the wedding has gone virtual, he’s so excited about getting to use his cameras and gadgets that he has all but taken over the planning, so the apartment ultimately wins.
They’ve hired a professional DJ service to emcee and help with muting and unmuting guests so that a drunken cousin doesn’t accidentally talk over their vows. They’ll use hue light strips to create ambiance and will station multiple cameras and iPads around the room so they can capture different angles; Steuer hopes to edit this footage into a keepsake wedding video.
March 28: Guests Get Their Instructions
The duo sends out a “We Have a Plan B” email, which directs guests to visit their newly revamped wedding website. They have written a full explainer on the virtual wedding, the technology behind it, and the run of show—ceremony at 1 pm Pacific time, followed by tequila and toasts, followed by a “Turn up the volume on your laptop and let’s boogie” dance party. They joke: “Let’s just hope we are still talking to each other after six weeks of quarantine.”
April 3: Saying Yes to the Dress … Again
Cooper’s dress company announces on Instagram that they are shipping. Should she wear the dress in her apartment, or save it in case she and Steuer have a “real wedding” down the line? Her cousins convince her to wear it, arguing that saying vows in front of one another is “as real as it gets.” Cooper says this is the moment when the virtual wedding became very real. “It was an ‘Oh wow, we are really going to do this?’ moment.” Guests can wear whatever they like, from “posh frocks and hats,” (Cooper is originally from the UK) to “beach chic.”
April 13: The Location Is Set
Over Zoom, Cooper and Steuer give me a virtual tour of their Culver City apartment as they transform it into a wedding venue. Cooper is crafting wreaths for a backdrop. (She’s way Pinteresty and is spray-painting hula hoops in rose gold and wrapping them with fake greenery and flowers she uses for decorating her trailer bar.)
Cooper moves the camera over and shows me the dining room, which will be converted into “a mini-Mexico” cake-cutting station. We pass by their couch, which she says will “somehow get shoved into the bedroom” to clear space for a dance floor. Guests’ faces will be displayed on the living room’s 85-inch television.
A fancy Sony A7iii camera is on order—it should provide a better viewing experience—but Steuer is worried that neither it nor the cord needed to connect it will arrive in time. “It’s definitely a nonessential item to FedEx,” he says. Cooper tells Steuer, “I don’t want Zoom bombers at my wedding!” He laughs. Not on his watch! He wants his buddy’s drone to fly by for balcony shots. Cooper playfully rolls her eyes. Meanwhile, she’s trying to convince him to take a virtual dance lesson.
April 15: Call With the DJs
Rob Corrall, of Second Song, is eager to DJ/emcee his first virtual wedding. He will be live from his garage on May 5. His colleague, Ralph Bracamonte, will Zoom in for technical support. All are in agreement that Zoom is the platform of choice—everyone Zooms. But how will Corrall transition from the wedding area to the reception area? Different cameras? Separate Zoom links? Can Corrall pin the “reception” location so that guests will be able to seamlessly transition? He assures everyone he’ll figure it out.
April 16: Cooper Zooms With a Makeup Artist Friend
“Really she had to teach me from the ground up because I do so little makeup normally, and never have shown much interest in learning before,” Cooper says. She sends her friend, Dominique Desveaux, a few pictures for inspiration, but Desveaux tells her the images she sent were heavily Photoshopped and that approximating these looks would be unrealistic.
April 17: Bachelor Party Planning
Steuer is planning the bachelor party with Scott, who lives with Christi and their daughter, Skylar, in the apartment above. Steuer and Cooper have been sticklers about social distancing and these are the only people they see in person: Cooper has been helping Christi and Jack with childcare since Christi had to return to work as a therapist for Kaiser.
Steuer wants to play the Magic: The Gathering card game in unison with his friends and rig up cameras to peer over their decks. Scott teases him: “This is your perfect scenario. I think you’re enjoying getting married in a pandemic more than not. You love solving problems through technology.” Steuer goes through more of his ideas for distributed deck cameras, to which Scott jokes, “I think your bachelor party is going to be a complete glitchfest.’”
April 21: Facebook Live Has a Freakout
Cooper has offered herself up as a virtual wedding guinea pig and invited industry friends, wedding planners, and brides considering livestream weddings to tune in to her ceremony via Facebook Live. For some reason, Facebook Live keeps cutting out after five minutes and Steuer adds it to his list of things to troubleshoot.
April 23: A Bad Hair Day
Cooper reconnects with her makeup artist friend Desveaux. The bride-to-be tells her pal that she found an “easy” hair tutorial online, texts a picture of her failed attempt, and tears up, admitting she had “a complete meltdown” over her lack of hairstyling skills. She typically wears her hair in a ponytail or a messy bun and is trying to master a more involved updo. It came out looking like a nest. “People always say they felt the most beautiful on their wedding day, and right now I feel like that’s not how I’m going to feel at all because I can’t do my hair,” she says.
Desveaux asks if she’s sure the virtual wedding is the route she wants to take, to which Cooper replies: “This is our moment for now, and so I want to make the most of it—go all out, as far out as we can go from our apartment.” She admits that she’s reached the point where it’s time to change her expectations. “Things aren’t as they would be if it was to be a traditional wedding,” she says, “so I need to let go of that and make the most of the situation that I do have.” Desveaux says she’ll videoconference and help Cooper get ready pre-ceremony. And even if her hair still refuses to cooperate, “I’m sticking a veil on anyway so it’s going to hide anything that doesn’t work out,” Cooper says. They both laugh.
April 25: Testing, Testing ….
It’s the final run through and Steuer is trying to mirror Zoom via Apple TV. “I’m running too much through my laptop and it’s overheating right now,” he says. Zoom won’t allow Corrall to select his DJ speaker. Steuer is still troubleshooting. “The challenge is we are trying to AirPlay it from Apple TV, but it uses a lot of bandwidth so I think we are going to plug in directly to HDMI,” he says. The cable Steuer needs has still not been delivered, and this leaves him pacing back and forth. Thirty-seven minutes into the test, Corrall is still not up and running. Steuer is frustrated because the video feed from his new camera looks grainy. Everyone says they will work out the kinks on their ends and reconvene next week for a final, final run-through.
One Week to Go
Guests receive an email explaining that they’ll be able to join on Zoom or Facebook Live. Those who haven’t used the platform before are encouraged to “jump on a Zoom call with family or friends to make sure you have the setup you need.” Other advice: Try not to use a phone. “We will have multiple cameras and music and audio inputs, and the output through a phone will not provide the best viewing experience.” In all caps—and red font—they state that their wedding’s Zoom link will be sent out two days before and that guests are not to share this with anyone. “Our Zoom guest count will be to capacity and so we encourage anyone who wants to watch that has not received this email to do so by viewing the Facebook Live stream.” Guests are encouraged to take wedding photos. The email also includes a margarita recipe.
May 2: Simultaneous Bachelor and Bachelorette Parties
Steuer heads upstairs to Scott’s apartment, and the guys log in on separate devices. The majority of the seven participants are clad in Hawaiian shirts. Trying to rig up individual setups for the card game was too involved so they will soon hop into a virtual version of Magic: The Gathering Arena.
Cooper and her friends play bridal bingo and a high-tech version of The Newlywed Game where they ask Cooper questions like “What would Sean’s superpower be? (He’d like to have the ability to mentally teleport Cooper’s vintage bar trailer wherever it needs to go. Normally it can be a hassle, she says: “It has a mind of its own and neither of us had towed a trailer before I started this business.”). Toward the end, Cooper’s screen turns green, which worries her. “Well, this can’t happen during our wedding! What if we turn into green zombies?”
May 3: Rehearsal
Pastor Phil Aijian joins on Zoom. Cooper, Steuer, and Scott are cheerfully hungover. It’s decided that Corrall will mute the guests 10 minutes before the ceremony. Cooper says “Don’t forget to unmute my parents when you ask, ‘Who gives Jenny away?’” Corrall nominates Scott to switch to “Gallery mode” after the vows so Steuer and Cooper can “wave to their guests.” The consensus on the green-zombie situation from last night is that the camera overheated. “We have extra cameras, a backup lens, and extra batteries,” Steuer says. “But we’re also at the point of if it works, great. If it works at like 50 percent, that’s fine. It still means we get married!”
May 4: The Families Pregame
In Mexico, the plan was for the relatives to have a few days to get to know one another. But since a typical rehearsal dinner wasn’t an option, the Steuer and Cooper clans mingle on Zoom and play a few rounds of “one lie and two truths” and “guess whose hobby.” To make it easier for Corrall to identify family at the ceremony, Steuer helps everyone rename their accounts—finally a wedding where everyone is wearing name tags! Everyone gets a quick lesson in volume settings. “One of the relatives had their mic turned up so loud that any time they moved or said something, it sounded like a gorilla was giving birth,” he recalls. At one point, the camera overheated and shut off—the same “green zombie” ordeal from the bachelorette party. “Hopefully tomorrow it will play nice,” he says.
May 5: The Big Day
The DJs start the session around 12: 15 pm. Bracamonte puts on Ryan Adams’ “When the Stars Go Blue” and kicks things off with some mellow background tunes. One by one, new Zoom windows pop up as guests appear, some in front of “Jenny & Sean” banners, others with beachy backdrops, and almost all with cocktails in hand. The Zoom chat commences with one guest jokingly asking, “When is the buffet open?” to which another replies, “Who knows? But the bar is OPEN!” Some are in formal wear, others in sombreros and shorts. One couple is watching from their hot tub—he is wearing swim trunks and a black bowtie. As the afternoon goes on, they will occasionally pop up on screen bathed in color-changing mood lighting, floating around in the water. A medical worker steps out of a facility in her personal protective gear to watch. It’s 1 pm in California, but people are tuning in at 4 pm on the East Coast, 9 pm in the UK, and 6 am the following morning in Australia.
At 12: 50 pm, guests are muted.
At 12: 57 pm, Steuer bends down to adjust his camera angle and checks all his wires one final time. At 1 pm, Cooper walks into view as a string quartet cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” plays. She is stunning in her vintage-lace sheath dress with tassel trim; her hair is up in a classic bun, which looks professionally done, in my opinion, and a delicate veil is spilling down her back. She smiles at Steuer: “We’re doing it!”
Aijian asks Cooper’s parents, “Do you present your beautiful daughter to be married?” Corrall can’t find their Zoom window. Cooper says, “I can’t see them but I’m sure they do!” Nigel and Pam Cooper got kicked off their Wi-Fi and are frantically trying to rejoin. Cooper’s brother, Harry, posts in the chat and asks Corrall to look out for them. They are back before the vows. Whew! Steuer’s parents are asked the same question and pop up on screen to say “We do!”
People give speeches, a cellist performs Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major,” then 12 relatives sing “Corona Virus Song,” to the tune of “Sucu Sucu,” written by Cooper’s father.
Then it’s off to the Mexican-themed bar area (which Corrall pins as the featured Zoom window) for tequila and cake-cutting, and the first dance. For the next hour, guests from around the world slow-dance and twerk to everything from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.” People move their dogs’ paws to the beat, kids release pent-up energy, and those in solo lockdown clink their wine glasses to the cameras on their devices. From the moment everyone Zooms in, they seem to forget they aren’t there in person and carry on as if they are at a typical wedding, refilling drinks in their kitchens, applauding the newlyweds, and making fools out of themselves on their living-room dance floors.
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