Whether you’re getting ready to go back to school or settling into your seemingly permanent work from home situation, by now you have become extremely familiar with video meetings. Be it Zoom, Bluejeans, Google Hangout, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams, or any number of alternatives, this pandemic has you living in a reality our parents and grandparents only saw in sci-fi movies. While many people understand the basic rules of these calls there are quite a few who still struggle to grasp the core concepts. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume you already know to make sure your children or siblings have something to occupy themselves, to stay seated if you’ve chosen to not wear pants, and to, under no circumstance, take your laptop with you to the bathroom during the call. You’re ahead of so many already but you may be missing a few key elements that can really set you apart from the other people…like Kevin. No one wants to be like Kevin. You’ll understand what I mean soon.
To be clear, we’re not talking about things like keyboard shortcuts, how to present your screen, or how to mute your microphone. Since the main function of a video conference is video, thinking about things from a filmmaking perspective can actually go a long way. If you want to call your favorite Chicago video production company to come over and help optically optimize your workspace we are available and happy to oblige. However, you don’t need to hire a film company to achieve visual mastery with your webcam. And you especially don’t need to buy fancy gadgets and gizmos to make yourself look like you’re ready for an Oscar-worthy close-up. Focus on these four elements and you’ll be outshining Kevin in no time.
LIGHTING YOUR ZOOM ROOM
Good lighting is one of the most important pieces of filmmaking. If you’re interested in the different types of lighting and why they’re so important you can read this article from No Film School. The same principles that make your favorite movies look so good can be applied to your home setup.
Front light vs Back Light
Illuminating yourself from the front and not the back is the single biggest thing you can do to improve the look of your video meeting. In filmmaking it’s referred to as an actor’s “key light” and it’s the main light source that allows you to be seen.
Notice how Kevin looks like some kind of weird, shadow figure? Don’t be like Kevin. While having some backlight is important the brightest light source in the room should be in front of you.
Natural, indirect light is always going to be the most desired light source. It will give you a beautiful, even glow without being too orange (warm) or too blue (cool). If possible, set yourself up so you’re looking out a window while you’re working or studying. Not only will this drastically help the look of your video but being able to see outside will help improve your mood drastically. That second part isn’t necessarily a film technique as much as it is just good advice.
If you don’t have the ability to set yourself up in front of a window, or you’re attending a night class, a well-positioned lamp is your next best option. Place the lamp as directly in front of you as your setup will allow.
Too far to one side or the other and you’ve set yourself up for a very horror film inspired meeting.
Some light is better than no light so, if you don’t have a window or a lamp, the first thing we need to discuss is why. Once we clear that up, you can turn on your overhead light. The problem you’re going to run into with this option is, while the top of your head will look fantastic, your face will be bathed in shadows. To counterbalance this you can try increasing the screen brightness so your actual monitor acts as a light source.
Now that your lighting is taken care of, let’s move on to angles.
Most people learned about the importance of angles from taking selfies but the power of a good camera angle in relation to the subject goes back to the beginning of filmmaking. A thoughtfully chosen angle can make the difference between being seen as a consummate professional or being seen as just another Kevin.
Elevate your computer
In the movie world, there are endless reasons to use high angles, low angles, and eye-level camera placement. This article from Studio Binder gives a great explanation of when you’d use different angles. However with video conferences the rules change. Looking slightly up at the camera is always more flattering than looking down at it. When you are forced to look up at the camera it elongates your neck, overhead light hits your face more evenly, and you appear more alert. Looking down reveals hidden double chins, casts odd shadows, and gives an overall impression of lacking enthusiasm. The key, however, is not to elevate too much or it begins to look awkward. Eye-level or a little higher is the sweet spot, as long as you’re not above your hairline.
Notice how uncomfortable Kevin looks with his angle too high and too low. I can’t stress enough, don’t be like Kevin.
You can purchase a wide variety of equipment to help elevate your computer, or you can take an independent filmmaker approach and get resourceful. Stacking a few books under your laptop will give you just the right amount of lift and your colleagues will be none the wiser. If it’s good enough for Taika Waititi, it’s good enough for anyone.
With your beautiful lighting and your flattering new angle, it’s now time to tackle framing.
In filmmaking, “framing” refers to how you display different visual elements within the frame of your image. If you watch your favorite films you probably won’t notice when the framing of a scene is done well because it’s visually pleasing and seamless. However, you’ll absolutely notice when it’s done poorly. Giving your framing just a few moments of attention before you join the video meeting will pay off in a big way.
Distance from the camera
Undoubtedly you’ve had a video chat with your grandparents, your parents, or maybe you’ve even been paired up on a project with Kevin where you spend the entire call talking to his nostrils. No one wants to be on the receiving end of this image so maintaining a good distance from your computer is key. Based on the cameras found in most computers you’ll want to be roughly 1.5 – 2 feet away from your screen. This leads in perfectly to the next element of framing, headspace.
Typically you want to frame yourself from just below your shoulders to just above your head leaving a few inches of space to the top of the frame. Giving too much space above or cutting off the top of the head may be motivated in a movie but in a business setting you want people to focus on what you’re saying and not trying to analyze your artistic choice of headspace. Basically you want to make sure you’re in the center of the frame. Speaking of which…
Sitting center frame
In a narrative film, framing the subjects to one side of the screen or the other can sometimes be a very powerful tool. During a video conference, it’s more of a distraction than anything. The space around the subject is referred to as “negative space” and the more negative space you have to one side or the other, the more people’s eyes are going to be drawn to that space. Again, they’ll be more focused on trying to see what’s in the background than on what you’re saying.
Here are some examples of less than ideal framing.
Regardless of how well you frame yourself, you’re still going to have some background visible to your colleagues. Let’s talk about this briefly.
On a film set, an incredible amount of time and care goes into what’s called “set dressing”. It’s someone’s job to make sure everything in the background of a scene looks perfect. While you may not be a professional Set Dresser, you can still take a few steps to make sure your background looks picture perfect.
Bland vs Cluttered
The goal is to strike a balance between having a sterile, bland background that looks like you just moved into your place and having a cluttered background worthy of its own episode of Hoarders.
If you have countertops behind you make sure you’ve removed piles of paper, dirty dishes, and toys that may be strewn about. Instead, you may want to add a vase with some fresh cut flowers that give a splash of color to the room. Or, you can bring out a bowl and strategically place some fresh fruits or vegetables to show what a healthy eater you are; no one needs to know the cupboards are full of boxes of cookies. If you’re sitting in front of a wall, use the opportunity to show a little bit of your personality by hanging some pictures of a favorite vacation you took or some art that reflects a hobby you have. Again, the idea is to make your background look interesting but not distracting.
If we apply everything we’ve discussed in this article, the resulting image will look something like this.
Like we said at the beginning, it doesn’t take a lot of money or equipment to level-up your video quality when meeting virtually. Even if the world starts to go back to the way it was before, remote meetings are likely to stay just as prevalent as they are now. Giving a little bit of time and consideration to your setup will help you stand out and set you apart from everyone else in your class or attending the meeting…especially Kevin. Seriously, please don’t be a Kevin.