Get the Best from Video Conferencing

 

2020, the year we all became experts at video conferencing. Or did we? By now we all have had our share of conversations interrupted by malfunctioning microphones, distracting backgrounds, and blocky video. This can be fun for a while.

After all, who doesn’t like to study their colleagues’ living rooms for embarrassing items. However, for most of us the fun has by now faded and everyone has a horror story of an important video call gone wrong because of some technological hiccup.

As it happens, what makes great looking films also helps with looking good on Zoom. Given we have a few decades of experience between us making great films, we thought we’d put together the quick Kartoffel Films Guide for successful video calls. 

Don’t worry, this is not about installing high-end studio lighting in your kitchen or building a sound stage in your living room (though people have done this). 

This quick and simple guide is about creating a better video call experience within a few minutes and with minimal cost (if any). To make this easy, we’ve split our guide into 3 steps: audio, lights, and etiquette. Think of the latter as the script we’d be giving our actors. 

Video Conferencing Audio

We start with audio, because poor audio is really the bane of video conferencing. If the words don’t come across, little else will be of help. Do take care of your audio setup, even if you don’t do anything else from this guide.

There are a few reasons audio often goes wrong on video calls. Sometimes it’s as simple as the conferencing software not connecting properly with your device’s speaker and microphone. This leads to the well-known ritual of starting calls with ‘can you hear me’, ‘I can’t hear you’, followed by mime artist impressions, pointing to ears.

Simply put, this is bound to happen now and then with today’s laptops, so it’s worth doing a quick microphone and speaker check, in particular before important calls. Standard video conferencing tools like Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype make this now easy. It’s worth investing the 20 seconds it takes. 

With this most basic audio obstacle out of the way, another drawback is can be echo or poor noise cancellation. Your conversation partners can’t hear a word you are saying, but your laptop is happily broadcasting your baby crying in the room next door or the chocolate bar you’ve secretly been unwrapping under the table. 

video noise cancellation

Headsets Save Lives

This is where it’s worth making a small investment in a headset. This doesn’t mean you’ll have to look like a call center agent. There are plenty of affordable wireless bluetooth headphones around. Just make sure they have a built-in microphone, so that all audio goes over one device vs. split over, say, your laptop and your headset.

If you do go down this route, make sure that it’s fully charged before an important call, otherwise you’ll be back to the scenario above. Switching audio equipment during a live call is no fun.

If you are making only one investment in your home video conferencing setup, then it’s really worth buying a decent headset. You can get one with good quality from about 50 quid.

Video Conferencing Lights

Congratulations, we’ve cleared the first hurdle. We can now hear each other. That’s essential for establishing communications, but there’s still a lot of room for looking less than professional. Because poor lighting does not stop conversations, it’s unfortunately also an aspect that’s often overlooked. That’s said, also easy to fix. The difference between an OK conversation and coming across as truly professional does not require much effort, yet many miss this opportunity. 

A common easily avoided mistake is to have a window in the back. Because cameras automatically balance brightness, this means that your face will instantly become dark to adjust for the bright window. In extreme cases you’ll only be recognisable as a silhouette. This may have its mysterious artistic appeal, but it also has the practical consequence of none of your facial expressions coming across.

Folks will look at your bookshelves and furniture instead of you and won’t have much bandwidth for what you have to say. So, simply experimenting with different positions within a room to avoid a bright source of light in the background will help.

Night Time Calls

Another common issue, in particular with video calls at night, is when the computer screen is the only or the strongest light source in the room. This will result in your face being lit up in a ghostly blue hue, and if you are using a laptop then also from below. Again, this will not stop a call and no-one will say anything, but it’s unlikely to bring out your best angle. 

When we are shooting professional video we carefully plan our light sources. Now, this doesn’t mean you’ll have to spend 1000s on buying lighting equipment, but a few simple adjustments will make a big difference

  • Use multiple sources of light – to avoid high contrast shadows on your face and to give the space around you some depth. An additional desk lamp can be as little as 15 quid and professional lighting strips start from £150.
  • Avoid lighting your face from below or directly above – this will create strong shadows and accentuate or hide your features at random. A laptop screen as the only light source will have this effect. 
  • Avoid cold or blue light – the best is either daylight or a warm spectrum LED. Computer, phone, and TV screens typically emit light in the colder spectrum, do not use those as light sources. 

Finally, a word about camera angle. Most laptops and screens have their camera in the top bevel. That’s good because when you are looking at someone on the screen that will look on camera almost as if you are looking at them. Keep this in mind in case you are using an external camera. Too big an offset between camera and screen will create a jarring effect where your conversation partner will see you always looking slightly to their side.

lighting for video conferences

If you are using a laptop, then it’s worth elevating it somewhat (for example on a few books), so that you can look straight at the screen and the camera. If your laptop is truly on your lap or flat on a desk surface, then the screen will be angled, and with the screen also the camera, which will pick up your face from a slightly awkward angle.  

Again, it’s fairly easy to make a few simple adjustments, inspired by professional studio setup, to ensure you are coming across more professionally in your video calls. But enough now about lights and cameras, let’s move on to the star of the show, you.

Video Conferencing Etiquette

Talking to someone over video seems natural and simple. After all, we talk to people in real life all the time. Videoconferencing aims to make these everyday conversations possible over distance. While it’s true that you don’t have to take stage or acting classes to do a video call, it’s worth reflecting a bit on how video conferencing is actually different and what this means for how we can come across.

Much stagecraft and acting is about how to adjust for the highly artificial situation of the stage or studio, so that everything comes seems natural and effortless to the audience. The same logic applies to video conferencing. So, how is video conferencing different, and what can you do?

Pace Your Speech

First, there are the obvious technical constraints: audio might be delayed or distorted, video might be pixelated or freeze. All of this makes it more important to continually check that we truly understand each other. We don’t have to turn into news anchors, but it can pay off to speak a bit more slowly and clearly and to maintain focus on the camera.

Stay in Sync with Others

Next, there are more subtle effects of video conferencing. We can’t really look each other in the eyes as cameras and screens are slightly offset, there’s a slight delay and typically low video resolution. All this makes it harder to read and interpret facial expressions.

This in turn makes it harder to stay in tune emotionally with our conversation partners. In normal conversation we constantly give off and perceive social and emotional cues. Over video conferences, some of these get filtered out or distorted. Just being aware of this subtle effect is helpful. For instance, it allows you to chalk up blank expressions to a delay or to poor lighting (see above) rather than say, boredom.

Equally, someone interrupting you may not just be rude, but simply have a high latency connection, or you might be the one unintentionally and unknowingly interrupting others. With all of these factors present, it’s worth explicitly checking with others whether everyone’s still fine. It also helps to be relatively close to the camera, so that more of your facial expressions actually do make it across.

Design Your Stage

Finally, it’s worth also thinking about your stage – i.e. your kitchen counter or wherever you are taking your video calls from. There’s one basic rule to keep in mind here. Everything that’s on camera will be seen and interpreted by your audience (aka your colleagues, boss, client, etc.).

You may have become somewhat blind to your everyday surroundings but for folks on the other end of the line every object will be met with forensic interest. With that in mind it’s worth removing clutter, because you want their attention focused on you and not committed to an anthropological study of your surroundings.

Of course, if there’s a certain image you’d like to project over video calls, then you might want to consciously utilise the stage you are now afforded. No longer are you limited to let your clothes do the talking, you now have a hugely extended vocabulary and can also project via the titles on your bookshelf or the designers of your furniture.

Or you could do what Bill Gates does when he video conferences ‘from home’, use a lens with an extremely wide aperture, so that all background blurs into a haze and nothing is conveyed at all.