Professional tips for video calls: set and background

Welcome back to Skype Up Your Life on Pocket-lint. At this time each day, we’ll be looking at how you can improve your video calls by asking some professionals. The professionals in questions are a group of people from an industry that’s been working with the moving image longer than the internet has been around. That business, is show business.

Today is the turn of the art department. Art is responsible for set design, dressing scenes, props and generally making sure things look right in the background. We got hold of art department veteran Shay Leonard with his 25 years or so in the movies and impressive list of credits to show for it with British hits like Shaun of the Dead, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Sexy Beast, Bright Star and Sherlock Holmes all on there.

Also a writer and director in his own right, Shay was good enough to give us a few pointers for better video calling that anyone can use.

Avoid a plain background

If there’s one video call set to avoid, it’s the plain white background.

“People are still getting over video calls, so having just a single object, you, to look at in the eyes the whole time can be a bit intense for the viewer on the other end,” explains Shay.

“When there’s something else in the background, it lets the eye wonder a little bit and it’s more interesting. It also means that you don’t necessarily have to look your best or, more to the point, if you don’t look you best, people are less likely to notice.”

“If you are stuck with a wall, go for a colour. Cinematographers and cameramen tend to hate white because it blows everything else out so much. Avoid attention grabbing bright reds and yellows. You’re better of with pastel tones.”

“Patterned backgrounds are probably worse than plain, though. Patterns are too distracting. If you’re stuck with a hotel room with Regency wallpaper, you’re probably be best off set-wise going with the bathroom, although you’ll have sound issues in there. Whatever you do, probably avoid having the bed in your shot.”

A background to reflect who you are

If you’re at home, in your office or any kind of familiar environment that gives you options, then it’s worth specifically dressing a corner of your space for video call use. It doesn’t have to be exclusively for that purpose but think of it as your regular backdrop.

A good move is to find a background that best reflects whatever skills or expertise you’re trying to convey with your call. Obviously, that’s not an issue if it’s a personal call but, if it’s in a professional capacity, then what genre of capacity is that?

“A bookcase is a classic because it says a lot about you,” offers Shay. “It says, ‘Oh look, this person is well read.’ A video collection is good too if you’re a filmmaker or somehow involved in the movie business or interested in film.”

So, think about what it is that you do, and dress a background with pictures or objects in a subtle manner that give clues as to what you’re about.

“In general, if you make it look professional, people will be more interested in what you’re saying.”

Use objects but use them wisely

So, background objects are great at saying something about you but it’s possible that they can distract too much as well.

“There was an interview on the news the other night about sugar in kids’ cereals and they had some footage of this mum feeding her kids and they stuck this big box of Sugar Puffs on the counter behind her. So, it might have been selling the story but it was a bit too much of product placement for Sugar Puffs. And it was also very distracting. The thing about set design usually is that you’re looking for something that will catch your eye but not too much.”

Too much clutter is bad. Any objects that stand out too much and upstage you are bad and another absolute no-no is to have an object that appears to interact with you.

“Don’t have anything growing out of your head,” Shay demonstrates. “It’s a classic faux pas. The famous thing is having a plant growing out of your head. Plants can be brilliant in frames but make sure to keep them to the side. The other classic is a lampshade that people tend to end up wearing as a hat in bad composition. Again, they’re good objects to have, but in the right place.”

Mirrors are also best avoided.

Keep some distance between you and your background

Unless you want to look like a footballer being interviewed after a game, it’s important to get some space between you and your background.

“It’s not good to be pushed up against a wall. The theory is that there’s a psychological element that you looked squashed in along with the viewer which is then uncomfortable for both of you. There’s also then less space for the background to be interesting.”

Landscapes are better than brick walls

There will be some occasions for video call use where you’ll be out and about and need to make a video call. Hopefully, most of these will be social calls and not too important. If you are looking to make a good impression though, you’ve still got a decent chance to make use of what’s around.

“It’s the kind of choice that roving news camera teams need to make all the time. The big question is usually whether it’s best to go with a static wall or side of a building or to have a park or some kind of open space. A park is usually better because it offers more depth and interest rather than, say, the distracting, close pattern of a brick wall. Of course, the downside of open space is that you risk a member of the public running up behind you and ruining your shot.”