Montreal faculty member Adam van Sertima – a self-described “Dad, philosopher, art historian and Games Studies specialist” who teaches film courses – sat down with Liz Allen-Pennebaker of the Core Division and CLT to share his filmmaking expertise with all of us at Champlain who want to up our video conferencing and video recording game. Edited by Caroline Toy.

Adam’s Top Tips:

Use a green screen or plain sheet with virtual backgrounds

Curate an interesting, but not distracting, real background

Use space behind you to create depth

Using a Virtual Background

Liz: A lot of faculty have been using virtual backgrounds – and for equity and privacy reasons, students are being encouraged to use them too. What’s the best way to make virtual backgrounds work well so that you don’t look like your hair’s on fire or parts of your body are disappearing? Do you need a green screen?

Adam: I did purchase, sparing no expense (from China – it took four months), a green screen. And I will eventually put a hook across the wall behind me so I can clip it up.

A green screen improves the look of your virtual backgrounds, but it’s not strictly necessary. Zoom doesn’t require that you have one. Google Meet would probably work a bit better if you did have one. The way a virtual background works with a green screen is that it selects that color green and says, OK, everything that isn’t that color is meant to be in the video and everything that is that color should be replaced by the virtual background. The reason they use green is because that really bright green is very unusual. If you don’t have a green screen, then the blander your background, the better. A plain white sheet is okay if you don’t have green.

But…don’t have a flat bland background directly behind you if you’re not going to use a virtual background. One young member of Parliament here in Canada put up a plain white sheet behind him, presumably to hide junk or just he thought it would be better-looking and more professional. The problem was it was very close to him, so it looked like a hostage-taking.

Adam sitting on a couch with some paintings in the background
Adam’s real background – not completely blank, but uncluttered enough to make his virtual background work

Adam in a Zoom call with his virtual background of a a park with imposing buildings
Adam with his virtual background

Anyway, once you’ve got a good plain background to project your virtual background on, then you also want to think about the virtual background you choose. Some tips:

  • You don’t want it to be boring, and you don’t want too much going on, either. One Canadian MP wore very bright clothing with a strong graphic print and also had a very colorful virtual background. It was too much.
  • don’t make your virtual background the same color as your hair or as the clothes you’re wearing – otherwise you will get the “hair on fire” or “disappearing arm” effect.

Choosing a Real Background

Liz: For those who don’t want to use a virtual background, the question then becomes what should be in the background. There have been some articles in higher ed publications about how, as a professor, you should have certain “professorial” things in the background. That is, you should curate your background. So if you don’t want to drop money on a green screen, are there certain things that you can do to make your background look professional/professorial?

Adam: One thing you can do is make your background have some depth. One Canadian parliamentarian did her first meeting from her kitchen. Her kitchen is beautiful. It was obviously a big room. She was at a countertop, and she had about six, seven meters, about 25 feet of kitchen in back of her. All that space was a bit out of focus, you didn’t notice it, but she looked much more three dimensional against it.

My own setup is not an optimum room because although I’m not completely flat against the wall behind me, I would prefer to have more space behind me. If you’re flat against a wall, you tend to look two-dimensional. It can also make you feel quite claustrophobic. Having some room to move looks and feels nicer.

Regardless of background, you can give yourself a bit of a three-dimensional look by the way you look into the camera. Most people want to look into the camera straight on. But, if you can manage it, give your body a little bit of a turn, because, again, it emphasizes perspective. Your face should be looking straight in the camera, but your body should actually be at a bit of an angle. That’s a common trick many people use and it’s very effective.

Another thing you want to be aware of is that you want to have some stuff behind you, but you don’t want it to be distracting. You really want to notice how it relates to you and where you’re sitting. For example, my background has a couple of paintings, and that’s not too distracting. And I really don’t want to take them down because a friend of ours painted them. The only problem is, one of them is positioned so that it looks like a line in the painting is going straight through my skull. Try not to have stuff like that going on with your background.

Again, having some depth to your background helps a lot because it makes details like that less visible. People are focused on you, and that’s flattering.

Liz tried this! Read more about how she implemented Adam’s advice for real backgrounds in her own words:

“I didn’t bother with a virtual background, but I set up my office to be camera-friendly. First, I actually positioned my standalone webcam on the left side of my second monitor rather than right in the center, so that I would naturally get that ‘turned off at an angle’ look that Adam recommended. To make sure that I give the impression of looking at the people on the other side of my calls, I have taught myself to move my Zoom and Meet windows over to the left on my computer screen. My second monitor is really wide, and if I shrink my Zoom/Meet windows appropriately, I can both see the videoconference and work on a shared document on the other side of my monitor screen. That way, even if I look away from the camera, it’s not off at some crazy angle.

“I also positioned my camera so that it would take in some ‘professorial’ looking things in my background (which I put there on purpose, to make me look wicked smaht). I have some pretty wood shelves and desk accessories, photos of me graduating from my doctoral program, and a banner from my alma mater. I also now buy flowers every week and put them behind me in a nice vase. They not only look good on camera but also cheer me up – I spend much more time in my home office than I ever did before and having something pretty to look at really helps my morale!”

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