Background noise

If I’m thinking about the background, I am probably not listening to what they’re saying …the background is more interesting
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By Jonathan Spencer

As coronavirus rapidly covered the globe, so the world adapted – as if overnight – to online platforms and video conferencing.

Shocking and scary as Covid-19 is, not least in its death tolls, it is our innovative streams – a spirited continuity – that force a way through.

Where it can, life goes on: gardens flourish, wildlife becomes bolder, bird song is louder – less the hum of traffic or the dampened roar of an A380. And the air is cleaner.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree if mankind perished utterly – Sara Teasdale’s line a century ago could have been penned last month. There will come soft rains… and most probably just when it’s safe to go back in the parks, or to the beach.

TV shows these days appear very similar to office meetings, exploiting Zoom, Teams and FaceTime, among others. Platforms are in their element, as life in so-called lockdown forges a future, throwing a lifeline to corporations, start-ups and individuals who are still able to work.

We can applaud the spirit of opportunity and innovation: the bedroom choirs, the living room theatres and gyms. Everyone reduced to the same level. Can’t say I mind that when it’s a secretary of state, a footballer, movie star or chef. But I’m not sure TV is the better for it.

In a previous life I tackled the thrills and spills of live TV. Audiences, animals, dry ice machines, odd things in the background, people on the edge of frame – even a bit of me creeping into a wide-angle shot.

With as many levels of tech knowledge as there are platforms, add to that a sliding scale of professionalism and the results are entertaining enough.

A UK show, Saturday Kitchen, is in a rush to plate-up before the end credits due to studio chefs distancing, a remote contributor’s cat walking across a laptop and the hysterics that follow. Backgrounds become foregrounds. Priceless.

With news, politics and life constrained by just one story, we get a glimpse of everyone’s bookcases – the absent to the most impressive – like it’s some competition.

The transport secretary adds his official document red box, a campaign poster tucked among books, and several Union flags. His colleague ends an interview discussing the Damien Hirst painting hung behind on the health secretary’s office wall.

Well, if I’m thinking about the background, I am probably not listening to what they’re saying. Yes, with some repetitious interviews, the background is more interesting. Of course, be creative, at least be yourself – but if you really want to land your point and ensure your audience hears it, best play it safe without distractions.

Staying safe – what exactly are you saying through the background noise? You’ve moved the sensitive stuff, right? A document or a password Post-It visible… The camera eye – with its wide-angle – sees straight through your back door… Did somebody just walk past in a towel?

A political columnist adds some class with a wall of fine religious icons. Mesmerising curios, they are, but who are you telling when so much other information is accessible online. Priceless.

A global music Covid-19 benefit, broadcast to millions – and millions more – since nobody is going out to concerts, captured hearts and minds. The Rolling Stones, jamming in four different rooms, I think stole the show; Lady Gaga, less her stage theatrics and costumes, and a room of session kit besides her laptop – having the space. Sheer class.

A screengrab of an office, or a blurred background will do – but don’t vanish into it. If a background is a similar colour, add a jacket. If your chin is on the bottom of frame, add a cushion; your head too high – put books beneath your laptop. And do look at the camera, the light at the top of your screen frame. Your eye contact is then perfect.

Obvious stuff, but most forget. Remember: if it isn’t words and pictures it’s probably radio.

Appearance used to be everything. Now it’s anything.

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