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Tutorial: Shooting Top-Quality Streaming Video Part II: Designing Your Set

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Now that we've seen the "don'ts," let's take a look at some "dos."

Web-Only Group—Keep It Simple
Again, this group consists of seven videos that appear to be produced primarily or solely for the web and included samples from Sports Illustrated's SI.com, RealNetworks, Microsoft, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Deloitte. In this group of seven, every video but one used a solid color background—predominantly blue (five of seven), with one black and one white (which appeared to be an alpha channel in a Flash video).

The approach is typified in a frame grab from a RealNetworks’ video of president Rob Glaser. Of the five blue backgrounds, two were solid walls, and three were curtains. Interestingly, given my experience, all of the blue backgrounds used graduated lighting, which I had avoided since my experience in 1994.

These results are significant on a number of fronts. Obviously, these companies feel that simple is better for optimum streaming quality. In addition, all the companies represented are wonderfully successful and could afford the most expensive streaming set available, real or virtual. Considering that you could duplicate their backgrounds for less than $200, this shows (perhaps) that the production value should go into what’s in front of the background, not the background itself.

TV and Web Broadcasters
Here, the lessons are those you probably see every morning at 7:00 a.m. or so with your first cup of coffee. Most network broadcasters simply repurpose their TV feed for the web, and at broadband data rates, this works pretty well. You might not agree with Bill O’Reilly, but you have to admit that he looks pretty artifact-free.

There were two camps among those that repurposed TV video for the web. ESPN, Fox, and CNN used computer-generated backgrounds, typically bluish in color, like the background in Figure 2. Of the backgrounds for these dual-use sets, which included the presidential press room (blue curtain, White House seal), 54% were blue.

The other trend, at least on the morning shows that I scanned, were kindler, gentler newsrooms such as those used by CBS and ABC. These show that "embrace the clutter" is a good philosophy, with few open spaces for compression artifacts to collect in and become very obvious.

Though it’s hard to tell in this 320x240 frame, it appears that the background in Figure 4 is a bit out of focus, which is highly desirable when possible. This effect is made possible by a combination of the large CCDs in broadcast cameras and the background being sufficiently distant from the subject. I’ll discuss how this separation comes into play in more detail below.

On Location with Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard
Microsoft also featured multiple case studies, with one group focused on software use in the field. Bill Gates hosted the series, and he was shot against what appeared to be a simple draped background. When interviewing folks in the field, however, the Microsoft producers "went native" and presented them in their element.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t produce a very compression-friendly background. Again, though the basic background is a light-colored wall, the picture, chair, and corner break it up quite nicely. Since the video is so tightly framed, there’s little open space for compression artifacts to perform their mischief. Finally, the background is noticeably darker than the well-lighted subject, a technique that HP also leveraged in their on-location shoots.

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