Work from home has meant that I have 4 hours a day – my 2-hour-each-way commute – that I didn’t have before. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use some of those early hours for sleep. But the idle brain is the devil’s playground. When our company starting using desktop video conferencing, I started playing around with the virtual backgrounds.

Part of my interest is just curiosity. But also my home workspace is shared with 2 other people and I’m intensely private about my family members. If I was going to have to do video conferences, I might as well do them creatively.

Has anyone else noticed that video conference apps are now the default tool? Phone call? Let’s video conference. Screen share? Let’s video conference. Yet another example of how people use technology without thinking about whether it’s right or not.

The Flat Panel

Skype and Zoom both support this in the same way and so I won’t make much reference to products beyond that. In the beginning, the easiest virtual background was just a photo. In my case, I used photos that I took as well as some online graphics from computer games.

I’d been thinking about virtual backgrounds for awhile. When I do video media interviews for my brother’s wrongful detention by the Russian government, I’m often sitting in front of a picture. It’s usually the Toronto skyline, regardless of whether I’m near it or not. One early morning, while it was dark out, I was setting up for an interview and someone suddenly came in the room (it was normally just me and a camera). They flicked the closed window blinds, picked up a channel changer, and the background was changed to correspond with the time of day!

The first was a bunker by arsenixc. It has the right angle so that, when you’re sitting in front of it, the positioning is right. That was my goal with my own photo, of a camp site in Ontario.

A tent at a campsite in Ontario. The height is right to look like you’re sitting in front of it.

It’s all about the verisimilitude.

Virtual backgrounds are now easy to find. I really liked the look of collections from external creators like Lucas Films for Star Wars and Studio Ghibli. They’re not all quite right except as wallpaper. Two things I learned at this point:

  • you can crop the image so it’s shorter top-to-bottom and that will help to make it look more realistic, if you are trying to place yourself within the photo.
  • the power of your computer and camera matter. Some cameras will support HD – 1920px wide images – so that you appear further from the camera, and more within the photo.

If your camera is not powerful enough on its own, you can still make a green screen. My first attempt involved an old desk top, a bit of plywood, a curtain rod, and a green bedsheet.

Hand drawn instructions for making a backdrop for a green screen. Simpler would be some sort of railing, like a portable clothes rack.

I had picked up a green sheet of fabric at Fabricland a couple of years ago when our youngest was interested in making action videos. You really just need a solid color that is distinct from anything in front of it.

The thing about a static image, especially one outdoors, is that you expect things to move. When there are no birds, or gusts of wind, or bugs, you lose the sense of realism that the photo can convey. That became my next challenge.

Adding Video

If your camera and PC are powerful enough, you can add a video virtual background. On Zoom, the option will not appear unless your device can support it. You may also be able to forego using a green screen, as the software will auto-detect what is the person in front of it.

You can run a video behind you but, like many images, it often doesn’t look like you’re really at the beach. We don’t take video and stills with that in mind. Going forward, I’m going to start taking photos at that angle though (desk height) with an eye for virtual backgrounds.

I’ve been playing around with two alternatives. Both use the same tools and involve a technique called chroma key. This is how you tell the software to remove the green background.

Video on Image

My first attempt was to drop a video onto an image. There are a couple reasons why you might do that. For one thing, we are often in environments where only a small amount of activity is going on. If you have ever played a computer game, you may have noticed that older games in particular only update a small portion of the screen. It’s easier on the device and requires less power.

I took one of the Star Wars backdrops and put a screen grab of the Matrix code on top of it. To do this, you need a video editor. I’ve been playing around with OpenShot, a free, open source video editor and it does the trick. You open OpenShot and drop your video and image into the project.

The video is in the first line, the background image in the second. Tab over to the EFFECTS area and drag CHROMA KEY on to your video to have the background appear beneath the video.

In my case, the Matrix scroll had some gnarly music behind it. If you click on the video, you can choose to separate out audio. Then you can remove it or mute it from your final production. As you can see in the image above, the chroma key doesn’t get rid of the background cleanly. It was good enough for my needs, though. I repositioned and resized the scroll so that it looked like it was on the screen on the right.

Here’s what it looked like when I used it as a background:

A video loop can be really short, so the resulting file doesn’t require much in the way of resources.

Image on video

It can be harder to find a good video to put behind an image. You also need to know how to remove the parts of the image. In this case, OpenShot’s chroma key didn’t work as well. I tried it in a second video editor – Cyberlink’s Power Director, which sometimes comes as a freebie with video hardware – and it was similarly not able to do what I wanted. My goal was to use an image from Star Wars but to see movement in the windows.

I used Glimpse, an open source image editor, to select the windows and then colorize them to green. This would have enabled the chroma key to work. In the end, I just cut them out entirely and left the space transparent.

In Glimpse, open the image you want to edit. I used the Imperial Star Destroyer Bridge from this page. I used the select tool to select each window. You might have luck with the auto-select tool but I used the lasso, to select my own shape.

Glimpse image editor with Imperial Star Destroyer deck window selected using Lasso (see top left to see the lasso icon selected)

I used the paint bucket tool to colorize them. This is where I expected chroma key to work. It didn’t, or at least, it didn’t remove the green. I think it may be due to how the image file was saved. If there’s any compression, then the green is no longer uniform and so you no longer have a standard green color to remove.

My solution was to just cut the green parts out of the image, so that those spaces were transparent. When I laid the image on top of the video – a starfield scroll – the stars appeared through the windows.

Video showing stars moving past Imperial Star Destroyer windows

As fun as creating video backgrounds is, there’s a point at which it can become a distraction. I am thinking about creating more complicated backdrops but I am limiting these more detailed ones to meetings where they won’t be a distraction. I like to think that, to the extent you can make the video feel like it’s what someone would expect to see, it becomes as indistinct as any wallpaper.