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Tips and Tricks for Making a Film with Zoom Technology

Paula Goldberg

Let’s explore the important elements you’ll need to know to make a successful short film using Zoom technology.

Storytelling has always been adaptive. From etchings on caves to radio airwaves. From the big screen to the small screen to the portable screen, one thing is constant—people have the need for a shared experience. We’re in a particularly difficult time where cinemas are dark and people are isolated. However, our need for connection is still vital and artists always rise to the occasion.

The practical hero emerging for filmmakers is a program that CEO Eric Yuan created while trying to connect with his long-distance girlfriend. Zoom literally came into existence to help craft a love story. The company launched in 2012 as a cloud-based platform for video, voice, and content sharing for businesses and organizations. But, it is also a natural medium for filmmakers struggling to find a way to connect with their talent and reach an audience.


Storytelling

The platform might be unusual, but the content demands remain the same. You can’t fix an idea in post. Everything starts with the material. With any short film, you’re looking for a simple plot and complex characters, a compelling conflict, and a surprising, but truthful, resolution. The extra consideration with Zoom is that action will be limited, and your screenplay will be dialogue driven. Director Alfred Hitchcock once said,

Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.

Which brings us to talent—the key to script-to-screen success.


Casting

No. Don’t cast your roommate or neighbor. Virtual filmmaking actually makes getting the right cast easier. Your actors can literally be anywhere in the world. I directed from Dallas, while my actors were in Los Angeles.

Good actors want to work on good material. If your script is gripping and your artistic vision clear, chances are you’ll find actors willing to do your project. So much can be forgiven technically, but a bad performance can kill any script. Do your homework on the script, know what you want, and cast actors who can deliver. Here’s a scene with actors Sasha Roiz and Julie Benz.

Zoom: Night Shot
A beautiful night shot on Zoom with actors Sasha Roiz and Julie Benz.

Minimize Technical Aspects as Much as Possible

When choosing to do a narrative project on Zoom, social distancing is an immediate precaution. This forces your actors to become your crew. If you took the advice above and are working with skilled performers, they’re used to self-taping auditions. This means they should have reasonable sound, video, and light, and a working knowledge of best practices. If they don’t, you’ll need to set them up with an upgrade that doesn’t overburden them and put them in a technical mindset instead of an artistic one.

Built-in computer webcams are compact and so are their lenses. This sets a limit on the amount of light that they can capture—a problem especially for low-light conditions. External webcams provide better performance. Some even feature wide-angle lenses. They’ll also give your actor the ability to adjust resolution, frame rate, color, and brightness.

Although external webcams often come with duel microphones, it may be a good investment to send them a lavalier. The actor can hide it within their wardrobe and provide clean, clear sound. Good, natural light can go a long way, but a light kit such as an LED ring light or Lume Cube can make a huge difference.


Preparation

Here’s the good news! You’re not burning film. You’re not paying a crew or location a ton of money. Time is on your side and a spectacular return on your investment is to spend that time in pre-production. I’d approach it three ways: set/costume, filmmaking, storytelling.

Chances are, your script is dialogue-driven and your location is a room in your actor’s home or an outside space nearby. The clothing will probably be their own unless it requires something character-specific, such as a uniform or costume. Keep it simple. Generally speaking, solids work better than patterns, which can be distracting. Make sure the colors contrast with the background so the actor stands out, unless you like the neutrality. Personal preference should be your guide. Trust your eye. Your frame is probably going to be a medium or close-up, but take the time to add depth by utilizing backlight. It’ll give the image a greater sense of place. Take advantage of any natural light which can spill behind the actor. This will give a dramatic contrast between the subject and the background.

Zoom: Utilize Natural Light
Utilize natural light whenever possible.

If you’re shooting at night, play around with practicals. In a Zoom project I just shot, we spent a fair amount of time playing with light. In the screenshot above-left, notice we left the light off on the bedside table because it was too bright, but we moved a floor lamp just within frame by the door to give some pop to the background. On Julie’s side, we opted to keep the sconce light on the wall, mainly because her location provided much more depth, as we could see into the living room and kitchen. Each actor had a key light affixed to their laptops.

On a first rehearsal, we used computer sound, which was subpar. We then sent the actors a lavalier, which they placed just out of frame and chest-level on their shirt. This worked well for the most part. There were occasional dips in sound due to movement within the frame, but it mirrored the natural experience and didn’t take away from the overall quality.

We matched their frame size and played around a bit with getting the eye line correct. It’ll take a bit of trial and error. See the rehearsal screenshot below where a sun flare disrupts Julie’s background and Sasha’s placement within the frame doesn’t match in size to Julie’s. Also, his webcam angle is too low and the background is unflattering, showing a portion of a second door over his right shoulder and way too much real estate for the bed and lamp behind him over the other.

Zoom: Background Lighting
Make sure there’s proper background lighting and the frame sizes match.

The most important part of the preparation is artistic. This is a very unnatural way for actors to work. You may want to suggest that they put a piece of paper over their own image on the screen. This will help them be less self-conscious—in no other medium is the actor able to view themselves while shooting. Once Sasha suggested that, both actors felt much more comfortable playing off each other.

Know your talent. Mine loved the luxury of rehearsal. Both work frequently in television where there’s often not much time beyond camera blocking. Being able to discuss the story beats and motivations was valuable.


Production

A perk about Zoom is that the director can record and watch each take live by muting their audio, disabling their video, and selecting “hide non-video participants.” When the video is processed, there will be no indication that anyone was present except the performers. You can pause between takes and discuss, then hide yourself again and resume another take.

Zoom: Record Button
The director can record and watch each take live.

If you’re especially interested in high quality, you might not want to use Zoom’s built-in recording feature. Instead, try a screen recording program like Camtasia or Screenflow. This will allow you to capture crisp, clear screen video by matching your recording dimensions at its original size or 100 percent scale, instead of being limited by Zoom’s own recording functionality.

If you do decide to go with Zoom’s built-in functionality, which actually does work quite well, here are some tips in the settings to get your best-looking video and sound results.

Disable the noise cancellation feature. Zoom automatically enables this to reduce background noise. However, it can do more harm than good to the quality, especially if you want to hear something such as a guitar playing in the background. You’ll want to make sure in the preferences video tab that you enable HD, choose camera for external camera feed, and that the aspect ratio is 16:9 widescreen. Zoom also has the feature Touch Up My Appearance. According to Zoom, this feature retouches the camera feed with a soft focus, essentially smoothing out the skin tone on your face for a more polished looking appearance. In your preferences for recording, make sure you’re optimized for third-party video editor and record separate audio files for each participant.

Zoom: Video Settings
Zoom’s video settings.

Editing

If recording on Zoom, a oner can be quite compelling, especially if the storytelling has numerous reveals and twists. It encourages multiple views to catch moments you didn’t get on the first view. However, don’t be afraid to edit. Most people are used to jump cuts and you have three angles you can use—a split screen two shot and the two singles. What will help the flow is if you cut on action, which can be as simple as a shift in seating position, interaction with a prop, or hand movements.

Zoom: Lighting
Zoom: Single Full Screen
Zoom: Single Wide-Screen
Cut on action to help with the flow of your developing story.

Remember, you’re leaning into the technology. Recording a film on Zoom makes it a character on screen. Glitches, as well as dips in light and sound, can add to the reality. Concentrate on the attributes that people care about—a well told story brought to life by truthful performances—and you’ll have the viewer invested in the journey.


Here’s even more on turning your film from a script to a success:

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