Zoom interviews

Finding peace with Zoom interviews

By Will Frampton
Owner and Director at McLeod Media

Think back to February 2020. How many of us regularly used Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other video conferencing? Some of us, sure. I think I’d used Zoom a handful of times. Skype had been around for a while, mainly to talk with friends overseas, and it was starting to be utilized here and there by broadcast networks to have guests on for talk-back appearances.

But these platforms certainly had not become part of our mainstream.

Then, seemingly overnight, for reasons with which we’re all painfully aware, video conferencing tools became just about the only way to see anyone else’s face outside of your home. And their place in our daily routines has since been firmly entrenched.

But something else happened along with it. We became so used to seeing the often poorly lit, poorly-framed, and hollow-sounding video that we became … used to it. It was representative of the real-life circumstances that faced us all: crammed into corners of our houses and apartments, and we made the most of what we had.

Along with that adaptation, the decades-old set of standards for broadcast also changed just as quickly. If you want to see how thousands of photographers have been trained over the years, check out NPPA. The gold standard of best practices it’s an annual award every station’s photography corps yearns for: the NPPA station of the year.

So imagine their reaction when we saw lead stories on top stations and national networks featuring Zoom interviews as the primary content sources.

To be fair, some folks elevated their Zoom game pretty quickly. They learned how to set the camera and lighting correctly, perhaps even buying a pro microphone to feed into their desktop computer so we didn’t have to hear their voices bouncing off the hardwood and sheetrock of their space. People started buying ring lights to go over the top of their computer cameras, and they set up nice backdrops.

But even at their best, Zoom interviews represented something unthinkable to an entire legion of chief photographers at news stations and creative directors at production companies: the acceptance of what would have been considered unacceptable video in the 90s or 2000s.

There’s no telling how many reporters and photographers have been scolded by their managers over the years for coming back with a video that isn’t correctly color-balanced, out of focus, or poorly framed. Many stories have been “killed” by producers at the last minute before the deadline because the video didn’t pass muster.

The bar has been forever lowered with the age of remote interviews and iPhone video.

In hindsight, the seeds had been planted throughout the 2010s, as poorly-shot and shaky smartphone video from cutting-edge iPhones and Androids started sneaking into broadcasts. The videos were often shot vertically (and still are), and in no way do they fit the screen dimensions of our TVs. But those videos offer immediacy and an organic connection with real-time events. They are real, gritty. And since most of us shoot video with our phones in the same way we hold our phones — vertically — perhaps it is something to which we can relate.

It’s just too big a bite of the apple

So, back to Zoom interviews. The seeds had been planted. And as newsrooms were faced with accepting desktop computer video interviews, or no interviews at all, there was little choice to make. Fast forward three years, and most people don’t give a second thought to engaging with the remote, self-produced video.

These setups remind me of lockdowns, mandates, and closed schools. Maybe that’s why I’m not a fan.

But as someone trained by old-school photographers, this is where I’ve come to make peace with Zoom interviews. I now see where they have a place within production and where they shouldn’t belong.

Sometimes, the information from the person on camera is the most important thing. We can live without beautiful presentations as long as we learn something or get helpful information from the delivery.

If you are creating a steady stream of content, unless you’re a larger company, you probably don’t have the budget for a full production setup. The latest Sony or Canon cameras, full lighting, pro audio, etc. – it’s just too big a bite of the apple.

It would be best to have something sustainable that you could learn enough to handle on your own and keep the drumbeat going with your content feed cheaply. If you understand it well and maximize the technology, we see that’s fine. Regarding news coverage, some of the talking head shots from desktop computers are starting to look more and more like they were shot with a $30,000 camera, lens, and lighting package.

However, I’ve noticed a natural reaction when I have shown people side-by-side examples of self-produced remote video and full-scale, fully story-boarded production content. Some say, “Wow,” while others nod or give another reaction that says they notice the difference. You don’t have to be a production expert to see it.

If you’re going to do it, do it all the way

If you are embarking on a “signature” project or something that you want to stand out as being different and unique, this is when it still makes sense to invest in a professional crew. Chances are, you’re producing something you’ll want to leverage for months or years. It needs to hold up and stand the test of time.

Think of what you watch on TV these days. When you stream your favorite shows from whatever platform that might be, you’re watching for the enjoyment of the content. You want to be entertained and left with a good feeling. The quality of the delivery makes a difference in producing that end feeling.

If you are producing your content for your audience, how much of that “feeling” is essential for you to capture from the said audience? Sometimes, very important. Other times, you must be present with a strong message, and it’s OK if it’s not a perfectly-framed video artwork. Only you know the calculus behind those answers.

Perhaps the best way to think of these unique productions is they should indeed be memorable. If you’re going to do it, do it all the way, planning a few weeks with a clear plan for how the content will be leveraged in the weeks and months to follow. If you film it correctly, you can come away from a full-scale production, even just inside one well-planned day, with enough content to last you for an entire quarter.

And if you supplement that unique content with self-produced content, maybe that’s your sustainable, winning formula.

For best practices on maximizing your self-produced video, click here. These are some of the tips we’ve learned over the last few years, and you can quickly pick up many of these pointers to bring out the best in your next self-produced segment.