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Set Design for Online Corporate Video
Posted Aug 1, 2008 - August 2008 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 1

In the April issue of EventDV, Stu Sweetow’s article, Producing Corporate Web Videos, described the wide-open world of corporate video production for the web. This is a huge potential growth area for wedding and event videographers to develop new client bases and apply their talents and equipment to lucrative alternate revenue streams. While the equipment and skills we use for event work will serve us well outside the event world, there are new challenges, such as set design, where we need to work to bring ourselves up to speed. And when the final product is highly compressed video delivered over the web, there are additional issues that arise concerning what kinds of things compress well and what don’t. When producing and compressing corporate video for the web, set design can have a profound effect on both the perceived and actual quality of the video you deliver.

In this article, I’ll discuss four design-related areas:

  • How to create a simple set for in-house use
  • How to choose the best background for location shoots like case studies and testimonials
  • Current trends in set design for internet-only media sites
  • How to dress your subjects for optimum compression
The importance of many of the set design principles discussed in this chapter relate to your distribution data rate. If the bitrate of the video you’re delivering is very high, say in the 400Kbps range for 320x240 video or 650Kbps or higher for 640x480, you have a lot more flexibility, since the compressed quality of your video will remain quite high. Once you sink below these rates, quality degrades. Choosing a poor background or set will only make the problem worse.


Let’s start by looking at how to design a set for in-house use. Companies such as Microsoft, Deloitte, Accenture, and Proctor & Gamble can throw millions at a studio, but they uniformly choose a simple approach, usually a plain curtain or wall like that shown in Figure 1, taken from a Deloitte & Touche video.

Clearly, the goal isn’t to show off your company’s wealth or design expertise, it’s to produce a compressible background. Keeping it simple is rule No. 1.

Another key issue is color choice. I reviewed a random sampling of 22 sites to determine their color preferences. Here’s how the survey videos broke down in terms of color usage:

  • Of the 22 videos in this category, nine companies, or 41%, chose blue backgrounds.
  • Five companies chose white (23%). Though it was impossible to tell for sure, four of the five companies that used white appeared to have used chromakey techniques to overlay the video over the background, and only one looked like it was originally shot against white.
  • Four companies chose black (18%).
  • Two companies chose mottled gray (9%), with one using a dark red curtain and the other using a brown curtain.
I’ve had the best luck with flat black backgrounds; this has become my "go to" background for optimal compressed quality. It is a stark look, however, and a dark blue compresses nearly as effectively.

I avoid shooting against light, white backgrounds because, like backlighting, it complicates getting good exposure on the face. When it’s unavoidable, I’ll try to compensate by moving the subject away from the background, lighting the subject as I would normally, and dimming the lights on the background. A white background obviously isn’t a problem if you shoot against a chromakey background and overlay the subject against a white background, but that adds lots of work.


The nice thing about a simple background is that it’s hard to mess up. Usually, when something has gone wrong, the set designer either decided to get fancy or the talent wore clothing that provided little contrast with the background.

For example, in Figure 2, Microsoft chose a two-color background that blended in with Bill Gates’ sweater in both color and texture. The results are fine because the data rate was sufficient to maintain the contrast, but at lower bitrates, the sweater might blend in with the wall. Solid blue would have been a better background, or Gates could have taken off the sweater and simply worn the white shirt beneath.

Most other problems relate to poor clothing choices, like a subject in a dark blue suit shot against a blue background. If you’re a producer, tell the subject what colors to wear, and suggest alternatives, such as a dark blue shirt and a brown coat. That way, you can leave the coat on or off, depending on which approach provides the best contrast.

If you can’t control what color the subject will wear, consider having two hanging backgrounds available, one blue and the other gray, so you can use the one that provides the most contrast. Or, if the colors are close, use backlighting on the subjects’ shoulders to create contrast with the background.

Finally, avoid custom curtains such asthe one shown in Figure 3, unless your video data rate is very high. Text degrades quickly and very noticeably when compressed, and studies show that viewers find this very distracting and evidence of poor quality.

Now that we’ve seen what not do to, let’s look at some recommendations about what to do to design or acquire your simple video set.


There are several key questions you should ask yourself when designing a background for web videos, and sometimes the answers differ based on circumstances.

Painted wall versus portable backdrop? If you have one fixed set that will be used repeatedly, consider painting the walls of the studio a dark, nonreflective color such as blue or gray. If you don’t have a fixed studio, or if your studio will be used for a variety of types of projects or other producers, consider a movable stand-based background with two or three colors to accommodate different clothing and skin color.

What colors should I buy? Budget willing, buy two—midgray and midblue—making sure that the materials are nonreflective. These should provide great contrast for virtually all clothing you’ll see on the set. Most sites used a single-colored background, but some used a mottled background like that shown in Figure 4 to good effect. I prefer the mottled surfaces because they hide artifacts better than flat surfaces, but they’re not as popular as solid colors.

For those working with African-Americans and other people of color as subjects, please see the "Backgrounds for People of Color" section of this article.

Muslin, curtain, canvas, or velour? Canvas backgrounds cost more than muslin, are stiffer and heavier, and need more care. As a result, canvas will maintain a more uniform look for longer, so it makes sense if buying it for a single location. You’ll almost certainly need a separate stand for a canvas background.

Muslin is less expensive, lighter, and can be stored in a bag for easy transport. You can attach muslin backdrops to fixtures with clamps, potentially eliminating the need for a separate stand. Consider muslin if you need multiple backgrounds or for portable use.

Curtains are the most expensive and least portable; consider only for permanent sets. Buy velour if you decide to use a black background. It’s easy to work with and totally nonreflective, making it very easy to deploy.


When buying your background, you’ll also need to pick up a few other accessories.

  • Background stand—A stand to hold your backdrop that’s 10" high and 12" wide should cost less than $200. Make sure it has a traveling case.
  • Clamps—Clamps are always handy to secure backgrounds to the stands and to keep the fabric reasonably taut. These cost anywhere from $10 to $20.
  • Gaffer’s tape—When shooting on location, you’ll often have to tape the background to the wall or floor. Gaffer’s tape, which should be familiar to most wedding and event videographers, is cotton, rather than vinyl (like duct tape), so it is nonreflective and won’t leave adhesive residues on your backgrounds. You can purchase these in multiple colors to match your background, generally for less than $20 for a 60' roll of 3" tape.
If you’ve never purchased this equipment before, be sure to check out www. bhphotovideo.com, which has a complete section on Background Materials & Equipment. Another great site for discounted backgrounds and related materials is www.amvona.com, which has extensive buyer comments on most products. Otherwise, Google the terms "muslin canvas video background" and you’ll find plenty of sites selling these materials.

Next, let’s tackle how to create compression-friendly backgrounds when shooting on location for testimonials, case studies, and other shoots.


Even after you purchase your movable stands, sometimes a customer case study or testimonial, or even a training video, will look right only if shot within its respective real world environment. Your job will be to produce a compression-friendly background on-site. Rule No. 1 is to always avoid moving backgrounds. Here’s a list of other considerations with examples primarily from on-location shoots and from broadcast sites for illustrative purposes.

First, the background should contain as little detail as possible. When there’s too much detail in the background, the result is often a swirling, discolored mess. Though the background in Figure 5 looked benign, between the finely detailed wallpaper and decorative lighting, the video got ugly fast, especially on the wall.

In addition to finely detailed wallpaper, other backgrounds that behave badly include Venetian blinds, bookshelves, trees with small leaves and other plants (especially if blown by the wind), brick walls, fabrics with herringbone and similar patterns, or any background with lots of fine objects.

When you’re working outside the familiar confines of your studio, it’s also important to avoid well-lit open spaces. Where muslin and canvas backgrounds are nonreflective and compression-friendly, most real-world surfaces reflect light, which can cause problems when walls have lots of wide-open spaces that often serve as collection places for noticeable compression artifacts.

And believe it or not, I advise you to embrace clutter from your shooting location rather than remove it. Now, when I shoot on location, I make sure that there are pictures, posters, bookshelves, or other clutter to break up the background—especially if there are items relevant to the subject of your video. Figure 6 shows a recent example.

If you’re shooting against a blank wall and can’t add pictures or other objects, try darkening the background, which I will discuss later in this article. And regardless of the color, it’s always best if your background is a uniform color rather than a multicolored backdrop.

Brightness and Contrast Issues

You should also aim to avoid extreme differences in the brightness of your subject and background. Figure 7 compares two images, one with brightness issues and the other without. On the left is The Weather Channel, which contains extreme whites (the clouds) and extreme darks (the suit). As a result, you can’t see the detail in either the clouds or the suit. On the right, AccuWeather has clouds that are less bright and a lighter suit, and you can see good detail throughout.

Technically, the video on left exceeds the contrast ratio—the ability to display scenes with extremes in brightness—of the camera and/or codec. Devices with high contrast ratios, like computer monitors, have a great ability to retain detail when displaying images with very bright and very dark regions. Devices with low contrast ratios, which include most camcorders, can’t retain detail when displaying a frame with very dark and very bright regions. Note that compression lowers the contrast ratio of any video. So even if The Weather Channel video was fine on regular broadcast television, compression reduced the contrast ratio, causing loss of detail in both the brightest and darkest regions.

When planning your background, make sure that the scene as a whole—between the background and the subject’s clothing—doesn’t contain extreme darks and extreme light regions.

Avoid Backlighting

Windows, lights, doors, and other strong light sources in your background should cause a huge alarm bell to ring, "Backlight! Backlight! Backlight!" That’s because the contrast ratio of your eyes is much greater than that of your camcorder. So while you can easily perceive the dark faces in the video, your camcorder probably won’t be able to, and whatever limited distinction it can make will probably be lost after compression.

While shooting the video shown in Figure 8, I could see the subject’s face, but I missed the hot spot caused by a spotlight shining down from the ceiling. When captured and compressed—well, you see the result. Though I can brighten the face in postproduction, you can avoid the problem altogether by removing any bright spots from the background. You can also use the camera’s backlight button or set exposure manually. While either of these approaches will preserve the exposure on the face, they will also blow out the lighter regions, causing loss of detail.

Darken the Background to Further Limit Detail

Another popular technique is to light the subject and leave the background dark, as I did in the interview shown in Figure 9. This has two effects; both are beneficial. First, it increases the contrast between the background and the subject, making him even more distinctive from the background. Second, it further limits the detail in the background, making it even easier to compress.

Even if there had been significant detail in the background wall, the camera wouldn’t have captured it, and the codec wouldn’t try to preserve it. This lets the codec concentrate its efforts on preserving the main subject of the video, which improves overall quality.

Soften the Background

Another frequently used technique in on-location case studies and testimonials is to blur the background slightly using aperture controls. This again enhances the contrast between the subject and the background, while reducing detail and improving compressed quality.

This is shown to great effect in Figure 10, a recent shoot at the Rex Theater in Galax (Va.). As you can see, the subject is well-lit and in focus, while the seats in the theater behind him are discernible but blurry. There’s sufficient detail to know that the interview takes place in a theater, providing the desired, on-location feel, but the blurry background limits detail and makes the video easy to compress.

The positioning required to achieve this affect will vary by camera; essentially, the better the camera, the easier it is to create this effect. That’s because a camera’s depth of field (DoF) becomes shallower as the CCDs grow larger (a 35mm add-on lens such as the Letus or Brevis will also help with achieving a shallow DoF; for a look at the Brevis, see Patrick Moreau's In the Field).


Generally, the subject’s face is the most important object in the frame. When the background is very light, it can be difficult to gain the proper exposure on light-skinned Caucasian faces without brightening the background beyond acceptable levels. This is why most producers choose or create a background that makes the subject’s face the brightest object in the frame.

Backgrounds for People of Color

How does this change for people of color? I have very little experience creating backgrounds for African-Americans and others with dark skin, so I looked at several tele- vision sites that feature African-Americans. BET.com predominantly uses light tan sets such as the one shown in Figure 11. This generally provides good contrast with the anchors, though several lighter-skinned anchors needed to wear their hair down to avoid blending in with the background. I also checked out www.oprah.com, and saw that Oprah Winfrey uses a light blue background, which was very similar to the set used on the Tyra Banks show (as shown here). Bloomberg has an African-American anchor, and the light blue set, which it used for all shows, seemed to work very well. My last stop was a quick visit to the set of ESPN’s Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith (now off the air). ESPN used a dark blue background for the show, which felt a touch gloomy to me, though it clearly contrasted with Smith’s lighter skin. However, Smith has lighter skin than the anchor shown in Figure 11.

The critical lesson is that there is a great variation in skin color among African-American, Indian, Asian, Middle-Eastern, and other nationalities. Intuitively, the darker the skin, the lighter the background must be to provide good contrast, while with lighter skin, a darker background seems to work more effectively. If I had to choose one color for all backgrounds, it would be a light blue that was light enough to provide good contrast for a very dark-skinned individual, while dark enough for most Caucasians.


In general, the rules for clothing are similar to the rules for creating a background, so I’ll present them in checklist form.

  • Color contrast is job No. 1—Each article of the subject’s clothing must contrast with the background or they will blend together upon compression. If clothing and background are too close in color to the background color, use back lighting to help distinguish the subject from the background. For example, though the subject’s shirt in Figure 12 is similar to the background color, the shine from the backlight on the shoulders provides the necessary contrast.
  • Dress in solids—Stripes, plaids, and herringbones degrade severely when compressed. Figure 13 shows a striped shirt that looks totally muddled. Note the spurious colors in the left and right sleeves and the right shoulder. The subject could have avoided all of these with a nice solid blue or gray shirt, like that shown in Figure 12, or most other shirts shown in this article.
  • Avoid blacks and whites and other luminance extremes—This is the contrast ratio issue again, as illustrated in Figure 8. White shirts and black suits represent too much range for most cameras to handle, and detail gets lost at both extremes. Muted grays and dark blues work well, as do browns. When wearing a suit, advise your subjects to wear a blue shirt, rather than white.
  • Lose the bling—Large chains, bracelets, earrings, and bracelets present unnecessary detail and can become harsh and glittery after compression. They can also reflect light back to the camera, complicating exposure. Whenever possible, you should ask the subject to remove these items.
  • Beware of glasses—Whenever a subject wears glasses, remember to observe whether lights are reflecting within them. Usually, you can avoid this by lighting the subject from the side rather than from the front.
  • Neat haircut please—This is starting to sound like a prep school dress code, but long, frizzy, or curly hair presents extraneous detail that’s hard to compress without artifacts and quickly gets distracting. The best policy is to ask the subject to neatly pull his or hair back, and to keep a supply of hair bands around for that purpose.
  • No sweat—I’m not big into makeup, but I do keep a supply of face powder and paper towels around to periodically remove the shine from subjects’ faces. Not only does the shine look like a lighting faux pas, the subject looks like he or she is sweating, à la Richard Nixon in the ’60 presidential debates. If that reference sounds a little old school for most web videographers to remember, don’t worry—I’m sure you can find a clip on YouTube and see what I mean.

    This article is an edited excerpt from , a mixed media instructional DVD produced by Jan Ozer for StreamingMedia.com. To read Todd Gillespie's review of the DVD, click here. Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines on digital video-related topics and the author of Critical Skills for Streaming Producers, a mixed media tutorial published by StreamingMedia.com.

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