Film editor Joe Walker (whose massive list of credits includes Dune and 12 Years a Slave) has a pretty unique take on the problems presented by remote work. During the pandemic, Walker was forced to move test screenings out of the theater. “Typically, we would watch a film with an audience of … three to four hundred people,” Walker says during an episode of the podcast Float. That allowed Walker to see the communal response generated by his editing choices. For example, did the camera linger on a subject too long after a joke or cut away too quickly — in either case, diminishing what might be much-needed comic relief? “It could be as little as eight or ten frames that make the difference,” he adds. Watching test audiences view a film on their individual laptops never gave Walker the complete information he needed.
The editor’s problem mirrors something that occurs on a smaller scale every day in conference rooms worldwide. The meetings that occur in a hybrid work environment — with remote workers joining in-person staffers seated around a table via video links — often rob all the attendees of key information they need to collaborate effectively.
A Visual Language
We’ve previously dug into the awkwardness of the “view down a bowling alley” shot that often confronts remote workers when they join a meeting. The attendees that the remote worker sees on their screen are likely appearing in a medium-to-long shot. The further away from the camera they are, the more difficult it is for the remote viewer to discern nuanced facial expressions or body movements. As a modern viewer — someone who expects to see more of a close-up image of an individual as they begin speaking — this shot can be subtly disconcerting. We’ve learned the visual language of film and video throughout our lives, and when framing or camera angles “break” that language, we’re apt to find it off-putting.
We’re accustomed to seeing speakers or presenters who are seated at a desk framed in a single, solo shot. Think about every newscast you’ve ever watched: Yes, there will occasionally be banter in which multiple individuals are seen in a frame, but as a broadcaster delivers an important story, they’re usually framed alone in a “head-on” shot. Suppose we’re remotely joining a videoconference and see one, two, or more people engaged in conversation in profile for extended periods. In that case, the effect is strange — in fact, some film directors actually use profile shots to create uncomfortable moments.
Less-than-careful framing can have a similar effect. A camera angle that’s too low can make the speaker appear domineering; an angle too high can have a diminishing effect on the subject. (Both are unflattering to boot.) Additionally, “When framing a shot, cinematographers are always cognizant of the ‘rule of thirds,’” says Alex Johnson, a freelance commercial director and editor. That concept dictates that the eyes of the on-camera subject are roughly one-third of the frame from the upper edge. “Ideally, your camera is as close to that eye line as possible,” notes Johnson.
A shot that’s too tight on its subject can make the viewer feel as if the speaker is intrusive or behaving in an overly urgent manner. And a tilted frame is arguably even worse than the preceding examples: A sloppy setup can unintentionally create “The Dutch Angle,” a skewed image that causes anxiety.
Not Enough Info
It's one thing to give a viewer the “wrong” information, but it’s quite another to give them too little. If the viewer doesn’t receive all the visual nuance that face-to-face interactions have, that viewer will fill in the blanks — and not necessarily in a positive way. Without a clear image of all the nonverbal cues and expressions we’re used to seeing, doubt can creep in: Is this person honest? Are they giving me the whole story? Are they talking down to me? And so on. On the aforementioned podcast, co-host (and frequent David Lynch collaborator) Mary Sweeney notes, “If you present something to an audience or an individual that is not clear, the brain will fill in and make sense out of it.”
Every one of the above factors can lead to disengagement and add to the phenomenon known as “videoconferencing fatigue.” Those negatives aren’t only resigned to remote participants in a meeting, either. In-person attendees must be able to clearly see and hear their virtual co-workers, properly framed on a display large enough to deliver an image that provides a detailed experience.
All of these considerations have been wrapped into the AI tracking technology that drives the Crestron Sightline experience. The algorithm cuts between speakers and frames them automatically, following the natural ebb and flow of meeting conversations without camera operators. By keying on individual speakers, the camera, display, and audio solutions, working in concert, increase engagement and lessen fatigue. “As we’ve been helping our customers navigate the journey toward hybrid work, we’ve learned that videoconferencing in larger spaces just doesn’t allow remote participants to fully engage, thereby creating ‘meeting inequity,’” says Lauren Simmen, Crestron’s director of product marketing. “By applying some of the concepts we’ve learned from film and broadcast, we have been able to develop a solution that ensures every collaborator — in-person or remote — has an experience that is tailored to them.”
Simply put, Sightline makes hybrid meetings “human” again.