Person using Skype with webcam and headset.

The scenario is simple: we have an interview we’d like to conduct. The host and interviewee are far apart from each other, and travel of any sort just isn’t in the budget. How should we proceed? In the old days one might set up a satellite feed, and with any kind of substantial budget that would still be a possibility, but at that point you could all but hire a local crew to shoot it for you. What if we could do away with all that? What if we could use cloud services? 

Hardware, Software & Compatibility

We’ll begin with Skype: the standard Internet communications tool combining free video chat functionality with the capability for rather decent sound and picture quality. You’ll need some type of desktop/laptop computer for all participants. At the time of this writing, Skype for iOS and Android does not support conference calling, so tablet users need not apply. You can still use them, but at best you’ll get a single person commentary or one-on-one interview with them. 

Screenshot of Ecamm and Evaer web sites.
Screenshot of Ecamm and Evaer web sites.

There are many programs out there to record Skype video, but the two you should seriously consider are Ecamm Call Recorder for Mac, and Evaer for PC. These two programs (both less than $30) have the capability of recording each side of the conversation individually, in full resolution. You could use screen capture programs like Camtasia or Quicktime, but you may find a drop in quality.

Camtasia screen record user interface
Also, post production may be that much more complicated, as you’ll have to crop images and take out overlays (if that kind of thing bothers you). These programs capture the actual communication streams and nothing else. Linux users are best using a screen capture program at the moment, though programs like Skype Call Recorder show promise for the future.

Configure the recorder to use side-by-side recording with the best available codec your computer can handle (H.264 is a good bet), and set a desired destination folder. The presenters do not need a copy of the recording software on their machines. Note that the recording programs can sometimes have strange side effects when conferencing more than two people. Using the latest version of Skype and the latest recording program update can avoid an insane amount of issues.

In practice, it’s best to have each user on a wired broadband connection. The signal can often fluctuate in quality and wireless connections will only exacerbate the issue. Each person should use an external webcam, as they provide better quality that built-in cameras and place less strain on the CPU. 

Webcam on computer monitor
The Logitech C900 series is a great option as it provides HD 1080p at a great price. You’re also going to want a USB headset, as using computer speakers can sometimes create an unwanted echo through the transmission even with noise cancellation turned on. Companies like Plantronics make a wide variety of headsets that will fit any budget. Why use a USB headset over analog? You just plug it in and it works. Not everyone you record will understand how to install and configure analog headsets, and some may even lack a mic input port on their computer. Wireless headsets are generally less conspicuous but you’ll most likely notice a good deal more compression on the audio. 

The Setup

Without question, the hardest part of the process is getting the call started. There are many things that can go wrong and sometimes the stars being aligned is the only way things end up working. You’ll need to develop extreme “remote directing” and troubleshooting skills, and be able to display an incredible amount of patience. Often it’s best to create a How-to/best practices manual to send out to each participant. If your presenters have no experience with Skype, you’ll want to set up a pre-recording test session with each of them. During this time, call them on the phone and be prepared to walk them through downloading and installing the software. You’ll then need to help with installing the hardware. Luckily, it’s usually as simple as plugging in the two USB cables, waiting and then selecting them in the Skype audio/video preferences panels. The Skype interface is different from Mac to PC, however, so confirm with your speaker which computer they are using and be intimately familiar with both.

Finally, you’ll need to walk them through logging in and connecting the video call. To avoid potential issues, all users will need to be accepted as “contacts” with the host account that initiates the call, and everyone should be on the same Skype primary revision whenever possible. If one caller for example has version 5.1 and the other has version 6.1, then they will be unable to communicate fully, but mixing 6.1 and 6.3 should be okay. Consider having a few generic accounts that you can lend out to your presenters on a temporary basis. This will allow your presenters to skip the hassle of registration, and has the added bonus of having all accounts pre-added to your contacts list.

Angle and stability of the cameras should take precedence over filling the frame.

Before recording, check the general camera framing for each side and have them adjust lighting as best as possible. Ideally, they should not be sitting with a window behind them, and should have some sort of light on their face coming from next to or behind the camera. Don’t push the issue too much though, as you’re asking your talent to be your crew and too much fussing can lead to resentment and grumpy presentations. This is one time when some fixing in post may actually be preferable to live tweaking. A good tip is to keep the camera a little wider, and heads a little more toward the center of the frame than you would normally place them. You can’t adjust the cameras during recording, but this will allow you the maximum potential to re-frame in post. Given your medium, the quality loss caused by this will be all but irrelevant. Ideally you want all presenters to end up proportionally the same, but you don’t have to shoot them that way. Angle and stability of the cameras should take precedence over filling the frame.

Inform the presenters that they should feel free to move, but try their best not to lean back or forward. This will not only make them really small or large on the screen, but can cause the most image breakup. Also, avoid backgrounds that move; the less non-essential movement the better.

To maximize picture, have all parties close any non-essential programs, including email and web browsers. Before hitting record, wait a minute or two after the call is started as Skype can take a few moments to “warm up” to its best picture quality. 

The Recording

To start a conference call, control (command) click the username of each participant in your contacts list and click Video Call. Alternatively, start with one and add others one at a time.

Decide who will start and conclude the conversation, and inform all participants of the desired approximate duration. Participants who are only observing the conversation, and not contributing should mute their cameras and mics before you hit record. Give a 10 second countdown, warning everyone that you will mute yourself somewhere around five (if you’re not participating). At that point, turn off your camera and audio feed on the Skype screen and hit the record button in the recording program. This prevents irrelevant streams being sent to the recorder, and minimizes extraneous noise. The recording system can take a second or two to start after pressing the button so make sure your host doesn’t jump the gun. Unless you see a warning message, you can be pretty sure that the recorder is working just fine.

Consider having the host mention that the video is being recorded via Skype. People are used to web quality videos these days and will be forgiving of a picture that is less-than-perfect, or that everyone is wearing headsets if they understand the context in which video was shot.

Unlike almost any other video production, your guests should talk directly into the camera lens whenever possible. This will give the impression that they are talking to the audience as well as the other participants. They should also be aware that ideally they will be on screen from beginning to end, so when they’re not talking they should not do anything they don’t want to appear on camera. A casual, yet aware presentation is the best approach for an Internet-recorded conversation.

Be conscious during the talk that the audio is constantly clear, and be ready to interrupt if you hear dropped words or see the picture fall below acceptable quality. If things get really bad, consider re-establishing the call. It can help, but it’s not guaranteed. Note that the recording programs will smartly filter out overlays (like the annoying “your mic is off” icon, and notification sounds like other contacts logging on and off), but as a safety measure consider disabling such notifications. Resizing the windows and accidental screen saver interruptions should not affect the recording, and it is okay to turn on your mic at times to talk to your presenters, as long as you’re muted when you first start the recording. Recording duration will be limited strictly to your hard drive space and codecs used.

At the end of the recording stop the capture system and then turn your hardware back on to finish the calls. It’s best to open the output folder and quickly check the recording before you let everyone go. 

Post-production

With Ecamm, the first thing you’ll want to do is open up the included Movie Tools and use the Split Sides of the Conversation, which quickly makes a separate movie file of each presenter. Dragging your videos into your editing timeline at this time can be a hassle, as the frame rate is variable; a format which disagrees with most edit systems. To alleviate this, convert each to a DV stream using Compressor or something similar, adjusting the frame rate to a fixed standard FPS. You’ll find that the process is incredibly accurate, and syncing your presenters is as simple as lining up the first frame of each angle. Now is the time to fine-tune framing and color correct. Consider arranging the presenters so they are angled towards one another. Consider placing borders around the images to hide the edges, and filling the rest of the frame with a neutral background, lower thirds, bugs and other relevant information. A complete look will really make the production.

Be aware that Skype’s modest frame rate and less-than-perfect picture can be an advantage during editing. You can sometimes hide jump cuts, deleted frames and dissolves within the image and average viewers will not even notice them. If you really must make an edit, or need to break up the monotony, feel free to go to a single shot of a person during a long speech. You’ll quickly establish two-shot and single looks that you can quickly switch between. Consider as well any cutaways that can help demonstrate the topic, as these can cover edits in obvious places.

If your edit system supports nested sequences, it’s a great help to build the single-person and multi-person layouts in separate timelines, and then drop them into a master timeline. This way, making an edit means simply cutting from one track to another. 

Final Thoughts

Understand that this is not an exact system. Results will vary and there are times when you will simply not get a satisfactory recording. There may even be times when you will have to postpone your conference. Inform all participants of these possibilities, and have a contingency plan in place. If possible, a backup recording system can also be a great reassurance. Hardware screen grabbers, though less than ideal for primary systems, are great for backups. Patience, knowledge and the proper preparation is key, but with experience a remote production is not only possible, but a revolutionary concept. It can save time, money and yield more than satisfactory results. You should never feel restricted by budget and distance. If you need that specific input from a source and can’t get there any other way, jump on the Internet, set up your chat and dive right in. 

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Thoughts

  • Google Hangouts has a built in recording system and supports up to nine callers at once, but there is no way to disable the image from auto-focusing on the current speaker.
  • Adobe Connect provides better remote control over the conference, but output is currently .flv only, and you must download the stream in real-time after the recording.
  • Screen capture programs are great recording alternatives, but not all will recognize every chat system’s audio as a valid input.
  • Approach producing remote recordings as professionally as you would any other production, and present yourself accordingly.
  • Time of day can be a big factor. Try not to schedule your recording during peak Internet usage hours – yours or theirs (if they are in a different time zone).
  • Examine your images carefully before shooting for possible offensive or identifying material in the background and have your talent remove it before recording.
  • Want to live stream your Interview? Try XSplit 

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Troubleshooting Tips

  • Have everyone check for updates to all software.
  • If headsets aren’t available, have everyone turn down their speakers as low as possible and disable the auto-volume feature. Set levels manually.
  • Ensuring faces are brighter lit than the background will prevent color temperature fluctuations.
  • Black flashes on your screen doesn’t necessarily mean black flashes up in your recording.
  • Lower connection quality will result in audio/video sync issues.
  • Sometimes restarting the call and/or connecting people in a different order can make a stubborn video connection work.
  • Never assume your participants have working knowledge of their computer, let alone Skype.
  • Be aware that many universities and corporations have firewalls that don’t allow Skype. If you run into this issue, a service like bluejeans.com can help in an emergency.

Peter Zunitch is an award-winning video editor in New York.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for this article. I just started a new internet tv show on Ustream (program on songwriting). I have an in studio guest and a Skype guest. Did my first Skype interview. I use Ustream Producer Pro software to record the Skype interview, side by side, etc. Reguardless of the constraints of Skype, I think your suggestions will improve the quality. Thanks again.

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