Using Texture In Your Backgrounds

Are you on the lookout for interesting texture to build into your backgrounds?

For some of you, this will be old news. For others though, the thought of using texture in your backgrounds is a new one. Let’s talk about the challenges introduced by creating interesting backgrounds for your interviews and narrative scenes—really any kind of scene. Firstly, what do we mean when we utilize the term “texture” in relation to video and digital cinema production? To me, texture means that my background in a given scene and sometimes even the foreground is filled with layers of material that look interesting. It’s that simple. Texture, to me, means depth, patterns and, most importantly, a plane that I can shape with lighting.

Using Texture In Your Backgrounds
In this interview, we didn’t have a super interesting background, so I structured the composition to include the painting on the wall, the lights in the background ceiling and a piece of a contrasting wood door. All of these elements lend texture to what could have been a boring background if I hadn’t thought about texture.

Letting the Pros Help You

If you’re shooting a project with a decent budget and/or a production designer, art director and/or art department, building texture into your backgrounds can be as simple as having a meeting with your department heads and letting them do their job. In my career, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some amazingly resourceful and gifted art directors and production designers where I’ve done exactly that. I told them their budget, went over my vision for the scene and what I’d like the background to project as far as emotion and tone and I let them do their job. Most of the time they nail it, coming up with colors, materials, props and art that I never would have conceived of.

In order to have a production designer, art director and/or art and props department, you need to be on a project with a real budget to pay all of these professionals to do their thing. What if you’re shooting a micro or no-budget film, commercial or music video? What if you’re shooting interviews for a corporate or documentary in real locations? How can you ensure that your scene will have interesting textures?

Using Texture In Your Backgrounds
The end result has depth and contrasting textures and shapes, which makes the scene feel intimate and interesting visually.

What If You Don’t Have the Pros Available?

I’m going to use an example here for a project I recently shot for a national organization called Give an Hour. This organization matches up mental health professionals with those who have experienced trauma and tragedy and need help in coping with these events and the aftermath. The project was for So Cal Route 91 Heals, a support program aimed specifically at people and the families of people who were affected by the 2017 Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting. We shot interviews in two different locations, but the location that jumps to mind was a county government building we used to shoot our interviews in Orange County, California.

The main location we were shown first was a large presentation meeting auditorium. The good news was it was large with plenty of room and good sound characteristics. The bad news was it was BORING! So boring visually. Gray carpet, white walls and not much else. When presented with locations like this, I can paint patterns on the white walls using our RGB lights and utilize slashes and cucoloris patterns to break up the background wash. It will look pretty generic and just ok. Nothing exciting, but better than the dreaded boring white wall.

We dragged this interesting looking screen from another part of the building into our set because I liked the repeating circular patterns, color and texture.

Look Around, You Might Strike Gold

We were shooting at the facility on a weekend. Being a government building, it was normally closed on the weekends, so our host told us we could really shoot just about anywhere in the building and it wouldn’t matter.

Placing a talent in a bright red shirt against the blues of the background texture ensured that the talent really popped from the background.

I came across a counseling room where therapy sessions normally took place. It wasn’t nearly as large as the auditorium; it was cluttered and a bit crowded. The most important thing it contained though was texture. A huge walled bookcase. A very cool repeated pattern screen. Wood. Glass. Couches. Furniture. The minute I walked into the room, I knew it would be leagues better than the auditorium for shooting our low key, very personal stories from our survivors.

A recent livestream where the client hired a huge video wall to use as a background that could be changed out instantly from a live video feed of NYC to a virtual set background for the next guest.

Texture Doesn’t Have to Be on Location, You Can Create It       

Another project I recently shot was a livestream for a commercial real estate company. We shot this project in a hotel ballroom. Usually, ballrooms aren’t prime territory for interesting texture. They’re typically large, cavernous rooms with high ceilings and lots of room, but the color spectrum of the decorations, if there are any, are usually gray or beige/tan. There’s usually not a lot of depth as far as layers of walls or curtains that you can utilize to build texture. Going into this project, our client knew this and instead hired an AV company to provide a large, bright, state-of-the-art video wall.

We then utilized the video wall as a virtual set. We shot discussion panels and interviews utilizing diverse backgrounds like a live New York City street scene for an interviewee talking about the real estate market in New York City. We then switched to a virtual set where the live talent was interviewing someone remotely. We projected the remote person’s image on the video wall utilizing a virtual screen built in and perspective corrected as a TV set hanging on the wall of the virtual set. All of the texture generated in these scenes was created electronically.

The beauty of virtual sets and video walls as backgrounds is that the “set” can be instantly changed, allowing for an endless variety of looks and feels. Here, talent is sitting in front of a virtual set in a high-tech meeting room.

Virtual sets seem to be a direction that many will go in in the future, and shows like Disney’s “The Mandalorian” are already largely being shot on LED wall virtual sets. It may feel that photographing talent against a real yet virtual LED panel lends a more realistic feel to the scene than shooting the talent green screen and compositing in the background later. The light sources from the LED panels interact with the talent, reflections can be seen in glasses or in other reflective objects and the lighting on the talent is affected by the ambient lighting from the virtual sets. It’s still early days for this technology, and it’s still rare and exceedingly expensive to set up and rent, but virtual sets are coming and are already being used for some high-end work.

Utilizing Texture In Visual Imaging Is Imperative

As a DP, I prefer shooting talent on real, art directed, created or real location backgrounds rather than green screen or virtual sets. But there’s no denying that the flexibility and responsiveness of virtual sets allow you to create some amazing texture in your compositions. On the lower end, if you shoot documentaries or reality/corporate content, keep an eye out for interesting textures with real locations you can build into your compositions. This even applies to something as possibly straight forward as an outdoor interview.

Think about your frame and layering foreground, midground and background images and objects so that the talent seems to pop out from the background, but also that the background looks layered, full of depth and textured with different colors and materials. It makes a huge difference in how your audience will perceive your shots. The key to turning an average-looking composition into something breathtaking is the interplay between texture, shape and light. Of course, utilizing composition and knowing how to light are a huge part of it, but knowing where to find interesting texture can also make a huge difference to the overall frame. Look for texture, find it and use it well.