How to hide my face in a Zoom call without causing a distraction?
January 28, 2021 11:39 AM   Subscribe

My job requires me to be anonymous. I've just been given the task of interviewing someone famous at an upcoming, on-camera Zoom event, and I need to hear your suggestions for the best way(s) to keep viewers from seeing my face. (Keeping my camera off isn't an option.)

I have a full-face cat mask I could wear, but it's plastic and will muffle my voice. It would also probably distract people from paying attention to what I and my guest are discussing.

I'd also prefer not to just aim the camera at my torso, if possible--people looking at my face for an hour would be bad enough, but my, thanks.

What physical solutions and digital ones would work well?

I'm leaning away from Snapchat/Instagram-style filters, just because they break frequently with small movements, and that would be a disaster here.
posted by yellowcandy to Technology (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Point your camera at something pleasant that's not you: a plant? a fish tank?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:41 AM on January 28, 2021 [18 favorites]

Turn all the lights off in front of you, place a single bright light immediately behind your chair. Try and avoid diffusion of light (with lampshades, reflection, and so on). You’ll be a dark silhouette.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:42 AM on January 28, 2021 [10 favorites]

Just point the camera at a static shot of the logo of your organization, or another image of your choice?
posted by kickingtheground at 11:42 AM on January 28, 2021 [14 favorites]

Clear tape over the camera to blur it? Maybe several layers to get enough blur to be anonymous.
posted by mekily at 11:43 AM on January 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

Could you put translucent fabric in front of you, and use backlighting to cast a shadow? you'd still be somewhat expressive. Probably more interesting if you can get the camera to shoot your profile.
posted by Mngo at 11:43 AM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Look at software used by vtubers like Live 2D?

Alternatively, instead of using your computer microphone, use headset with a wired microphone under your mask? You will have to play with the placement to get the best sound quality, but headset is superior to using the computer microphone anyway.
posted by muddgirl at 11:46 AM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Print a picture of a face, large enough to look appropriate, and put that in front of the camera. You can consider making a kind of stand up cutout by pasting it onto cardboard and cutting out the head. Bonus if you sit behind it and can gesture with your hands.

This is obviously not a real person, has a certain amount of art involved (the "real" you, or something interesting or stylish to look at), and gives the speaker something human like to look at.

If you want to get fancy, you can also get different faces with different expressions to substitute in.


Idea 2: find an interesting picture (maybe of a person) to show on your screen, and then do a Zoom screen share.

You could also find some pictures of a face with differing expressions, and switch them out inside a screen/window that you share through Zoom.
posted by amtho at 11:54 AM on January 28, 2021

Why can't you use a profile photo (that doesn't reveal who you are, obviously) instead of having your camera on? Why does the camera have to be on?
posted by pinochiette at 12:00 PM on January 28, 2021 [22 favorites]

Can you turn your camera on, physically block the lens and do a background photo? I do that if I'm on a meeting and need some sort of physical representation of my presence that isn't my face
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:01 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Put Vaseline on the camera lens, testing it first.
posted by glaucon at 12:08 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

You can get super-cheap freestanding webcams, which makes it much much easier to point it out a window, at a nature video, at your cat etc.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:09 PM on January 28, 2021

I really like the idea of setting up the camera so it's aimed at a plant or something nice (a vase of fresh flowers?). So it's a true live image, but without you at all. Then you would feel safe knowing you won't accidentally be revealed. The silhouette could also work great, though of course you'd have to play with this before hand and it might feel riskier to do this live.

You could also play with lighting and have a sheet or something in between you and the camera, so there might be some movement visible but your identity is still obscured. But will you need to use the keyboard? This could be awkward.

I agree that the mask would be confusing and distracting and might muffle your voice.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:10 PM on January 28, 2021

If it is not your face, or facial expressions - exactly why does the camera need to be on? And specifically your job requires you to be anonymous. That requirement seems to be in direct conflict with leaving the camera on.

So - either a digital static background, a piece of tape over the camera, or turning the camera off - or pointing it at something else entirely - a fish tank?

In-my-opinion, spending all my days on WebEx/Teams/Zoom calls for years even before the pandemic, anything but a face - or blankness is distracting if the point is for viewers to engage - just a voice is better at that point. It's essentially a call-in interview, where the caller is asking questions of the host/guest - something that has been done in radio and TV for decades.

Any kind of lighting or digital blur/filter/replacement is prone to error (as you have already pointed out) and could reveal your features.
posted by rozcakj at 12:11 PM on January 28, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: The standard way to do an anonymous interview is with a backlit silhouette. This technique should be familiar to the audience, and so would not be distracting in the way that a cat mask, vaseline, or billowy gauzy fabric would.

This YouTube video explains how to make a silhouette video. It does use a little bit of post-processing, but the same techniques could likely be applied for a live shoot.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 12:15 PM on January 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

I will say, though, that the dual constraints of "camera cannot be turned off" and "video cannot show my face" seem mutually contradictory. What function is served by the requirement of having the camera on if, for example, it's just going to be pointed at the wall, or at a house plant? How is that any different from having a static image with the camera off?
posted by Winnie the Proust at 12:17 PM on January 28, 2021 [15 favorites]

Take some video of yourself sitting in front of your screen wearing that cat mask and whatever clothing you're going to be wearing the day of the thing. Move around just a little, gesture a bit, get about 5 minutes of content. Set that video as your zoom background image on loop. Leave your video on during the thing but completely cover the camera. Most people won't even notice it's not actively you.
posted by phunniemee at 12:22 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Why is having your camera off not an option? The whole reason why "cameras must be on" is so others can read your facial expressions, see that you're actively engaged, or at least put "a face to the name". Which of these (or something else?) is important here, and solve for that. If it's some buracratic bullcrap that "camera must be on" and all they want to see in the little camera icon in the participants list, put some dark tape over it and turn it on.
posted by cgg at 12:27 PM on January 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

You're interviewing someone live at a Zoom event *and* you need to remain anonymous; those are two directly conflicting constraints here. What would the consequences be if someone were able to figure out who you are? Bad for your company? Bad for *you*?

Unless your business is throwing money - and expert video personnel! - at you to budget for live datastream processing, go with "video off but you have some sort of neutral 'profile picture' (like a silhouette) for the Zoom account you'll be running the interview with." If a camera *must* be on, attach an external webcam pointed at a plant and away from you, and tape over any internal webcams to be safe. Even with a strong backlight, if your camera is built into the laptop you'll be using to do the interview, your monitor will provide a fair amount of foreground lighting that will light your face up. Don't wear a mask or anything that will muffle your voice, that will just make people *more* focused on the low quality of your audio, rather than listening to the interview itself.

Hell, will the Zoom login you'll be using be anonymized, or will it be attached to a login? If someone recognizes your voice, is that going to be a problem? (Is the person you'll be interviewing aware of your anonymity constraint?)
posted by Pandora Kouti at 12:34 PM on January 28, 2021 [11 favorites]

Based on your profile, it looks like you're a restaurant critic, not an international assassin (unless you're an international assassin pretending to be a restaurant critic). Could you just make yourself backlit and then go with some of the other normal tricks of your trade? A hat and a standard COVID-era face mask would seem to be sufficient for the level of opsec required, no?
posted by deludingmyself at 12:53 PM on January 28, 2021 [9 favorites]

Just angle your camera/laptop at the wall? I use a few monitors and whenever I have my camera on and am looking at my 2nd monitor, it's just the side of my face. I could just point it at the door or something and it would be just as easy to hear me without seeing me.
posted by jabes at 12:56 PM on January 28, 2021

This is a great use case for DeepFake technology.

Bonus points if Anton Ego is your Avatar.
posted by bfranklin at 12:58 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

"My job requires me to be anonymous" is totally at odds with this--anonymity is not just a matter of grabbing a face from This Person Does Not Exist as a profile picture. It's also your voice, and, depending on the situation, your commonly-used words or self-descriptions for a public event like this. I think you need to cancel unless you're willing to risk your job.

If this is a lighter-weight form of anonymity, just a matter of keeping your work-life and non-work-life separate, large sunglasses and a wig or hat would be enough to obscure you while keeping your mouth visible for any lipreader in the audience.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:58 PM on January 28, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I've been messing around with a bit of software called FaceRig. It uses face detection to produce live video of various characters that mimic your expressions and movements. Works pretty well with Zoom etc.
posted by pipeski at 1:07 PM on January 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

Wear your covid mask and glasses.
Be on the zoom and DM questions and comments to someone else, who will be on camera.
posted by theora55 at 1:09 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm going to guess that this Zoom interview is not actually part of your job, but rather something that you're doing on your own time. In this case, there is no way to do this in a non-distracting way, with your camera on (?!?), while remaining anonymous. The best solution is to decline to host the interview and have another person, whose job does not require anonymity, do it instead.

If I'm wrong and you have to do this as part of your job, you should also be aware that your name will appear on the screen associated with your Zoom account, unless you change it in the Zoom settings *before* you join the meeting.
posted by heatherlogan at 1:44 PM on January 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

Based on DeludingMyself's comment, I might better understand why it's important for you to remain anonymous. Could you point your camera to an attractive piece of cookware, or a place setting?
posted by Winnie the Proust at 2:10 PM on January 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Let's all assume that the interviewer wants to remain anonymous but the interviewee requests a camera-on as a condition for the event.

For something like this, the back-lighting suggestion makes the most sense.
posted by ovvl at 3:27 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

(oh also, back-lighting; also wear a scarf and a hat)
posted by ovvl at 3:43 PM on January 28, 2021

Just anecdotally, I just used the Zoom background looped video trick in a conference and it worked! I turned the background on and covered my camera, and it just played my looped video background as if I weren't there. Nobody could tell my camera was covered; as far as they could tell my camera was on. I would record the video with yourself backlit or with a mask to obscure your features, then use that as the background.
posted by assenav at 3:55 PM on January 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I use FaceRig, which uses a webcam on my face to map my face movement to that of a 3D puppet so it does the same facial expressions I make. I once loaded it with Doge dog as my avatar in Zoom as a joke for my online class. It was amusing, for about 5 minutes.

Otherwise, it's time to backlight yourself, and turn the monitor to super-dim and the app to dark mode so your face doesn't get lighted from that either.

You can always go with a harlequin mask. :)
posted by kschang at 3:58 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you must have an actual live human face on the screen doing the interviewing and just need look different enough to avoid being immediately recognized in public, maybe some extreme makeup and accessories + crummy camera setup would be sufficient. Get a cheap contour palette and learn to use it to make your facial structure look different. Bad lighting and a low-res camera will flatten and distort things even more.

Then whatever your typical look is, do a 180 and push it to the edge of what's 'normal'. If you can grow facial hair, give yourself muttonchop sideburns or a ridiculous mustache (that you'll shave off as soon as the interview is over), or vice versa if you already have a ridiculous mustache. If you wear lipstick and eye makeup, use them to tweak shape of your features and go with a bold look that draws attention to the makeup and not you. Finish off with some distinctive accessories that you don't typically go for, like glasses if you don't normally wear them. Just be careful your interview isn't too much of a hit, or you might get stuck with a trademark look!
posted by yeahlikethat at 4:01 PM on January 28, 2021

Use the profile pic of the restaurant critic from Ratatouille. It would give people a little chuckle while still giving you anonymity and making it clear what your job was.
posted by Jubey at 4:07 PM on January 28, 2021

Could you describe your setup? Is the camera a separate device you can move around or are you using one that's built into a laptop/phone/tablet? Same question regarding the microphone.

Don't wear the mask if it muffles your voice. It will become very annoying for viewers after a couple minutes. Good audio is important if you want this to be an engaging conversation.

Clear tape over the lens is dead easy and is guaranteed to obscure all detail -- like, even the outlines of your body might not be discernible. But it may not be the best option for your particular circumstances, given that this is for work. Can you put a logo of your employer in front of the camera somehow? Failing that, I like the idea of pointing the camera at something, perhaps an object that directly relates to your profession.

Creating a silhouette can work, but this will take more effort to set up properly and you definitely need to test it extensively first. I've done FaceTime/Skype interviews with people who thought they were in silhouette and I could easily perceive their facial features on my screen.

P.S. - It would be great if people wouldn't include personally identifiable details that they've gleaned from OP's profile in their responses.
posted by theory at 7:35 PM on January 28, 2021

Oh, just tell me when to smile, look bored or smirk, and I’m sure I can pull this off while you provide the audio.
posted by klausman at 7:53 PM on January 28, 2021

What about a masquerade mask? It's probably not going to be the most subtle approach but even a fairly plane one might hide enough of your face to prevent being recognized, and since it doesn't have to cover your mouth you won't have to worry about it muffling your voice.
posted by sm1tten at 7:58 PM on January 28, 2021

What are the personal/professional implications if you get unmasked? If this is something that would be career damaging if your appearance/identity was to get divulged because of it, I'd consider just giving it a pass. As you noted, digital glitches happen, if you go that route. Playing with the facial recognition technology in Picasa a decade ago, it would do things like identify people's faces that (to the eye) weren't even visible due to strong shadows, and the tech has only gotten better since then.

people looking at my face for an hour

If possible, I'd have whoever's pulling the levers on the project give some serious thought as to whether the target audience would actually watch an hour long interview where they can't see the interviewer. Unless the interviewee is especially interesting or compelling, a lot of the joy of seeing a good interview is watching two people conversing (even if they're remote). It's sometimes compelling to see a mob boss talk anonymously for an hour but I'd be hard pressed to think of interviews that I'd watch if the interviewer was obscured.

If disguising your voice isn't necessary, is something like doing the interview inside of Animal Crossing or the like an option?
posted by Candleman at 9:26 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Do you have time to have a mask made? Here’s a place that makes realistic ones.

Hire a makeup artist?
posted by at at 10:17 PM on January 28, 2021

Response by poster: A few updates and clarifications:

*deludingmyself has it right: I'm a restaurant critic, and anonymity is a crucial part of my job.

*This event is actually hosted by my newspaper, so they're aware of both my need to remain anonymous and the risks around hosting this event.

*Having my name or voice in the conference is not an issue--both are fine. It's really my image that poses the problem.

*The event producers think that a blank screen or static image won't be dynamic enough for an hour-long discussion. Hence the need to go beyond a JPEG.

Thanks for the suggestions. Keep them coming!
posted by yellowcandy at 1:01 PM on January 29, 2021

Best answer: If you're on a Mac, iGlasses filters would be perfect for this. The filters aren't just "find your face and add stuff" Snapchat style things, there are lens filters like pixellate, blur, night vision, blown-out colors, etc. that can functionally obscure facial recognition in different ways, and most of them are manually adjustable as to amount/characteristics of distortion.
posted by desuetude at 2:34 PM on January 29, 2021

Use a friend as a body double who is wearing a covid mask over their mouth, or is in silhouette where their mouth cannot be seen. You will be off camera with the microphone and directly across from the body double. The “talking” head’s job is to try to mirror your facial expressions, head tilt, etc. as they see them, even when you aren’t talking. They can slightly nod their head up and down while another participant is speaking, if that’s what you are doing off-camera. Your body double’s face should be a plausible match for your voice— so don’t use a Natalie Portman look-a-like on camera if your voice sounds like Sam Elliott.
posted by DB Cooper at 3:03 PM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

make a video background of a person, anyone, listening and nodding. Let it loop. Point webcam at a green screen, while you're standing offscreen. This is your listening image. When you need to speak, just turn the camera off. For bonus interest, change the image on your camera off zoom screen each time.

You might even make an audio recording of someone saying "hmm." and "uh huh." and "ah," and play it while the listening image is onscreen.
posted by Morpeth at 7:58 AM on January 30, 2021

Response by poster: Final update!

Thanks to you all for such wonderful suggestions. A few of you also figured out that I was interviewing Sam Sifton for the Maine Voices Live event on April 6th.

I ended up using FaceRig, which worked surprisingly well. It mapped my facial movements well enough (although the independently rolling eyeballs were creepy), and it even had the option of selecting an avatar that wasn't furry, spiny, or racily dressed.

The side benefit of this conversation is that the event producers initially thought they'd resolve the problem by having an ASL interpreter on camera in my place the entire time. But after she was hired, they decided it would be less distracting if we both had a visual presence, rather than me speaking as a "voice from above." In the end, thanks to MeFi, the event was accessible to hearing-impaired attendees, where otherwise, it probably would not have been.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:31 PM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Glad you find Facerig helpful! I believe they're working on V2.0 now, and similar technology caused the "lawyer cat" earlier this year. So it's been around, but for interview, I'd say that's certainly an innovative use!
posted by kschang at 8:07 PM on April 19, 2021

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