Zoom, cat filters and lawyers: How not to embarrass yourself on a video conference

Lessons to learn from the viral video of a lawyer who couldn't turn off a cat filter during a virtual court proceeding.

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Video conferencing filters can completely change your appearance, whether intended or not.

Image: Brandon Vigliarolo/TechRepublic

If you spend any time on the internet there's a good chance you've seen the recent viral video of a Texas lawyer whose camera had a cat filter on it during a Zoom virtual hearing. There's also a chance that video triggered a minor panic attack: What if you found yourself in that exact same situation?

Lawyer Rod Ponton was using his assistant's computer that, according to his comments to TMZ, was a 10-year old Dell laptop, and it's probably that laptop itself that was the cause of the problem.

According to the BBC, the particular kitten filter that Ponton was stuck behind was part of a program called Live Cam Avatar that used to come standard on Dell laptops a decade ago. Other Dell owners had the same problem, the BBC found, with one Twitter user saying the cat filter was the default setting on their Dell laptop webcam back in 2013.

So it turns out the blame in this particular instance can be placed on old software on an old computer, but that doesn't mean the same thing can't happen in 2021. Luckily, being sure there's no filter on your camera when starting a Zoom call, or disabling one when you're already in a meeting, isn't too difficult. 

How to check for filters before a Zoom meeting starts

There are a couple ways you can apply a filter to a Zoom call: A third-party camera app like Snap Camera, or with Zoom's built-in filters. 

Let's assume we want the most basic, plain camera settings in Zoom imaginable: The basic Zoom camera without any filters turned on. To check your camera settings in Zoom, open the main Zoom app and look for the gear symbol in the upper right corner of the app. Clicking on that will open Zoom settings (Figure A)

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Figure A: The Video tab of the Zoom settings menu, where you can find camera options to get rid of third-party filters.

Image: Brandon Vigliarolo/TechRepublic

In Figure A I've also clicked on the Video tab, which displays several basic non-filter camera settings. Here you can see that I have Snap Camera enabled as my default Zoom camera. Had I not checked this before starting my meeting I would have entered with a Viking filter on my face. In the dropdown menu labeled Camera make sure your built-in camera is enabled, which will prevent third-party filters from showing up when you start a meeting. 

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We're still not out of the woods: Zoom added its own filters in an August 2020 update, and you could unwittingly start a call with those enabled even if you switched your camera to the built-in default to prevent third-party filters. 

Returning to the settings menu, click on Background and Filters (Figure B). Here you'll see virtual background settings as well as where you can enable/disable Zoom's built-in filters. 

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Figure B: The Zoom Backgrounds and Filters menu, along with the Studio Effects menu.

Image: Brandon Vigliarolo/TechRepublic

There are a couple things to note here: First are the filters, which you can see in Figure B as a pair of sunglasses on my face. To ensure there's no filter enabled be sure None is selected in the upper left of the area where all the filters are listed. 

Secondly, take a look at the Studio Effects window, which I opened by clicking on Studio Effects at the bottom right of the screen. Those effects allow you to set crazy eyebrow and facial hair features, like the pink goatee and eyebrows I'm sporting in Figure B. Zoom enables "apply to all future meetings" be default, so be sure you uncheck that if you use zoom for work and play. If you want to quickly get rid of anything you turned on in Studio Effects just click Reset at the bottom left. 

Disabling filters in a Zoom call

Say you didn't check your camera settings before an important Zoom meeting--it's still not too late to save face! 

In Figure C you'll see me embarrassing myself in a Zoom call with that same Viking filter. I've also moused over the Stop Video button in order to find the in-meeting camera settings menu. If your filter faux-pas was caused by a third-party camera app like Snap Camera you can find the settings here to switch back to your default camera. 

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Figure C: Where to click to disable a filter while already inside a Zoom meeting.

Image: Brandon Vigliarolo/TechRepublic

If you've left some Zoom Studio Effects or filters turned on you can disable those by clicking on Choose Video Filter, which will open the same Backgrounds and Filters window shown in Figure B. From there you can get rid of Zoom's built-in filters the same way as described above. 

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Hopefully in the future Zoom will add a "reset camera" option that disables all filters and just displays a plain camera view, but until that time you'll need to know these menu options to prevent yourself from becoming the next lawyer cat. 

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