On-Camera Interviews and Why Eye Line Is Important

When setting up to shoot an interview for your video project, how do you decide where your subject’s eye line should be? I’m sure a majority of interviews you’ve seen feature subjects looking slightly off camera. Still, there are others that feature subjects looking directly into the lens.

So which is it?

When should a subject look off camera and when should a subject look directly into the lens? And even if you decide a subject should look off camera, how far off should they look?

The answer depends on three main things:

  • The topic(s) that the interview will cover

  • The subject’s relationship to those topics

  • The immediacy of the topic itself

Remember, every shot selection you make in your video will communicate something to the viewer. So, even when setting up for an interview, the lighting, the camera angle, and even where the subject is looking will tell the viewer something about the person and the nature of the story.

When to look directly into the lens

When I’m shooting interviews, I only ask my subjects to look into the lens when they are telling a very personal story that centers on their own experiences and the experiences of their immediate family members and/or close friends.

Why?

When you see someone looking directly into the lens, what does that shot communicate?

  • It’s intimate. The subject is treating you, the viewer, like a close, personal friend or confidant.

  • It’s vulnerable. The subject is opening herself up to you, laying her emotions out there on the table for your consumption and consideration. The subject wants you to listen, and listen carefully, and really understand her point of view.

  • It’s immediate. Even if the events covered in the video happened decades earlier, looking directly into the lens conveys a sense of immediacy to the subjects being discussed. It may have happened years before, but it’s still very important to the person speaking.

Consider this video essay about looking into the lens and what it communicates to your viewer:

When to look off camera

As I stated earlier, most on-camera interviews are conducted with the subject looking at someone off camera. But have you ever thought about why it’s usually done this way?

For me, seeing someone look off camera tells me that the person speaking has some authority about the subject, but not necessarily first-hand experience with the topic.

Now, obviously this isn’t always the case, as demonstrated by the above video. An interview subject may look off camera and still have had a first-hand experience with the topic. But looking off camera does communicate some level of emotional detachment, whether intentional or unintentional.

So, if you decide that you want your subjects to look off camera, be mindful of how their shoulders are positioned in the shot. To maintain a more three-dimensional look to your composition, make sure that the subjects square their shoulders with the person doing the interview. This will give the shot more depth and make it more interesting and pleasing to look at.

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This is a nice set up from Dream Engine. Notice how the subject is looking slightly off camera and his shoulders are also facing slightly away from the lens and toward the person conducting the interview. If this subject’s shoulders remained flat to the camera, with only his head slightly turned, the composition would have less depth.

As stated earlier, this kind of shot is a very standard interview set up, but when might you want to have your subject turn even further away from the lens? What would a shot like that communicate to your audience and when might you want to use it?

Consider this interview set up from the mini series Band of Brothers:

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It’s a very striking frame, and yet it isn’t very often that we see an interview subject looking so far off camera. He’s almost in profile.

When might you frame up your interview like this? I can think of two instances:

  1. When the environment is just as important as the subject. Maybe you’re interviewing an artist in his studio, or a craftsman in his workshop. If the environment tells the viewer something about the subject’s character, you might have him or her look far off camera and shoot wider so you can show off the space more.

  2. When the subject is discussing topics that, for him, are: a) distant memories, b) tragic and/or painful, c) still unresolved in some way. This set up is almost like an aside; a soliloquy from the theater. The subject is not so much telling his story for our benefit, but for his own, because he’s trying to reconcile something within himself. For me, the composition tells me that the subject is almost talking to himself; thinking through things that still need closure.

I hope this post encourages you to think through the interview set ups on your next video project. Remember, every shot tells a story and communicates something to your viewer, even your talking heads. There should be a purpose and a reason behind every shot selection.

Have something to add? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section.

What Happens When the Video Crew Forgets the Light Kit

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You and your video crew are on the road, traveling to the interview location when you suddenly remember... The light kit is still in the studio! You're too far down the road now to turn back (plus you have a schedule to keep) and the interview location is in a small town where there are no rental facilities or other production companies.

What do you do?

First of all, don't panic. And DEFINITELY don't roll up to the location and announce to your client, 'Well, I left all of the lights back at the studio!" There are still plenty of ways to shoot an interview using only natural light. Here are a few things to try:

  1. Place the subject right next to a window. The natural daylight is usually soft and even. If you find that the light is too harsh, hang a sheet or a silk in front of the window to soften it. You might also try lowering the shade if the window is equipped with one.
  2. Take the subject outside. Make sure the background isn't in direct sunlight. Otherwise it will blow out. Use reflectors and bounce cards to add fill light to your subject. The image at the top of this post is from an interview I shot several years ago using only natural light and bounce cards. Notice how the background is dark, maintaining proper contrast and exposure. The light on the subject is soft, even, and has a nice fall-off.
  3. Use mirrors to direct light exactly where you need it. If you happen to be shooting in a tricky location where it isn't possible to take your subject to the daylight, then try bringing the daylight to your subject. You can achieve this by using a combination of mirrors (or any other highly reflective surface), bounce cards, and reflectors. In the video below, the production crew came up with a creative way to bounce the daylight around a corner and on to the talent.

Take some time to search YouTube and you will find hundreds of tutorials on how to light with natural light. Have any other suggestions? Leave them in the Comments below.

Avid Tutorial - How to Set Default Font Sizes

By default, the font size in Avid Media Composer for both your Project window and for all of your bins is 11. If you're like me, you need a slightly larger font size so your eyes aren't strained. However, you don't want to go through the trouble of adjusting the font size for all of your bins one at a time. Fortunately, there is a way to set the default font size for all of your bins and the project window. Watch the video to find out.

  1. At the top of your Project window, find the Settings button and click it.
  2. Scroll down until you find the settings for Interface (or just type "i" on your keyboard to jump all the way down to all settings options that start with "i").
  3. Double click Interface to pull up the Interface window
  4. Make sure the boxes next to "Override all Bin font sizes" and "Override Project font size" are checked.
  5. Type in your desired font size for each.
  6. Click "Apply" in the bottom right corner of the Interface window.

That's it. What other Avid Media Composer tips do you have? Leave them in the Comments section.

Save Time Editing With Top And Tail

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Two of the editing features that have been part of Avid Media Composer for quite some time are the Top and Tail commands. Using both will save you a little bit of time as you make your edit. Here's a basic rundown of how each command works:

  • Top - This command will remove the portion of the selected video and/or audio clip located to the left of the playhead.
  • Tail - This command will remove the portion of the selected video and/or audio clip located to the right of the playhead.
 Notice the Top and Tail commands in the Edit section of the Command Palette

Notice the Top and Tail commands in the Edit section of the Command Palette

You can use Top and Tail to quickly remove sections of a clip you won't need in your sequence, rather than setting an In point, an Out point, and then lifting or extracting the clip.

By default, the Top and Tail commands are not mapped to the keyboard, so you will need to set up keyboard shortcuts to use them. To do that, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Settings tab in your project window.
  2. Scroll down until you see the Keyboard listing and double click to bring up your current keyboard shortcuts (or you can just type "k" in your Settings window).
  3. Hit Cmd + 3 to bring up your Command palette and browse over to the Edit tab. The Top and Tail commands will be there.
  4. Make sure the "Button to Button" button at the bottom of the Command Palette window is selected.
  5. Click and drag the Top button and the Tail button to the keys on your keyboard you have designated (Some editors map them to the "E" and "R" keys. I have them mapped to SHIFT + I and SHIFT + O).

That's it. When you are ready to use each command, all you need to do is hit the designated short cut keys. Make sure, however, that you have the specific Video and/or Audio track(s) selected first.

Do you have any other Avid tips? Leave them in the Comments section.