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.

How a Cinematographer Should Approach Documentary Work

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This past week I had the opportunity to attend The Maine Media Workshops, where I took a class with Bestor Cram on "Documentary Camera." It was an incredible experience, full of valuable information that I will be sure to apply on my documentary projects moving forward. I thought it important to share some of the insights I gained from the workshop, so all of us can continue to improve ourselves and our craft.

The first installment in this series will go over how a cinematographer's should approach a documentary film.

 The foundation of the work is building trust.

This is the first thing a cinematographer should remember when he/she embarks on a documentary project. Documentary film is about getting at the truth about someone, some issue, some place, or some time. As the camera operator, you have to build trust between yourself and your subject, so they feel safe to share their story; safe to allow themselves to become vulnerable in front of the lens. At the fundamental level, you must express something about yourself to help you gain the trust of your subject.

Negotiate the boundaries of what you will be doing. 

Come in with a sense of what the story is that you want to tell. Give yourself that boundary. But understand that those boundaries will sometimes change as the story unfolds. Will you cross that boundary and allow the story to take on a new direction?

Also, be clear to your subject about what you expect of him/her. Express to your subject what you will/will not ask of them.  

There will be a time and a place to judge. That time is not when you are shooting. 

Capture your subjects honestly. Capture their stories. Don't judge their motivations and actions. Don't think about the statement your film will or will not make while you are trying to shoot it. That will only affect what you decide to shoot or not shoot. Production isn't the time to make judgment calls about what the film is or isn't. That will come later, in the editing room. 

Feel free to share your philosophies on documentary film and a cinematographer's role in the process. 

Escape - A Student Short Film

When I was a teenager, I was extremely appreciative of working video/film production professionals who took the time to give me advice, instruction, etc. I started as a P.A. for a large-budget commercial shoot when I was a sophomore in high school. I didn't know anything, but I was eager to listen and learn. Now that I've been in video production for over ten years now, I look for opportunities when I can help students who also share an interest in creating short films. 

One of the areas in which I have helped in the past has been through the Lads to Leaders program. Affiliated with Churches of Christ across the country, Lads to Leaders seeks to develop the talents of young people (Kindergarten through College) for service in their churches, schools, and communities. There are various areas in which students can get involved. Each event helps students better assess their own skills and interests. One of the events offered is a short film competition.

The theme for last year was, "We'll Work Until Jesus Comes." I helped organize a team for the Hoover Church of Christ in Birmingham, AL. I facilitated discussions to conceptualize the story and write the script. I talked to the team about the basics of narrative film production - lighting, composition, camera movements, direction, etc. It was up to the members of the team to scout and secure locations, provide props, wardrobe, etc. I provided the equipment and served as the DP. The students handled everything else.

The film we produced, entitled Escape, takes place in 1858 and centers on a young slave family trying to flee to the North, and the unexpected ally they find along the way. The film earned 2nd place at the 2012 Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, TN. I was proud of the students for their work, and I was glad that I could help out and be a part of it.