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.

Best Practices For Working With Non-Professional Actors

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In my video production career I have predominantly worked with non-actors and the challenge is always the same: how can you capture natural, believable footage from people who aren't trained to perform in front of a camera?

If you've been hired to shoot a commercial for a local restaurant or a sales video for a niche product manufacturer, you will at some point be directing the people who actually work at these businesses. So, here are some things that have helped me get the most out of my non-professional on-camera talent.

  1.  Spend a few minutes with them before bringing them to set.  Introduce yourself. Find out something about them. Talk about things unrelated to the shoot. Get them talking about themselves. Smile. Laugh. Be personable. Build trust. The more comfortable they are with you, the more willing they'll be to take direction when the cameras roll. 
  2. Be very clear about what you are trying to accomplish.  Believe it or not, sometimes the business rep who shows up for the shoot has been "volun-told" by a superior to be involved in the production and he/she may not even know what the video is really about. Don't assume he/she knows what's going on. Spell out explicitly what the scene is about and what you will be asking him/her to do. Answer any questions that may come up. Remember, the more comfortable the talent is, the better the footage. 
  3. You are setting up scenarios, not staging scripted scenes.  If you come to set and start giving a long list of specific, scripted directions to your talent ("Now, at THIS point you will cross to THIS side of the room and stand HERE, turning 3/4 to camera BEFORE delivering your line...") they will immediately tense up and deliver a performance that feels too rigid and unnatural. Why? Because they aren't accustomed to taking direction, hitting marks and nailing the timing that comes from years of actor training. Instead of specific, scripted direction, focus on setting up a scenario; something they do every day while doing their job. Keep the direction loose, start rolling, and capture the scene much like you would if it were a documentary. Remember, your job is to capture an authentic moment.
  4. Be willing to pivot.  Sometimes your talent might tell you, "I wouldn't necessarily do it this way." Okay. Great. Tell them to perform the action the way they normally would in their day-to-day jobs. They'll be more confident and comfortable and your footage will look more natural.  
  5. Remind them not to look at the camera.  Don't scold them. Don't yell "Cut!" as soon as you see them look over to the lens. Let the scene play out, then walk over to make adjustments, using that moment as a gentle reminder. It is so hard for people not to look at the camera.  
  6. Tell them what you're doing on set as you're doing it.  Non-professional actors don't know what coverage is. They might not understand why you keep moving the camera around and why they have to repeat the same action over and over. Remember, your job is to make them comfortable. Constantly explain what you're doing ("Okay, now I'm going to zoom in for a tighter shot so I can get that same action in close-up.") so they feel reassured that they aren't doing anything wrong.

These are the techniques that have worked for me over the years and the more you practice them, the easier it will be to draw out the best from your on-camera talent.

What methods have worked for you? Leave your suggestions in the Comments. 

 

Here's How You Can Shoot Better B-Roll

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There are a lot of things that can frustrate a documentary film editor, like finding out there isn't enough good, quality footage to produce a well-rounded piece with a solid structure and full story arc. Shooters who are new to the video production industry not only need to learn the basics of lighting and composition, but also how to approach a b-roll shoot strategically and how to think like an editor. Improve the quality of your b-roll and you elevate the quality of the final piece.

Follow these tips for shooting better b-roll. Your editor will thank you.

  1. Hold The Shot - I've edited a lot of videos over the years and it always surprises me when I get footage from other shooters that never seems to settle long enough for me to find good in and out points. Just when I think that the shooter has finally framed up the shot, it pans off to something else after only a second or two, leaving me with no good edit options. Once you frame up your shot, hold it steady for at least seven seconds so your editor can make a cut. Now, the exception to this is if there's a compelling moment playing out in front of you in real-time. Leave the camera on the shot until the moment is complete. Remember to learn patience when shooting.
  2. Focus On What's Most Important - What is the scene supposed to be about? Who are the central characters in the story? It can be easy for an inexperienced shooter to arrive at a busy location and feel overwhelmed with the amount of activity going on in front of the lens (like a crowded market place, for example). The tendency for an inexperienced shooter is to get way too many wide shots. When you try to show the viewer everything you end up not telling the viewer anything of importance. When there are too many things in the frame, viewers don't know what's most important and aren't sure where to focus their attention.
  3. Build Sequences - Every shooter has heard this one before, "Get wides, mediums, and tights." It sound elementary, but it's often overlooked. The editor will be looking for shots that help build a narrative and that's impossible to do without a variety of shots at different focal lengths. For reference, look back at my post "5 Things To Remember When Shooting Documentaries."  In it I talk about the importance of giving your shots beginnings, middles, and endings, and looking for detailed close-up shots that an editor can use for transitional elements. Once you have those shots in the can, think about unique camera angles that you can get while on location.
  4. Give Us a Sense Of Time and Place - Viewers need to be oriented. Capture the environment in which the story takes place. In some cases, the environment is a character unto itself and shouldn't be neglected. Provide your editor (and ultimately the audience) with plenty of footage that conveys context.
  5. Show Subjects In Their Environment - As the logical next step from point #4, it's important that you get footage of the subject in his or her own environment. The sit-down interview with your subject might take place somewhere unrelated to the story he or she is telling (like a studio). Showing the subject in his or her environment makes him or her more real for the audience.
  6. Show Subjects Traveling - Your editor will need plenty of shots of your subject traveling from point "A" to point "B," then over to points "C" and "D." Capturing traveling b-roll is important for moving the story forward, and it helps your editor bridge scenes without jarring the audience with awkward cuts. Whether it's walking through the marketplace, driving through downtown, or bike riding by the river, get those traveling shots.
  7. Always Record NAT Sound - By "nat" sound, I mean "natural" sound; ambience. Set up your on-board camera mic to record the sounds of every b-roll location, and be sure to monitor the levels. The final video can't rely solely on voice-over and music. It needs ambient sound strategically placed throughout, to create a sense of presence and immediacy. So, go ahead and capture the sound, even if you think the editor will cover up the NATs with music or VO. 

Video editors, what other advice can you give to young camera operators? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

Use the Book Light Technique to Achieve a Wonderfully Soft Key Light

An interview set up using the Book Light technique

An interview set up using the Book Light technique

Sometimes you need to create a nice, soft key light for your subject, whether it be for a sit-down interview or b-roll. There are a number of ways to do this, but one of the best is the Book Light technique.

First, it's important to understand that creating a soft light source is a bit counter-intuitive. One might think that you need to use a smaller light source and then move it AWAY from the subject and then dim it in order to create softness. However, the opposite is true. You actually want to use a large light source and then move it CLOSER to the subject as a starting point for creating a soft key light.

From there, you want to diffuse the light as much as possible to soften it up. The Book Light technique is an excellent method for diffusing the light. Here's what you need to do:

  1. As stated above, use a large light source and move it close to your subject. In the picture, I'm using a 1x1 Bi-Color Astra LED panel at 100% undiffused, which is the equivalent of a 750W fresnel.
  2. Turn the light source AWAY from your subject and aim it into a bounce card or large flex fill.
  3. Diffuse the reflected light with opal or a silk (or both, if necessary).

Here's a diagram to show the set up in more detail.

The result is an incredibly soft light source that wraps around your subject nicely.