Pictured above: Production still by Austin Distel. Follow on Instagram @austindistel. “Recording a new podcast interview with CEOs and Founders of successful online businesses, Scale or Die. This show recently hit Apple’s New and Noteworthy for business and technology categories. Watch or listen to the most recent episodes at useproof.com/scaleordie.”
Cinematography for Interviews
7 Best Practices
Written by John Klein
Among the many kinds of projects I love doing as a cinematographer and shooter, one of the most common by far is shooting simple interview setups for promotional and corporate video content. Usually it’s one person at a time – even if it’s several interview subjects in a row. And I rarely have control over the location once we arrive on set. So I’ve gotten very good at thinking on my feet and remembering specific tricks for shooting interviews quickly and efficiently without sacrificing the quality of the footage!
Here are some tips and best practices you can use to enhance the quality of your interview setups going forward:
(# 1.) Depth is key.
If you arrive on location and you’re shown into a tiny 8×8 foot room, politely ask if there is a longer conference room or unused part of the building. Not only is the extra space helpful for compositions and shallow focus on the subject, but it will also give you space to put your gear and cases. You’d be amazed how quickly you run out of room on even the simplest setups!
(# 2.) Turn all the lights off when you arrive in the space.
You can always use them later if you want to add some realism to the background, but start with a blank canvas. Light the subject (basic three-point lighting is always a good place to start), and then figure out if there’s a place for the practical fixtures already in the room.
(# 3.) Simple backdrops solve problems.
If you don’t have that extra space, bring some kind of black or white backdrop with you that’s easily foldable or rollable, and tape or hang it straight against the back wall. Both backdrops can respond well to a background light tinted with a party gel of some kind, and if the branding for the company has a specific kind of color scheme, you can use that color here.
(# 4.) A little soft light goes a long way.
No matter what light you have, figure out a way to make it as large and soft as possible. If you’ve got a Kino, Flozier it up. If you have a 650w Fresnel, diffusion or a silk will be great, or if you’re in that small space you can even bounce it against the side wall, so long as you’re not close enough to burn anything! Particularly in a situation where there isn’t hair/makeup on set, soft lighting can take the edge off wrinkles and blemishes and make the subject’s eyes pop. And for the edge light, a softer light means a nicer halo on the subject and a setup that feels less “lit” for the audience.
(# 5.) Windows are not your friend.
You may like the lighting now, but I guarantee you that lighting will change in an hour. Block out the windows, put the shades down, and give yourself as much control as possible. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of those changing clouds and people outside who walk by and wave to you halfway through the most dramatic part of the interview.
(# 6.) Keep your eyes open.
Watch for glares off windows or cabinets, errant props – someone will always put their coffee cup down right in your background – and weird shadows on your subject (from said practicals, this is always a danger). Also look for dead space in the frame and see if you can balance out the composition with anything from a set of books to a plant from someone’s office. There’s always a mad rush at the last minute to find something, anything to fill a blank area on a desk in the shot!
(# 7.) Lastly…make your subject comfortable.
This should be the job of everyone on set, but while the producer or director asking the questions may focus on this, it’s also important for you to remember as a cinematographer that the person in front of your camera may have never been in front of a camera before, under the lights, with a shotgun mic a few inches from their forehead. Tape down any errant cables, give them a clear flight path and simple instructions, and put them at ease about the whole process.
Many of these tips can also be helpful on narrative sets and other projects! Every interview will be different in terms of content and style; like on short and feature films, it’s your job as a DP to find the best way to manifest that style in as little time as possible.
John Klein (www.windycitycamera.com) is a director, cinematographer, and producer in Chicago. His directorial work includes the award-winning short horror film, “Cry It Out,” and the feature films, “Happily After” and “Chrysalis”, and he’s lensed projects of all shapes and sizes, from the micro-budget web series, “Young Couple” to the Lifetime movie, “Nightlights”. He also teaches film production at DePaul University and Flashpoint Chicago.
Pictured below: DeLaSalle Highschool, Minneapolis, United States. Producton still by Alex Simpson. Follow on Instagram @m_simpsan.