Lighting Your Talking Heads
Written by Peter Warren csc
In news, they are called talking heads. In my 40 years as a news shooter and now DP, I have lit and filmed hundreds, if not thousands, of talking heads. They come in all shapes and sizes; some with hair, others without; they are different colors; they talk about different things. And I am not just referring to news stories and documentaries. These talking heads are also actors delivering lines or presenters talking to camera. Talking heads are the single most common thing you will light. And, the one thing they all have in common is they are all essentially lit the same way. I’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s go step by step through a complete location lighting set up. Lighting the talking head is easy. The real challenge is the background.
When I arrive at a location, I am always looking for options for the interview. The room they think will be best is often the worst place for an interview. When I look around at options, the first thing I do is listen for sound. HVAC can be a deal breaker although a constant hum can be eliminated in post, they tell me. Then I see if I have control of the lights. If I don’t have control, then I will either be unscrewing bulbs or covering up overhead lights. A large garbage bag is a great thing to shove into your kit. I don’t want overhead light falling on my talking head. Then I look for interesting backgrounds. I love windows. Even if it is completely overcast and dreary outside, I know I can make it look like a sunny day. More on that later. I want to make sure the talking head is as far away from the background as possible. I spend a lot of time moving furniture. Then, finally, I make sure that there is nothing distracting in the background. Nothing worse than a Ficus Benjamina growing out of someone’s head.
Now decide which direction the person will be looking; camera left, right or to camera, then frame the shot. If using two cameras, frame both shots. I often use a second camera on a slider, so there is a larger area to consider. And remember, you still need to get lights in.
Once you are happy with the framing, there are two critical things to adjust before you break out your lighting kit. Number one is depth of field. If you are using a fast lens, you will want to adjust your aperture and decide how ‘soft’ you want your background to be. There is no right or wrong, this is up to you. But remember, if you are shooting F1.4, the entire face will not be in focus. If the nose is sharp, the ear will be just slightly soft, and if they move a lot, you will have to stay on your toes to maintain focus, unless you have face tracking… which I love! I often settle at F1.8 to F2.8. It creates a softish background, but you can still see what’s back there. Once you have set this, do not touch your aperture again.
Now using your ISO, expose for the room. This is where I can turn a dreary day into a sunny one by overexposing that window in the background. I also travel with a Leko and will create a natural looking light coming in from the window. It is quite believable. Again, once you have set this, do not touch your ISO again.
Now it’s time to light the talking head. As I said earlier, this is done the same way every time. Key, fill, backlight (or hair light), and for those that go the extra mile, the ‘kicker’. I always use all four. How you use them is what will set you apart.
They don’t all have to be lighting fixtures. Think of the four as lighting sources. More on that later. Let’s start with the key, which is where you should always start. Generally, it is always preferred that this be as soft a source as possible. You want the light to ‘wrap’ around the face. The larger the source, the softer the light. Placement is key. The person should always be looking toward the key. The camera should be facing the shady side of the face. This is how it is done 99.9% of the time. Not only in interviews but also in movies and TV shows. Check it out the next time you’re watching your favourite streaming channel.
Now it’s time to fine-tune the key. I use a technique called the ‘Rembrandt Triangle’. The famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt would use a painting technique where the light source created a triangle of light on the shady side of the face illuminating the eye and highlighting the cheekbone. To create this look, I have the person look in the direction they will be looking, and then, adjust the key to create this triangle of light. Now adjust the light level for the exposure settings you have previously set. Do not adjust your aperture or ISO.
The fill light is not to illuminate per say, it is to control the contrast. It sets the tone or the mood. How dark do you want that shadow created by the key? The fill doesn’t have to be a light fixture, it could be the ambient light in the room or a reflector. Sometimes you may want to take light away to create greater contrast, ‘negative fill’. If you are using a fixture, the placement is more flexible. It can go anywhere on the opposite side of the key from directly in front, to the side. The quality (hard or soft) doesn’t matter because it will never cast a shadow.
I like to use a small hair light on a boom and put it right over the head. Purists have argued that this has to be motivated… To me, it always looks better with it than without it… Unless the person is bald, that’s the only time I don’t use it.
The kicker is motivated, if there is a window in the shot, which I always look for, then it will be more intense. If there is no window, then I make it very subtle. It should be behind the person
at head height and opposite the key so that it illuminates on the shadow side of the face.
Any of these four sources of light can be from an existing source like a window or ambient light in the room. These sources can be modified with scrims, flags or reflectors. But I will always go with a light fixture for the key so that I can precisely place it and create that Rembrandt Triangle. This will always make the talking head look good.
After graduating from the Radio and Television program at Ryerson Polytechnic University, Peter Warren csc began his career in television news working at CITY TV in Toronto as a Citypulse news cameraman. He was proud to be one of Canada’s first video journalists, telling stories from behind the camera. Moving on to Global TV, Peter was able to do more national stories where he won several awards including a Gemini award for Best News Photography. CTV Ottawa offered Peter a senior news cameraman position which gave him the opportunity to come back home. After seven years and several more awards, Peter went freelance which opened up a whole new world of production. Since then, he has been the Director of Photography on 6 Canadian television series and worked on many others as camera operator. Peter is also very busy with corporate videos, news and commercials.