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Making Something Out of Nothing

You Can't Get There From Here, the expression goes.

Sometimes you find yourself in a seemingly untenable situation. You have 1 hour to get setup for an interview, in basically an empty blah room, Given a basic kit of gear that you take everywhere, lights, mics and stands, you need to be able to make something out of nothing - in other words, use your knowledge and creativity to get the job done.

**Thanks to my buddy Jake for this innovation!

I recall going to the home of retired general Bernard Trainor with a reporter back in the early 90's to interview him about the no-fly zone in Iraq post-Gulf War I. The shooter had his betacam, sticks and one Tota light. He made the general's living room look as nice as was possible, and the few sound bites that went on air looked pretty good indeed.

Hence, we find ourselves in cramped offices, hotel meeting rooms and occasionally plain white-walled board rooms, or just an empty supply closet. Indirect lighting, reflectors, gels, umbrellas and taking everything you ever learned about lighting and combining it with good old Yankee ingenuity - and you might just get a nice result.




Recently we picked up a low cost 19" LCD HD monitor to travel with. In an Anvil case originally purchased for an SGI Indy2, we can setup a client monitor or one for ourselves, to confirm that we are in focus and somewhat properly exposed. While the colors are not perfectly accurate, monitoring the V1U via HDMI is very nice indeed. Once can see a definite difference between the flip out LCD screen on the V1, the viewfinder and the LCD monitor. Presumably the true picture lies at the intersection of the other 3 views.

Sometimes happenstance is a good friend. A plant, a plexiglass award or some carefully stacked books on a table are just what you need to make blah into ahh. Wherever you find yourself, scope out the lobby or adjacent offices for plants, lamps, bookcases, framed landscapes - anything that you might be able to borrow to turn blech into ye(ch)s!

Thinking on your feet, often in a pinch, can be the key to getting something usable, versus just another plain background.

Speaking of backgrounds, it is also helpful to have some black muslin or other backdrop material (dubatine?) and a background stand (two light stands and a pvc pipe will do the job). With some nice folds and a slash of light with a gel, you can indeed create something out of nothing. It is of course important to have enough distance between the subject and the background, whatever it is, to put it out of focus. Modern full-auto video cameras try to make everything in focus. In a case like this, don't use auto-focus or auto-iris.

Check out the Whitehouse YouTube clips. Obama is making good use of the free video hosting on the web - saving us money presumably (?) - the interesting thing is the thumbnail keyframes are in some cases behind-the-scenes photos of the lighting setups - frames not present in the videos.

Some of my favorite shots on 60 Minutes or Dateline are when you see a cinema verite shot and you can see how they did what they did. It is always fascinating to see other peoples' setups. Sometimes simple can be best, and look anything but simple on camera.

In summary - you can have the best most expensive lighting kit and tons of flags and other gear. But your creativity and ability to think on your feet can make the difference in an on-camera interview situation. Whether you have 10 minutes or two hours to setup, the limitations of room size, decoration, distance between subject and background, power availability and available gear all come into play. But most important of all is your ability to make something out of nothing. Of course, if you have your wits about you, nothing is never really nothing - rather, nothing is the promise of something great.

Thanks for reading.

Mike Cohen



Posted by: Mike Cohen on Apr 17, 2009 at 9:43:39 pm lighting, improvisation, creativity

Talking Heads

Many video projects include one or more on-camera interviews those involved. Sometimes these interviews are run and gun like news, other times they are more organized, and sometimes a combination.

Run and Gun

Very often, an interview may be done between cases, either in an empty OR or ideally in a corridor, away from the hustle and bustle. Granted, in a busy hospital, hustle and bustle is just around every corner.

The thing I like about a long corridor, is I can position the camera far enough from the subject so I can zoom in creating a shallow depth of field. To do this, you really need a 2nd person to conduct the interview, or at the very least a warm body to serve as an eye line for the subject.

Run and gun interviews don't afford a lot of setup time. A single omni light with an umbrella or good diffusion may be all I get. The locations are usually very bright to begin with. Thus the lone key light, if I am lucky, will add a bit of modeling to the subject's face. If I happen to have a 2nd light, I can either setup a hair light, or a background light with some color. In a bright location, it would not add much to try to add color in the background, but it can add a bit of dimension to a flat background.

More Organized

More organized interviews sometimes equate with setup time. In these cases I will do the proper 3-point lighting we all learned, and a kicker with a gel for the background, and turn off the room lights to really have a blank canvas to work with. Now, in an empty conference room, there may be not much you can do but separate the subject from the back wall and use a slash of light for interest. A library full of books or a credenza with some trinkets is even better. Sometimes happy accidents create desirable effects, such as creative use of cast shadows.

More organized interviews, however, may be relegated to a small room, such as an office or awkwardly shaped conference room, with little room to have distance between background, subject and camera. These scenes can look flat, and there is not much room for light falloff. You have to live with it. If shooting in front of a bookcase, make sure the subject is not directly in front of the intersection of a vertical and horizontal piece of shelving.

Sometimes you can use the longest dimension of the room to your advantage. You may need to move some chairs, tables or stacks of books to work for you.

Half and Half

Finally, sometimes you are run and gun, but with a bit of time for setup, but you have each interview in a different room. Here it helps to have your lights, gels, stands and camera gear ready to move at a moment's notice, and an extra helper or two so you don't have to break things down just to move from location to location. On a recent shoot we were given use of several medical students for the day. In addition to interviewing them, they made great PA's.

I have had several projects where I interviewed 6 to 10 people in a day, each in a different location, with 15-20 minutes between locations. So here we are run and gun but with 2-3 lights and the ability to either choose the locations or do what we like with the assigned locations.

Conducting the Interview

Often, I both shoot the interview and conduct the interview. Getting the eyeline right, as described above, can be a challenge. If someone has not spent a lot of time on camera, you need to explain they are not speaking to the camera, unless they are supposed to be speaking to the camera that is. If you have a warm body to create the eyeline that is great. Sometimes you have a dedicated person for interviewing, but not always.

When I am doing the interviewing solo, my job is to watch the subject's eyes, since I am sitting or standing so that I can monitor the camera and audio, but also trying to keep eye contact with the subject. I ask the questions, and most importantly, ask followup questions on the fly, based upon the subject's responses. Another job as interviewer and as producer is to help the subjects say what they are saying in a concise manner that will help the project.

For example:

Q: Tell me about how you decided to be a fire fighter.

A: Well, my dad was a fireman, and his dad was a fireman. When I was about 12 years old our house burned down and I lost my collection of baseball cards. I decided then I would not let that happen to another kid. So, ah, you know, when I graduated high school I went to the fire academy, and then got a job here in my hometown of Smalltown, USA. And I married my high school sweetheart, you know, because she was my high school sweetheart, and well, it was meant to be. So, you know, things are pretty good and I'm doing what I've always wanted to do, you know?

Q: That was good, but can you maybe say it this way, "I come from a long line of firefighters – I'm the 3rd generation. I decided when I was a kid…" see what I mean?

A: You mean say it without the run-on sentences?

Q: Exactly.

This type of questioning and counter questioning, if you will, is a key ingredient in conducting an interview solo. As a producer you need to know what you need for the edit. Sometimes, if working for a client, you have an outline, script or list of questions and desired answers. Sometimes, you have questions only and your wits. In either case, conducting interviews on the fly is a great exercise in many aspects of a shooter/producer's arsenal of talents. Sometimes you get some duds, sometimes you get some jewels. If you conduct the interview according to your plan, hopefully you will get exactly what you need.

Thanks for reading.

Mike Cohen



Posted by: Mike Cohen on Nov 17, 2008 at 9:03:58 pmComments (2) documentaries, interviews, lighting



I have a passion for my job, which entails training for medical professionals such as surgeons, nurses and administrators, not to mention various industries.

Technology is great, but how you apply your skills is what pays the bills.

Years ago I canceled my Media 100 support contract upon discovering what a treasure trove of helpful advice can be found on the Creative COW website. I am proud to be a part of this fantastic community.

In my blog I talk a little about media production, a lot about travel and workflow, and occasionally about cooking, nature and my four-legged friends.

Follow me on Twitter: med_ed_mike

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