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Talking Heads

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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


Re: Talking Heads
by Mike Cohen
Rick, Thanks for the note. I was out this week doing run and gun interviews too. "Hurry up and wait" is a part of this. Worked at Lahey a few times - email me privately if you want to exchange war stories.

Re: Talking Heads
by Rick Chevalier
Mike, Great advice. We do much of the same shooting you describe. It was good to read how you handle the different situations and compare it with the way we work. The fast pace of a medical center does pose some challenges. Being adaptable on a moments notice is required. That's what makes it fun. Thanks, Rick Chevalier, Lahey Clinic Medical Center

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.

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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.

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